Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The State of the Canadian Church -- Part V: The Growth of Evangelicalism

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

By Jim Coggins

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Canadian church, drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders.

EARLIER ARTICLES in this series pointed out three main streams in the Canadian church: Roman Catholics are holding their own, in numbers but not in attendance. Mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking significantly. Evangelicals are growing.

While the first two trends have been documented in a number of articles in the mainstream press, the third development has received little attention outside of the churches themselves. The main area where evangelicals have been discussed in the mainstream media is in expressions of concern about the growing influence of "the Christian right" in Canada.

One of the reasons for the low profile of evangelicals is that while the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant movements are dominated by a few large denominations with a clearly defined institutional structure and denominational headquarters, evangelicals are broken up into a myriad of small denominations and nondenominational churches. While there are evangelical megachurches, there are also many evangelical churches with no buildings at all. They are not always very visible.

According to statistics compiled by Bruce Guenther, associate professor of church history and Mennonite studies at Associated Canadian Theological Schools, one aspect of this growth has been the growth of Pentecostal/charismatic churches. From membership of 210,299 and attendance of 163,235 in 1981 (a little over 20 percent of evangelicals), they grew to membership of 404,916 and attendance of 330,414 (about 30 percent of evangelicals) in 2001.

A single denomination, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (including the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland), had attendance of 163,000 in 2001, which is close to the actual attendance in mainline Protestant denominations such as the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

Another reason this evangelical growth has gone unnoticed is because Canadian government statistics "don't recognize evangelicals as a religious family," according to researcher Rick Hiemstra.

Even when Statistics Canada asks religious questions -- in the full census that takes place every 10 years -- the government records data under older categories and sometimes even incorrect categories. For instance, the "code books" Statistics Canada uses to standardize data at one time mistakenly included members of one evangelical denomination in figures for the United Church of Canada.

Not just an academic exercise

One of the developments that is making evangelicals more visible is the umbrella organization, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). It was founded in 1964 but only became prominent after 1983, when Brian Stiller was appointed executive director. The EFC not only provides a forum where evangelicals can meet and talk with each other but also serves as a visible presence to the larger society.

The EFC also serves a number of coordinating functions for evangelicals. Among its newest initiatives is the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism.

The centre was established using a Bridgeway Foundation grant, and its mandate was worked out by a group of consultants EFC called together in June 2007. The centre's purpose is to encourage research into Canadian evangelicalism but also to act as a "clearinghouse" for research that is already being done.

An Advisory Council was established and met for the first time in November 2007. Council chair John Stackhouse of Regent College told CC.com the Council was deliberately kept small to keep it manageable while still representing as a broad range of work that is being done. The members include:

  1. pollster Andrew Grenville of Angus Reid
  2. historian Bruce Guenther of Associated Canadian Theological Schools
  3. Frank Jones, a retired Statistics Canada analyst who has developed the Christian Commitment Research Institute to draw additional information out of already existing Statistics Canada surveys
  4. renowned church historian Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame in the US
  5. Samuel Reimer of Atlantic Baptist University
  6. pastor Cam Roxburgh of Southside Community Church in British Columbia
  7. Glenn Smith of Christian Direction, a research ministry in Quebec
  8. Marguerite Van Die, a historian at Queen's Theological College and Queen's University
  9. Aileen Van Ginkel, director of the EFC's Centre for Ministry Empowerment
  10. James Watson of Outreach Canada
  11. Richelle Wiseman of the Centre for Faith and the Media
Rick Hiemstra has been appointed full-time program manager of the centre.

The primary vehicle for the centre is an online journal called Church & Faith Trends.

Hiemstra told CC.com the journal will publish new research, some of it commissioned and funded by the centre, but will also offer links to other research available on the Internet. Stackhouse said the goal is for the journal to be the "first stop" for scholars, journalists and others who want to study Canadian evangelicals.

The first issue, largely devoted to the difficult question of how to define and count evangelicals, came out in November 2007. The second issue, due out in February 2008, will focus on efforts by evangelical scholars to convince Statistics Canada to refine its data collection so that the evangelical reality is reflected more clearly in statistics. The researchers also want Statistics Canada to ask questions about religious participation -- such as who actually shows up at church -- in addition to current census questions about religious affiliation.

Hiemstra said the goal is to publish a new issue three or four times a year, depending on "how fast we build the capacity for content."

A significant evangelical culture

Hiemstra said the journal's goal is to publish "the whole truth" even when it is unfavourable to evangelicals. The journal will thus serve as "a mirror for the evangelical community and a window for others."

However, the effort is not just an academic exercise. Hiemstra said the journal is intended to help "ministry practitioners" -- that is, leaders of churches and parachurch ministries. Hiemstra said often Canadian churches are "trying to translate American data and making inappropriate ministry decisions" as a result.

An indication of the broad nature of the research being done is that some of the major work is not directly represented on the centre's board -- such as the studies of the Canadian church that University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has been doing for the past 30 years.

Trinity Western University also established a new Religion in Canada Institute in 2007.

The centre could not have been started 20 years ago, Stackhouse told CC.com. At that time, pioneering research into Canadian Christianity was being conducted by Bibby and Queen's University historian George Rawlyk, but there was not yet "a critical mass of scholars interested in evangelicalism."

Stackhouse said the centre is evidence of the growth of "an evangelical intellectual culture." Even more than that, the centre is evidence of the growth of the significance of Canadian evangelicalism more broadly.

No comments: