New thinking for a new day in church planting

books-ContextText and Context: Church Planting in Canada in Post-Christendom

Leonard Hjalmarson, editor

Urban Loft Publishing

Paradigm shifts aren’t new, even in the church. Throughout history, the pendulum has swung: different perspectives on faith, theology, mission, church life and ecclesiology become prominent while once-popular/widespread practices and disciplines fall into obscurity/disuse.

Text and Context: Church Planting in Canada in Post-Christendom, an anthology edited by Canadian and MBBS (Fresno) graduate Leonard Hjalmarson, tells the stories of 11 churches, faith communities or ministries across our country. Each story, written by the planter himself, represents some of the current thinking around reaching Canada for the cause of Christ.

What sets many of these ministries apart from what might be considered traditional churches is their approach to ministry. They are part of a pendulum swing taking place in the church around method of ministry and model of church.

There is an increasing realization that the Christian church in Canada has waned in influence and effectiveness. We are living in a post-Christian age of extreme skepticism when it comes to faith and religion. The planters and practitioners in this book believe a new paradigm is needed if people are going to hear the gospel and overcome their skeptical reluctance to embrace faith and Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Hjalmarson begins the book by writing of the incredible change taking place in Canada and the resulting need for gospel proclamation and lived-out faith. Quoting writers such as Diana Butler Bass and pollsters such as George Barna, Hjalmarson makes a compelling case for the Christian church to rethink how we go about sharing the gospel message and the context in which we share the gospel in light of these changes and needs.

For instance, “In 1901, 37 percent of Canadians lived in urban areas. By 2006, that figure had risen to 80 percent,” Hjalmarson writes. “Today, two-thirds of Canadians live within 33 urban centres with populations of more than 100,000.”

Also, according to the 2012 national census, 24 percent of adults and 32 percent of teens report “no religious affiliation.” (That’s up from one percent in 1971.)

A shift in thinking has occurred in our country and the need for the gospel is great. These realities are pushing new paradigms in the thinking and understanding of these planters.

One of the inspiring aspect of Text and Context is the creativity these planters, pastors and gospel ministers exhibit. At this point, it’s difficult to judge the effectiveness of each of these models, yet what should give us pause for celebration and thanksgiving is that they are sharing the gospel and reaching Canadians with the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. I am heartened by their outside-the-box thinking, passion for ministry and clear adherence to a missional call.

Though each ministry’s objective is similar – reaching the lost for Jesus – their models are wide and varied. From house churches to multiplying congregations/parishes to community development and revitalization cooperatives (including MB Metro Community in Kelowna, B.C.), the different cultures and methods of doing and being the church represented in these stories pushes the bounds of what recent generations understood the church to be.

The planters in these stories have awakened to the need for the church to obediently live out the gospel. The book paints this swing as a corrective to the inward-focused, members-only, country-club mentality for which the church has been criticized in the past. I wholeheartedly agree that a missional corrective is required for the church to regain effectiveness.

Having said that, I didn’t resonant with some of the thinking in the book. It’s hard to assess a person in the space of a few pages, but it became evident that many – not all but certainly some – of these workers exhibit a certain attitude toward the established church and its approach to ministry. One planter summed it up when he wrote, “We met first as a group of believers who were less than satisfied with our experiences in various local congregations.” Dissatisfaction has long been an impetus for change, but I’m not sure it’s a compelling motivation for starting a ministry or planting a church.

Though not the only motivation for planting, dissatisfaction was a theme that seeped into a number of stories. I would rather have heard more from the writers about their passion for Jesus, their burden to see lives transformed and for the glory of God to be exhibited in compelling and stirring ways.

Further, though this book is about mission and the obedient living out of the gospel, in Text and Context, mission is too often narrowly defined as ministry beyond the borders of the faith community – as though the church only exists for the purpose of missional living in the community. A more compelling vision of ministry today is expounded missional thinkers such as Hugh Halter, Alan Hirsch and Jeff Vanderstelt, who give a more balanced treatment of faith expressed in worship, spiritual disciplines and missional living.

Text and Context is not a “how-to” book. Rather, it’s a mosaic of faith communities in the Canadian context. Though there is room for a broader perspective in the approach of some of these churches and ministries, I can’t fault these missional workers’ fervent passion for ministry. The stories are testimonies of creative and innovative thinking about the church in Canada today. They stretch the bounds of what has been known as contemporary organized church/religion.

—Chris Douglas is B.C. regional director of the C2C Network.

One Comment on “New thinking for a new day in church planting

  1. Through my life I realize that much of value has grown from a sense of dissatisfaction. As Richard Rohr put it, “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” And I think we could safely say that when Jesus encountered the money changers in the temple, he was quick to express a sense of dissatisfaction!

    And maybe the deeper truth is that often it is the deep love for the church, and the knowledge that she can be so much more faithful than she is, that drives us. The risk, of course, is that this can be a projective dynamic, where everything around is bad so that we can feel better. We always need to be taking the log out of our own eye first.

    Honestly, though, I think this is really a small quibble – not even a tempest in this teapot. The tea itself is quite good — organic, contemporary, honest, and often deeply reflective. The reflective practitioners that tell their stories in this collection represent a cross-section of denominations, all rooted in the diverse and pluralistic context of post-Christendom Canada. And while the focus on mission seems to denigrate the inward life, let’s at least admit that too many churches have neglected the outward call, and so this is an attempt to restore a healthy rhythm. “Sentness” defines us, after all, and by the way, didn’t Hugh Halter write a book with that title?

    Then there is the Afterword, which I suspect the reviewer did not read. Scott Hagley notes that evangelicalism is struggling with a sense of identity. The increasing diversity (even fragmentation) of the movement means that an articulation of shared belief and practice is insufficient as a description. And why are we seeing this fragmentation? In part it’s because the dramatic foil of Christendom has collapsed. We have too often defined ourselves by what we are not. With that opportunity now collapsing, we may have to discover what we (positively) are.

    In that sense, what we have offered in Text & Context is a snapshot of that discovery process — the movement from what was, toward what will be. Inevitably, that will be a progression away from the need to define ourselves in relation to structures that are collapsing. The church has always been a community of both memory and hope. Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future, faith is the ability to dance to it today. As we listen to the music of the Spirit, may we willingly learn to be good partners in the dance!

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