A lot has changed.
According to Gary Nelson, President of Tyndale University College & Seminary, in 1950 Canada was considered the most Christian nation in the world. Attendance at Sunday services, as a proportion of the total population, was higher than the US and attendance at church services in Quebec was the highest in the world. In the Canada of the 1950s, significantly more people went to church than didn’t. A gallup poll from that period showed that 95% of Canadians believed in God. The Lord’s Prayer was prayed in school classrooms each morning and Gideon Bibles were given to every grade 5 elementary student. There were even Lord’s Day laws that prevented certain activity on Sundays. As a result, most Canadians had some level of Christian consciousness. Society was positive on religion in general and Christianity had a place of favour. The church was a recognized, even authoritative, organization in the local community and a place people would turn their attention on a regular basis.
These cultural conditions benefited the church in many ways. Most dramatically the pro-religious mood benefited our evangelistic methodologies. We used evangelistic approaches, successfully, that would be a struggle by contemporary standards. I remember a period of outreach strategy when our approach would be to show apocalyptic-style Christian movies at a Sunday night service. The church would be packed full for the event. At the end of the movie people would be invited to come to the front of the auditorium and ‘pray a prayer’ to believe in Jesus. Many would, and we are thankful for that.
Personal evangelism benefited, too. Canadians have never been overt about their religious beliefs, but if you could get an unbelieving person to have a conversation about the gospel, the message of Jesus was often familiar, even to the unchurched. More often than not, Jesus was a reference to something in their life that was once appreciated but now forgotten.
A lot has changed.
Once a pillar within society, the church is now a more marginalized organization. Sunday School memories or recitations of the Lord’s Prayer that were once buried deep in the public psyche no longer exist. Today, most people are a spiritual blank slate. They have no spiritual belief system of any kind. And even the people who recognize their spirituality function from a potluck of ideas, values and beliefs with the only conviction that no one religion could possibly hold the full answer.
For the local church, the threat is not persecution. What we struggle against is indifference.
And culture itself, previously consistent, is changing so rapidly, it is hard for anyone to keep up.
What should we do?
If we were a business, we might consider switching industries. I jest … mostly. If the stakes were lower, quitting might be an option. But the words of Jesus, the Great Commission, make quitting a non-option. The stakes are too high for the church to lose its way now.
We have to share the message of Jesus because Jesus makes all the difference in a person’s life. He has in mine. I can’t imagine life without Him.
So how will we respond?
If you understand the changes that we are experiencing, you will also understand that small changes are not the answer. Small changes never fix big problems.
It’s time for us to reimagine the missionary work of the church. We are.
The first initiative of our new strategic plan for the Be In Christ says, “We are a movement that acknowledges the changing cultural landscape and we will engage with Canadians in order to share the message of Jesus.”
If you have been following along for the past few paragraphs, the need for this strategic initiative is self-evident. Our cultural landscape has shifted … the church has moved from the centre to the margins. Simply put, what got us here won’t get us there.
Fortunately, there are people who have studied these changes and who can offer us insight. To help us, we invited Dr. Joel Thiessen to be our speaker at Theological Study Day, our pre-AGM event, on May 4th. Joel Thiessen is a researcher who specializes in religion in Canada. He has written an important book, The Meaning of Sunday, that will help equip us for new models of outreach and cultural engagement.
Considering the challenges facing the church, it has never been more important to invest in our pastors to encourage them in their calling and work.
So our second initiative says, “We are a movement that is committed to investing in our leaders by equipping and encouraging them for effective work in Jesus’ kingdom.”
As we understand the challenges facing the church, the reason for this initiative is also self-evident. More than at any other time, our leaders need the encouragement and equipping to move their church to vitality and health.
I have watched pastors I know, who are not in a denomination, struggle. They struggle alone. They do not have the support of a denomination with the vision and commitment to invest in its leaders. This second strategic initiative is a recommitment and a resolve to intensify the efforts we make towards the development of existing and emerging pastors, student interns and lay leaders.
Considering the changing cultural landscape, and the new realities facing the church, we need passionate and spiritual leadership more than ever before.
In the midst of these changes we are grateful for and we celebrate the Be In Christ church. Our churches continue to baptize many people, pool resources for ministry purposes, bring refugees to Canada, disciple children, students and adults and much more. There is so much to be grateful for.
Let’s pray together as we pursue these strategic initiatives with the Lord’s help and the Spirit of God leading us.