A major reversal in a key demographic measure indicates a sea change is under way in the Canadian culture war. Despite the tide of militant secularism that has washed over Canada in recent years, the high water mark of secularism, perhaps best represented by the imposition of homosexual “marriage,” may already have been reached. If polling is to be believed, the long decline of Canadian Christianity is finally reversing and the tide is beginning to ebb.
A little-noticed poll of 1,005 Canadians conducted in late 2004 by the American firm Gallup shows that church attendance in Canada has grown dramatically in the few years since the start of the millennium. According to Gallup, 37 per cent of Canadians now attend worship at least once a month, and 25 per cent attend weekly.
Those numbers are an unprecedented increase over numbers found in 2000 by Canada’s premier religious trends expert, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby. Bibby’s surveys in 2000 found 30 per cent attended at least once a month and only 20 per cent attended weekly. In other words, church attendance has skyrocketed upwards by about 25 per cent in a space of just a few years.
According to Bibby, “New surveys like Gallup’s are grounds for believing something very significant is taking place here. What is noteworthy about the findings is that the 37 per cent figure is the highest since the early 1980s. The people who were predicting secularization would slay organized religion in Canada were looking at Europe, when they should have looked at the United States.”
Indeed, church attendance took a major leap in the United States on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, it is less than clear that the rise of international terrorism is responsible for spurring the increase in Canadian church attendance. Indeed, recent polls indicate the large majority of Canadians believe domestic terrorism is unlikely in Canada.
And, of course, not all Canadian denominations are experiencing growth. The Anglican and United churches, in particular, continue their decades-long decline. Yet, former adherents of these so-called “mainline” denominations have not stopped attending church. Many have chosen more conservative evangelical denominations. Though perhaps even more remarkable is the conversion story of thousands of Anglicans, Lutherans and other liturgical Protestants to Catholicism. Many such converts indicate the unbending orthodoxy of the Catholic church in the face of modern secularism, and the obvious holiness of the late Pope John Paul II, as key considerations in their conversion.
Yet, the significant movement between denominations does not account for the tremendous growth in overall attendance. That trend may be more a reaction by a younger generation to the excesses of their parents. Duncan MacDonald pastors a Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Orillia, Ont., about an hour north of Toronto. His church has experienced significant growth in the past few years and virtually all the new attendees are younger couples, often with young children.
MacDonald tells The Interim, “What we’re seeing is the children of the babyboomers who feel disenfranchised from the values of their parents. They are rejecting the excesses and materialism of the previous generation. They are looking for consistency in theology and conservatism on social issues.”
Today’s 30-something generation is “looking to belong somewhere they can make a difference,” MacDonald says. “They’re less formal and more interested in serving and in social outreach.” In addition to the more traditional Sunday school and youth group ministries, he points to food banks, clothing distribution and drop-in cafes as examples of new public outreaches happening at churches within his Alliance denomination.
The trend by the children of boomers towards orthodoxy has also been reflected in their more conservative political leanings and public involvement in opposing legislation such as Bill C-38, which redefined marriage, the pastor says. “They’re more engaging of the culture and that includes intentional involvement in politics. The marriage issue was really a defining issue. They realize we need to engage the culture as salt and light. And newer organizations like the Canada Family Action Coalition have been a positive influence in encouraging people to step forward,” says MacDonald.
Polling of Canadians on social issues backs up the contention that Canadians are growing more socially conservative. Polling on the critical issue of support for the legal protection for unborn life shows a trend that mirrors growing church attendance. A 2001 Gallup poll on the issue found only 14 per cent of Canadians supported legal protection for the unborn from the moment of conception forward, compared to a 2005 Environics poll commissioned by LifeCanada that found a full 30 per cent now support those same legal protections.
Of course, such trends in belief will fail to have a full impact on the culture if Canadians of faith continue to fail to get to the polling stations and vote in the upcoming federal election. Federal voter turnout has dropped to 100-year lows of below 60 per cent in Canada, a trend that must also be reversed.