Gentle outreach, deep questions

Dantzer says UVic’s pet cafe is a way to make contact with students without making them feel they’re being sold something. photo: University of Victoria Multifaith Centre
Published December 1, 2023

Church leaders reflect on what it takes to rebuild public trust

SPLINTERED TRUST: Rebuilding the church’s public image

Second of a two-part series

About 150 students come to the multifaith centre on University of Victoria Campus Wednesday afternoons—but not for a religious service, says the Rev. Ruth Dantzer, the school’s Anglican spiritual care provider.

Instead, they’re coming for a pet café, which invites students to de-stress with therapy animals. In a climate where many students have no familiarity with or are actively suspicious of religious institutions, Dantzer says she felt it was important to simply provide a source of support for stressed and homesick students.

And as a result, “what happened was all these students who would never normally set foot in a building called the ‘Multi-Faith Centre’ come for the pet café,” she says. Having made the crucial first steps past the threshold, they can see posters for the other services and ministries the centre offers, which they might not otherwise have heard of. “Programs are more well attended because of exposure from this one that has seemingly nothing to do with religion or spirituality,” Dantzer says.

The pet café is one example of how Anglican leaders are trying to build public trust in the church at a time when evangelism is often perceived as predatory. According to some, that trust may take a long time and a gentle approach to rebuild—and it won’t succeed without deep reflection on the life-and-death questions that make the gospels worth sharing to begin with.

Before Anglicans can even begin to think about getting people interested in coming into church on Sunday, they need to think about building trust and relationship with people in their communities, says Canon Judy Paulsen, a professor of evangelism at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College.

“These people aren’t waking up on Sunday thinking about where they can get a good sermon—they’re more likely to think about where they can get a good brunch,” she says, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have spiritual needs, struggles and questions that the church can address. And before those can be addressed, she says, the church has to first find out who their neighbours are and what questions and needs they have. And the neighbours have to meet someone from the church in an environment they’re comfortable with.

“Do we love the world that God loves? Do we love these people [who we] usually don’t even know yet? If we haven’t asked their opinion, we don’t know what troubles them.”

That’s exactly where events like UVic’s pet café come in, Paulsen says. Putting on a pet café or a block party, even taking out a booth at the local fair with a dunk tank are all ways the church can connect with people without making them feel like they’re being sold something. In addition to making low-pressure connections with the community, they offer a chance for clergy and other Christians at these events to show they don’t match some of the worst stereotypes in the public consciousness—ideas they’ve formed from news stories about sexual abuse in the church or footage of extremists calling themselves Christians while waving “You’re going to hell” signs.

“Show them a public face of the church that is outside the walls of the building and show them that we’re also people who love our kids and love to have fun,” she says. “With this first threshold … we’re just hoping they get to the place where they say Christians are okay.”

Another area of success at UVic, Dantzer says, has been outreach to the students through social justice issues. By showing up as a spiritual care provider wearing a priest’s collar at a climate march or a truth and reconciliation event, she says, the reaction she most often gets is surprise.

This is often followed by curiosity: “‘Well, hey, wait a minute. I have this judgement, this generalization or stereotype, about Christians or Christian leaders. And you’re not meeting that right now by speaking up in that way … So what is it you believe?’” is a common reaction.

The other vital part of her campus ministry is outreach to the school’s LGBTQ students, says Dantzer, through the creation of its Inclusive Christian Club. By making an intentional effort to reach out and welcome this group, who have so often felt unwelcome, marginalized or rejected by Christian leadership in the past, she says, she and the other spiritual care providers involved have regained some lost trust.

“It’s word of mouth from folks in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community like, ‘These people are legit. They mean what they say and they’re doing the real work of inclusion,’” she says.

Thanks in part to its outreach efforts, Dantzer says, the core ministries of Christian spiritual care at UVic such as the campus communion service have seen a modest but significant increase in attendance over the past seven years. The emphasis on meeting people where they are and letting them bring their own questions to the table has been a success with students who are used to seeing church authority as strictly hierarchical, she says. But she stresses that for her, it’s the process of transforming the shape of outreach, not the results, that constitutes real success.

Not all community outreach needs to be based on social justice issues, of course. Dantzer notes that her strategies are specifically tailored to the concerns and priorities of the students she serves. Paulsen recommends parishes look around at their communities, find out what people are looking for and use that as a point of connection to fill a need. She gives examples of churches using their space as a study hall for students after school, running parenting programs or offering marriage preparation courses for young couples.

Still, some church experts caution that placing too many hopes on outreach to reverse the trend of shrinkage mainline denominations have been facing may be a set-up for disappointment.

The Rev. Ephraim Radner, a recently-retired professor of theology at Wycliffe, believes there is no magic recipe for successful outreach unless the church addresses the more fundamental source of broken trust. He echoes Dantzer’s observation that hierarchical institutions in general are the subjects of deep distrust in current culture. In that context he says, there’s a limit to what efforts to clean up the church’s image can do to make it more attractive than any other institution with a social justice platform and a promise to do better. In fact, he says, in the church’s case, its broken promises come in the context of a claim to represent the love and authority of God.

So when people who feel alienated from the church consider their hurt, he says, it’s not just anger they feel. “It’s disappointment. It’s the kind of broken trust that goes into the deepest relationships that are fractured: your friend who has betrayed you, your parent who has harmed you.”

As such, he says, the great challenge for the church is to become a people of integrity that does what it says and faithfully represents God’s message and goodness. While humility and gentle outreach may be helpful parts of the equation, he says, there is also a risk of focusing on them and on matching popular social justice issues to the exclusion of what makes the church uniquely valuable to its parishioners. Otherwise, he says, the effort to clean up the church’s image “isn’t going to make the church any more attractive than a well-functioning government office or school board or a corporate enterprise or sports team or wherever all the things are that people are going to do.”

Radner describes himself as less optimistic that a change in the approach to evangelism is going to improve Sunday attendance. Instead, he says, it’s vital that the church focus on the things it does provide: what it has to say about life, death and the experience of being human.

Radner worries those vital aspects of religion lose their centrality when people aim at being palatable first.

“I’ve taught in the seminaries, I’ve [worked on] forming, if you will, leaders of the church for some years. And I remain puzzled that this notion that the church has a message that goes to the heart of everybody’s existence—not just a given social problem, but the heart of everybody’s existence from birth to death and beyond—that this notion actually is not well ordered in the minds of our young clergy, let alone older clergy.”

What they can’t afford to do is simply fall back on tropes and platitudes, whether those are the evangelical standbys like “accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour” or the more recent invitations to do justice. These are easy to articulate, but ultimately impersonal, he says. Similarly, Paulsen argues that even meaningful community outreach like Christmas dinners for people without a family to spend it with aren’t much good unless parishioners, clergy and everyone involved in any form of outreach keeps a clear view of why the work matters from a Christian perspective.

“We need to be putting some of what we’re saying in such a way that there is greater clarity about what is at our core, because let’s face it: If we want an inspiring talk about a worthwhile project, we can definitely get that at the Rotary Club. And they probably do a better lunch.”

For her part, Dantzer says she delves more deeply into the big issues Christianity deals with with students who sign up for one-on-one spiritual companionship sessions, having decided they were interested based on their initial encounters. And for some churches, Paulsen says, following Dantzer’s example on showing up to support social justice causes works well as a way to draw in interest to those deeper questions. The church certainly has much to say on climate change, based on its beliefs about the Fall and its effects on humanity’s alienation from the created world. Many people might not even have been aware there were affirming congregations they could join, she says.

But whatever methods of outreach they use, churches must choose them through a process of deep prayer, meditation and listening not just to what their communities need from them but what God is asking of them.

“Those things will help us attend to what it is that God has for us to do in that particular place,” she says. “We need to be asking ourselves, are we building relationship out of our love for God and our love for the people around us? If we are, then I actually think evangelism is something that is more or less going to happen much more naturally than it has in the past.”


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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