Sunday, April 30, 2017

New Presbyterian Church Moderator Set to Navigate Church in Scary, Changing Times

Story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada one of decline, but also points of excitement and bright lights

You might think that being nominated to lead a fast-changing and declining Canadian mainline denomination would not be considered an honour or opportunity. After all, who wants to captain a sinking ship?

Peter Bush, Senior Minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg, doesn’t see it that way.

(Although Bush is the sole nominee for the position, it is possible that someone else could be nominated from the floor and he could fail to win election. But, he says, "it has never happened.”)

When he assumes his new role following this summer’s convention, Bush, 55, does not plan to abandon ship.

“The story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada today is one of decline,” he acknowledges, “but there are also points of excitement, some bright lights.”

Like other mainline Canadian denominations, the Presbyterians have seen a fall in membership, from 202,566 in 1964 to 91,036 in 2015.

At the same time, congregations have become smaller, with most having fewer than 100 people at worship services on Sundays.

With statistics like that, Bush knows that, for many Presbyterians, this is a “scary time.” Some churches, he says, will close.

“The traditional model not working” for most churches, he says, noting that many congregations aren’t large enough to support a full-time pastor.

At the same time, he sees this as a time of opportunity and experimentation. He is especially excited by new house churches in different parts of Canada; in these cases, several “congregations” share a pastor, meeting in homes at various times of the week.

“We may need to launch more neighbourhood churches like these,” he says. “This could be a way to bring some people back to church, and reach new people.”

Bush is also encouraged by how immigrants to Canada are impacting the church.

“They are bringing energy and excitement,” he says. “Ethnic ministries are the brightest lights. Ethnic congregations in every province are growing.”

He also sees opportunity as denominations work together.

“Denominational lines are becoming less important to many people,” he says. “I think we will see more interdenominational cooperation in creating new churches.”

By way of example, he points to the Manitoba’s Pinawa Christian Fellowship, which is an amalgamation of four denominations: Mennonite, United, Anglican and Presbyterian.

In the future, he says, there may be more churches like this. “Denominational divisions will matter less. What will matter is our common faith in Christ.”

As for the role of the Presbyterian Church in this increasingly secular and post-Christendom age, he says that the church today “has become less influential” in society—and that’s OK.

“We need to stop hankering for the days when we had more influence,” he says of  those who might bemoan religion’s waning impact on Canadian life today.

Instead, he says, Christians should put their “focus on the community level, get our hands dirty”—not worry so much about whether the broader culture is paying attention to the church.

That said, he does believe the church has a role in holding governments to account, especially around issues such as poverty, refugees and climate change.

“Sometimes church and state can work together, as with the sponsoring or Syrian refugees,” he says. “But we always need to keep it [government] at arms length. Getting too close to political power is deadly for the church.”

He also believes in evangelism, but not the kind where people “shove the good news down people’s throats.”

For him, the best evangelism is “neighbours talking to neighbours, by being in relationship with people, and being open to when the spirit says to say something.”

Looking ahead, “God is faithful, the church will survive. It may not look like it is now, it may be very different. It may be something new and unexpected.”

Whatever it is, local congregations will be at the centre, he believes. That, he says, “is where the light and hope is . . . it will be found in our service in our neighbourhoods as we become intentionally engaged with people.”

“We worship a savior who died and was resurrected,” he concludes. “The church has again and again reached moments when it has died and found new birth. We need to tell stories about how the church is growing, adapting, changing.”

From the April 29 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Religious Canadians and Generosity: You'll Miss Us When We're Gone

More religious someone is, more they give to charity and volunteer 

A new survey is out about Canadians and religion, and it shows that faith in Canada is still very much alive.

The survey, released April 13 by Angus Reid in collaboration with Canada 150, found that 21 percent of Canadians identify as religiously committed; 30 percent are privately faithful; and 31 percent are spiritually uncertain.

Only 19 percent consider themselves to be non-believers.

The survey also found that 67 percent of Canadians believe that God or a higher power exists; 60 percent believe in life after death; 53 percent believe God is active in the world; 57 percent believe there is a heaven; and 41 percent believe there is a Hell.

While there are many interesting things in the study, what struck me is how religiously-committed Canadians viewed their engagement with the world around them.

The survey found that the more religious someone is, the more they give to charity, volunteer and are involved in the community.

People who are religiously committed were over twice as likely as members of any other group to say they are “very involved” or “quite involved” in community activities.

Non-believers, by contrast, were the most likely to say they are “not at all involved” in the community.

Religiously committed Canadians were also almost twice as likely as any other group to say they “try to donate to whatever charities they can.”

As someone who works in the non-profit sector, these findings are of great interest to me.

They confirm previous research by Statistics Canada, which found that people who are more religiously active (who attend religious meetings or services at least once a week) are more inclined to donate, and also to make larger donations.

Research into giving in Canada has also found that while religiously committed people give lots of money to religious organizations, they also contribute significant amounts to non-religious charities.

Why does being religious correlate with giving to charity, volunteering and engagement?

One reason, the Angus Reid survey suggests, is that being part of a worshipping community provides people with more opportunities to help—to do neighbourhood clean-up, be part of a soup kitchen, or support an inner city organization. 

The regular passing of the offering plate also helps, I’m sure. What other public gatherings do that?

But attending a worship service also promotes charitable giving in other ways. Through announcements, sharing, sermons and prayer requests people get a window on the wider world around them, and what they can do to help.

It could also be because more older people go to worship services than younger people. And since older people tend to donate more than others, this could skew the findings.

But it also goes deeper than that: Religious people also give and volunteer because their faith motivates them to do so.

As the survey discovered, the religiously committed were twice as likely as members of any other group to say “concern for others” is one of the most important things for them. They also indicated they are less concerned with success and having a comfortable life than non-believers.

This is all great news for faith groups—faith makes a difference in society. But there is also cause for concern.

Since one of the top indicators of religious commitment is regular attendance at worship services, falling membership and attendance means fewer people are at places of worship to hear about world needs, and then make a donation.

Coupled with an aging donor base—the best givers are literally dying off—this could spell trouble for charities of all kinds.

But maybe it won’t matter; maybe all those people who are less committed, but still open to religion, will find new ways to give and be engaged with their communities. Perhaps even non-believers will see a new light.

Maybe. But the evidence suggests it will be an uphill battle. Studies show that fewer people in Canada are giving to charity. And younger people, who are more likely not to be religiously committed, aren’t giving as much as seniors.

In our growing secular society, it could be that many don’t care if places of worship all closed tomorrow.

But when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, I would tell them: “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

From the April 22 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dictionary of African Christian Biography Captures "Amazing Stories" of African Church Leaders

"Lots of stories of western missionaries, but not of the Africans they worked with."

He was known as southern Africa’s Billy Graham.

His name was Nicholas Bhengu, and he was an evangelist with the Assemblies of God in South Africa from the 1940s until his death in 1985.

During his ministry, tens of thousands of people attended his crusades, and thousands were converted. He started over 50 churches. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral.

And yet, Bhengu is virtually, if not completely, unknown by Christians outside of Africa.

Winnipegger Jonathan Bonk wants to change that. That’s why he started the Dictionary of African Christian Biography in 1995 while teaching at Providence University College and Seminary.

The goal of the Dictionary is to collect, preserve and make freely available the previously-unrecorded biographies of African Christian leaders like Bhengu—and the many thousands of others who were vital to the growth of the church on that continent. 

“There are lots of stories of western missionaries, but not of the Africans they worked with, who did much of the work and who carried on after the missionaries went home,” says Bonk, 72, who left the province in 1997 to direct the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut.

When he retired in 2013, he came back to Manitoba, bringing the responsibility of continuing to support and supervise the Dictionary with him.

“The stories of these key people were not being told, they had no voice,” he says, adding “they have amazing stories. I’m quite passionate about them.”

Bonk, a member of the Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship, first got the idea for the Dictionary while serving as an aid worker in Ethiopia in the early 1970s.

“I noticed that what I had learned about Christianity in Africa didn’t match what I was seeing on the ground,” he says.

But when he searched books about the church in Africa, he couldn’t find much of anything about African Christians—but lots about western Christians who served in Africa.

He doesn’t blame the missionaries for failing to record the stories of their African colleagues; the times were different, they didn’t have the skills, and they were too busy writing about their ministries in order to raise funds from back home, he says.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t try to rectify the situation. 

Fortunately, the World Wide Web was being born around the same time he started creating the Dictionary, making is much easier to publish and share the stories.

Today the Dictionary, which is housed by the Boston University School of Theology, has grown to 3,000 entries, with about 150 new biographies added each year. Bonk estimates there is a backlog of over 500 stories waiting to be published.

In addition to Bonk, the Dictionary is supported by an advisory council of 12 people from countries in Africa. All the work is done by volunteers; it costs about $50,000 a year to keep it going, including an annual gathering of the council in Africa. The funding comes from foundations and individual donors.

“It’s not perfect,” Bonk acknowledges, noting that the “quality of work overall is varied.” But he also doesn’t want to get bogged down in “scholarly debates” about the style or methods of research.

“I just want to get the stories down,” he says, noting that “some memory is better than no memory.”

“This is the first generation work. The second generation can worry about the veracity. This is the best we can do right now.”

So far, the process “has worked pretty well,” he says, noting that he wants to publish more stories of female leaders, along with stories of musicians—“music is so integral to Christianity in Africa,” he says.

One thing Bonk wants to emphasize is that the Dictionary isn’t just for African Christians. Canadian Christians, he says, should also visit the site to read about the “raw power of the Gospel to transform hopelessness into hope in people’s lives.”  

The stories, he goes on to say, will also remind Canadian Christians “we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that we have things to learn from Christians in other countries.”

Visit the Dictionary of African Christian Biography at To donate, click here.

From the April 15 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Beauty for Ashes from Murder: Wilma Derksen's Story

“God can take anything that is negative and turn it into something good."

The Internet lost its mind last month after an Oklahoma state Representative—that nobody outside of that state had ever heard of before—defended an anti-abortion bill by saying that even in pregnancies that result from rape or incest, “God can bring beauty from ashes.”

“Republican lawmaker says rape and incest part of God’s will,” was typical of the headlines about comments made by George Faught of Muskogee.

Faught made the statement during debate about a bill in that state that will outlaw abortions based solely on a diagnosis of Down syndrome or other genetic abnormalities.

When another state representative asked Faught, a churchgoer, if he thought pregnancies that resulted from rape and incest were the “will of God,” Faught replied that “the Lord uses all circumstances”—adding that the bill had nothing to do with either circumstance.

He maybe should have stopped there; he was in a state house, after all, not a church.

But he went on to say that “obviously if it happens in someone’s life, it may not be the best thing that ever happened . . . so you’re saying that God is not sovereign with every activity that happens in someone’s life and can’t use anything and everything in someone’s life, and I disagree with that.”

Whether or not you agree with Faught, the idea that suffering has a bigger purpose, and that it can be redeemed and turned into something good, has deep roots in many religions.

The phrase Faught used—“beauty for ashes”—comes from Isaiah 61:3, where God promises the nation of Israel that one day he will replace mourning and despair with joy and praise.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul counseled Christians to rejoice in suffering because it produces endurance, hope and character. In the book of Romans, he added that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

In the fourth century Saint Augustine added that "God would not allow any evil to exist unless out of it he could draw a greater good. This is part of the wisdom and goodness of God."

Someone who has struggled to understand those sentiments is Wilma Derksen. Her daughter, Candace, was murdered 33 years ago.

“My own story is one of beauty out of ashes,” she told me. “God can take anything that is ugly, violent, negative and turn it into something good. That’s a promise.”

Derksen, who has just authored a new book titled The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness (Zondervan), is quick to note that such a realization can only happen retrospectively.

“You can’t see it at the time,” she says, remembering her own experience. “It takes a long time to understand how things can be used for good, and there are no guarantees. Some evil acts can destroy people.”

She also doesn’t believe that it was God’s will that her daughter be murdered—that God caused it so that she could help others in similar situations.

“God has done a lot of good out of Candace’s murder, but he doesn’t condone murder,” she says.

Violence, she adds, “doesn’t contain the seed of goodness. God can make something good out of bad, but I had to decide that—I had to be part of it with God.”

To actually turn the ashes into beauty, she needed to “dump a good yard of soil on the ashes and plant a seed of goodness . . . there has to be a massive intervention to redeem the barren land left by a negative evil act.”

And even though her daughter’s murder has resulted in “amazing” opportunities to help many others, “we should always remember that there is huge loss,” she states. “Even if something turns out for good, a loss is still a loss . . . Candace is still gone.”

“I can never thank God for the murder of our daughter,” she concludes. “That was an entirely evil, destructive force at work.”

But, she says, “I can thank God, the beautiful creator gardener, who helped us find the seeds and then to plant and nourish these seeds of goodness which grew and produced unexpected fruit in the strangest of places, a transformational picture of beauty for ashes that has surprised even us.”

After they saw friends struggling to have a baby, the Christian band Gungor wrote asong titled Beautiful Things.

“All this pain
I wonder if I'll ever find my way,
I wonder if my life could really change, at all.

All this earth,
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?

You make beautiful things.
You make beautiful things out of the dust.
You make beautiful things,
You make beautiful things out of us.”

Wilma Derksen—and countless other people of faith—have come to believe that is true. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Great and Holy War: The Role of Religion in World War One

The Great War a “thoroughly religious event."

April 9 is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, which has taken on mythic status in Canada. Lots has been written about the war of which it was a small partfrom political, military, social and psychological perspectives. Not as much has been written about the role religion played in the conflict. In 2014, on the centennial of the start of the Great War, I wrote the following column.

Volumes have been written about the Great War, covering that epochal event from many different angles. One angle that hasn’t received as much attention, though, is religion.

That gap is being filled by Philip Jenkins, author of the new book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

According to Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas, it is impossible to fully comprehend the First World War without acknowledging the role religion played in creating and sustaining it.

Religion, he writes, is central to "understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war."

The War, he notes, was a “thoroughly religious event in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”

In the book, Jenkins shows how religion was used by politicians and the military on both sides to justify and support the conflict, using the language holy war, crusade, martyrdom, apocalypse and Armageddon.

The War, he says, was framed by belligerents on both sides “in thoroughly Christian terms. Each nation saw itself as playing a predestined role that was divinely inspired, and those self-concepts contributed mightily to the outbreak of war.”

The Russians, for example, viewed Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm as the Antichrist. Germans equated Britain with the great whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation. And English bishops informed their countrymen that they were God's “predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe.”

Clergy on all sides baptized the struggle, Jenkins says, becoming “vocal, even fanatical, advocates,” preaching “sophisticated arguments for holy warfare.”

That would include the Anglican bishop of London, who said in 1915: 

“Everyone that loves freedom and honour . . . are banded in a great crusade—we cannot deny it—to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old . . . to kill them lest the civilisation of the world itself be killed.”

Or the chaplain to the Speaker of the British House of Commons, who proclaimed that "to kill Germans is a divine service in the fullest acceptance of the word."

In Germany, people felt the same way—but from the other side.

As Roger Chickering notes in his book Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-18, “no sector of the population was more ardent a supporter of the war than the German Protestant Church. The fact that France was Catholic and Russia Orthodox supported the belief that Germany was fighting in the name of true—Protestant—Christianity, and that the triumph of Germany corresponded to the designs of God.”

Statements like those feel uncomfortable for 21st century ears. They sound more like what we are accustomed to hearing today from Islamic jihadists in Iraq or Afghanistan. But sentiments like these were regularly shared from pulpits in the warring nations, including Canada, in an effort to keep support for the war—and enlistments in the various armies—high.

In addition to shaping the War, religion was also shaped by it. The War triggered "a global religious revolution," Jenkins says, and in the process "drew the world's religious map as we know it today."

This redrawing of the map included the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the last Caliphate, which led to the “assertive, self-confident, and aggressively sectarian” form of Islam we know today.

The end of the War witnessed the destruction of the Orthodox Church in Russia. And it also led to the creation of the state of Israel—an action that continues to reverberates even now.

On a personal level, the War caused many to doubt their faith and question the church. After such a calamity, who could believe in a loving and generous God anymore?

As Jeremy Paxman notes in his book, Great Britain’s Great War, soldiers on both sides found their beliefs tested. 

“What room was there for religion when those made in God's image were being blown to pieces all around? How could Hell be any worse than what they were living through?” he writes.

As the world marks the start of the Great War, and as Canada marks the centennial of the battle of Vimy Ridge, Jenkins’ book is a timely reminder of how often religion is recruited to justify and support war—of “how easily ideas of the church militarist emerge in times of crisis.”

It is also a reminder to Christians, in particular, that it wasn’t so long ago that the fanatical religious fervour we usually associate with Islamic extremists today could be heard, loud and clear, from many church pulpits across this land.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

500 Years After The Reformation, How is the Lutheran Church Doing?

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther launched the Reformation. How is the church that bears his name doing today?

Worldwide, not too bad. According to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the body that represents 145 Lutheran church bodies around the world, there were 74 million Lutherans in 2016, an increase of 2.1 million since 2013.

All of that growth, however is in Africa and Asia. that's where you will find the largest Lutheran churches—in places like Ethiopia, with almost eight million members, and Tanzania, with 6.5 million. 

The Ethiopian and Tanzanian churches have grown by 24 percent and 12 percent since 2013, respectively.

Overall there was an 11 percent increase in Lutheran membership in Africa, bringing the total numbers in the 31 LWF member churches there to just over 23 million. There was also an increase in Asia, where 54 churches saw a ten percent increase to 11.8 million members.

Things were not as positive in North America and Europe, however. 

In Canada and the U.S., the two LWF member churches declined by almost five percent, to 3.9 million. In Europe, there was a 3.8 percent decline to 34.7 million members in the region’s 41 member churches.

Here in Canada, there are two main Lutheran churches: The Lutheran Church in Canada (LCC), which does not belong to the LWF, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), which does.

Statistics released by the LCC in 2015 show that membership has fallen from 60,291 in 2014 to 58,745 in 2015. Membership has been falling since 1999.

Meantime, attendance at worship services has also been declining, with an average of 63 people in each of the church’s 301 congregations on Sundays.

Things are similar for the ELCIC. When it was founded in 1986, the denomination had 202,425 members in 665 congregations. In 2015 it had 111,407 members in 516 churches, with a sharp decline occurring in 2011 after the denomination authorized same-sex marriages.

For Matthew Block, Communications Manager for LCC and editor of its publication the Canadian Lutheran, and Susan Johnson, National Bishop of the ELCIC, the decreases are part of a larger downward religious trend.

“Like many churches in Canada, we are experiencing decline,” says Block. “Our church is smaller, as most denominations are,” adds Johnson.

But while the two regret the decline, they also see hope.  

“There are some positive trends,” says Block. “The face of Lutheranism in Canada is changing through immigration, and the church is growing in developing world. These are sources of growth and rejuvenation.”

The changes show that it’s “not a German thing or a North American thing or a White thing” to be Lutheran, he says. “It’s a gospel thing.”

For Johnson, there may be fewer people in the pews, but she sees “people going deeper into faith. We may have fewer members, but deeper members.”

Like Block, she is encouraged by how the church is growing in Africa and Asia. “It’s amazing how the church has grown and spread worldwide” over the past 500 years, she says.

She is also encouraged by immigrants who are bringing new life and ideas to the church.

“These new immigrants are forming new churches that enrich us,” she says.

And yet, they both acknowledge the challenges facing their denominations, including fewer dollars for various ministries.

“Churches can be stuck in their ways, saying this is the way things always been done, but it may not be the way it needs to continue to be done,” says Block.

Both agree that their denominations need to do better outreach. Churches need to be “more missional, outward focused, engaging the community and the world,” as Johnson puts it.

Looking ahead, Johnson says that her denomination needs to “see how the spirit leads us, we have to be open, pull up our bootstraps, do the best ministry we can.”

“The goal is to be a faithful witness,” says Block. “It’s not just about numbers, but reaching people with the love of Christ.”

For him, “the ideals of the Reformation are still core . . . but the way it is lived out today needs to be changed.”

From the April 1, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.