The speakers who kicked off the 2015 Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto, which ran from Jan. 29 to 31, reminded those attending that for new ministries or fresh expressions of church to thrive, they have to grow naturally out of the existing community and they must be tended with honesty and authenticity. What emerges may surprise even those who did the planting, they added.
National Anglican Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald offered the example of the Navajo nation, which, he said, in the 1970s was considered among the least responsive to missionary efforts in the world. “After hundreds of years of attempts at mission, only two per cent had converted,” he said. Now, however, about 70 per cent of the population of 300,000 have converted to Christianity. But, he said, this remarkable change “has not registered on any church’s radar screen,” because the conversions happened in a way that was so “non-Western that no church has noticed that they happened.”
In the Canadian context, MacDonald described the current popularity of gospel jamboree hymn-singing events that take place every weekend in most indigenous communities in northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The events often stretch through the evening until 1 or 2 a.m. and are broadcast to other communities as well. “This is pattern of worship you can find well-documented in the early 1800s-it was very popular, it spread across the land,” MacDonald said, “but the missionaries didn’t like it because it seemed to compete with Sunday morning worship.”
Today, in many pockets across the land, indigenous people are the most Christianized population in Canada, MacDonald said. “Praise God for this, but also remember that, as it happens, it looks very different than the Western church does, and very different than you might expect.” He described some of the ways the new indigenous diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada-the Spiritual Indigenous Ministry of Mishamikoweesh-is different from traditional dioceses, in ways such as its leadership development, decision-making processes and the place of elders working as part of non-stipendiary ministry teams.
Nicolas Morin, an evangelical minister, started a church for skateboarders, Shred la Messe (which he translated as “Ride to the Mass”) in Montreal. Skateboarders are invited to skate free on Monday evenings from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., with a break in the middle of the evening for donuts or pizza and a time to talk about God, life and spirituality. What began with 18 people, including the organizers, in October has now grown to about 90 people attending, he said. The success attracted people from outside the skateboarding community who wanted to volunteer, but he said he explained that he and the people who have created the church have reached skateboarders because they were already part of the community. People coming from outside that world would not seem authentic. “In whatever we do in the church, in mission, in the way we express what it means to be a Christian, what life was intended to be, we have to be natural,” said Morin. “It has to be who we are as human beings but also as followers of Christ.”
The Revs. Jasmine and Terence Chandra, a married couple who have started an “incarnational” ministry, living among the marginalized in subsidized housing in the inner city of Saint John, N.B., drew a very similar message from their experience.
“Incarnational ministry, yes, does mean living with the people you are serving. It doesn’t mean trying to fit in,” said Terence. He and his wife are “incurably middle class,” he quipped. “If we were to go into our community and try to hide this aspect of ourselves and try to blend in, so to speak, it would be really inauthentic and it would defeat the purpose of trying to build trust with our neighbours,” he said. That requires being humble and admitting that they are ignorant of many things. “So, no, I have no idea what it is like to support my family on a welfare cheque. Tell me what it is like.”
As they began their ministry, which is supported by the Stone Church in Saint John, Jasmine said they were advised to “just hang out with people on their own turf.” Unlike many of their neighbours, they have a car, so they have gotten to know people while driving them to appointments and the hospital. They’ve met inmates at a half-way house, invited new immigrants to their home for dinner and been invited for dinner by people who rely on the food bank. “Every day we ask God to give us eyes to see, to give us ears to hear and to give us the words to say,” she said. “And what we’ve found is that God has led us to people in ways that can only be directed by the Holy Spirit.”
Jasmine added that she thinks Christians are unnecessarily burdening themselves by looking for measurable success. “What if having a successful ministry…was not a matter of what programs we’re running or how many people are coming out to our events, but what if success meant how we are connecting with the poor in our midst?”