My latest column at Christian Week:
People like me have been writing about the challenges facing the Church in Canada. The problem is that some churches obviously haven’t been reading my column, and they seem to be doing just fine.
We just got back from a weekend in Ottawa, where we visited a church we’d heard about. We arrived, and the church was packed even on a long weekend. The pastor was off sick, so a former intern spoke instead. He’s one of many former interns who have entered vocational ministry and are serving in cities all over the map.
He spoke with appreciation for how that church had built into his life at a critical time. Balloons decorated the stage, each representing a life that had been reached for Christ through the ministry of that church. The church is doing well, even on a long weekend, and even with the pastor off with a serious illness. Not only that, but it’s a pipeline for leaders who are serving in other ministries as well.
I know another church located in downtown Toronto, where churches aren’t supposed to grow. It’s part of a denomination that’s withering. And yet it’s flourishing, full of the people that are statistically hard to reach. They have recently launched a ministry to reach those who would never dream of coming to a traditional church. This is a church with all of the odds stacked against it, and yet it’s beating those odds.
Signs of life
Everywhere I look I see signs of life. I was in a meeting of pastors recently when I realized that four out of the five pastors serve in growing churches that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I keep meeting young people who are solidly committed to Christ and eager to pay the price of serving Him.
I don’t want to pretend that everything is rosy. I also see a lot of struggling churches too. I just took a call about a church near us that’s on the verge of closing its doors. The same day I received an e-mail from a friend who needs prayer for his languishing church. The challenges facing the Church are huge, and we can’t wish harsh realities away.
But here’s the thing: these harsh realities aren’t stopping God from working. The people I meet in these thriving churches are very aware of the challenges, but they seem to be more attuned to the possibilities than all the reasons that the Church can’t flourish. They’re keeping their heads down and doing the hard work of ministry, and it’s paying off, even though all the books and experts say it shouldn’t.
It’s time to stop reading the death notices for the Church in Canada. It’s most decidedly not dead yet. God is very much at work. I don’t know why this surprises me, because it lines up nicely with what I claim to believe about God. Maybe it’s my lack of faith. I constantly need to remind myself that God often shows up at the precise moment that He’s been written off.
We also need to be wise in how we invest our energies. I’ve noticed that the people I’ve met in flourishing churches are very intentional in what they’re doing. They’ve thought about the issues and decided where they’re going to focus. It’s not enough to just hang on; we need to take a look at what we’re doing and sometimes decide to move on. This isn’t easy, and it takes lots of prayer and discernment. But gritting our teeth and hoping for better isn’t enough. We also need to be wise.
But we also need to remember that it’s not extraordinary people and churches that God is using. Angelique Arnauld said, “Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” I usually bristle when I read inspirational quotes like this, but it’s true. God seems to be using pretty average people and churches in extraordinary ways because they’re covering the basics: preaching, praying, investing in relationships and serving. All this sowing seems to be followed by a good bit of reaping.
Ignore the naysayers. Times are tough, but God is at work. Churches are flourishing where experts say they can’t. God is good at beating the odds that we give Him.