Last month we saw that weekly church attendance in Canada is up five points from 20 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2005. And we learned that 45per cent of Canada is praying regularly! We concluded that twenty-first century Canada is increasingly interested in spirituality and is beginning to come back to church: We saw further how the one nation of Canada is composed of distinct generations, ethnic groups, and religious affiliations—all of which feature both overlapping and differing values and customs. We reviewed Leonard Tilley’s 1866 hope that “the Dominion of Canada” would become a nation where Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, would be an empowering influence “from Sea to Sea” (Ps. 72:8) [Read Part 1].
This month we ask the question, “What approach, therefore, shall we take to reach Canada for Christ and his church today?"
irst, a note of optimism from the data: the most recent Project Canada survey (Bibby 2005) found that 62 per cent of Canadians who attend church less than once a month would be receptive to greater church involvement if they found it to be “worthwhile.” Even among the “nones,” persons who have no religious affiliation, 37 per cent declared themselves to be open to the idea! So, what would it take to convince these groups that increased church participation is “worthwhile?” They are looking for church ministries that will match their interests and meet their specific needs. They are looking for churches that help them to draw closer to God and that are contemporary, inclusive, relevant, and genuine. Seventh-day Adventists are challenged by the three angels’ message to meet these kinds of felt-needs: “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation [Canada], tribe [First Nations, generations like baby boomers and millennials, occupational groups, Muslims], language [French, English, Cree, Tamil], and people [nominal Christians, Blacks, Whites, Chinese, post-moderns]” (Rev 14:6).
Paul’s Missionary Manifesto
As we seek to reach Canadians and our expatriates with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we would do well to take as our inspiration the missionary manifesto of the apostle Paul. Everywhere he went, Paul kept his core philosophy of ministry in mind: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. . . . I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:19-23). In short, we must identify with the groups and individuals to whom we are called so that there will be no needless barriers (whether cultural or personal) that could prevent them from receiving Christ and joining His last-day church.
Keeping this mission manifesto in mind, let’s borrow four specific facets of our approach to Canada from a comment Ellen White made when she visited Italy in 1887: “When we came to Italy, it was with the desire that (1) we might learn something of the habits and customs of the people, (2) and the best means of reaching them, (3) but that we might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters, (4) and that we might also obtain a little much ‘needed rest’” (Historical Sketches of Foreign Missions, 236). And let’s superimpose upon that statement another of her well-known comments on how to reach people: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men [and women, boys and girls] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “‘Follow Me.’” (Ministry of Healing, 88-89)
“Learn Something of the Habits and Customs of the People”
One of the reasons Paul was chosen to lead the church’s first-century missionary advance was his knowledge of the habits and customs of the Jews (he was Jewish), the Greeks (he spoke and wrote fluent Greek), and the Romans (he was a Roman citizen). As we mingle with people, we do learn their unique habits and customs, but culture goes deeper than habits and customs; as we mingle, we also learn about their core values. For example, when reaching out to postmodern, secular people—whether Generation X (post-baby boomers) or Millennials— the quality of the relationship usually takes precedence over doctrinal content. If we recognize that value and are willing to meet them where they are, we will more likely be able to help them to see, in time, the connection between trusting relationships and doctrinal truth.
And yet, care must be taken not to stereotype people by assuming that every individual in a subculture automatically shares the same customs and values that we read about in the “manual”—if there were one. Our knowledge of the habits and customs of the people is background information that establishes a comfort zone as we reach out to them as individuals. We cannot overlook their unique individual traits in favour of the cultural norm any more than we can disregard the traits of their culture in favour of our own.
“Learn the Best Means of Reaching the People”
There is a connection between learning “something about the habits and customs of the people” and “learning the best means of reaching them.” Ellen White mentioned this point again in an 1887 letter to D. A. Robinson and Charles Boyd, American missionaries sent to help start Adventist work in South Africa. “The workers in this cause should not feel that the only way they can do is to go at the people pointedly, with all subjects of truth and doctrine as held by Seventh-day Adventists, for this would close their ears at the very onset. …You need not feel that all truth is to be spoken to unbelievers on any and every occasion. You should plan carefully what to say and what to leave unsaid. This is not practicing deception; it is working as Paul worked. . . . He varied his manner of labor, always shaping his message to the circumstances under which he was placed” (Testimonies to Southern Africa, 1977, p. 16, emphasis supplied).
Contextualization. Today we use the term contextualization to describe what Ellen White was talking about in that letter. It means, “shaping our message [and methods] to the circumstances under which we are placed” or context in which we work. We can reach the people by meeting them where they are, by beginning with practices and beliefs that we share. It means using familiar “Nova Scotia” stories in Nova Scotia and “Manitoba” metaphors in Manitoba to illustrate the message that we preach. In Canada, it means making a special effort to reach out to non-attending Adventist “affiliates” (people who identify themselves as Adventists even if they do not attend church regularly) because surveys have shown Canadians are less likely to switch denominational affiliation than are Americans, for example.
Contextualization is risky business because, if conceived outside the Holy Spirit’s guidance and without remembering Christ’s teachings, it can result in the watering down of Adventist doctrinal and lifestyle distinctives. In identifying with the people, we are not
called to partake of their sins. So truth in a few particular contexts can be known only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13). This guidance involves “teaching us all things” in our specific contexts while “reminding us of everything Jesus taught” (John 14:26).
So contextualization is only a tool. It is a tool that God wants us to have in our toolbox; but it is a tool that must be kept sharp by the Holy Spirit. And it is a tool that is necessary at every stage of soul-winning: personal contacts and home Bible studies, public meetings and decisions for baptism, and the way local congregations in specific contexts serve their communities, nurture their members, and worship God.
Love and Friendship. People—whether spouses, relatives, work associates, clients, long time chums, next-door neighbors, or townspeople encountered during a Sabbath afternoon survey—are, of course, best reached by love and friendship, by our mingling with them and desiring their good. To do this entails “showing our sympathy,” “ministering to their needs,” and “winning their confidence” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 89). To do these things, we need to respect their customs and values, but that is only one aspect. We also need to be convinced that Jesus loves us before we can reach out and share that love with others. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).
Making Disciples. Once we have gained the respect of the people by identifying with their customs, habits, and values; and once we have gained their trust through love and friendship, how do we “bid them to follow Jesus?” In the case of secular postmodern people and some non-attending affiliates, they may inquire about our own personal walk with God. They may be curious about what happened this morning during our devotional time. Even though we may have considered that a private matter, if we are committed to reaching them for Christ, we may be surprised at how the Holy Spirit can empower us to share. People who mistrust organized religion and the “sacred Scriptures” may be willing to hear about how their friends have been directly touched by God. Many wish they could believe, but need a little gentle encouragement. Postmodern people have been burned by religious promises not kept, but some still long for Spirit-based community.
When we are comfortable discussing spiritual matters, we may invite them to a neighborhood prayer group which eventually begins to study the Bible in a way that clearly shows the relationship between teachings and practical matters of daily living such as personal relationships, work problems, or family misfortune. When the time is right perhaps they’ll make a decision to be baptized and join the quest to prepare the world for the return of Christ. Obeying the gospel commission of Matthew 28:18-20 means making disciples and planting churches as we go.
“Strengthen and Encourage the Brethren and Sisters”
Thirdly, Ellen White wrote in 1887 that she and those travelling with her into Italy “might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters” who were already Adventist members. When people from out in the world come to church or come back to church after a long break, they look for an island of peace in a troubled world. They look for real community with an emphasis on the unity. Those of us who are old-timers may minister to them simply by not squabbling with each other! We can reach out by reaching in, by nurturing a church family that is characterized by a spirit of encouragement rather than fault-finding.
Just a few hours before Jesus went to the cross, He knelt in the garden and prayed for Himself, His disciples, and those who would believe in Him through his disciples’ message—namely, us! He saw the relationship between believer oneness (unity) and mission accomplishment. “I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
What is this glory that Jesus promises to give us? What is the glory that enables us to experience the “complete unity” that informs the world about Jesus? In John 12 Jesus predicted His death on the cross when He said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). The hymn writer also related Jesus’ glory to the cross: “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story—gathers round its head sublime” (John Bowring, 1825). So the glory that Jesus promises to give us is the privilege of taking up our cross and following him. When we die to self, we make unity with our fellow church members possible. When the world sees this unity, many [in Canada] will believe in Jesus (Jn 17:21). In fact, they will know the truth about Jesus (Jn 17:23).
“Obtain a Little Much-Needed Rest”
The last desire of Ellen White and her group of European travelers when they came to Italy was that they might “obtain a little much needed rest.” Of course she was thinking primarily of the need for physical rest, relaxation, and recreation in the Italian Alps. We too are reminded of the dangers of imitating the workaholic lifestyle of Ellen White’s husband, James.
But perhaps we may use this comment to remind ourselves of the need to rest in God, leaving the results with him as we partner with Him in His mission. If we have done our part in acquainting ourselves with the customs and values of the people, reaching out to them in love and friendship, and bidding them to follow Jesus—we may welcome the Holy Spirit to convict their hearts and urge them to be responsive to our efforts. “Unless I go away,” Jesus said, “The Counselor will not come to you but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7-8).
How shall we reach Canada for Christ and his church today? Perhaps we may take a clue for our sojourn in Canada from a comment Ellen White made as she and her travelling companions were about to enter Italy. “We came to Italy . . . with the desire that we might learn something of the habits and customs of the people, and the best means of reaching them, but that we might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters, and that we might also obtain a little much needed rest.”
Ellen White’s strategy for working in Italy is one that we would do well to adopt as we strive for the good of our country. Our goal for Canada is the same as that of Leonard Tilley of New Brunswick, one of the Fathers of Confederation: that Jesus Christ “shall have dominion also from sea to sea [from the Atlantic to the Arctic and from the Arctic to the Pacific], and from the river unto the ends of the earth [from the St. Lawrence to the northernmost islands of the world]” (Ps 72:8).
Doug Matacio is the chair of the Religious Studies department at Canadian University College, and especially enjoys teaching New Testament and Church History as part of his duties there.