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Navigating a Religious Nation

navigating_a_religious_nation_headerChanging demographics present challenges, and opportunities to Canadian Christians

by Jerrad Peters

“Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa. Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.”

This common Sikh greeting gained a new prominence in 2009. Shortly after delivering his televised Easter greeting to Canadian Christians, Stephen Harper addressed Canada’s 300,000 Sikhs and wished them a happy Baisakhi festival. For a prime minister so often associated with his evangelical Christian voting base, it was a monumental gesture.

And it signaled a new, important relationship between the Conservative government and the country’s ever-changing religious demographics.

Still, Canadian evangelicals hail Stephen Harper as one of their own—and for good reason. The prime minister attends a Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation, and became a vocal advocate for many social conservative values while in opposition. After becoming prime minister, however, he didn’t deliver in quite the way those voters expected. Instead of reopening the same-sex marriage debate, he went around offering Sikh greetings and visiting mosques.

On July 5, 2008, the prime minister participated in the grand opening of Calgary’s Baitan Nur mosque and remarked that the building was a symbol of Canada’s pluralistic society. “Ahmadis,” he said, referring to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, “are renowned for their devotion to peace, universal brotherhood and submission to the will of God—the core principles of true Islam.”

He continued: “They are also renowned for working together to serve the greater good through social, health and education initiatives, as well as mosque projects like this one. And wherever they live in the world,” said the prime minister, “Ahmadis are renowned for participating in the larger community and peacefully co-existing with people of all faiths, languages and cultures.”

Harper’s speech might just as easily have been a statement of his own view of cultural and religious pluralism. He has come to grips with a new reality. He understands that the dominant, Euro-Christian demographic of previous generations in Canada is on the wane. It’s being out-populated by newcomers who are neither European nor Christian.

And he has staked his political future on finding middle ground, on navigating the new cultural and religious realities with benevolence and understanding.

Not a threat

It’s not uncommon for Canadian Christians to be intimidated by the arrivals of non-Christian, religious immigrants in their neighbourhoods.

As church attendance continues to plummet while mosques and temples change cityscapes across the country, it’s not hard to see why. But, says Rick Hiemstra, director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, they needn’t worry.

The religiosity of non-Christian immigrants has too often been portrayed as a problem, he says, adding that Christians should do their best to avoid the perception that their religious, non-Christian neighbours pose some sort of threat.

“Creating a climate of concern surrounding religion can only result in shrinking religious liberties for all Canadian faith groups and the closing off of the public square to religious discourse,” he says. “While occasionally people will do bad things in the name of religion, generally a high level of observance is good for society. Religious liberties are expanded or contracted on an equal basis for all faith communities.”

True as that may be, footage of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the repatriation of dead Canadian soldiers—most of them killed by Muslim fighters—only reinforces the fear that many Christians have of other religions, particularly Islam. And more and more, the burkas they see worn by women in the Middle East—and the minarets that characterize Muslim places of worship—are appearing next door or down the street.

Between 2005 and 2007, more than 100,000 immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries arrived in Canada. And of the other 650,000 new arrivals over the same period, very few originated in Christian, European countries. In fact, Canada is currently accepting more immigrants from Iran than France and Germany combined.

And most of them are attending regular worship services.

In 2003, Statistics Canada released a study comparing worship service attendance between Canadian-born citizens and recent immigrants in Toronto.

The results were staggering. Only 28 per cent of the Canadian-born respondents reported attending religious services at least once per month—a decrease of three per cent in 10 years. However, religious participation among immigrants increased six per cent over the same period, to a full 50 per cent of their populations. And given the origins of many of these newcomers, it’s safe to say a good number of them weren’t participating in Christian congregations.

According to the 2001 census—the last year for which this data is available—the median age of a Presbyterian congregant is more than 46. United, Anglican and Lutheran church members follow close behind, each with a median age of well over 40. Practicing Muslims, by comparison, have the youngest median age of any religion in Canada, at just over 28. The country’s Sikh population chimes in at 29.7, and Canada’s 297,000 practicing Hindus have a median age of about 32 years.

“Immigrants are more likely to be regular weekly attendees at worship services than those who are born outside Canada,” says Hiemstra. But, he adds, “sociologists consistently find that regular attendance at religious services is positively correlated with a whole host of positive social behaviours. So we shouldn’t be concerned with a high level of attendance at worship services. This is good for Canada.”

Judging by his recent enthusiasm for religious pluralism, Stephen Harper would seem to agree. But are Canadian Christians willing to adopt a similarly tolerant and pluralistic posture?

Looking for something

While in Red Deer, Alberta on a speaking tour, David Macfarlane stopped in at a local bookstore and browsed the religious section. What he saw impressed him.

“Twenty years ago, there would have been four Bibles and two dead flies,” says the director of national initiatives for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada. “Today, there’s row upon row of everything you can think of, from astroprojection to tarot card reading to Hinduism to transcendental meditation. And you look at the faces of the people who are lined up, and they’re young people as well as older people. They’re all looking for something—looking for a spiritual solution to their lives.”

They have no shortage of choice. And that would seem to make Macfarlane’s job as an evangelist extremely difficult. But, he says, it’s really not that complicated. He says Christians have only to look out the windows of their churches to recognize the spiritual needs in their communities. “And what are we doing about them?” he asks. “Most of the time, nothing.”

“Most churches don’t look outside the windows,” says Macfarlane. “Communities change, and they don’t even know it. Different ethnic groups come, different socioeconomic groups, different issues to what there were a few years ago, and they don’t care or don’t want to know.”

This is relatively new territory for Canadian Christians. Until 100 years ago, Macfarlane points out, the church was at the forefront of social reformation—founding universities, starting unions, opening hospitals. Even by the middle of the 20th century, about 67 per cent of Canada’s adult population attended weekly religious services, usually in a Christian church. These days, says Macfarlane, less than four per cent of Canadians participate in an evangelical congregation.

Evangelism has experienced a similar nosedive. Where once it was the major thrust of the church, says Macfarlane, it is now an anathema. It’s not hard to see why. In a culture that emphasizes pluralism and acceptance, evangelism has been abandoned in the name of tolerance. It needn’t have been. In fact, Christian evangelism and pluralism can coexist quite comfortably.

The Good Samaritan

“The Good Samaritan story is a significant story for our times,” says Macfarlane. “I’m of the opinion that the evangelism of the future is the story of the Good Samaritan. I believe it is a prophetic story for the Canadian context of today.”

Can it really be that simple? Can a proper Christian posture in a pluralistic society be as basic as being nice to people? Macfarlane thinks so.

“We need to be the loving, compassionate, caring, outward-focused people we were always meant to be,” he says. “It’s about relationships. It’s about being out there.”

Hiemstra agrees. People of other religions can hardly be blamed for asserting what they believe to be true, he says. Strengthening one’s own Christian faith is a far more productive posture than marginalizing or provoking a particular faith community.

“If we, as Christians, were to participate in the restrictions of other faiths’ liberties, we would be declaring a lack of confidence in the gospel and an unwillingness to proclaim it,” he says. “The answer is engagement rather than containment.”

“It’s very basic,” concludes Macfarlane. “The best apologetics for the Christian faith in the 21st century is one’s life. We’re famous for being hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay. But when [non-Christians] meet Christians that love them and serve them, it really makes a difference.

“It’s not that complicated.”

Jerrad Peters is the managing editor of ChristianWeek, a biweekly newspaper covering Christian faith and life in Canada.


The article above was featured in the March 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.