Edmonton-raised sociologist paints a changing picture of Canadian faith
EDMONTON JOURNAL, APRIL 3, 2012
Everything you thought you knew about religion in Canada is wrong.
That’s the impression you just might get from Reginald Bibby, the University of Lethbridge sociologist and longtime religion trendwatcher.
Bibby was at west Edmonton’s Covenant Christian Reformed Church last weekend to address the Edmonton District and Council of Churches, an ecumenical group mostly comprised of mainline Protestants and Catholics.
“You’re looking at things through old eyes,” Bibby told the crowd of about 50. “I want to proclaim to everyone that we’re looking at a new day when it comes to religion in Canada.”
Long before his nearly four-decade research career, Bibby was an Edmonton kid who attended Bonnie Doon Composite High and worshipped at local Nazarene and Baptist churches in Norwood and Parkallen. He’s still a regular in these parts, splitting Eskimos season tickets with another Lethbridge colleague.
Pacing back and forth in a charcoal suit like an old Baptist preacher, Bibby zipped through slides of data gleaned from his career studying religious trends, in which he has moved away from predictions of decline and renewal, and toward polarization and change. “A solid core of people continue to value faith; a growing core do not,” Bibby said. “A significant proportion have a tendency to take a pass on religion.”
Predictions of the secularization of Canada have been grossly exaggerated, Bibby said. The stats show that the future of religion isn’t in question, but the place of Canadian churches is anything but guaranteed.
It’s a familiar story that Canada’s mainline Protestant groups – the United Church, Anglicans and Presbyterians that once were the majority – have been the hardest hit by demographic changes. The numbers of conservative and evangelical Christians have remained relatively steady.
But Bibby underlines countless studies showing the resilience of religious practices in Canada in recent decades. In Alberta, 31 per cent of people said they attended religious services monthly, a number that has remained steady between 1990 and 2010. (The same number has slipped nationally from 36 to 28 per cent.) And a Statistics Canada survey from 2010 found 41 per cent of Albertans claimed spirituality and religion played a very important role in their lives, with only 17 per cent saying it was not at all important.
Immigration patterns are another factor. The European pipeline that fed mainline Protestantism has dried up, with growing numbers of Christians from the southern hemisphere infusing Catholic and conservative churches. In 1989, Bibby warned Edmonton Catholics that a shortage of priests was a symptom of declining numbers. The future is now quite rosy, with Canadian pews filling with immigrants from Catholic-rich countries like the Philippines. And after more than a century of stability, evangelicals are also on the rise due to immigration.
Pollsters who predicted religious decline obsessed over weekly attendance, Bibby said, missing the impact of increased dual-income households. With free time shrinking, people became pragmatic, not irreligious. It’s a message that has pragmatic implications: people aren’t looking for churches, they’re looking places of belonging.
“The key in terms of futures is what you do with your pools of people, and what you do by way of performance,” said Bibby.
The numbers add up to a hopeful message for John Pasma, lead pastor at Covenant Reformed Church and president of the Edmonton District Council of Churches. Situated close the Anthony Henday freeway, Pasma’s congregation of about 400 has added young families who have found a place of belonging. At the same time, he’s leading an organization facing an aging membership and a changing societal role.
“The churches have been losing members, but at the same time, there’s a lot of hope,” Pasma said. “The church just has to be the church. We have to live the good news and be the good news.”