I appreciate the invitation to share what it means to be a Christian educator in the Canadian context. I moved to Canada in 2003 to serve at Western Christian College (WCC) in Regina, Saskatchewan; before this opportunity, I had ministered in places as diverse as New Orleans and Chicago. In New Orleans, I discovered that to be an effective minister or pastor, one needed deep missiological instincts, because it was there I first became a stranger in a strange land. I brought those missiological predispositions with me to my new country.
Historically, Western Christian High School and College (dating back to 1945) was part of the Bible College Movement in Western Canada (everything west of Ontario, so geographically, most of the country), responding to the religious needs of the settlers. These settlers brought their churches with them and as they replicated them in the Canadian prairies, leaders felt the need for training centers for ministry preparation and ministry formation.
I jumped into this historic stream in 2003 and served in Regina until 2009 when I returned to New Orleans to finish doctoral work. In 2015, I returned to Canada, but this time to Calgary, Alberta to serve as the president of Alberta Bible College (ABC). This institution began in 1932 in Lethbridge, Alberta to meet the pastoral and ministerial needs of the growing churches on the Western Canadian prairies. In 1937, ABC moved to Calgary. In 1997, the college purchased a previous YMCA and that has been our campus since then.
Western Christian College and High School (which closed in 2012) primarily served the needs of the acapella Churches of Christ, while Alberta Bible College started among the Disciples of Christ, eventually finding itself among the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, as those churches separated from the Disciples. WCC was mostly a high school with a small college attached; ABC has always been a postsecondary institution. This, then, is the historical backdrop in which I now work.
Culturally Canada finds itself somewhere between Europe and the United States, though that is not exactly a fair statement as culture is more complex than this quick comparison would allow but space precludes a deeper investigation. In simple terms, Canada is less “secular” than Europe but more so than the USA. Like Europe, particularly Britain, Canada supports or at least feigns support of the state church. Canada still acknowledges the Queen, who is still the titular head of the Church of England. However, that is more veneer than reality. Like most European (now Western) nations, life does not require a belief in the existence of God for its grounding (as noted by philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 2007).
Canada possesses a weak but loud evangelical Protestantism, but more recent counts suggest that only 6% of the population are evangelicals (Rick Hiemstra, “Not Christian Anymore,” 2020). With the recent political polarization, Canadian evangelicalism is looking more like American evangelicalism. Calgary, where I live, is one of those more robust bastions of evangelical loyalty, so religious life is more pronounced but the percentage of Calgary’s population attending church is anyone’s guess. (See Joel Thiessen, The Meaning of Sunday, 2015, which uses residents of Calgary for the study’s primary research pool). Increasingly, therefore, the young people I meet on my travels have little or no roots in Christian religious traditions. Even students who feel the calling to come to Bible college do not generally come with any deep understanding of Christian tradition, nor do they necessarily have a church family of any kind.
Yet, that is only part of the story. The immigration of people from all over the world to Canada is an understated part of the story. The landscape in Canada is rapidly changing. Compared to the white settler population, these newcomers are quite religious. One might say that Canada remains nominally Christian only because of these immigrants. They also create a huge opportunity for the revival of religious life.
Just to take my city as an example, the Calgary metropolitan statistical area is comprised of 1.48 million people, of which more than 400,000 are immigrants. One group that catches my eye is the burgeoning group of second-generation descendants of immigrants. These young people were either born in Canada or were brought to Canada at such a young age that their earliest memories are in this country. As they grow into adulthood, they are what Will Herberg noted of second-generation immigrants at an earlier time in American history—they are “doubly alienated” (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 1995). They are neither what their parents are, nor are they quite fully Canadian either. They live between the old world and the new world.
Further to this, they learn at least two languages, one at home and another elsewhere. The ambiguity between their various social location can result in significant acculturative stress. When Christian immigrants arrive, they will join or plant a church that looks like the world they left behind; these churches will continue to communicate in their mother tongue and welcome those arriving from the homeland. For second-generation individuals, these churches are not their home. The older they become, and the more they adjust to the dominant culture, the stranger and more remote these transplanted churches feel to them.
A case in point is a Chinese church I am privileged to serve from time to time. The mother church attends to the needs of the older Chinese-speaking nationals. The younger adults have a separate English service—that is where I serve—however, these individuals are aging out of this group with no real place to go next. Either the English service becomes its own church—which would be difficult without dishonoring the elders—or the aging young people quit church, as it becomes increasingly awkward to be a part of a service designed for the youngest members of the congregation. Here I think is one of the biggest opportunities for church planting. Other ethnic groups coming to Canada are facing similar challenges, and they are expressing concern as their children become more Canadian. While some cultures are more resistant to the dominant culture, the pressure is persistent, and to some degree, inescapable on all newcomers.
Now to address the tie-in with my educational work in Canada. 44.2% of ABC’s students are non-Caucasian (not to mention our soon-to-arrive international students), and the number of our students born outside of Canada continues to grow. While we still serve students who are several generations deep in Canadian culture, we are working increasingly in a multicultural environment. This is ABC’s missional reality today. This is the field in which God has called us to announce his kingdom.
Some of our students have come to this country to serve their people group here in North America. Either because their educational credentials are not recognized or because they have been called to ministry by virtue of their gifting and need specific education, God brings them to us. In some way, we teach them how to navigate the dominant culture as much as we teach them theology or guide them into a deeper season of spiritual formation. We certainly learn a lot from each other.
From within this context, I dream of planting multicultural churches where these caught-in-between immigrants from various countries of origin learn to love each other, to hear each other stories, all the while becoming stronger because of their friendship with people who originate in other places. These students share so much in common. They are in a new world where their home language is not the lingua franca; they have lost their old worlds; and if they were born here, because of their location in their families of origin, they sense something is perpetually amiss. Old ways, favorite foods, grandparents, landscapes, traditions, are often left behind or lost. Their families have given up much to be in Canada.
But they also bring many advantages. They are adept at moving from one culture to another. They have grit and resiliency, traits lacking in the dominant culture today. In Canada, immigrants contribute so much to our collective community, working hard to find their place in a new land. I am passionate about these students, because, as you have probably forgotten by this point, I too am an immigrant.
Dr. Stanley (“Stan”) N. Helton—the president of Alberta Bible College, now in his sixth year—is passionate about working with God’s people seeking God’s Mission. In addition to keeping up with his areas of interest, such as biblical languages, New Testament, the History of Christianity, Non-profit management, and Educational Administration, Stan tracks trends in church health, spiritual formation, and pastoral leadership. He loves to walk alongside preachers, church leaders, and those seeking to discern God’s call.