My latest column at Christian Week:
When Dan MacDonald was a law student living in London, Ontario, he attended his first church. The church was traditional, both culturally and theologically. They taught the Bible, but the church had its own culture. MacDonald had to learn that culture before he could fit in.
MacDonald later moved to Brampton, Ontario, and joined a church that was shifting from a traditional model to a seeker one. This church remained conservative theologically but became more flexible in its methodology. It became less theological and more pragmatic. It was easy for those who were not used to church to fit in.
In hindsight, MacDonald is grateful for both models of church. The traditional model values and proclaims God’s Word, yet it also has its shortcomings. It doesn’t always help Christians contextualize and explain their faith, it doesn’t always answer the questions that the unchurched are asking, and it tends to create a tight subculture. Some traditional churches are like those missionary Lesslie Newbigin encountered when he returned England and realized that the culture had become post-Christian while the churches had stayed the same. Like missiologists, we need to learn how to take the gospel to a pagan culture.
MacDonald also sees strengths in seeker churches. They deal with three common complaints about church: that it’s boring, irrelevant, and judgmental. But MacDonald wonders if the seeker approach goes deep enough to address our post-Christian culture. Like the traditional model, the seeker model assumes a Judeo-Christian culture that no longer exists. The demon is in too deep. Marketing the gospel better isn’t going to solve the problems of our culture. Seeker churches may find it easier to draw people from traditional churches than to reach the surrounding culture.
MacDonald now pastors a church in downtown Toronto called Grace Toronto. The church recently asked community members to describe their objections against Christianity. They found that many didn’t have objections; they just find Christianity irrelevant. Going to church doesn’t even make the list of options for Sunday morning. The seeker approach assumes that people will attend church if its relevant. But many won’t go to church no matter what we do.
MacDonald describes one final model of church: the emerging church. Unlike traditional churches that are doctrinally and methodologically conservative; or seeker churches that are doctrinally conservative but methodologically flexible, emerging churches can be both doctrinally and methodologically flexible. While he appreciates some questions raised within the emerging church, MacDonald is not comfortable with the theological flexibility among some in the emerging movement.
If traditional, seeker, and emerging models aren’t the answer, what is? The answer goes deeper than a model.
We have to assume, MacDonald says, that our culture – including our church culture – knows almost nothing about the gospel. Unlike seeker models, we can’t assume that people want to come to church no matter how much we market, or how much we change our worship services.
Unlike traditional models, we must contextualize. We must learn how people around us think, reading the same books and discovering the cultural influences in their lives. We must also discover the alternate beliefs that rival Christianity, and learn how to winsomely deconstruct these defeater beliefs.
Those who follow Christ and those who don’t have a lot in common, MacDonald says. We are all tempted to make someone or something other than God supreme in our lives. We all need to learn how this leads to disappointment and enslavement, and then look to Christ for our ultimate identity and true freedom. The gospel is relevant to both the Christian and the person who knows nothing about Christianity.
Models have their strengths and weaknesses. Faithfulness in Canada today requires that we contextualize more than traditional churches do, but that we move beyond marketing and adapting our worship services as some in the seeker model have done.
Grace Toronto doesn’t really fit any model. In some ways, they’re traditional: they use liturgy and they’re theologically conservative. In some ways, they’re seeker: they’re outwardly focused and they contextualize. But their focus goes beyond a model. In a culture in which Christian faith is largely unknown and seen as irrelevant, their focus is learning how the gospel transforms not only us, but also our post-Christian culture.