Christianity in Canada

If you want a picture of the state of Christianity in Canada, consider the following:

  • Weekly religious service attendance in Canada is in a free fall from 67% in 1946 to 11% in 2013.*
  • The categories “never attend a religious service” or “have no religion” are the fastest growing categories between 1996 and 2013. In fact, they are the only categories that are growing.
  • 24% in Canada claim no religion, compared to 10% who identify as evangelical — the latter number being one that would be unimaginably high in my community.
  • 3% read the Bible daily. An additional 5% read the Bible once a week or more.
  • 66% generally support the legalization of euthanasia.
  • According to sociologist Reginald Bibby, immigration accounts for most of the growth in our churches.
  • You’re more likely to meet a Buddhist than a Baptist in Toronto.

Toronto used to be called Toronto the good, the city of churches. Now many of those churches are being converted into condos and lofts. Nobody would say that the church is much of an influence on society anymore.

But that’s not the whole picture.

I’ve never met so many church planters in Canada before. I’ve never seen so many denominations working together to advance the gospel. I’ve never seen networks like C2C start with a burden for revival, and a lack of concern for who gets the credit. Then there are the pastors who are doing the hard work of revitalizing churches that were started in a very different context.

I attended a small meeting yesterday at Exponential, an annual church planting conference in Florida. The meeting was organized by Church Planting Canada. Exponential usually has a very American flavor to it — not a bad thing, but very different from Canada. But yesterday it took on a Canadian feel as church planters and network leaders met to talk about what God is doing in Canada. Though the spiritual climate is challenging, and our numbers are small, I sensed optimism in the room, and a hunger for God to do something new.

Canadian Church Planters bonus session at Exponential

Canadian Church Planters bonus session at Exponential

Pray for Canada. God is doing something. Someone yesterday compared it to the small raincloud that Elijah saw when he prayed for rain (1 Kings 18:44). It’s small, but maybe there’s more coming.

I hope to see it in my lifetime.

*The stat about 1946 church attendance came from George Gallup, as reported by Reginald Bibby in this article (PDF). However, it seems unbelievably high.


Losing Our Location

I knew the day would come. I had just arrived at a conference when I got a phone call with some bad news. It was the owner of the dance studio, the spot where we rent space for our new church plant. Due to some changes, we would no longer be able to use the studio, she said. We would lose the space within a matter of weeks, or even a matter of days.

This isn't the phone call I wanted to get right before Easter.

Church plants aren't about buildings. Still, having a space has been useful to us. While we could continue to function if we lost our building, I also believe it would have set us back in our efforts to plant a church in our community.

We began to look at options. We're committed to Liberty Village, and I quickly discovered that some had space they wouldn't rent; some had space they would rent but that wouldn't work, and that some had space that they would rent but that would barely work and was astronomically expensive.

We did find one location. It's a former restaurant in the community. We looked at it and began to get excited. It was the right combination: good space in a visible location at what seemed like a fair price, and the owner seemed willing to rent to us.

We made an offer. Days went by, and we heard nothing.

On the Thursday before Good Friday, our church gathered for a potluck and prayer. As people arrived I told them we still hadn’t found a place. Now that it was Easter weekend, I didn't expect to hear back until the next week.

While we prayed, I finally received the email that hadn't come all week. “We are interested in moving ahead and would love for you to be a part of our building,” it said.

I signed the lease last Tuesday. We got the keys last Friday. We moved in and cleaned the place on Saturday. We held our first service there on Sunday.

I've been reminded of a few things over the past few weeks:

  • People are praying for us. I'm encouraged that so many prayed for us from all over Canada and the world.
  • People in our community helped us. I was also encouraged by the people in Liberty Village who aren't part of our church, but cared and offered their support.
  • Models are important, but they're not everything. I found it useful to rethink why we think we need a building, and to evaluate why we do what we do. The occasional crisis may actually be helpful.
  • Finally, I find it interesting that God answered our prayer in the middle of our praying. Maybe I needed to learn something about prayer.

Please pray for us. You can even sign up to get our email updates so you'll be reminded to pray at least once a month. Who knows what adventures will be coming next?

Honest Church Planting

Although all the chapters in Rico Tice’s new book Honest Evangelism are good, one chapter in particular stood out to me. It’s chapter 7, called “Getting started (or re-started).” It outlines the changes that have taken place in culture over the past few decades, and how this affects the way we evangelize.

Tice writes in the context of the United Kingdom. He argues — correctly, I think — that the U.K. is a couple of decades ahead of the United States in these trends.

In the 1950s, people generally believed “in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and in the truth that Jesus is God’s Son.” When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.

By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity. It was harder to get them to come to a special service, or to hear a visiting evangelist. Some blocks (objections to Christianity) had to be removed first before the gospel could gain a hearing. In particular, Tice describes four: Christians are weird; Christianity is untrue; Christianity is irrelevant; and Christianity is intolerant.

When people met Christians, saw the way that they lived, and heard answers to their intellectual issues, trust would build. People would then sometimes be willing to give the gospel a hearing.

Twenty years later, Tice says, “people are on a totally different road.” Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply dismiss it out of hand.

As a result, Tice says, two things are true. First, witnessing takes time and effort:

Research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them — and that time period is growing. Witnessing is a long-term commitment to invest in a relationship, to pray tirelessly, and to speak the gospel over and over again, patiently and persistently. It is a journey of gospel conversations. It really does take effort.

Second, it takes us bringing the gospel to them. “It’s harder and harder to take people to hear the Bible taught; you need to take the Bible to them…Evangelism takes time, and evangelism takes friendship.”

These are great insights, and they make a lot of sense to me. I would add an additional note, though. How do you plant a new church in light of these realities? You plant relationally, and you plant patiently.

  • Plant relationally — Many will not come to a church event. Relationships are key in sharing the gospel.
  • Plant patiently — Growth will probably not be rapid. Our expectations need to be realistic. We need to be in it for the long haul.

We need to be honest about how evangelism and church planting are changing. Both are still important; in fact, they are more important than ever. But they will both look different than they did even a few years ago.

Lessons from a Venezuelan Church Planter

I had lunch with a church planter in Venezuela in the early days of planting Liberty Grace Church. Like us, he had experience in planting in a condo community.

I was deeply encouraged by what this church planter told me, and I think of what he said often. Here are the top five lessons I learned from that lunch.

  1. Distinguish between planting season and harvest season. As a pastor of an established church, I’d largely been living in harvest season, based on the sowing work others had done before me. As a church planter, I’m in planting season. My Venezuelan friend told me that if I forgot that I’m in planting season, I’d get discouraged by the lack of fruit. Don’t expect a harvest when it’s time to plant, he told me.
  2. Think years, not months. While some church planters see rapid growth, my friend told me it took seven years for him to gain traction. Looking back after those seven years, he could see tremendous progress. In the middle of the seven years, though, it sometimes felt like nothing was happening. Unless you’re reaching the already-reached, we have to think years, not months. (David Fitch says that church planting is a minimum ten-year commitment to a place, and I think he's right.)
  3. Don’t expect skeptics to attend the worship service. My planter friend told me that worship services are good for the team, but not as great as an evangelistic strategy. In a secular and skeptical society, he said, we will not see droves of skeptics running to church services. He wasn’t arguing against making our services friendly to outsiders, but he cautioned against seeing them as the connecting point with our community.
  4. Find connecting points. Canadian Christmas traditions seemed to gain people’s interest in Venezuela. My friend capitalized on those as a way of connecting with as many people as possible. He told me to take advantage of any opportunity to find connecting points with people and use them to build relationships in the community.
  5. Look for credibility gaps. This planter’s neighbors wondered what he did with his time. When he told them that he was starting a church, he got blank stares. Eventually he took a job and became bivocational, and found that he gained a lot of trust and credibility in the community. His lack of a job (other than church planting) hurt his credibility, and he didn’t even know it. While the issues are different in every community, it’s important to look for the ways that we’re losing credibility, and address them.

I’m convinced that we have lots to learn from church planters who have experienced some of the challenges of planting in harder areas. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from my Venezuelan church planting friend.

Four Adjustments in Church Planting

I’m a big believer in church planting, but I have some concerns about some of our current approaches. I wrote about them on Tuesday:

  1. The greatest needs are outside of North America.
  2. Our methods are too expensive.
  3. Our casualty rate is high.
  4. Our models aren’t always healthy.

I’m familiar with some of these realities, because I’m neck deep in them myself. I believe we need to do better. I’m no expert in how to do this, but I’m thinking through a few ways that we may be able to take a more effective approach.

1. Prioritize areas of greatest need.

We need to reach people everywhere, but we should prioritize places with the greatest need. This means a continued emphasis on church planting overseas, as well as in the most unreached areas in North America. For instance, J.D. Payne has listed the most unreached counties and metro areas in the United States. In Canada, I’m pretty sure you can add downtown Toronto, Québec, Newfoundland, and many other communities to the list. We should pay careful attention to the areas of greatest need and plant churches there if we are to follow Paul’s example (Romans 15:20).

2. Develop lean models of church planting.

Ed Stetzer talks about opening more lanes in church planting:

We've adopted a mentality of "clergification," believing that the only people who can plant churches are full-time, paid pastors. As a result, we have a long line of prospective planters (because church planting is definitely the hot thing right now) all waiting for someone to say, “You're clergy. You're full-time. Here's your money.” And there's not enough money for all of them. We've bought all the church planting that we can buy, and that's not enough to start a church multiplication movement. So there they are . . . thousands of planters, stuck in line waiting for their turn and their funding. Unfortunately, many times, we let one's funding determine one's calling.

The solution is the same as Wal-Mart's. We need to open more lanes. I'm not saying to get rid of the fully-funded lane. We need to keep that lane open while we redirect some other people towards other lanes. For example, we need to create a strategy that helps some pastors become bi-vocational. We need to help them find other jobs and teach them how to lead a church while doing it. Another lane would provide permission to ethnic leaders to go ahead and plant churches rather than having to walk through several layers of Anglo hierarchy to do so.

As Payne says, "Jesus said to go and make disciples, not wait for pastors to plant churches."

There’s going to be a continued role for full time vocational church planters, but this alone won’t get the job done. We need cheaper, more reproducible models too.

3. Reduce the risk.

Church planting will always be risky, but there are ways to reduce the risk. We can lower the dollar threshold needed to plant a church, making it less likely that the new church will go broke. We can incubate church planters within existing churches, growing their leadership until they are ready to plant. As we enlarge the church planting table, we can also open more models that have a lower failure rate. We can prioritize coaching for church planters. We also need to actively learn from other planters and organizations on how they mitigate the risk. This is especially important if we are going to focus on the most unreached areas. The risk is already high; we need to do everything we can to reduce it.

4. Focus on the harvest.

J.D. Payne’s definition of church planting is right: it is evangelism that results in new churches. What if church planting focused only on reaching the unreached in a people group or a community? This would take longer, but it would truly be closer to the biblical pattern of church planting. It would be less about branding and worship services, and more about evangelism leading to the birth of a new church community.

We talk about multiplication, but our current approaches to church planting in North America make it hard for this to happen. I long to see church planting that prioritizes the areas of greatest need, uses lean models, mitigates the risk, and focuses on the harvest rather than the already-reached