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Post-Christendom Canada

A de-centred church, a new humility.

Note: This is a response to the article in this issue by Ken Benjamins titled “How Do We Reform the Church?

Pastor Benjamins sounds a prophetic call: a lament, a warning, a cry for renewal in our homes and congregations. Much of what he recommends is indisputably vital to human flourishing, and I’d like to make two comments on his assessment.

First is a recognition of his deep sense of loss. Pastor Benjamins gives no statistics, but I was just told we have 25 percent fewer students in our Canadian seminaries than 10 years ago. That statistic needs interpretation, but it’s a sign that young adults are not seeing a future with church. 

This is to a large degree the fall of Christendom in Canada: most public institutional supports for the Christian tradition have eroded, and the faith has fallen into disrepute. We are no longer the centre. A certain old privilege has ended.

The wearing out of the church social fabric is also about the culture of distraction we have created through electronic media and consumerism. We think we are connected by our dazzling devices and given social standing with our new products and vacations, when in fact they often disconnect us and fragment our relationships, leaving us lonely, frantic and plagued by status anxiety. This worries me.

Looking Back or Forward
I would seek further conversation with Pastor Benjamins in this: while he talks of “looking forward” in one place, he also uses the language of “like we used to” and “putting the church back.” While repentance is a turning around action, I’m cautious about romanticising the past.

For one thing, some things have changed for the better: more openness to ethnic diversity in church, more sensitivity to sexual minorities, a wider scope for young people’s and women’s participation, and less tobacco smoke in the consistory room. Theologically, I sense there is less triumphalism, legalism, anger and judgmentalism. This suggests the de-centring of (white) men and clergy, which includes people like Pastor Benjamins and myself.

Additionally, while the Bible calls us to a deep memory for what God has done in the past, it also calls us to an eschatological imagination – a posture that leans into an already-but-not-yet kingdom. Seeking first the kingdom of God may mean altering what church has been for a few hundred years. A new Reformation, shaped by a fresh imagination, risk-taking, and maybe not a little death. We can do this because we are people of hope, people of the resurrection.

There is a new generation of people, some young and some older, who can envision ways of fellowship, worship, and mission that look quite different from the church-at-the-centre-of-the-village paradigm. Maybe church will be more like catacombs under the city. Or like a megachurch – whose core constituency do put their church at the centre; although, in many cases, this creates a new ecclesiastical feudalism that inadvertently shuts out the world beyond.

In our post-Christendom Canada, we need to imagine a new way of being – for the church, for migrants, for Muslims and for the planet – thinking in terms of neighbourhoods or networks rather than just centralized church buildings. This is more than “thinking Christianly”; it’s a new attitude, a different lifestyle, and more flexible structures for a flourishing church and planet. 

Author

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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