It’s a new day for religion in Canada. That’s the view of Reg Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, who has been a long-time observer of religion in Canada. While many have focused their attention on the decline of a few previously prominent groups, or on the growing number of Canadians who are rejecting religion, there is a large number who belong to what may be called an “an ambivalent middle” – who neither accept or reject religion, and are open to moving either way.
That’s the theme of Bibby’s new e-book, A New Day: The Resilience and the Restructuring of Religion in Canada. His goal is to help people who, like him, value faith, to come away with an improved understanding of what’s happening with religion in Canada today. In September, Bibby was interviewed by John Longhurst about the main points of the book.
What’s the situation for religion in Canada today?
A growing number of Canadians – about 20 percent – have decided to take a pass on religion. Another 20 percent or so are religiously committed. In between is a noteworthy segment of the population that’s something like the politically undecided – they neither embrace nor reject faith. There is, in other words, a religious polarization today: people on either side who are pro and con, but an undecided middle that could go either way.
But wasn’t religion in Canada supposed to be dead by now? That’s what many were predicting for a long time.
People observing the Canadian scene between 1960 and 2000 were virtually unanimous in viewing organized religion as being in irreversible decline. Things were bad and would only get worse. After all, weekly worship attendance had dropped from 60 percent in 1950 to under 20 percent by 2001. Secularization and the death of religion seemed to be the inevitable result.
But it’s not written in the stars that Canada will become an increasingly secularized country, where religion is relegated to the past. A significant number of Canadians have dropped out of religion, but many are still religiously committed. Recent General Social Survey data generated by Statistics Canada make it very clear that a majority of Canadians both engage in personal religious and spiritual practices, as well as view related religious and spiritual beliefs as important to the way they live. And it is also intriguing that large numbers of adults and teenagers who are in the “ambivalent middle” of the religion/non-religion continuum haven’t slammed the door on possible religious involvement.
Does this mean everyone is open to involvement in religious groups? Of course not. But it does mean significant numbers of Canadians haven’t said a final goodbye to religion. The reality in Canada is that religion isn’t going to go away.
What are the implications for religious groups?
It means things are anything but over. A key factor will be the performance of religious groups. If they can approach ministry with new enthusiasm and energy, realizing the sky hasn’t fallen and the demise of religion isn’t inevitable, they can prove attractive to people in the “ambivalent middle.”
Large numbers of Canadians maintain they are open to greater involvement in religion if they can find it worthwhile for themselves and their families. For most, “worthwhile” is seen as meeting their spiritual, personal, and relational interests and needs. If religious groups add little or nothing to peoples’ lives, disaffiliation will be the predictable result.
In the book, you say that Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and Muslims are the big winners in this new day for religion in Canada. Why?
Because of two factors: population and performance. Globally, the fastest growing Christian groups are Catholics and Pentecostals; Muslims are close behind Christians. Recent immigrants to Canada have been predominantly Christian, with significant Muslim additions as well. Immigration is increasing the size of these three groups [in our country].
What do you predict for mainline Protestant denominations?
Demographics don’t favour the mainline Protestant groups. Nationally, there’s no mystery as to how groups grow: aging members are replaced by younger members, either from Canada or elsewhere through immigration, birth, and switching. In the case of mainliners, their immigration pipelines have, to a large extent, dried up; they are having difficulty holding on to their children; and they aren’t very aggressive about recruiting outsiders. The result is mainline Protestant mortality isn’t being offset by new additions.
What has happened to the idea of regular church attendance?
We used to use weekly attendance to illustrate religious commitment. But that has become a poor indicator of the importance of religious involvement for many people, especially dual-income parents and people who are geographically mobile. If a person can show up for services 2 to 3 times a month, that seems to be a reasonable indication their involvement is important to them. For many today, weekly attendance is simply an excessively demanding criterion, met by relatively few people – even the most devout.
What do groups, such as MBs, who want to reach out to Canadians need to know about the people they want to reach?
First, many people who don’t go to church still have some ties to groups and traditions, and continue to make contact at least once in a while through things like weddings, funerals, and baptisms.
Second, the old obligation model – you go to church because it’s your duty – has been replaced by a market model. Going to church is expected to add something to their lives, and be worthwhile. Just as people shop for the best bargain, they look for groups that best meet their spiritual, relational, and other needs. First-rate customer service is very important.
Third, there is a movement from deference to discernment. People won’t accept what religious authorities say without questioning them. They want a voice in the
decisions that affect them.
Finally, people also expect religious groups to be up with the times. Things like racial, gender, and sexual equality are givens for most Canadians; resistance to such realities is not acceptable to the majority of people.
What’s the key for churches to attract newcomers?
For parents, it’s churches with strong children’s, teen, and young adult ministries. If religious groups can minister well to their children, that’s an enormous plus. Also, they’re looking for groups that help them find meaning and purpose, a faith that speaks to everyday issues and sustains life, and has something to say in the face of death.
You say that religious groups should work together more to maximize impact. Why?
I believe it is essential that those who value faith locate each other and, to the extent that it’s possible, work together to maximize the possibility of ministering well collectively to Canadians. Because of its enormous size, the Catholic Church is the big religious player in Canada (about 45 percent of the population). It is critically important that Protestant groups explore affinities with Catholics. Evangelicals (just over 10 percent) need to do the same; if they don’t, they’ll continue to be a fringe religious player.
Bibby’s new e-book, A New Day: The Resilience and the Restructuring of Religion in Canada, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times. To get your free copy, go to
—John Longhurst is a faith page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and a member of River East Mennonite Brethren church in Winnipeg.