For the past ten months I have been working as a transition pastor in Innisfail, Alberta. My routine has been to travel to the area by plane for pastoral ministry over a couple of Sundays each month, and the week between, in order to lead in the Sunday services and to work with the Elders Board on transition. In between those visits I would work digitally from home in Prince George, BC.
But with the successful search and appointment of a new resident pastor my work there has come to an end and I am able to move on. The departure has been a mix of emotions since, on one hand, I have become somewhat attached to the congregation, while on the other hand, I feel happy that the work has come to a satisfactory conclusion. It’s also good to be able to have some reprieve at home for awhile from the intensity of the role.
This picture was taken on the eve of our departure and represents an imaginative description of my time in Innisfail and at the church there. I’ve noticed that the summer clouds of Alberta are remarkably bold and well-defined compared to those in my part of the world. Perhaps it’s also because they seem to stand out more against the prairie landscape. Looking east in the late evening sky, this one seemed a kilometer deep and several kilometers wide. Its size and brilliance in the setting sun spoke powerfully to me of God’s greatness in His creation. It also speaks of a constantly changing atmosphere.
Since coming home, for more than one reason (i.e. another birthday), I’ve had occasion to reflect a bit on my spiritual journey and pastoral experience in Alberta — as well as in both residential and transitional pastoral work for the last 48 years. So much has changed since I began (while still in Seminary) in 1971, as a part-time youth pastor at the Hillsdale Alliance Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Those were the days when everyone dressed in formal attire to go to church — the men in suits and ties and the women in dresses (and often also in hats). The Worship Service, which always began with the singing of the Doxology, also featured the rendition of a special hymn by a gown-dressed choir. The congregation sang from hymnbooks that included staff lines and musical notes. The sermon was central to the Worship Service, it being delivered with a strong sense of biblical authority from a large wooden pulpit prominently located in the center of the platform. The pastor and those leading the Service sat on comfortable chairs in front of the choir facing the congregation whose members were sitting in wooden pews. Of course, there were many other features of the pastoral/church experience of those days that are vastly different from today’s average pastoral/church ministry.
For someone in my place in life, it’s obvious that something has changed when it comes to the experience of church worship. I think that change is best understood in terms of the larger cultural shift that has taken place in my life time — which has also radically affected church life and ministry (not to mention common perceptions of the nature of the Christian faith). The change I speak of should not be regarded as being entirely negative. Some of today’s change is a reaction to a more formal, structured and academic kind of faith experience. Today’s Christ-follower is decidedly often more focused on the actual experience of faith — a more emotional one. For that reason, today’s millennials tend to be critical, perhaps rightly so, of former expressions of faith being too cognitive, too structured.
As the larger culture has moved away from purely academic explanations of the real world, so has the church. Systematic theology, for example, has given way to biblical theology (seeing theological development through the narrative of Scripture). In fact, it’s evident that seminaries themselves are moving away from theological/pastoral training toward more pragmatic courses of study regarding leadership and marketplace ministry. In the local church, evangelism has given way to discipleship — a shift from a more confrontational style about the theology of the atonement to encouragement in the practice of submission to Jesus’ Lordship and what it means to follow him.
And when it comes to church worship the formality of a former time has yielded to a focus on giving parishioners a more existential (immediate) emotional experience of the reality and presence of Jesus through the ministry of the Spirit. In this context, theology is less precise because the use of words has also become so in the general culture. Doctrinal and theological definition are seen as less important than a person’s experience. Worship songs, one finds, are more about a warm response to God than about objective considerations concerning His divine attributes. It is the main reason an older generation of Christians wants to sing what they often regard as “the great hymns of the church.”
In my book, Thoughtful Adaptations to Change: Authentic Christian Faith in Postmodern Times, I try to present the case for how the larger culture has shifted due to the evolution of philosophical thinking over the last 500 years — especially the last fifty. I try to show through statistics and examples that this shift is very real and has radically affected Christian faith and practice especially among evangelicals. The more I interact with both seniors and younger people, in my pastoral work and otherwise, the more I am convinced about the relevance of this material. I think it can be profoundly helpful for today’s Christians, whatever their place in life, to better understand their faith and how to talk about it more convincingly in these times.
It is for that reason that I would welcome the opportunity to teach a short course on the book and this subject in churches, church communities, Bible Colleges, or church ministry seminars. Please feel free to contact me through the web-site or directly at 250-565-7746 to inquire about this possibility.
In the above article Ed, you say “evangelism has given way to discipleship”. Today I hear more about spiritual formation (discipleship?) than I do about missions (evangelism). At CBC, I heard rumblings from students back in the 60s-70s about the perceived over emphasis on foreign missions—we didn’t all want to or didn’t all feel called to foreign missions. So we wanted a balanced approach where all of life was a call of God, all of life was to worship and honour God. But have we not lost something, have we not turned inward to focus on ourselves? Jesus said, Lose your life for my sake and you will find it.
I think I agree, Ben. I think we’ve moved to doing discipleship and spiritual formation without understanding the significance of the atonement. We’ve forgotten that we are sinners condemned to hell in need of a Saviour who died for us that we might live. It’s true this concept formerly drove our sense of mission both locally and abroad. But in the last 30-40 years theological definitions have been blurred by postmodern ideas. It’s biblically true that all of life is under the domain of Christ and we should live our lives with that conviction. However, I fear we’ve lost sight of a sharp division between good and evil, moral purity and sin, righteousness and wickedness — prominent themes in the Bible. I sense we don’t like those divisions.