Brian Egert, PAOC’s Mission Canada director, sat down with Jeff Christopherson, the executive director of Church Planting Canada, to talk about the cultural headwinds affecting Canadian evangelicals.
Brian Egert (BE): Jeff, thanks for connecting with us. We have enjoyed working collaboratively on the board of Church Planting Canada for several years. Let’s talk about your vantage point as we engage in the mission together.
Jeff Christopherson (JC): Appreciate your leadership as the chair, Brian, and the PAOC’s leadership in our nation. We labour together; we are a team. I am seeing three tilts of change in ministry in Canada over the years. When culture was tilted toward the church, we were ready. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.”
When culture levelled, became neutral—circa 1990—we simply had to adjust and tweak. We were able to tease out the religious memory that still existed in our communities and entice “seekers” to join us.
But what happens when culture tilts away from the church? What happens when there is no positive religious memory? And no social advantages to evangelical attachments? And what do we do when our emotionally healthy, socially stable, ethically responsible neighbours see our churches as dark institutions of religious self-centredness?
BE: The headwinds in our culture are blowing from all directions against the church and its message, seemingly more so during a global pandemic. We need to set our sails differently to adapt and steer the vessel in the way it should go. At our recent Church Planting Canada retreat, you identified six cultural headwinds you are seeing that are affecting Canadian evangelicals and the church these days. Could you touch on each one for us?
JC: First, there is a disaffection over a political Christianity. The majority of Canadian evangelical churches fastidiously avoided public political attachments. But “evangelical” as a moniker is unfortunately tied to our southern neighbours where political connections have been more overt. As a historical baseline, since the Second World War, 12 to 14 per cent of Canadians have self-identified as “evangelicals.” But in research sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada prior to the pandemic, this percentage had fallen to 6.4 per cent. Certainly, “evangelicalism,” as a political force, has become an anchor to the credibility of our participation in Jesus’ mission.
BE: The politicization of Christianity is not limited to the United States and is quickly becoming a disadvantage in some Canadian conversations.
JC: The second headwind is mostly self-inflicted. It is a disenchantment over a self-centred COVID-19 response. Most Canadian evangelical churches behaved sacrificially for the health and well-being of their fellow citizens. In fact, most churches have modelled “going the second mile” by self-sacrificing many “rights” to demonstrate love for their neighbour. Not always easy, but important. News stories focused on heroic health-care workers—exhausted, burned out, and distressed by the heavy health burdens they shouldered. Yet, unfortunately, those courageous stories were punctuated by reports of a handful of evangelical churches that considered their “right to gather” more sacred than another’s right to breathe. This, no doubt, has had a corrosive effect on some in the public square.
JC: The third wind is a displeasure over the “Christian” response to Truth and Reconciliation.
Again, this isn’t directly a Canadian evangelical issue, but in a culture with so little religious memory, most Canadians aren’t slicing subcategories so thinly. When hundreds, and then thousands, of our First Peoples’ children’s graves were discovered outside of “Christian” residential schools, it was a gut punch to almost every Canadian. Something that most of our Indigenous peoples had always known finally came to light. We have not yet measured the bleed-over effect from this mostly Roman Catholic scandal toward evangelicals. It will not be insignificant.
BE: The PAOC has been doing ongoing work since our formal reconciliation with our Indigenous Peoples in 2012, but we still have more to do to achieve true reconciliation in Canada. I believe that prayer and our response to our Indigenous Peoples are directly linked to God sovereignly moving in our nation.
JC: I also see a departure of evangelicals from biblical orthodoxy. Historian David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” 1 describes the four things we actually believe:
- Biblicism—devotion to the Bible as God’s Word;
- Crucicentrism—the centrality of the cross of Christ;
- Activism—co-operating in the mission of God through evangelism; and
- Conversionism—the conviction that each person must turn from their sin.
BE: This is a drift from our core doctrines, and we are seeing that it is not just a next-generation issue. “[W]hen the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b).
JC: We are seeing a public display of our fallen and corrupted leaders. Too many names. Too often. Non-believers point to Exhibit A and say, “You’re not better than us; in fact, you’re worse.” Nuff said!
BE: This does grieve the Lord, humbles us (Galatians 6:1-5), and impacts the reputation of the church. What about the last headwind?
JC: We are facing a delight over the cultural triumph of secularity. This final headwind may actually be good news for the mission of Christ. We are well accustomed to battling against “secularism,” which has been a thinly veiled effort to eradicate religious expression within Canada. Its efforts have gone far beyond its original intent of creating a religiously neutral society. But as philosopher Charles Taylor and others have noted, it has been a sociological experiment that has largely failed. It had not accounted for the tenacity of local belief and the effects of global immigration.
“Secularism” has been replaced in Canada with “secularity,” whereby every “ism,” including secularism, must sing for its supper to gain believers. Its apologetic is no longer “What is truth?” Instead, it is now a much more pragmatic “What will work?” Here is where Jesus’ people have home-field advantage. As in the days of Elijah calling down fire to demonstrate the superiority of his God, Canadians need to see “true fire” in evangelicals and observe first-hand what a disciple of Jesus with a kingdom-first priority looks like.
BE: What does this hour in history require?
JC: I think we need to sound a five-alarm fire! It is critical that we understand the gravity of the situation we are in as a nation so we can respond—and quickly!
Brian Egert is the Mission Canada director and assistant to the general superintendent for the PAOC. Jeff Christopherson is the executive director of Church Planting Canada; a co-founder and missiologist for Send Institute; a weekly columnist for Christianity Today’s “Missio Mondays”; and a co-vocational pastor at The Sanctuary in Oakville, Ont. Jeff is the author of several books, including the most recent, Venal Dogmata: A Parable of the Future Church.
This article appeared in the July/August/September 2022 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2022 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photo © istockphoto.com.
- Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, widely known as his “quadrilateral,” was first provided in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (published in 1989).
Also see “What is an Evangelical?” The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, https://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/About-us/About-Evangelicals.