It’s another ad for another conference – in Seattle this time. Hmm. I know a few of the speakers. I’ve read their books. But the context is wrong, and their thinking is generated primarily from their mission context. Do I want my imagination shaped by issues that are not necessarily the same as those I face, or at the least are nuanced by a conversation that is set in a different ethos?

That’s the problem we face as Canadians every day. Most of the speakers and thinkers and books are engaging in a context different from our own. Our context is unique and diverse: Canadian culture is not easily comparable to American culture (See Michael Adams work). We need to be asking different questions, and doing our own theological work.

What is the Spirit saying in Canada? And what is he doing in your neighbourhood?

These aren’t exactly the questions that Reg Bibby is asking, but his questions, and his perspective, will help you to sharpen your own questions, and as a result, your own engagement in ministry and mission. Reg is a Canadian treasure, comparable to Wayne Gretzky, the Vancouver Canucks, or Rick Mercer (well, not as funny — did I say that?)

imageReg Bibby is one of Canada’s leading experts on religious and social trends. He holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. For more than three decades, he has been monitoring Canadian social trends via his well-known “Project Canada” national surveys of adults and teenagers.

He believes that his most recent book in his “gods” series, Beyond the Gods & Back (2011), is easily his most important to date, with the findings having significant implications for the country’s religious groups. A New Day is his attempt to make the heart of those findings and implications widely available.

I read the e-Book in June and it is a terrific resource for anyone who has an interest in the shifting religious landscape of Canada. This short summary is particularly valuable, because it corrects many of the false impressions that are floating around out there; and Reg has done a great job in making his data available in so clear and accessible a form.

Some of the highlights for me:

The shifting role of women – much great involvement outside the home than in the past, and this greatly impacts the involvement of women in roles in the church. 1. they have a higher expectation of having a significant voice; 2. they have less time to give.
The growth in “no religion” respondents. In 1961 that number was less than 1%. Today around 25% of Canadians claim to have no religion, but that number comes close to 50% in BC.

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41% of Canadians identify the Roman Catholic church as their home, compared to 12% who identify with conservative protestants. The growth of Catholicism in Canada is largely due to immigration, but there are other signs of vitality. Is it time for protestants to be looking for more opportunities for collaboration? Catholics have come a long way and are part of the Christian fabric of our land.

The large, “resource church” makes it tough on the smaller churches with only one or two staff persons, yet much of the vitality in protestant faith is born in smaller churches. Other studies, like that of the Church Health gurus, demonstrate that leadership development and conversion are much stronger in small churches. So how can big churches resource smaller ones? And how can “big” become small? (A Seth Godin type question). Simply growing larger is rarely a way to produce depth (See Willowcreek’s REVEAL study, which demonstrated that attendance at church programs does not link to spiritual growth. Churches too often cultivate a culture of consumption).

What are Canadians looking for in “ministry?” I have some resistance to this question because it is too easy to simply play to the cultural consumers and generate more programs that create involvement but not growth. But Bibbys’ findings are interesting; Canadians identify three attractions:

1. Personal Enrichment (56%)
2. The People (22%)
3. God and spirituality (21% and he breaks this down)

Bibbys’ comments following this section caught my attention: “We used to see people as either “in” or out. That has not been helpful. We need to see them as having varying levels of involvement.” (52)

Bibby then displays two illustrations (p 53). On the left is “the old paradigm” which divides the world into “churched” and “unchurched.” On the right is the “new paradigm” which identifies four layers, with “actives” at the center, and then “marginals,” “inactives” and “disaffiliates.” This is a lot more nuanced description than the simple perspective most church leaders work with. It’s more like the data coming from Alan Jamieson (NZ) and Dave Kinnaman (Barna, USA). Bibby doesn’t use the frame of “de-churched” but he well could have.

For example, in our fair city of Kelowna Christians divide into two large groups: churched, and de-churched. The de-churched segment is growing rapidly across Canada, but the only clear studies we have are based on American data. I have divided the de-churched into two further groupings, because some will make their way back to church in time.

Un-reached people make up approximately 50% of our city, with many of these claiming alternate religious commitments, like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Wiccan. In the wider context, other religions make up 6% of Canadian commitments.

In his book, “You Lost Me,” Barna researcher Dave Kinnaman has broken the church leavers into three distinct groups, retaining some of the flavor of the research and conclusions of Alan Jamieson in New Zealand in his study of 2007. (Bibby doesn’t use the frame of “de-churched” but he well could have. Of course this is “center set” vs “bounded set” and represents the shift from “believing then belonging” to “belonging then believing.”)

Dave breaks down church leavers as follows:

• Exiles
• Nomads
• Prodigals

Dave’s research and interviews are extensive, and he identifies Exiles and Nomads as continuing on a spiritual journey, but the church doesn’t seem to be answering their questions. We are mostly answering questions the last generation was asking, and the new questions sometimes make us uncomfortable. The dynamic of denial is alive and well among Christians, unfortunately.

Prodigals are those who doubt the truth of Christianity. Many have a degree of hostility toward the church and have been hurt by other believers or by Christian leaders.

Exiles are particularly interesting. Many are ex-pastors and ex-leaders but there is a disconnect between church and faith. Let’s face it, the dynamics of institution often intrude and subvert the inward journey. In fact, some churches don’t really equip believers for a journey with Christ, instead running programs that keep people busy, without assisting in growth in discipleship. The work of authors like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James B. Smith and others is an attempt to bring a needed correction and a vision of spiritual maturity.

Many Exiles retain a vital and evangelistic faith and are strongly following Jesus with other Jesus followers who no longer fit in traditional church settings. Many of these are artists and musicians: artists tend to be on the forefront of change, because they are reaching forward intuitively and imaginatively when the rest of us are stuck with old, familiar maps. Don Goertz, of Tyndale Seminary, says this of artists:

“In the 21st century the artists will lead us. They are the ones who dream. Dreams and pragmatism are always in tension. Unless we learn how to make this tension more creative we will never be able to see the future for our region. We will always be buying it from someone else. And this is the greatest tragedy of the local church in Canada; when we sing a new song, we have bought it from someone else. When we dream a new dream, we have bought it from another church in another country. God is always doing a new work. Even in Canada. The artists help us to see it.” (Quoted in Missional Voice, Forge Canada, 2010).

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For more on church leavers, see my extensive summary ONLINE.

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Finally, I have been struck by Richard Rohr’s reflections on the second half of life in Falling Upward. Agreeing with every developmental psychologist, he notes the very different spiritual, physical, and emotional tasks required of us. Somewhere along the line, we enter a place of transition, and then find ourselves on a different journey. The world does not look the same. Our actual beliefs may not have changed very much, but the way we hold them has changed. A complex world begins to seem simpler again, and we walk with less certainty, but more wisdom and humility. (In the work of Hagberg and Guelich they call this transition point “The Wall” – The Critical Journey).

But what struck me is the reality that while some grow older, not all are wiser or more gracious. Some remain stuck in a black and white world, living in fear and denial – they simply never grow up. Rohr notes that institutional religion is a first-half-of-life phenomena. Many church communities never grow up: They stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the world is the same today as it was yesterday. The journey described above is not taken only by individuals, but also by entire communities of people.

Bibby does dig into this data a bit more in following pages. On page 56 he asks of the “marginals,” — what would make involvement worthwhile? He identifies four factors: ministry factors, organizational factors, ministry qualities and personal factors.

For ministry factors, “it would have to add value to my life.. spiritual guidance related to everyday living and practices.. ” and more. Organizational factors include a non-judgmental environment that emphasizes spiritual growth over rules, and a greater role for women. Ministry qualities include a community of faith that is genuine, relevant sermons that deal with real-life issues. Personal factors include timing, with a suggestion that Sunday afternoon would be a better time for a gathering.

The free e-Book can be downloaded from Reg’s website.

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