Home MB HeraldColumns Why aren’t Canadians listening to Christian leaders?

Why aren’t Canadians listening to Christian leaders?

The changing cultural current

1 comment

Anglican Bishop Franklin Smith was telling me about his experience in Canada and how it differed from his experience in Britain. Not only was there less tolerance for conservative Anglicans, he averred, but a recent experience with a young front-desk clerk at a Canadian hotel showed him that Christendom was dying in Canada, at least among the younger generation:

I booked into a hotel and I went into the hotel and I said, “Room for Franklin Smith?” and eventually she said, “No.” And I said, “Oh,” and she said, “Well, hang on a minute. Was your first name Bishop?” I said, “Yeah, well, no.” She said, “Well, we’ve got a room for a Bishop Franklin Smith.” And I said, “Well, that’s me.” And she said, “Well, how can it be? You said your first name wasn’t Bishop,” and I said, “It’s my title.” She said, “Well, what sort of a title is that?” And I said, “It just means I can move diagonally on a chess board.”

Not only are Canadians, particularly younger Canadians, increasingly ignorant of the basics of Christianity, they are avoiding it. Only about one in ten Canadians attend a congregation weekly, and fewer read their Bibles.

Worse, Christianity and Christian clergy are viewed negatively by many Canadians. According to a conservative Presbyterian pastor in the Maritimes, “If you are a clergyman in Canada, up until fairly recently, I think, there’s a certain cultural acceptability or credibility…But [now]…if I tell someone I’m an evangelical pastor, it’s almost like telling them I’m in the Klan.” Among the 125 evangelical clergy and active laity that I interviewed in Canada and Britain, there was agreement that the culture was not friendly to Christians nor conducive to Christian discipleship. Christian clergy used to be respected in Canada, and Canadians listened when they spoke. Not anymore. Why? What changed?

A lot. 60 years ago, the anti-establishment sentiments of the 1960s and 1970s undermined the legitimacy of religious, economic and political leaders, and those sentiments continue today. More recently, Christianity’s image has been marred by the clergy scandals and sexual abuse that have come to light. The role Christian denominations played in indigenous residential schools means that Christianity is often viewed as colonial and oppressive. Conservative views on same-sex marriage and sexuality leads to accusations of homo- and trans-phobia as the salience of sexual/gender identities grow and the salience of religious identities decline. In Franklin’s words, Christians who hold conservative positions on issues like same-sex marriage are thought to have “rocks for brains.”

The shift to internal authority

Yet, I suggest that much of what causes clergy-handwringing—declining attendance and bible reading, liberal ethics, distrust of clergy—are surface symptoms of a much deeper, glacial shift in Western culture. I call this the shift from an external locus of authority to an internal locus of authority. Prior to the boomer generation and the 1960s, most Canadians deferred to external authorities. That is, they believed what their clergy told them theologically and they generally adhered to the expectations of their religious group. They deferred to political leaders, and even went to war, because they saw governmental authority as legitimate. They did what their boss at work told them to. And while rebellious teens exist across generations, pre-boomers generally accepted the guidance of their parents and their school teachers. Among more recent generations, however, external authority is increasingly suspect. No longer are parents, priests, pastors, and politicians assumed to have the right to tell me who I am, what I should believe or what I should do. I am expected to find my own truth, to discover who I am, to find my own path. I am my own authority. The locus of authority is now inside me, not external to me.

To be clear, this shift is not because younger generations are resisting conformity to “the world,” nor are they necessarily more discerning. Rather, they are conforming to cultural expectations when they embrace an internal locus of authority. Society dictates to them that they are an original, so no one can tell them what they should do or be. They have to follow what their own heart tells them. Their journey is unique to them. The culture says that each person must find their true self. And society presents them with more options than ever. Their religious affiliation, schooling and occupation, political party, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographic location, configurations of partnering and parenting, are increasingly open. Those who blindly follow the expectations of external authorities are failing in their responsibility to find their own path.

Implications of internal authority for the church

Let’s unpack what this move toward internal authority means for churches and clergy. First, clergy and parents often find that their voices are being drowned out by the myriad of messages youth and young adults are internalizing. Teachers, professors and friends influence in ways that are incompatible with what the church is saying; but increasingly, the majority of messages are mediated through a screen. Social media, YouTube, blogs, music, movies, TV shows, and other media promote diverse values, piped via wireless internet into the “command centre” of the youth’s bedroom, away from the prying eyes of parents. A few clergy I interviewed noted that an hour on Sunday does not inoculate parishioners against absorbing unbiblical influences from dozens of hours on secular media. Even church-going youth (and their parents!) have secular worldviews. For some reason, the “algorithmic authority” on which these online messages are based is not viewed as external authority, as youth seem to think they are somehow making up their own mind about what they believe and do.

Second, if the persons in the pew have bought into the culturally scripted internal authority paradigm, then they will feel free to deviate from orthodoxy and orthopraxy, as defined by denominational authorities. After all, they are responsible to find out what they believe for themselves, based on what they sense internally. Preachers, working from an external authority paradigm, cannot understand why laity do not follow the clear teachings of the Bible, the very words of God. To lay persons with internal authority, such expectations do not register. “Of course,” they say to themselves, “preachers are supposed to say things like that. But I have to find my own truth. Let them be them and believe what they want, but I have to be me.” Clergy can faithfully teach and preach the Word of God, but it does not stick unless it resonates with the person’s intuitive sense of what is right for them.

Third, it is hard to pass on the faith to those with internal authority. If each person has to discover for themselves what they believe, value, and who they are, and if following the path of another is abdicating responsibility, then youth assume that they should not be pressured to tow the party line. In fact, since discovering one’s authentic self is difficult—a journey filled with obstacles and nay-sayers—then it is unkind (to the extreme) for others to be non-affirming of the beliefs, values and identities one discovers and internalizes.

Fourth and finally, if internal authority is based on what one senses in their heart, then how one “feels”
has inflated authority. People are paying attention to their intuitive sense of whether a situation feels right or a person makes them feel good. Friends, partners, even church communities, will be measured partly by their therapeutic
value. Those with internal authority believe they can “sense” whether or not someone is a good person.
Morality is based increasingly on an inner sense of right and wrong. Churches (or any other voluntary organization) are useful to the degree that it adds to my personal sense of wellbeing. When that is no longer the case, I should leave. After all, I am on my own private journey toward wholeness. One should expect ecclesial loyalty to be low.

There is still hope for Christianity in Canada

I am suggesting that the greatest obstacle to Christian discipleship in Canada is this move from external to internal authority. It is hard for Canadians to accept the Lordship of Christ (an external authority) in their lives if they embrace internal authority. However, there is still hope, even if the culture is not always supportive of clergy goals.

First, not all laity have embraced an internal locus of authority. In reality, the polar opposites of fully embracing external authority or internal authority have always existed along a continuum, with most people in between these extremes. Those who are actively involved in a church probably have more external authority, and those who rarely attend or are younger probably lean toward more internal authority. Still, about three-quarters of the regularly-attending evangelical laypeople I interviewed showed evidence of internal authority. The key for clergy is to help them realize that the society around them is not neutral; it is like a great river whose current is pulling them in the direction of internal authority.

Second, clergy (and parents and teachers) can increase their influence on their laity (or youth or students) by forming stable, warm relationships with them. If Canadians are increasingly listening to what they sense in their heart, then warm relationships are the key to their hearts. If they sense that you are authentic, caring, and want them to flourish, then your voice can rise above the cacophony of messages they receive virtually and in-person. Even if your time with them is dwarfed by their time online, your words can have added weight. And, let’s not forget that the Holy Spirit helps when we pray.

Yes, fewer Canadians are listening to clergy, not only because they are distracted by online stimuli but also because they are less likely to enter a church. Most feel the church cannot help them in their private journey toward inner peace. Increasingly, they look to counsellors and online influencers to help them find wholeness. Yet, even a private journey can benefit from some guidance along the way, and people still sense that they have spiritual needs and desire community support. This is where the clergy and the church can step in.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Faith Today.

1 comment

Fran Macadam December 31, 2023 - 09:53

This so called internal authority isn’t even real. It’s just the vacuum that is a default inconstancy. If there is an order in the universe, which there obviously is, then there is an external authority with reality. Fantasizing otherwise is a denial of that indistinguishable from so called mental illness, a moral problem of telling and believing lies. No wonder dysfunctionality has dramatically increased in western society with all the attendant negative consequences both for individuals and groups.


Leave a Comment