The latest census from Statistics Canada shows that just over one-third of Canadians have no religious affiliation, and that the number who identify as secular or atheist has more than doubled in 20 years.
Religions such as Islam and Hinduism are growing, but there is a significant reduction within Christianity. In 2021, 53.3 per cent of the population followed various churches, down from 67.3 per cent in 2011 and a huge 77.1 per cent in 2001.
This has led to many Christian leaders explaining how concerned and even shocked they are, and me in turn to wonder why they’re so bloody concerned and shocked! People aren’t abandoning Christ — they’re abandoning organized Christianity, and who can blame them?
There are seemingly endless stories of abuse, examples of hypocrisy, gruesome tales of historic oppression, anti-vaccination hysteria, mobs proclaiming their faith as they scream support for Donald Trump in the U.S. and rightist leaders in Canada, and celibate men telling women what to do with their bodies or condemning people for their God-given sexuality.
To a great many Canadians, Christianity has become another word for conservatism. We have think tanks and colleges that describe themselves as Christian but seem far more concerned with having Tories elected than the rebel Jesus revealed.
That, of course, is not the church I know and love. I see daily sacrifice, care and hard work for the poor and marginalized. I see a genuine commitment to the teachings of a 1st-century Jewish man who was born in poverty to parents who were refugees; who owned nothing; lived with the rejected and powerless; warned and criticized the rich and rigid; and preached a permanent revolution of love, grace and forgiveness.
Here’s the thing. Whenever I write or speak about this man who — I believe — came as the Son of God for all of us, people react not only positively but also with amazement. “That’s not the Christianity I was taught,” or “If that was true, I’d come to church.” But it is true, meaning that too many churches are promoting religion rather than Jesus.
So this new announcement of what should have been obvious to anybody with open eyes shouldn’t be intimidating but encouraging. The playing field is being levelled; nothing can be taken for granted, and the message of the Gospels has to be explained anew. That’s excellent news. Just as in the early church — before it was corrupted by imperial adoption, soon becoming an instrument of persecution and forced conversion — we need to persuade by compassion and example.
Christians must get their hands dirty, sometimes literally, but never with aggression. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it. Live it, and people will come to see the source of your power.” The evangelism of the rose.
Jesus didn’t speak of abortion and homosexuality, and didn’t side with the rich. He certainly wasn’t a friend to those who judge the different, desperate or destitute. He called for a world turned upside down, yet so many of his ostensible followers seem intent on keeping it just as it is — or used to be.
So it’s no wonder that people identify as atheists, or have left churches. All I would ask is that they give not churches but Jesus another chance. Virtues rather than vestments, giving rather than getting, and becoming part of a great dance of liberation that can and must free and fulfil all of us.
He was crucified not for complacency, but for offering a vision that terrified those who had moral, political, financial and religious investments in a stale and failed world. That world is still with us, and unless Christ-followers present the joyous alternative, the next census will show further and deeper decline. Don’t blame others for our failures — be like the rose; be like Jesus.