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By Rev. Allie McDougall

Those with an interest in church growth and development often refer to the current North American cultural moment as the “era of post-Christendom”.

This means that Christianity is no longer the dominant religion, the relationship between the Church and civil society has been severed, and that we can no longer take for granted a shared Christian outlook with others outside our households.

For many still worshipping in our parish churches, the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom has taken place in their lifetime, the change having been accelerated by the in the latter half of the 20th century. The “good old days” of overflowing Sunday schools, enormous choirs, parish prosperity, and respect for the Lord’s Day were symptoms of a Canadian society that was attuned to the lifestyles of Christians and vice versa. Senior members of my parishes have described church membership as a positive sign of social conformity – everyone went to church because that’s all there was to do on a Sunday and that’s what good, upstanding people did.

This was advantageous for the church as an institution with power in society, but not for its health as the Body of Christ. As Bishop Townshend instructed us in his 2023 charge to synod, we must leave behind the church of 1950 and prepare ourselves for the church of 2050.

What has church been replaced with in our context?

We are all aware of the various other, non-churchy activities that can quickly supplant church attendance and engagement. Hockey practice, brunch, shopping, or sleeping in have more appeal to the unchurched than attending a religious ceremony for which they have no frame of reference or connection to.

However, church membership is not merely an activity to occupy our time. It is, or ought to be, reflective of a personal commitment to following Jesus Christ, a channel through which we find our shared identity with other believers, and the means by which we are formed for God’s service. With increasing numbers of Canadians identifying as non-religious, we must consider what is satisfying the spiritual yearnings, social needs, and moral/ethical formation of those beyond our pews.

I will admit that I find this question difficult to answer as someone who has professed faith in Christ since the age of four, but I’ve made a few observations over the last couple of years.

Last month’s edition on the manosphere highlighted the growing influence of hyper-masculine strong men over the formation of boys and young men. A future edition will explore that which has captured the attention of girls and young women, but it is worth mentioning now that the dominant influences of this group may largely be found in the content of social media influencers and online activists.

As a mother, I can’t help but notice that children’s films, particularly those produced by Pixar Animation Studios in the last decade or so, have taken on an existential and spiritual bent. Family films have commonly held deeper morals and symbolism, but films like Coco, Onward, and Soul are tackling subjects like life after death, resurrection, and ensoulment, prompting families to consider these themes with their children.

The ever-bloating Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe have produced matrices of interconnected superhero films that require a roadmap to help decipher plot points and character development. These texts have become a mythology in and of themselves, wherein viewers can align with the powers of good or evil and create connections between fantastical, superhuman conflict and current events.

While this is by no means a comprehensive appraisal of all that captures the popular spiritual imagination in replacement of Christian identification and worship, it has become clear to me that the consumption of media is one of the linchpins of the post-Christian paradigm shift. This is both concerning and hopeful for our cause as a missional people. Multi-billion-dollar corporations are shaping the spiritual discourse of the day with little to no connection to a religious context of any sort, with the explicit aim of making money off their target demographics. As Anglicans, we are not prepared, nor should we be enticed to offer a consumption-driven model of church to appeal to this sort of crude, profit-motivated secularism.

There are many for whom the emptiness of being a consumer no longer satisfies and they are seeking a spiritual outlet that is substantial and life-giving. Upcoming generations have no institutional or cultural memory of church and therefore do not possess the same baggage and revulsion as those who led the charge out of the church. There is a genuine interest and curiosity among the unchurched that we can respond to with joy and open hearts. We cannot take for granted that non-religious people know the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Bible stories, or even who Jesus Christ is. But we can be open to the possibility that they want to find out and that we have the tools to help them find it as the empowered, Spirit-filled Body of Christ.

Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate at St. Paul’s and St. James', Stratford.