Over the past few weeks I have been reading a Good News/Bad News kind of book. It is entitled A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada and is authored by Sam Reimer, professor of sociology at Crandall University and Michael Wilkerson, professor of sociology and director of the Religion in Canada Institute at Trinity Western University.
The authors point out that the book is primarily written for academics (208) but I believe that it has huge value for anyone interested in the evangelical church in Canada. Reimer and Wilkerson point out that the sociologist is “tasked with telling ‘what is’ in the social world, not what ‘should be.'” (208)
In my thinking this is what gives value to the book. It does focus on what is and even when reality is hard to handle, it gives an accurate picture of what the evangelical church in Canada looks like today.
The good news
Reimer and Wilkerson point out that the news for evangelical churches is a very mixed bag.
“Like the old adage, we have good news and bad news for evangelical congregations. First, this is the good news. Evangelical congregations and denominations are doing comparatively well. The majority of evangelicals still participate in congregations, the denominations have been growing during the decades when mainline Protestants have been declining, and they are recruiting immigrants and keeping their young – comparatively well.” (88)
Compared to mainline and Roman Catholic churches, evangelicals are probably the healthiest church group in Canada. It would be easy to sit back and indulge in the comparison but the key word in the quote above is the word “comparatively.” When one delves into reality with evangelical churches and looks at the larger picture, they are not doing well at all.
Areas in which reality hurts
Reimer and Wilkinson deal with a number of areas in which evangelical churches are holding their own in comparison with other church groups but are not doing nearly as well as they should be doing. I want to touch on three of these.
One of the characteristics that makes an evangelical church evangelical is a belief that evangelism should be part of the DNA of the church. Jesus commanded his followers to go out and make other followers.
It is, however, one of the areas in which churches are seriously failing. This is just as true of the larger churches as it is of the smaller ones. According to Reg Bibby most of the growth that churches might experience comes from what he calls “the circulation of the saints.”
He suggests that 70% of growth that churches experience come from other evangelical churches. Another 20% come from children of evangelicals and only about 10% come “from the outside.” Bibby suggests that “it is hard to imagine how evangelical congregations can fail so badly at a task to which they seemed to be so collectively committed.” (68)
In many cases the thing that growing churches do best is provide the programs and worship experiences that attract people from other evangelical churches. They have excellent music, wonderful children and teen programs, and a variety of support groups. What they are not doing is reaching out to the unchurched world around them.
Retaining our children
Reimer and Wilkinson point out that evangelical churches place a very high importance on retaining their children and young people as they move into adulthood. They provide programs such as Sunday school and Vacation Bible School with the hope that they will build a foundation of faith in their children that they will carry with them throughout their whole lives.
Once again evangelical churches are doing better than mainline or Catholic churches. Evangelicals lose 32.3% of their young people as compared to 58.4 for mainline churches and 48.4 for Catholics (169). There is some reassurance in the fact that the 32.3 percent that are leaving evangelical churches is the best of any church group but reality is that 32.3% are leaving the church when they become adults.
I hope that that is a statistic that all of us have difficulty living with. Almost a third of the children that grew up in evangelical churches do not attend any church when they grow up.
Once again evangelical churches tend to be better off financially than other church groups but they are a far cry from where they need to be. The median yearly giving for Canadians amounts to about $123 dollars per year or slightly less than tw0-tenths of one percent (0.18%). Among people who regularly attend church the median is $350 per year or about o.5%. The average giving is $1,004 or just over 1.4%. This last statistic is higher because of a few people who give large amounts.
The sad news is that in spite of the fact that most evangelical churches would profess to believe in tithing, giving among evangelical protestants is not any better than other groups. It also is 1.4% of income.
As was true for evangelism and the retention of children, churches are a long way from the place where God would want them to be.
One final piece of bad news
As I close I want to quote Reimer and Wilkinson from their conclusion to their book.
“IN 1981, 90 per cent of Canadians were Christian, of some stripe. In 2006, this proportion was 75 percent. By 2031, Statistics Canada (Malenfant, Lebel, and Martel 2010) projects that roughly two-thirds (64% – 66%) of Canadians will be Christian. Between 2006 and 2031, the number of Muslims in Canada will triple, accounting for nearly half (48%) of all non-Christian religious affiliates. Over the same time, most other non-Christian religious groups will double, and those with no religion would increase from 17 to 21 per cent of the population. (205)
If the statistics in the above quote are accurate, we can’t sit back and rest on our laurels because reality is that those laurels aren’t very good. We need a deeper passion for serving Jesus Christ and a deeper commitment to becoming the kind of disciples that will make a difference across our country.
Reimer and Wilkinson stick reality right in front of our faces. That is not a comfortable place for it to be because it shakes us out of our comfort zone. I would encourage every church leader to read their book and to let reality grab hold of you until you can no longer live with the status quo.