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Jo Lynn Duck is a recent Tyndale graduate (MTS modular). She was a National Reporter for CBC Television (as Jo Lynn Sheane), and is now a journalism instructor at St. Clair College in Windsor, ON. She also sits on the board of Interserve Canada and writes for Scripture Union’s devotional project "theStory."

February 2015

Current Volume 6

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In theological circles, it is often taken for granted that the Canadian church now exists in a post-Christendom context. That is, Christianity is no longer dominant or even influential in Canadian culture and, further, is facing unparalleled and rising intolerance and hostility. In the wider population, however, the question of whether Christianity is dominant here, whether Canada is a “Christian nation” or not, continues to be debated. Just run it through an internet search engine as either a question or a statement.

The picture is made clearer by statistics, thanks in large part to the work of noted sociologist Reginald Bibby, who has studied the Canadian church for four decades. He argues it is not sufficient to look at church attendance alone as a measurement of religiosity (and even Christianity). His most recent work, Beyond the Gods and Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why It Matters, points to a polarization in Canadian culture, with committed Christians on one end and Canadians with little or no interest in Christianity on the other. In the middle, is a sizeable number of Canadians who indicate they believe in God and identify with Christianity.

In other words, a significant marker of Christendom persists, and it is that which presents the most formidable challenge to the goals of mission: most Canadians think they are Christians. The post-Christendom conversation tends to overlook this reality. In particular, there is insufficient recognition that Christendom obscured the Gospel and damaged the Church. Ultimately, the argument here is the death of Christendom (though prematurely proclaimed) may be a blessing, and may provide opportunities for spreading the Good News about Christ in Canada, opportunities that could never have existed before under “Christian” dominance and social acceptance.

Was Canada ever a nation of Christ-followers?

One of the most perplexing issues with Christendom is that it is a practical denial of basic Biblical teachings, including that a minority of people, when confronted with Christ, will choose Him. Yes, it is a Gospel for all, not a closed club. But “membership” into Christianity requires a choice. Until 50 years ago or so in Canada, the underlying assumption was that most people were Christians by virtue of being born to parents who attended church. Over and over again, Jesus tells us this is not how it works:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14 ESV)

Christians have consciously chosen and been chosen to be set apart by God, for God’s purposes. It is a call to be a holy people, who are not simply virtuous, but are radically different from the world, whose lives are infused with meaning. This is not for their exclusive personal and private benefit, but for God’s eternal purposes:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Christendom was a merging of Christianity and culture, such that it was difficult to tell where one started and the other ended. Those who mourn the death of Christendom should ask themselves what exactly the society that identified with Christianity believed about Christ. Specifically, what did they know not only about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but about His life and His teachings? Admittedly, even this might not be helpful in answering the question; New Testament writers warned long before Christendom: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19)

So, how did Biblical teachings affect the daily lives of people under Christendom? In other words, to what extent, can it be said that they followed Jesus (which may be different from following a church)? There is insufficient data to answer these questions well; however, the church attendance statistics provide room for suspicion. Even factoring in changing tastes in music and the slowness to change antiquated practices, could it really be possible that a nation of followers of Jesus would, over about a four to five decade period, suddenly have no time for public proclamation of Christ’s teachings and corporate worship of Jesus?

Two decades ago, historian George Rawlyk joined forces with polling company Angus Reid to probe Canadians’ beliefs about Christianity.1 Significantly, even as church attendance was plummeting, two-thirds of Canadians agreed Jesus is the divine son of God who was crucified and resurrected, and thus provided a way for their sins to be forgiven. They also believed God cared about how they conducted their lives. Then, they were asked about the source of their beliefs. Not many people were getting it from the Bible or from church. About half thought their private beliefs about Christianity were more important than what was taught by any church. The researchers did not ask what those private beliefs about Christianity were or how the people developed those beliefs. In mainline Protestant churches, which drew higher numbers than “conservative churches” (and still do), around half the weekly attenders read the Bible regularly and fewer than half believed it is God’s Word to be understood literally. Around half of Anglicans and United Church weekly attenders prayed every day.

Bibby is helpful in explaining, at least in part, what sent people to Church in Christendom. He documents the sense of obligation to one’s parents as a motivating factor. He also points out it was not only socially acceptable, but an expectation that one would attend church. “To know a person’s religious affiliation, he said, was to have an important clue about the individual’s moral and political leanings, school system preferences, and even one’s favourite newspaper,” wrote Bibby, quoting historian John Webster Grant. Grant was speaking about Canada at Confederation, but Bibby argues the idea that Church contributed to identity persisted.

It could be said that Christendom had the strange effect of inoculating parts of the population against the Gospel. For many people, they received something dead into their bodies – “Christian values” and a passing knowledge of who Christ was, with limited understanding of the significance or the necessity of following). This enabled their souls to harden against the message of Jesus. That is a factor in what makes mission so challenging in the Canadian context; evangelicals (of all denominations) find themselves trying to urge people who already think they are Christians to consider that they may not be, and then give Christianity … and Christ … a fresh look. A thorny endeavour.

What Christendom did to the Canadian Church

Arguably, the worst part of Christendom though, is what it did to the Church. This has little to do with attendance numbers. Combining Christianity with culture afforded such comfort in being a “Christian” that it obscured the meaning of being a holy nation. In church after church, and book after book, pastors and teachers are undoing the lessons of Christendom, and preaching to the remnant of observant adherents that their lives are to be a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Sunday worship is not enough (though it is important). Bible reading is not enough (though we are told more Christians need to read their Bibles). Discipleship is steeped in meaning, part of which is to be God’s light to others.

The Sermon on the Mount is a snapshot, among many in the Bible, of what it looks like to be a holy nation, and it is radical. It is a blessing to be persecuted for faith in Christ. Christians are not to retaliate against others, but love our enemies. We are not to be anxious, but to have faith that God will take care of all our needs. We are not to judge others. Imagine if the Church had been practicing all this since Confederation. Discipleship is an upside down world requiring faith, as Jesus cautions us to remember: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7: 21).

Further, Christendom was responsible for various injustices that have left indelible smears on the Canadian Church. Take, for example, the forced assimilation of First Nations peoples in Church-run residential schools. Historical church documents on this issue make for uncomfortable reading. As a journalist, I have interviewed many First Nations people who were raised in residential schools. Listening to what was done to them (the forced separation from family, the beatings, the hatred showered on them), in the name of Christ, makes for uncomfortable listening. That it was well-intentioned rings hollow. Christendom was also responsible for perceived indignities such as enforced practices on the general public including the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (though long considered to be lost ground, this continues to be an issue in some public schools and municipal councils to this day).2 While Christians may not acknowledge the harm caused by these things, non-Christians over a certain age still remember them and associate them with the Church. They see Christians as mean-spirited, hateful people who want to force others to believe the same as we do.

Christendom also saturated the pews with a sense of entitlement, something that persists both inside the Church and in the wider population of Canadians who identify with Christianity. Take the Christendom document, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the preamble, it states the basis for the Charter: “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” It goes on to list the fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion.

Christians take this document and the Canadian values it imparts seriously, most especially the clause about religion. We feel quite entitled not to suffer in the slightest for our faith. Many insist non-Christians should be forced to use the greeting “Merry Christmas” and are indignant when Christ is not acknowledged in public venues such as school pageants. Lawn signs popped up in our neighborhood and in other neighborhoods across Canada, reading “Christmas is about Christ” and “Keep Christ in Christmas.” This is meant to honor Christ, but grumpy slogans do not communicate Good News. They insist others respect our beliefs and our “rights.” There is a difference.

Conclusion

Christendom will continue to dissolve in Canada, with future generations. This is already showing up in the statistics gathered by Bibby, as almost half of teenagers in 2008 either had no religion or were identified with a different religion – an obvious consequence of a society in which parents do not pass down Christianity. This is not entirely the cause for concern that some writers contend. It is a more honest reflection of society when the veneer of Christendom has been pulled back.

It can be easily argued society has benefitted from having “Christian values” and the deterioration of those values brings harm to Canada. However, this is also an opportunity for the Gospel to flourish. There is a growing population of people, unfamiliar with the baggage of Christendom, who can be presented with a choice. It is not for us to judge who is and who is not a Christian, but it is the responsibility of the Church to be clear that following Christ means loving Him fully and obeying what He taught. People should understand the choice they need to make.

This means, of course, Christianity needs to mean something, apart from social obligation. The whole Church needs to recover a Biblical theology, to heed the Biblical call to holiness. It needs to look something like the Christ it proclaims. This should always have been true. It is that much more important with the polarizing of Canadian society.


Footnotes

  • 1Rawlyk, George A., Is Jesus Your Personal Saviour?: In Search of Canadian Evangelicalism in the 1990s (Montreal: McGill-Queen`s University Press, 1996), 49-116.
  • 2Nadine Kalinauskas, “In Ontario’s Grey County, the Lord’s Prayer is headed to court,” Yahoo! Canada News, posted online July 31, 2012. [http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/dailybrew/ontario-grey-county-lord-prayer-headed-court-174133323.html]. CBC News Edmonton, “Alberta school grapples with Lord’s Prayer,” posted online October 13, 2011. [http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/story/2011/10/13/edmonton-sturgeon-morinville-lords-prayer.html].

Bibliography

  • Bibby, Reginald W. Beyond the Gods and Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why It Matters. Lethbridge, Alberta: Project Canada Books, 2011.
  • Miller, James Rodger. Shingwauk`s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • Rawlyk, George A. Is Jesus Your Personal Saviour?: In Search of Canadian Evangelicalism in the 1990s. Montreal: McGill-Queen`s University Press, 1996.
  • Stassen, Glen H. and Gushee, David P. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
  • Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.

2 Comments

  1. CY Yan
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    Great article!

  2. Thomas Varghese
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    A article quite mind blowing. A reminder, need to seriously contemplate on the uniqueness of Christ and purpose of God’s mission. Modernism, being soft on pluralistic thought is the main reason for the decline of christian values. Days are not far when Christ the savior will be limited in a musuem box and his teachings will become a history.

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