The Horizon of Ministry in North America: Hope At The Margins from a Church Planter in Canada

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!  

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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.

The Horizon of Ministry in North America

Most of the books on my bookshelf are written by White American men. Not all, but most. Although most of the books on my shelf have benefited me as a conversation partner when it comes to the intersection of theology, mission, and culture, I am aware of the need for more diversity when it comes to the books I read. So over the last several years, I have started reading more books written by people of color, women, and to some extent, people who live outside of the United States.

I suspect most of us have the same issue. In fact, if we throw in podcasts, YouTube videos, and other forms of learning, the majority of the voices we give our attention to are White American men. There are many reasons for that, some of which are beyond our control, but point this out to say that we need to be more intentional in giving attention to more voices than just those of White American men.

For us serving in ministry in the United States, one of the voices we should give more attention to are those of our Canadian neighbors to the north. Whether we serve as church planters, pastors within an established church, or another sphere of Christian leadership, we can and should learn from Christian leaders living in Canada. My friends from Canada tell me that, in general, their nation as a society is about twenty years ahead of the United States in terms of where our western society as a whole is headed. So listening to some perspectives from our Canadian neighbors just might help those of us serving in America better anticipate the future that is coming.

Jeremy Hoover, a church planter in Sarnia, Ontario, and Jonathan Massimi, an Anglican pastor, have already contributed articles to this blog but there are other Canadian voices to hear. So beginning next week and the two weeks that follow, this blog is going to feature three different Canadian people serving in different capacities of Christian leadership. First, will be Stanley Helton, who serves as the president of Alberta Bible College. Besides years of ministry experience in both the United States and Canada, Stanley also writes to us from the perspective of a Christian educator. Next up will be Kevin Vance, a church planter in Regina, Saskatchewan. Kevin will share with us the challenges faced in church planting in a post-Christendom context where technology is ever-changing and some people within that society have suffered injustices. Lastly, will be Shu-Ling Lee, who writes to us a 2nd generation Canadian-born Chinese pastor serving with a church in the suburbs of Toronto, addresses the challenges presented by suburban ministry, pragmatism, and the need for diverse voices.

As always, if you believe that Mission Alive might be able to help you as you serve on mission with God in North America or would like to help support Mission Alive, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy this series of blog posts and share them with others.

Grace and Peace, Rex.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.

Creation and Embodied Discovery in Genesis 1-3

While the Imago Dei is not a prominent biblical theme, it shows up right at the beginning of scripture in Genesis 1-2 and so, understandably, becomes vital in Christian history to how we understand God and ourselves. Stanley J. Grenz explains how there have been two primary ways of understanding the Imago Dei in the west, structural and relational, with the former taking the increasingly prominent view in western Christian history (The Social God and the Relational Self, p. 142). The structural view also tends to identify certain attributes or capabilities, particularly “reason” or “will” as what make humans in the image of God. 

Although it makes sense that the church fathers would primarily focus on the qualities of “reason” and “will” given the influence of Greek philosophy in their day, this conception of what it means for humans to be in the image of God is not what we have in view in Genesis 1:26-27. In the ancient Near East, “an image was believed to contain the essence of that which it represented” (Walton, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 8). Generally, it was either the king or an idol who was supposed to have the image of God. However, in Genesis 1:26-27 we have people in general, both male and female, bearing the image of God, which would have been radically egalitarian in that day.

In the first creation account, we have a man as the pinnacle of God’s work (Gen. 1:27). Each of these aspects of our biblical origin story shows a communal, bodily, and even environmental understanding of the relationship between humans and the Creator. We start with humans reflecting the divine image, an image depicted in the plural that reflects not just the relationships that take place within God’s Triune self, but the relationships between God and other spiritual beings. 

In Genesis 1:26 we see God creating in community, probably in the author’s mind including what might be called the divine council, heavenly host, or even other Elohim (cf. Ps 82:1, LEB). While the author might not have had the Trinity in mind when saying “us,” including the Trinity in our exegesis of the passage would not conflict with the meaning of the text even though it might be anachronistic. The point that God identifies himself in the community is made either way by the “us” passages in Genesis. The author of Genesis saw fit to represent God’s identity in the plural in various places (Genesis 1:26, 3:24, 11:7, 18:20-21 cf. 19:13), which seems to indicate that God’s identity is to be portrayed as not alone but in relationship to others. Possibly the poetic parallelism of “them” in vs. 27 is also meant to reflect “us” of 1:26 in referring to the divine community. In this way, the human plurality would also mean a reflection of both divine plurality and unity.  In other words, God’s identity is social and relational, and no individual by him or herself represents the image of God.  

While the first creation story has already established humanity as the pinnacle of creation, in the second creation account man is made first after “the heavens and the earth.” Not even the plants have come up before man is created. The first task man is given is to work and take care of the earth (2:15). The adam (earthling) is formed from the adamah (ground), showing his intimate connection with the land and environment. The isha (woman) is formed from the ish (man) to show her intimate and harmonious connection to the man (Note: ish and isha are in other places in the Old Testament is translated as husband and wife). 

Everything is depicted as being in a harmonious relationship, with emphasis on humans and animals, humans and the earth, and male and female. However, in Genesis 3, the result of their disobedience is to disrupt these harmonious relationships. It would be a misreading to see the results of the fall and the “curses” as the way things were meant to be or even should be today. Instead, the curses are distortions of what God intended for humankind.  

God helps man learn through interaction with his environment, giving him tasks to do like caring for the earth, and the fieldwork of naming the animals. What is conspicuously missing from the account of Adam and Eve is that God directly teaches man anything. On the contrary, in allowing Adam to name the animals, God—knowing that Adam needed a female counterpart—allowed Adam to learn through experiment. As the first human, he would know very little at this point, being like an infant. He may not even have known that he is actually different than the rest of the animals, or that he is not simply an animal himself. 

God could have easily told Adam that he was different or needed a female counterpart. However, God let Adam learn through a “failed” experiment so he would know in his gut that he would need a partner different than what any other animal would be able to offer.  So God is not operating not from a “bobble-head” premise, in which people primarily learn through head-knowledge, but from James K.A. Smith’s premise that “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40). God treats Adam not primarily as a cognitive creature, but as an embodied learner, a “liturgical animal”, so to speak, who learns through a process of experimental habit and practice over time to be “a certain kind of person” (Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 24-25). This is how God gains ground in His relationship with Adam and helps Adam learn.

The way God interacts with Adam and helps him learn is through bodily experiments.  In the same way, ministers should not shy away from uncharted territory where people try different things until they find out what works for them or their ministry in life. Such tests and experiments should be encouraged even if they may lead to “failure.” Allowing such “failure” means entrusting people and helping them along in the process, even if the process does not necessarily “succeed” in the way we might measure success.  God allowed Adam to know what the way forward was because God allowed Adam, who bears the image of God, to walk through the process in an embodied way.  This would have built trust between Adam and God because God was not simply dictating to Adam what he should or should not do but allowed him to go through his own process of embodied discovery.

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Jonathan Lichtenwalter has written and edited for the website evidenceforchristianity.org, articles for renew.org and his website jonwalt.com,  He has studied under John Oakes, Ph.D. (creator of the website evidenceforchristianity.org), and is currently getting a Master’s in Missional leadership from Rochester University. He is passionate about missional theology, apologetics, and biblical studies. He loves to use his writing and studies to build up the faith of others, to help disciples grow deeper in their understanding of scripture, and to share the truth of the gospel with others.

When Everything’s On Fire: A Review of Brian Zahnd’s Book

Unless you have just emerged from a long hibernation, you know that we are living in some interesting times. Much of the world has faced a difficult challenge with the Covid-19 pandemic and all the repercussions that have followed. At the same time, there is a lot of reckoning taking place as evangelical Christianity faces scrutiny in regards to some highly publicized church scandals, Trump politics, and a past that includes racism, misogynism, and other problems that undermine their witness to the gospel. 

In response to this reckoning, there is a growing number of evangelicals saying that enough is enough. Some of them are shedding their conservative understanding of the Christian faith for a progressive expression, while others are renouncing their Christian faith altogether. This is a process called deconstruction, which I am sympathetic toward but also concerned with pastorally. Is it possible to deconstruct an evangelical Christian faith and eventually discover a reconstructed faith that is neither conservative nor liberal but still within the historical stream of orthodox Christian faith? 

I believe so and so does pastor Brian Zahnd. This is the reason for his latest book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, which was published in late 2021 by InterVarsity Press. The book is currently available in both Kindle and hardback format, with the latter for a cost of $15.44. Brian Zahnd, for those who do not already know, is both a pastor and author. He has served in ministry for over thirty years, serving as the Lead Pastor for Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. 

The book is 183 pages and is divided into two sections with a prelude, followed by eleven chapters, and then a conclusion. Although Zahnd is quite capable of intellectual engagement with various theologians and philosophers, the book is very easy to read. Drawing on thoughts from people such as Frederick Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Chrysostom, and Paul Ricoeur, Zahnd engages scripture and Christian tradition. Writing as both a pastor and theologian, Zahnd describes what he believes is the essence of the Christian faith while disentangling that from the empiricism of modernity that evangelical Christianity has been embedded within. 

Understanding the way modernity shaped evangelicalism is important because that has impacted the way the Bible is read and regarded as the foundation of faith. Zahnd rightfully critiques this by returning to scripture to show that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Christianity,” says Zahnd, “is not a series of proofs; it is the confession based on the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord” (p. 91). The foundation of the Christian faith is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ which is known to us first through the witness of the church (tradition) who passes along a collection of canonical writings we know as The Bible. So we begin with Jesus rather than the Bible, or as Zahnd says, “First Jesus, then church, and finally the Bible” (p. 97).

Of course, both Jesus and the Bible are indispensable to the formation of our Christian faith, which is why Zahnd believes that mysticism and a mystical reading of scripture are necessary. For those unfamiliar, this might sound suspicious but mysticism is about seeking God. Thus Zahnd says, “We too can be mystics who encounter God, follow God, wrestle with God, speak to and for God, compose prayers, open new doors, heart the divine heartbeat, proclaim the gospel, and, most importantly, give flesh to the Word of God in our own lives” (p. 130). Then in reading the Bible as a mystic, we are seeking a “second naiveté” (a term coined by Paul Ricoeur) that allows the Bible to be heard in new ways as we enter the narrative of scripture.

I enjoyed reading this book and believe it has much to offer Christianity in North America. And this is especially so in helping us move beyond the challenges of deconstruction. As one who deconstructed from a conservative-fundamentalist faith, a process that was initiated through the existential crisis that followed the death of my oldest son, I identify with the concerns of this book. Like Zahnd, I see problems with the conservative-evangelical understanding of Christian faith but I also see problems with the opposite, the reactionary progressive understanding of Christian faith. So I appreciate Zahnd wisely saying, 

When people from a conservative tradition begin to question some tenants [sic] of theological conservatism, they often find a way forward through a more progressive theology. But it should not be assumed that a progressive move is in every case the way forward. It’s important to understand that progressive fundamentalism is just as false and destructive as conservative fundamentalism. We seek to discover God as revealed in Christ, not in an ism, be it conservative or progressive. (p. 56).

He’s right. In discovering God, we follow Jesus Christ regardless of whether doing so appears to be conservative or progressive in the eyes of others.

One slight nuance I would make has to do with the way Zahnd describes his view of scripture. He says, 

I don’t have a low view of scripture; I have a high view of Christ. I hold the Scriptures as authoritative in informing and shaping the Christian faith. …I faithfully affirm the Bible as authoritative in the Christian faith, but the Bible is now where we begin—the Bible is not self-authenticating. (p. 96).

I agree with Zahnd. He does hold a high view of scripture and this should be easily apparent to anyone who listens to his sermons or reads his books. Also, with Zahnd, I believe that the Bible is authoritative in informing and shaping our faith as Christians. That’s the reason we have scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) but I believe we should retain the phrase “inspired by God” in our description of the Bible. I believe that Zahnd regards scripture as inspired by God but I’m mentioning this because I wish he would have explicitly said so. 

Like Zahnd, I understand that scripture is given to us by the church, who decided which writings should be included in our canon of scripture that we call the Bible. But I also believe that God was providentially at work guiding the authors of scripture to say what was necessary for the formation of our faith as well as providentially at work in the canonization process (and I’m sure Zahnd believes this too). This is what makes scripture inspired by God and that’s important because when we read the Bible, we are reading God’s word to us. Hence, the response of the assembly after the reading of scripture, “The word of the Lord.”

Needless to say though, if you’re looking for an enjoyable and invigorating read, go by this book. If you’re asking yourself how do Christians move beyond deconstruction, add Zahnd’s book to your library and consider what he has to say as you read.

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K. Rex ButtsD.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.