We live on the frontier of the mission field – actually the far edge of it. Our family lives in the inner city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, among a large Indigenous population. In 2011 my wife and I and our three children prayerfully moved into North Central Regina, and we have been living here ever since, living our lives for Jesus among the people. In this article, I would like to share several aspects of planting a church in this context that invites us to reflect on both the challenges and opportunities before us, as Christians in a rapidly changing world.
Post-Christendom. Recently we were having a Bible study with some younger adolescents. A girl who is about 12 years old, and whom I thought had a church background, asked if it hurt when Jesus was crucified. Imagine what the statement that “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” would mean to her. Little to nothing, given her question! The statement not only assumes a theological understanding of sin but also historical knowledge of crucifixion as an extremely painful form of execution.
Post-Christendom can be described as the decline in the influence of Christian institutions in society – to the point where things such as the church and the Bible are neither central nor well-known. In Regina, there is a neighbourhood called Cathedral, which is named after the large churches (Roman Catholic and United Church of Canada) that are in the area, as well as several smaller ones. The Cathedral area is over 100 years old. But contrast that with two of the newest communities in Regina – Harbour Landing and Grasslands – developed in the 2010s. These neighbourhoods have no property set aside by the City of Regina for church buildings or cathedrals. A lot has changed in the last 100 years, and that includes the removal of the church as a tall, central figure in our communities, to disappearing off the map. So, what are the challenges and opportunities of the Christian mission on the margins?
The challenge on this front is clear. Biblical knowledge is little to none. Gone are the days when the youth went to Sunday school while their parents stayed home, as that was one to two generations ago. Gone also are a Christian moral framework and worldview. So our task is to help people learn the contents of the Bible, and especially the large story of God and his mission in this world. The opportunity here is equally exciting though. We help people learn to read the Bible in a new way by emphasizing the character of God, his mission to love and redeem the world, and the invitation to participate with him in this grand adventure. What a glorious calling! In this missional way of reading the Bible, we are carefully observing God as he worked in the past, and listening deeply for how he desires to work in our lives now, all in eager anticipation for what he will do in the future to complete the story!
Residential School Impact and (Post-)Colonialism. In Canada, Indigenous peoples were for several generations forced to attend Residential Schools, run by various Christian denominations on behalf of the federal government. Among these schools, they were taught the English language and Christian teachings, but many also experienced physical torture, emotional trauma, and sexual abuse. So as one Christian Reformed Church leader described it, “They were offered a cup of cold water in the name of Christ, and it turned out to be battery acid.” So it is understandable that they would give us a long, cold look whenever we offer them anything of a Christian nature today. In fact, after the discovery of unmarked graves at a number of Indian residential schools in 2021, several church buildings on and off reserves throughout the country were burnt to the ground. The backlash against Christendom was swift and strong. Today the hostility to Christianity is palpable in many Indigenous communities and I sympathize with much of that anger.
Indian Residential Schools were a tragic marriage of Christianity with colonialism – European countries bent on empire. Unfortunately, the children of this marriage were not Hope and Dignity, but Despair and Poverty. Today many indigenous peoples, and other Canadians, want nothing to do with the church. If that is what the church is like, who needs it?
So, what challenges and opportunities do this legacy of Christianity married to colonialism bring? The big challenge here is to carry out the gospel mission in a context where many people are jaded and hostile toward Christians. This was a serious concern I had about 12 years ago when I was considering God’s call on my life to plant a church in the inner city of Regina. Would Indigenous people have anything to do with us? Would they even consider the Christian message? Would they even contemplate a friendship with us? We took comfort from one Indigenous woman’s wisdom. She told us that while ethnicity is certainly a factor early on in a relationship, people sense whether you have genuine love in your heart or not and once they get to know you this is what carries the day. We have found that often to be true and so, while we will never be insiders to the culture, we have several relationships of mutual love and respect.
The opportunity that this presents is very significant. Serving as a missionary from a position of weakness is very different from a position of power. As my Christian Reformed friend said, he was highly esteemed in Africa decades ago, as a white male Christian missionary. Now in the inner city of Regina, it is the exact opposite. Each of these words carries, in many people’s minds, a corrupting and coercive sense of privilege and power – white, male, Christian, missionary. So how do we proceed? This challenge is also an opportunity because it forces us to be creative. It requires that we dig deeper into the Christian story and reconsider how we tell it. No longer can we just construct a church building and sit back and wait for people to flock to it. Serving as a missionary requires that we go to the people, that we incarnate the gospel through our lives and actions, that we embody the message of sacrificial love and service to the world in real and tangible ways. The old question is relevant here: If our church disappeared tomorrow, would the community notice? Would they miss us? Would there be a serious hole? Our response to this opportunity lies in humility, self-sacrifice, and genuine love.
Technology. While there are other things we have learned, I am choosing to focus on technology here because we work with a lot of youth. Let’s be honest. Technology has changed our lives, especially for young people. It has impacted how we shop (Amazon), relate (social media), bank, read (Kindle), access news (youth source their news from TikTok), listen to music (Youtube, Spotify), and go to school (Zoom). To lose one’s phone, or go somewhere with no internet access, is the kiss of death for many people.
This immersion in technology has created several challenges. Most importantly, the advent of the smartphone with a reversible camera has had a dramatic impact on the mental health of adolescents (and adults as well). This development, in combination with social media, has created a context where people are able to get instant feedback on their public portrayals of themselves. Never before was this possible So a girl may be disheartened because her selfie did not get as many likes as her friends or boys may compare who has the most followers. Photos and videos are heavily curated, and some parents even hire professional photographers for their teens so they can publish the best possible pictures of themselves online.
The problem here is that people are invited to form their identity based on their online activity. So they are elated when a photo is popular, and then depressed when a Tiktok they have created tanks. Their online activity becomes an extension of, and sometimes even the very heart of, who they are. In some cases people take on an alter ego, an alternate personality, assuming a different gender or ethnicity in an online game or social profile. The question becomes, what is their real identity? Who are they really? And what do they base their value on?
The opportunity in this is to help people form their identity in Christ. This is not a trite statement. In fact, the Bible holds up Jesus Christ as the ultimate reality. In a world of disparate versions of reality – virtual (VR), augmented (AR), and mixed (XR) – we as followers of Jesus are invited into the kingdom of God, where Jesus is the ultimate reality (UR)! This requires that we live into this reality deeply ourselves and that we teach it, model it, and advocate for it with all our hearts. It calls for us to embrace the teachings of Jesus as words of life, as words that have both a descriptive quality about this ultimate reality (the upside-down kingdom of God) and an imperatival call to adoration and obedience. To quote Simon Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
To sum matters up, church planting is an exciting adventure that is filled with many rewards and much adversity. The dynamic nature of Canadian culture, and its various subcultures, presents many challenges and opportunities for the Christian mission. With each challenge comes a requisite opportunity. As God’s people, living missionally requires us not to fall into the pit of despair over the rapidly changing landscape all around us. Our task calls us to be creative, listen deeply to our friends and neighbours, pray fervently, humble ourselves, serve sacrificially, and most crucially, listen carefully for the Spirit to lead us in His mission. And so in our corner of the world, we attest to the fact that there is hope at the margins of society!
Kevin Vance is a minister and church planter in the inner city of Regina, Saskatchewan. He works among youth in Regina and throughout the province to help them find hope and healing in Jesus Christ. He has a special passion for Indigenous youth and the reserves. He and his wife Lisa have been married since 1989 and have three grown children. Together they planted Gentle Road Church of Christ in North Central Regina in 2011, and dream about planting other churches in the toughest communities in Canada.