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Why Canada Isn’t the Christian Wasteland Some Christians Imagine

It usually starts when someone detects a hint of my accent – “You’re from the States, aren’t you?”

“I sure am,” I reply, proudly adding that I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina and moved to Toronto from Richmond, Virginia.

This information typically elicits a few moments of small talk – “That’s lovely country down there,” or “I had an aunt who lived in Virginia,” or “We used to vacation in the Outer Banks.”

But sometimes, when I’m having this conversation with a person who works in Christian ministry, the mention of my southern homeland brings out a hint of envy.

“Oh, that must have been nice,” they’ll say. And then they’ll comment about church buildings on every corner or recall the Billy Graham conference they attended somewhere in North Carolina or suggest that I come from a place where people still go to church with regularity.

Remarks like these imply it’s a lot easier to follow Jesus in what is commonly known as the Bible Belt than it is in a place like the Toronto area.

On the other hand, some Americans see secular Canada as a difficult place to be Christian.

One visitor even shared the story about how, when she learned about Toronto in a missions class at church, she was told there were hardly any Christians in the city at all.

As an American Christian living and serving a Baptist congregation in the Toronto area, I like to push back against both these ideas.

We may not have churches on every corner up here, but that doesn’t mean people don’t care about making a difference in the world in Jesus’ name.

Conversely, ministering in a culturally Christian place like the American South, where significant numbers of people profess Christianity, can present its own unique challenges.

I don’t believe it’s necessarily better to be the church in Canada than it is in America, and likewise I don’t believe U.S. Christians are better off than their northern neighbors are.

I simply think the experiences, opportunities and challenges are different in the different countries. Much of the difference has to do with cultural influence.

Canada is a country that unapologetically celebrates diversity. About one in five people living in Canada were born outside North America.

Many lifelong Canadians recognize they are only a few generations removed from being immigrants.

What this means for Christians in Canada is that our church landscape mirrors the country’s diversity.

Here in Toronto, there are large populations of almost every kind of Christian you can imagine – from Ukranian Orthodox to Caribbean Pentecostal, from Chinese Baptist to Middle Eastern Coptic, from Evangelical Anglican to Megachurch Mennonite and many, many more.

This breadth of Christian expression helps create rich and meaningful ecumenical dialogue and prevents any single denomination from claiming significant cultural influence.

I like to think that because none of our groups can legitimately claim to be the official or default voice of Canadian Christianity, our diversity keeps us humble.

I often joke with my ecumenical colleagues that when I served in the U.S. South, clergy gatherings usually included one Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Episcopalian and 10 Baptists.

In Toronto, it’s not uncommon for me to be the only Baptist minister present in a room full of Christian ministers.

Nationwide, Baptists make up less than 2 percent of the population, and about 8 percent of the population of Protestants.

This is quite a contrast from southern states where Baptists sometimes make up 50 to 60 percent of the Protestant population.

Christians – including Baptists – have an unfortunate history of misusing our cultural privilege.

Baptists in the southern U.S. were instrumental in upholding slavery and white supremacy.

Here in Canada, some of our most influential denominations collaborated with the government in the Residential School program, which subjected indigenous children to a kind of cultural genocide.

Christians around the world have used their cultural privilege in attempts to deny legal rights from LGBTQ+ people.

Recent polling suggests that the states in the U.S. with the highest percentage of professing Christians are also some of the least likely to welcome refugees.

Whether or not we are comfortable with the label “evangelical,” (that’s an entirely different topic), most Christians believe that Christ’s call to discipleship is for everyone.

In other words, we want more and more people to discover fullness of life as followers of Jesus.

But how do we respond to the temptation to misuse our cultural privilege when professing Christians become numerous?

It can be tempting to want to live and serve in a place where Christians – “our brand” of Christians, in particular – are everywhere.

But serving in a context where Christian faith is not the default gives many Canadian Christians a unique opportunity to stand out and bear witness.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on interfaith engagement. The previous articles in the series are:

Building Interfaith Relationships Furthers Religious Liberty for All by Amanda Tyler

How to Succeed at Interfaith Dialogue: Act Like 10-Year-Olds by Terry Smith

5 Steps for Churches Planning Community Interfaith Dialogues by Aurelia Davila Pratt

How Bowling Led from Interfaith Dialogue to Interfaith Friendship by Jim Somerville

Justin Joplin

Justin Joplin is lead pastor of Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississaugua, Ontario, Canada, which is affiliated with the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec.