Thursday, June 26, 2008

Secularism

I am just finishing off two weeks in Boston for my last residency in my DMin program. We have had a good time of discussing ministry and renewal. One of the most difficult things to communicate to the other members of my class was the difference between Canada and the United States. In some ways we are very similar – particularly when we talk about Christian issues. However, most of the USA is still much more conservative than Canada. Massachusetts residents consider themselves among the most liberal in the US.

This was backed up by a recent Pew Forum report which did show that this understanding is actually true. There are less people who believe in God, less people that go to church and more people who believe that there are other ways to heaven than through Jesus Christ. But at the same time, every day that I was here at seminary, the Boston Globe had an article about religion either on the front page or on the front page of the Local section. One day it was an article about Eugene Rivers (a black pastor in South Boston credited with the “Boston Miracle” – an inner city renewal project), a piece on female leadership in Reform Synagogues and then some local interest pieces about local churches. It just seemed that religion was at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

The language we use is the same and some of the problems are similar but somehow Canada is further down the road to secularism than our neighbours to the south. I listed some of these issues in one of my assignments which I pasted below.

Hills Church is located in Thornhill, a community of 132,000, in the city of Vaughan (population 240,000) at the edge of the largest city in Canada (Toronto – census metropolitan area population of 5.1 million). In some ways we live and minister in an unreachable neighbourhood – at least in the sense of a traditional approach to ministry and to church planting. Church growth, church planting and evangelism encounter deeply entrenched barriers. This may be true for much of the United States as well, but there is an even stronger resistance to active Evangelicalism in Canada – for a number of reasons.

The first is a strong secular and multicultural ethos. Even though this secular mentality does not necessarily represent the majority of the population statistically, it still exerts a strong influence over the Canadian psyche. We see this most clearly in politics. In the USA, all presidential candidates (Obama and McCain and even Clinton) attend church. They are expected to attend church. Not attending church would actually constitute a significant political disadvantage. In Canada attending church has become a political disadvantage. All you need to do to discredit a candidate is to expose their regular church attendance or their adherence to traditional values. This is only one example of the prevalence of secularism in Canada. There is no appeal in Canada to the “traditions this country was built on.” Canada is a self-proclaimed secular nation. We have no entrenched law concerning the separation of church and state because the church at one time was the state (Roman Catholicism in Quebec and the Church of England [Anglicanism] in much of the rest of Canada). So we have a history of groups resisting the state established church (Methodism and Catholicism resisting Anglicanism in English Canada and more recently, a complete break against Catholicism in Quebec). This has paved the way for a militant multiculturalism and political correctness (don’t offend any minority groups) in the current socio-political landscape.

The second is a strong resistance to and distain for an American-styled Evangelicalism. There is a deep bias against what is seen as the war-mongering, anti-gay, anti-abortion Evangelical platform. Most Canadians vote for liberal or socialist political candidates – especially in urban areas and most are virulently opposed to a legislated conservative morality. Many Canadians view American politics as being controlled or at least strongly influenced by the Evangelical power base. It is perceived as swaying the White House and imposing its morality on the country. Most Canadian provinces would be “blue states.” All major cities return liberal members of Parliament.

Third, there is very little tolerance or space in the Canadian media market for a right wing voice. Except for occasional public voices from the USA (which are widely ridiculed) and perhaps some voices from western Canada (Alberta) there are no strong conservative voices speaking to the culture. The government has only recently allowed religiously based stations to exist and even then they are often required to give equal space to “opposing viewpoints.” Our first religious television station (VisionTV) established by a coalition of Christian business people and broadcasters has become a vehicle for a multi-faith, multicultural religious outlet.

Fourth, to most Christians living in Canada, the days of Christendom are very tangibly over. There has been a change in mindset of those who would plant churches. As the number of nominal Christians without a church shrinks, and as the number of unchurched who once were catechumens of Christianity grows extinct, the success of traditional church plants is threatened. We can no longer merely compete for the leftovers of Christendom or try to find the church model that has just one more innovation. Church planters in Canada have needed to become missionaries, and plant churches cross culturally, across the barriers to people who have no knowledge about Jesus and no language to discuss Christian concepts. The church in Canada can no longer draw on people familiar with the premises of Christianity. There are almost none of those people left. Our culture has produced offspring who are not only unchurched but also unversed in the cultural canon of Christendom.

Fifth, on the micro level, Hills Church located in an almost exclusively Jewish neighbourhood. Ninety percent of the people living here are cultural Jews and there is strong “anti-missionary” sentiment. Jewish people (or Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus) will not attend church as “seekers.” To add to the complexity of this overpowering multicultural environment is the cost of land, the unwillingness of municipalities to zone for worship uses and the competition for existing worship land and space by many other faith traditions.

1 comment:

volkmar1108 said...

Michael,

Alison has been telling me the same things. She was amazed coming here to the Bible Belt 10 years ago that most people actually listed church membership on resumes. Her daughters found it odd that everyone at school claimed to be "a Christian".

Tom