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Welcome to sociological purgatory

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I grew up in southwestern Ontario where – by my childish observations – most everyone was religious, or at least made excuses if they weren’t. The statistics verify my early mastery of sociology. A recent Globe and Mail article (“Canada Marching Away From Religion to Secularization,” December 11, 2010) notes, “Before 1971, less than 1 per cent of Canadians ticked the ‘no religion’ box on national surveys. Two generations later, nearly a quarter of the population, or 23 per cent, say they aren’t religious.”

I was born in 1972. Apparently, I ruined everything.

The Canadian religious landscape has transformed so dramatically that it’s almost as if we live in a completely different country from the one I entered the year Paul Henderson jumped for joy in Moscow. While 80 percent of Canadians still claim belief in God, only 27 percent attend a religious service at least monthly. Worship participation once a month is the new “regular,” which makes those of you who gather weekly – and even more often for a small group or service opportunity – rabid extremists. Canadians are, as another study defined us, a nation of believers, not belongers.

Even more revealing, among those Canadian-born and dipped in maple syrup like me, 28 percent state no religious affiliation whatsoever and another 24 percent claim affiliation without participation. Recent immigrants are more likely to prioritize faith (only 19 percent declare no religious affiliation) and, given where the majority of Canadian immigration currently originates, this means that by 2017, non-Christian religions will comprise 10 percent of the population.

Do the math. Canada is emerging as a conflicted place: with the majority of natural-born residents being thoroughly secularist, Christian immigrants will likely be the most passionate gospel witnesses and immigrants of other religions most passionately opposed, while we sing together, “God (or god or Allah or Sid the Kid) keep our land, glorious and free.”

Christmas = niche peculiarity

But, wait, there’s more. Having just feasted our way through Christmas, it might surprise us how spiritually irrelevant the holiday is. The Globe and Mail study reveals that 51 percent of those over 60 believe Christmas is more of a religious than social holiday. That alone is startling given the illusion we’re under that “old” people are Christian simply by virtue of their hair colour, Buick-rides, and love of Smitty’s on Sunday afternoons. The numbers slip-slide away from there until we arrive at 18–29 year olds, only 26 percent of whom consider Christmas a religious holiday.

In a generation, the nativity story has virtually become a niche peculiarity. That means the majority in our culture look at what we just did at Christmas in the same way we look at Sikhs during Diwali and Muslims during Ramadan. The Globe and Mail concludes: “If you’re a young person, born in Canada, chances are you don’t know the true meaning of Christmas.” Welcome to sociological purgatory.

Unfortunately, too many Christians still waste time pining for 1971. Many expect the same old tricks to work and demand that from their leaders. Church leaders, meanwhile, are discovering the 1970s have indeed gone the way of the dodo. Other religious leaders are just blind guides. One religion sociologist notes that what attracts native-born Canadians to church these days is parking availability, great preaching, and kids programs.

That’s all we need: another expert declaring yet another stylistic, programmatic formula as our panacea. Pave the parking lot, channel great oratory, play cute cartoons for busy kids and our churches will be able to pay the bills. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy, Scripture, radical discipleship, and selfless mutuality – all these are secondary and even unnecessary, it seems. Do we actually believe this? In this age of religious secularization, isn’t something else required of us?

The early church faced insurmountable statistics in the days following Pentecost. The odds of the fledgling Way making any dent was as likely as the Leafs winning the Cup, and yet we know what happened.

But how? One prayer with two requests: “…enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand…” (Acts 4:29–30). A people in sociological purgatory knew only one way out – purified, bold confidence in the gospel and assurance that God’s hand can work wonders. What might happen if, regardless of the stats, we started there once more?

Phil Wagler is still working through having been born in the ’70s. He is senior associate pastor at Gracepoint Community Church, Surrey, B.C., and author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church.

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