Growing up and growing older biologically is something that we all experience as human creatures. But growing deeper in our discipleship to the risen Lord Jesus has a particular emphasis in the Christian life, whether we call it Christian maturity or sanctification or growth in holiness. In this edition of Christian Courier the theme is “Better with Age,” and as a missiologist studying the changing nature of the church in Canada, I have often wondered whether the Church is indeed “getting better with age”?
Over the last five years I have been engaged in an explanatory sequential mixed-methods research study of Christianity in Vancouver, the city I call home. I engaged 83 Christian leaders through a survey exploring their Christian community’s impact on the city through mission, theology and organizational culture. That helped produce data that shaped the more intensive study of 14 Christian communities in fieldwork. This engagement included a walking interview with the pastor in the neighbourhood, a review of the congregation’s online presence, a participant observation exercise in worship and a focus group interview with five laypeople in each site. The fieldwork included church plants, mainline congregations, multi-site evangelical congregations, ethnic specific congregations, neighbourhood focused churches and Catholic/Orthodox parishes, as well as Christian para-church agencies.
Faces & spaces
The research produced some fascinating data on how Christian communities in Vancouver, now a “minority” expression of the overall secular urban landscape, were engaging the broader community for mission. For example, clusters emerged in the fieldwork that revealed that many Christian communities were wrestling with how best to engage what I called their “affable agnostic neighbour” who identified as “spiritual but not religious.” The research also named affordable housing as a missional opportunity in the city, as well as identifying the significant change in the “face of Christianity,” moving from a European heritage expression of the faith to a predominately Asian one. Issues around what I called “scarce sacred space” emerged from the data, with formerly mainline denominations selling old churches to developers for condominium towers, while new immigrant expressions of Christianity struggled to find a suitable place to gather for worship and service.
For the sake of the question before us, however, regarding how the Church might be getting “better with age,” two particular findings from the research spark interest. First, what I identified as “Good news in light of troubling colonial history.” While Christians seek to share the gospel with their neighbours in Vancouver, the research identified the difficulty of communicating the “good news” of Christianity in light of the “bad news” of colonial mission history, increasingly profiled in the Canadian media. Pastors and lay people interviewed in the project consistently named the troubled history of Canadian churches and Indigenous peoples as a stumbling block for sharing the gospel with Vancouverites. As one focus group participant stated, “When I try to share my faith, I usually start off with something light like ‘oh this weekend I’m going to church; do you go to church?’ and people respond, ‘No, I hate church.’ How do you respond to that?” This person then went on to name the negative depiction of Christianity in the media, especially regarding residential schools and treatment of Indigenous peoples and how that hinders Christian witness.
Addressing past wrongs
Even during the research project, which started in 2018, new discoveries were made regarding the church’s role in residential schools with multiple unmarked gravesites of children being discovered across Canada, beginning in Kamloops, B.C. in 2020. The research offered evidence across a wide denominational and theological spectrum of the work of reconciliation between Christian initiatives and those harmed by the church’s mission past. Many of the churches studied included an Indigenous land acknowledgement in their time of worship and wove themes of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in their preaching and print materials.
Many focus group participants articulated the desire to build closer relationships with Indigenous peoples but also lacked a corresponding understanding how to take those steps forward. This respect for Indigenous peoples, and the desire for Christians to address past colonial wrongs while building positive relationships moving forward, was present in all the initiatives studied in the fieldwork. Indigenous missiologist Randy Woodley notes the theological importance of non-Indigenous Christians’ embrace of First Nations’ spirituality for the sake of decolonized church. “Characteristics of Indigenous theology and practice have a creation-based theological foundation,” Woodley writes, “that emphasizes harmony and balance, being centred and seeking cooperation” with a worldview that is “physically and morally holistic, egalitarian, peace seeking, cooperative, purposeful [and has a sense of] connectedness to all creation.”
B.C.’s civic religion
Woodley notes a connection to a second area of the study that fits with our “Better with Age” theme – mission through creation care. Vancouverites place a high social value on both the care for the physical environment as well as enjoyment of it. Some commentators on religion in the city, such as Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist Douglas Todd, have even gone as far as to call environmentalism Vancouver’s commonly held “civic religion.” From Vancouver as the birthplace of Greenpeace to the stunning beauty of oceans and mountains to the limitless outdoor recreation opportunities, the research demonstrated that Vancouver’s engagement with the outdoors is something that Christians must take seriously when considering mission in the city.
This reverence for the environment presents both challenge and opportunity for Christians in sharing a soteriological message based on Jesus. One focus group participant observed, “Our way forward is to have a missional theology embraced by all the churches in Vancouver that is incarnational and holistic in its understanding of the gospel. If that could seep into the church across Vancouver, then we would see creation care and Indigenous culture more naturally addressed and embraced.” In following up on this understanding of “incarnational and holistic” the participant noted that too often Christianity is seen as something that takes place within a building, rather than connecting with God and others in the beauty of creation.
Creation care was also highlighted by focus group participants, with one group enthusiastically stating, “The environment is easy to connect with here in Vancouver – creation care is so important to believers and non-believers. We’re stewards of God’s creation, and we’ve been entrusted to care for it.” Reflecting on what that means for connecting missionally with others, someone said, “So, our goal is the same with non-Christians and here is where our commonality comes from, the opportunity to both share the gospel and ask where does your hope for this world come from? They may or may not have an origin story of why they care about the environment, but it is a shared value and an opportunity to share faith.”
B.C. theologian Jonathan Wilson describes the context in this way: “people are most often ‘practical naturalists,’ confessing belief in God and creation and afterlife while living as if this world were all there ever has been and ever will be.” While people may not feel a bond to each other as closely here in Vancouver as they might to neighbours “back east” in the rest of Canada, there is a close bond with nature and human beings’ responsible care for it. University of Victoria scholar Paul Bramadat suggests calling the deeply held value of the environment in the region “reverential naturalism” and describes it as the metanarrative of the Pacific Northwest. Bramadat defines reverential naturalism as “a broad and naturalized schema that helps to explain the ways Cascadians [the term used to describe those living in Oregon, Washginton State and British Columbia] think and talk about religion, spirituality and nature” that “favours an orientation that is both accepting of scientific approaches to nature and inclined to perceive and imagine the natural world in ways that are redolent of mysticism, panentheism, animism, pantheism and inclusive forms of theism.”
Therefore, what is clear from the research is that Vancouver Christians are both aware of the high value that their non-Christian (and likely secular) neighbours place on the environment, as well as mindful of how a Christian theology of creation can help shape a response to the crisis of climate change. This, alongside a deep and growing attentiveness to Indigenous peoples and their culture, offers encouraging signs that the church, while changing in Vancouver, is also perhaps becoming “better with age.”