I started pastoring in the early 1990s when church growth principles and the seeker-sensitive movement were big. A decade later, beginning soon after 2000, the emerging church seemed to take off. We're now beginning a new decade. What does the future hold for the Church in Canada?
According to John Neufeld, senior pastor of Willingdon Church in Burnaby, B.C., it won't be another fad. "People are hungry for a Christianity that is real, lasting, and historic," he says. Neufeld believes that many, especially younger people, have grown tired of a methodologically driven church-growth movement, and that the emerging church will not last because it doesn't offer people enough certainty. "It's the old mainline liberal movement with ripped jeans and guitars," he says. But he's noticing that younger people, as well as new immigrants to Canada, are hungry for a deep understanding of classic, orthodox Christianity. "My real hope is in the next generation," he says.
For decades, Neufeld seemed out of step with the times. A friend tells me that he first heard Neufeld preach as a guest in a seeker-sensitive church. The topic? Hell. Neufeld preached on topics that many seemed to ignore, and stressed expositional preaching when others were stressing preaching geared to seekers.
Now Neufeld finds himself popular. He teaches a theology class for people in their twenties, and so many are interested he can't fit them all. He notices them reading John Piper and Tim Keller, even centuries-old authors John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. He's never seen this before.
Neufeld is clear that seeker approaches are not completely dead. Some, especially baby boomers and some in the Bible belt, are still attracted to the movement. "The seeker movement played well with those who were bored with Christendom," he says. "But it has not made inroads into the secular mainstream." Secular communities like Burnaby are more interested in the hardcore message of Christianity rather than a watered-down version.
Neufeld finds this exciting. "We have a secular generation that is almost completely ignorant of the gospel. We live in a mission field. We can introduce them to Christ for the very first time. We're actually proclaiming something that people have never heard, and it's a message that's exciting, offensive, and world-changing."
Willingdon, the church Neufeld pastors, has started an organization called reFocus Canada, "dedicated to bringing biblical refocus to Canadian churches." It is "is a gathering of individuals and churches who agree to stand together on a common theological foundation, to strive together side by side in developing skills and tools that will extend the impact of the Gospel, and to suffer together with those engaged in a conflict that comes for the sake of Christ." Most members live in western Canada.
I asked Neufeld what advice he would offer to churches and pastors. Neufeld was clear that they should begin with committing to expositional preaching. "Learn how to exegete the text. Make it meaningful and relevant. Preach through books of the Bible. Reclaim the message that has been neglected. Lead people to the historic Christian faith rather than the latest fad."
He also believes that pastors need to focus on the biblical role of elders: to teach and disciple. "I'm not throwing rocks at methodology," he says. "We need to learn skills. But we haven't studied 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus enough. We need to return to the biblical model of leadership rather than the CEO model of business leadership."
Neufeld also believes that we need to focus on the large Canadian urban centers, which are predominantly secular. "Plant churches in them. Preach the Bible there."
He also believes that we need to recover a biblical emphasis that we've lost: suffering. "Anyone going into pastoral ministry must see suffering as part of the package. When they realize that suffering is part of ministry, they can cooperate with grace. Do not pray for suffering to be removed."
People are hungry for substantial ministry, and the church has an opportunity to return to its core. Neufeld finds this exciting, and he's glad to know that he's not alone.