If Canadians have been longing for meaning in their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlikely that anyone has told them about Jesus.
According to a recent survey conducted by Alpha Canada and the Flourishing Congregations Institute, 65 percent of church leaders say that evangelism hasn’t been a priority for their congregations over the last several years. Fifty-five percent say their congregations do not equip Christians to share their faith.
Shaila Visser, national director of Alpha Canada, said she was somewhat surprised by the numbers because she sees so many opportunities for Christians to share their faith. The pandemic, in particular, has caused people to ask significant questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives.
“The opportunity before the church in Canada is to meet them and their questions with the person of Jesus,” she said, “to show them that Jesus is very good.”
The survey asked Canadian leaders across Christian denominations, “As you think about your local congregation/parish over the last several years, to what extent would you say your congregation/parish has given priority (or not) to evangelism?”
More than 2,700 church leaders responded between May and July 2021.
About 20 percent said evangelism was a moderate concern. Only 9 percent said it was a high priority for members of their congregation to share their faith.
Respondents included a few leaders from the mainline United Church of Canada and just over 20 percent from the Roman Catholic Church. The majority, though, came from evangelical traditions, including leaders from Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Evangelical Free Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Foursquare Church, and the Salvation Army. The tendency not to emphasize evangelism appears to be widespread.
Steven Jones, president of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, said he was “deeply concerned” by the numbers. He notes they reflect the continued decline of evangelical Christianity in Canada.
Historically, about 10 percent of Canadians have considered themselves evangelical. Today, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s quadrennial census, only 6 percent of Canadians are evangelical. These are the lowest numbers on record.
Christianity has increasingly been viewed in a negative light in secular Canadian culture, particularly in the wake of sexual abuse scandals and light being shed on the role churches played for decades in residential schools for Indigenous people in Canada. Dozens of churches were spray-painted, vandalized, and burned following the discovery of mass graves at several residential schools this summer.
That negative view was clearly seen in the responses to the Alpha survey. The number one challenge to evangelism, leaders said, was “perceived antagonism toward Christian values and the Christian church.”
According to David Koop, pastor of Coastal Church, a large urban congregation in Vancouver, British Columbia, a lot of younger Christians have accepted the secular Canadian criticisms of the faith.
“The next generation has a really different narrative that they’re listening to,” he said.
Because secular society views church as a problem, he said, many Christians seem to shy away from sharing their faith. At the very least, they’re more averse to traditional methods of evangelism. For much of the 20th century, evangelism meant passing out tracts or knocking on people’s doors. Today, Koop said, there’s more emphasis on relationships and showing people how you live out your faith.
When the survey participants were asked to list the three most common methods of evangelism encouraged among their congregation/parish, the most common answer was “showing one’s faith through their actions.”
In some ways, Koop thinks that’s a positive shift.
“I think the most effective way is still just to do what Jesus said in Luke 10,” Koop said. “Go to people’s homes. Get to know them. Live in a community relationship. Pray for them.”
He’s found the pandemic has created roadblocks in that effort with many churches looking inward rather than focusing on evangelism.
“There’s a weariness,” he said. “There’s a sense I need to keep my own fences mended and stay strong.”
Jeff Eastwood, who lives and pastors a church on the opposite end of the country in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, sees the same thing. Broad cultural changes have made it more difficult to speak about faith when antireligious rhetoric abounds.
“When the majority—or it seems like the majority—are giving assent to this ideology, it becomes more difficult for Christians to speak into that, especially in a nuanced way,” said Eastwood, who pastors Grace Baptist Church.
Eastwood encourages Christians to do what Jesus did, though, and connect with people where they are, engaging them and speaking to their specific situations.
“The best evangelism comes out of relationships,” he said.
The survey was done during widespread lockdowns in Canada because of the pandemic. Christian leaders say they’re not clear what effect COVID-19 has had on evangelism.
It may have exacerbated the problem and made evangelism harder. Outreach became more difficult, with gatherings prohibited and many people limiting contact to a small “bubble” of people. Eastwood’s church, for example, had to cancel its Vacation Bible Study.
Plus, church leaders who were already working as hard as they could were overwhelmed trying to adapt to changing conditions. It became easier for churches to focus on themselves and not the broader community.
“COVID has given a great excuse to be very selfish," said Vijay Krishnan, who pastors The Well, a church in the suburbs of Toronto.
Krishnan believes that this tendency is something that believers have struggled with since the New Testament period. The early church was content to stay in Jerusalem rather than carry out the Great Commission. It took persecution, he said, to scatter them to the ends of the world as Jesus had commanded.
At the same time, Krishnan said, the pandemic has created opportunities for people to be more open about their struggles. Most people have been impacted in some way by the pandemic, and that shared cultural experience can open doors to talk about more personal matters.
When people share their struggles, he doesn’t just tell them he’ll pray for them but prays for them at the moment.
“It’s like you’re inviting them to a spiritual encounter with a God you know,” Krishnan said.
Visser has also had opportunities to pray with people because of COVID-19.
“What it provides is an encounter between two people with God in the middle, regardless of what they believe,” she said.
The best way to share your faith is to listen to people, she said, and then “run toward their pain and meet them in the messiness of their lives or in the beauty of their lives.”
In a time when many are suffering from loneliness, providing opportunities for human interaction can be a powerful form of evangelism.
“The world is longing for in-person connection around meaningful conversations, and inviting them into spaces where they can have that connection and encounter God is increasingly important,” Visser said. “It’s more important than it was before the pandemic.”
In a pandemic, though, that may mean going online. Visser ran an Alpha program on Zoom for friends spread across Canada. She said she probably wouldn’t have done that before COVID-19.
“We have never met in person as a group, and we have formed some of the deepest, most wonderful supportive community opportunities you could even imagine,” she said. “All on Zoom.”
Jones said a lot of evangelical churches are embracing online opportunities and looking for opportunities they wouldn’t have before.
“I think all our churches need to be live streaming because we are reaching people who would never go through the door of a church or facility, but they will go to your website,” he said. “It’s a good first place.”
And the need is urgent. Canadians are looking for meaning and purpose, struggling with loneliness, and dealing with the tragedies brought by COVID-19.
“People are hurting, and they’re confused,” Eastwood said. “We have an opportunity to speak into that in a real way.”