My latest column at Christian Week:
Gary Nelson has a word for our new context: borderlands. Borderlands are the place where “Christian faith, other faiths and unfaith intersect.” According to Nelson, it’s where the Canadian church finds itself. It’s a “strange and safe place that promises nothing and delivers nothing.” It’s a “holy wild” where God is present.
Nelson is author of the book Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living
. Last July, he began a new job as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. I visited Nelson in his office and asked him about the challenges facing the Canadian church.
It’s clear that Nelson loves the challenges that we face. “This is a very comfortable time for me,” he says. He’s pastored and led a group of Baptist pastors, so he knows that not everyone is excited. People don’t like chaos. It’s clear, though, that most pastors and church leaders intuitively know that something is different. “There’s not much you can do with people who think it’s 1950.”
I’ve grown somewhat cynical of authors who write about church from a theoretician’s viewpoint. What I appreciate about Nelson is that he’s steeped in local church ministry. He’s a member of a small Baptist church not far from where I live, and he’s lived out what he’s talking about. It’s a church that doesn’t get a lot press, but I know from some of my friends in the community that it’s building strong connections there. I love it when he writes, “The greatest secret of the Christian faith is the community of the local church.”
Nelson says pastors and church leaders need to experience deep change. We have a tendency to look for “magic bullet” solutions. These inevitably fall short of the change that’s required. It will take more than a few cosmetic changes to appear “contemporary” or relevant. Rather, we need to be changed, beginning with ourselves. “Effective leaders wishing transformational change in their congregations must first be transformed,” he writes. It’s not about developing a new way of being church. It’s about “discovering the core essential quality of what it has always meant to be the church.”
We also need to learn patience. “We need to come with a long-term view. We will not change a place overnight,” he says. Learning to adapt to these times is going to be tough for some congregations, especially those who have been effective at a more attractional model of church.
We also need to learn to become comfortable in the borderlands. He uses the Hebrew word ‘abar (pronounced HABAR) to describe our context. It means “crossover.” Nelson believes we’re in a crossover time; we’re no longer inside Christendom, but we haven’t yet arrived on the other side. Because it’s a crossover time, we need humble sensitivity. We’re in discovery time; some of the things we thought were dying aren’t. We need to patiently resist cosmetic solutions and discern some of the deeper adjustments required as we discover, or rediscover, a God who is present and at work.
Pastoral ministry has been turned upside-down in this context. We’ve lost social significance, and face “ambiguity and cross-purposed assumptions.” Many pastors can articulate where they want to go, but are struggling to implement change. Nelson suggests we need each other more; that we can help each other by finding that we’re not alone. He suggests the answers aren’t found in conventions, conferences and books; we have many of the answers ourselves. “We’re in this together,” he says.
As Nelson talked, I found myself looking for the magic bullet solution he warned against. Nelson never gave me anything like a magic bullet – “three steps to missional transformation” or anything like that. What he gave me were some good questions, and optimism that God is at work in our context.
“People are asking questions,” he says. “When I talk in churches, I don’t get lots of resistance. We’re further on the journey than we realize. It’s a fun time to be the church.”
I left our meeting grateful for Nelson’s leadership at Tyndale, and encouraged about the challenges of ministry in the borderlands. It is indeed a fun and challenging time to be the church.