I do not have accurate statistics at hand but I do have some evidence and a sense that the church in Canada is not making a lot of progress in terms of evangelism and discipleship at this time. Reginald Bibby, the sociologist professor of the University of Lethbridge, who tracks these things tells us that overall church attendance in Canada is down. I gather he would say it is due to the development of secularism, pluralism, and individualism that has come to characterize our age. Certainly there are many ways to describe the trend, but we all know the cultural slide away from church-committed Christianity is real. Phenomenally, at the same time, it appears that interest in spirituality is up! Go figure!
The challenge to Christians and the church in these times is how to gain back the edge that has been lost in order to be the salt and light that God has called us to be. It is evident that in the midst of the current decline, there still are churches that are growing — seeing an increase in attendance, conversions, baptisms, and commitment to discipleship in various forms. Some churches are tracking well even in these times.
Some say the reason younger people especially have left the church in recent years is because the church is seen as being judgmental, irrelevant, and unconcerned about larrger social issues like poverty and the environment. The same people would advise that for the church to be more effective in our time it needs to be more positive, needs to be more concerned about building relationships with people, and it needs to answer criticisms of irrelevance by becoming involved in social and environmental concerns. The argument is that we need to be less-focused on doctrine and theology and more focused on loving and caring about people in practical ways.
This is the reason we hear so much these days about the church being missional. Much has been written on this subject but essentially it refers to the church becoming more active in its community to address the very real problems that are there.
It is fair to say that recalibrating our understanding of missions to include practical ways to relate to our communities is a good thing. But I think we need to be careful about abandoning what I have always understood as the prime purpose of the church which is to “go and make disciples.” The church might make more traction in terms of real effectiveness and growth in these days if it regained the vision of Jesus which is to communicate God’s truth in word and deed. It is abundantly true that Christians need to build authentic relationships with their neighbours and become involved in their communities for their blessing in all kinds of practical ways. But it seems to me that caring about the real practical needs of people should never be at the expense of our primary responsibility to communicate the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). If we look carefully at St. Paul’s letters, we will see that this really was the essence of his work and whole reason for being. In Colossians 1:29 he wrote, We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end, I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
If we follow the New Testament guide as how the church can also be truly effective and attractive in this time we will see that a large part of it has to do with communicating an intelligible understanding of God’s truth as revealed in the Scriptures. It seems to me that people are looking for real answers to their philosophical questions about life as much as they are looking for genuineness in the love and care of Christians. That is why the intereset in spirituality is so high in our time. I can’t help but think the church would make better traction in fulfilling its purpose if it worked hard at communicating the relevance of the message while also teaching clearly how the Gospel can’t help but make a difference in the daily lives of those who believe it.
Whatever we do, let’s not just become another agency in the world that deals exclusively in social issues! We already have lots of churches that have gone in that direction at a high cost regarding the truth of God’s Word. We need to be concerned about every facet of the world and to get involved in all of it. But our first priority must always be to make a clear confession of God’s truth as made known to us in the Holy Scriptures and in the Bible. If we get our priorities right, I really think we’ll make the traction we’re looking for — even in these very slippery times.