The 2001 national census by Statistics Canada dealt in part with the state of religion across the country; its conclusions released in mid-2003 provide many interesting insights. Despite large immigration from mostly non-Christian countries since the 1970s, seven out of ten Canadians as of seven years ago still identified themselves as Roman Catholic or Protestant. Almost 13 million claimed to be Roman Catholic; 8.7 million self-identified as Protestants. The number who said that they were simply "Christian" more than doubled from the 1991 census to 784,000. Things are probably not very different today
One of the nine books Reg Bibby of the University of Lethbridge has published, Restless Gods, sets out how Canada's various religious communities can build on an emerging religious renaissance which he and others are documenting. Bibby refers to the American congregational expert Lyle Schaller and his argument that a new religious renaissance is taking place in both Canada and the U.S. Schaller's list of indicators of this trend includes:
a change in many worship services from dull to exciting
a new era in religious music
the emergence of mega churches
more ecumenical initiatives coming from congregations and ministers
an increased number of independent congregations
a laity which is more involved in ministry
the positive impact of television on churches
the insertion of religious messages in bestselling books
growing interfaith cooperation
priority given by adults and teens to prayer groups.
Public Square Today
It is probable that a large portion of elected individuals in multi-party democracies around the world today would identify themselves as Christians or members of other religious communities. If asked how their religious faith affects their daily work, however, a good many among this group might well reply: "not much". This nominal believer phenomenon today is both a challenge and an opportunity for all spiritual communities.
In my view, Christians should avoid saying: "the Christian view of issue X must be Y" on issues where it's difficult to say with real confidence what Jesus himself would say. I believe it harms Christianity if its followers insist that the Bible requires us to favour one side or the other on certain public issues. On others – "ethnic cleansing", child pornography, slavery, trafficking in human beings and environment degradation come readily to mind – Christians, like believers of all other faiths, should be much more assertive.
My own view is to be cautious about mixing church and state. If one wishes to make the case, say, that Hollywood values have caused considerable social harm, why not do so on an empirical or common sense basis? There is good evidence that the North American media's constant glamorization of violence has had very serious ripple effects. Is it not better advocacy to support tougher laws to fight, say, child pornography on the readily-identifiable evidence of what it has done to communities? Believers in all known religions are mostly already convinced on such issues.
An important book, Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, offers other case studies from Asia, Europe, Central America and Africa in which spiritual factors played an important part in resolving conflicts and achieving non-violent change. In former East Germany, for example, where religion was persecuted severely for decades, a number of churches positioned themselves to play a major role in the peaceful revolution of 1989-1990.
In summary, there is probably a greater need for committed Christians and members of other spiritual communities in every walk of life today than at most other points in human history. Christian politicians everywhere can help by acting as a brake upon forces that threaten to overcome civilization. In addition to speaking out or voting, we believers in our own lives must place a high value on the empathy, kindness and numerous other qualities associated with Christianity. Our lives must somehow manage to remind others that there is a Redeemer for our "tormented public and private world."
Should Christians each in our own way and space not also attempt to do what the Apostle Paul and millions of lesser-known believers have done down through the ages? We could use C.S. Lewis as a model for our age. If Lewis was the twentieth century's most influential Christian author, was he not also, as Dorothy Sayers put it, "God's terrier"? Believers in any situation should be terriers for our Saviour too. Each day presents new opportunities for ministry.
The New Testament holds up a church which exists primarily for the sake of non-members. Many parishes fall short here, but many have enormous outreach in their communities. I understand churches across the country are involved in shelters for the homeless, ministries to street people, safe places for abused women and food banks to name only a few. I am especially impressed with the work of L'Arche founded by Jean Vanier. The late Henri Nouwen of Toronto's L'Arche community wrote often about lonely abandoned people without people to love them. Nouwen tells of a young minister who has nothing to offer an old man facing surgery except his own loving concern. "No man can stay alive when nobody is waiting for him," he wrote. All of us, priests, ministers, and laity, can fulfil this role of eating tears for someone.
The excellent Christian writer Philip Yancey thinks parishes should ideally be "God's neighbourhood bar, a hangout like the television show Cheers for people who know all about your lousy boss, your mother with heart trouble …, and the teenager who won't do what you tell him; a place where you can unwind, spill your life story, and get a sympathetic look, not a self-righteous leer." Can anyone disagree? The suggestion has been made that AA in its meetings is very close to the early Christian Church such as the one in Corinth.
No-one can be a Christian alone for long. Parish churches exist primarily to worship God; His reconciling love transcends all differences of nationality, race, age and gender. In the words of Blaise Pascal "the real strength of Christianity is that it is adapted to all."
I’d like now to turn briefly to a book by Phillip Jenkins entitled: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Jenkins, who is a professor at Penn State University, argues that the present global trends of Christianity will have an impact on the world similar to major religious movements such as the Reformation. For Jenkins, the twenty-first century will be seen as a time in history when religion replaced the importance once occupied by ideology. Christianity will have a major impact on all of the world’s belief and political ideology systems.
It barely registered on Western consciousness until a few years ago that Christianity is growing with phenomenal speed in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Africa, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the present net increase of Christians on the continent is an astounding 8.4 million a year, or 23,000 persons a day. Put another way, there were about ten million African Christians in 1900; in 2000 there were 360 million.
In highlighting this growth, Jenkins also notes: “By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian populations will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent in Asia.” In other words, the centre of gravity of the Christian world will be deep in the Southern hemisphere, creating new pockets of influence and power. Until now, the foolish stereotype in the North was, as Jenkins says, that Christians are “un-Black, un-poor and un-young”. In fact, before too long, the phrase “a white Christian” may be something of an oxymoron.
A word about Asia, South Korea in particular. The book notes that there were only about 300,000 Christians in the whole of Korea in 1920, but that today there are 10-12 million. In fact, when I was in Seoul several years ago, I was told that almost half of the population are now Christians, which could put the figure above 20 million. The Fall Goyee Central Church in Seoul, notes Jenkins, now has half a million members. The Presbyterian Church I attended in Seoul has about 7000 members and offers five or six services each Sunday.
Role of Christians
We as Christians in the North should address global trends and play a useful role. As Miriam Adeney of Christianity Today argues, “of all people, Christians are to love our neighbours. When our neighbourhood expands to include the globe, then we’re called to love globally.” Christianity should no longer be viewed as being a European and North American faith. In particular, we need to reach this conclusion as a united community and formulate an appropriate response to this transformation.
Christian communities everywhere should concentrate on maintaining a dialogue on where the future of our faith lies and as a result become better qualified to address complex issues of the future. Christians must assume active roles in determining whether the level of global awareness present in all of our institutions, including at the educational and church levels, is appropriate or needs to be improved upon.
In expanding our contacts with communities around the world, it is important to reflect on the power of forgiveness in past strained relationships. As Bishop Tutu once said: “the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.” Are these words not equally applicable to Canadians?
Martin Luther King Jr. wisely stated, “unless we learn to live together as brothers [sisters] we will die together as fools.” In building stronger relationships and a deeper level of respect and understanding among other faith communities and with persons of different languages and cultures, we do not need to sacrifice beliefs; instead, we should view it as an opportunity to enrich our faiths. People with whom we rub shoulders ought to see in us God’s message of kindness and unconditional love for humankind. One does not need to travel abroad to make a useful contribution towards inter-faith dialogue. It needs to begin at home as a community.
In closing, I would like to cite Miroslav Volf of Croatia, who argued in his wonderful book, Exclusion and Embrace,“there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions. Since religious peace can be established only through religious dialogue... reconciliation between the peoples depends on the success of the inter-religious dialogue.” For reconciliation to take place, the inscriptions of hatred must be carefully erased and the threads of violence gently removed.