Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Feast Called Worship: An Interview With Marva Dawn

In 2007 I was able to interview author, theologian and educator Marva Dawn. Dawn, author of the books Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down; A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being the Church for the World; and How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars, died April 18 at the age of 72. 

John Longhurst (JL): What is the purpose of worship? 

Marva Dawn (MD): The purpose of worship is to honour God and give Him the praise He deserves—period. Too often we try to use it for evangelism. But the purpose of worship is not to attract new believers. That's our job, as Christians. We bring people to Christ, and then we bring them to worship. It's a cop-out to count on the worship service to do that. 

I realize that I'm a bit of an odd ball for saying this, since so many churches today offer "seeker sensitive" services to get people to go to church. I think this is a serious theological misunderstanding. 

Church is not a place we "go to." Instead, it signifies what God's people are. We are called away from the idolatries of the world to gather with our fellow believers in worship and fellowship and education, and then we are called out from that gathering, having been equipped and empowered by it, to go back into the world to serve it. 

When we participate in corporate services, we worship God because God is infinitely worthy of our praise—the focus is not on "attracting" anybody. 

“The Bible never says that the goal of worship is to attract unbelievers.”

In the corporate encounter with God that the worship service provides, those participating are formed more thoroughly to be like God and formed more genuinely to be a community. The result will be that all of us reach out to our neighbours in loving care and service and witness, with the result that they might perhaps want to come with us to worship the God to whom we have introduced them. 

The Bible never says that the goal of worship is to attract unbelievers. The goal of worship is to praise God. The goal of worship isn't to get us anything, but to turn our attention to God, who has blessed us so richly. 

“Many churches take their model for worship services from talk shows on TV.” 

JL: If that's the case, why do you think so many churches are using worship to do outreach? 

MD: It's because the church in North America today has lost its vitality. Instead of transforming our culture, we are being transformed by it. Many churches take their model for worship services from talk shows on TV. The pastor is the host, introducing the entertainment, and the congregation is the audience. 

It's become all about marketing—finding a niche a church can serve, whether it's boomers, youth, 'tweens or older people. But catering to only one group of people doesn't give us a very big sense of the church. 

JL: It seems to be working—churches that use that model are growing. 

MD: That's true. But I think a lot of it is sheep stealing—people leaving their own church to find a better show on Sunday morning. Whatever is most entertaining and fun will always draw people. 

Church services that speak of biblical themes of discipleship, sacrifice and cost have a hard time competing with those that promise to make me happy, wealthy and healthy. 

The Bible never says that the goal of worship is to attract unbelievers. 

“Worship is supposed to be a feast. A lot of worship today contains only a few items from the menu—it's an empty feast.” 

JL: What should a worship service be like? 

MD: Worship is supposed to be a feast. and just like a good meal includes all sorts of different kinds of food, good worship involves many different kinds of activities—confession, absolution, praising, petitions, singing, Bible reading, explication of the Word, intercession and benediction. 

A lot of worship today contains only a few items from the menu—it's an empty feast. I'm especially saddened by how little the Scriptures are read in many churches; that is one of the most important things in any worship service. Good worship uses all the gifts of all the people—young and old. 

JL: What about the issue of music? 

MD: Many people make the mistake of confusing musical style with worship. It's not a matter of singing hymns or choruses—any style can be used to worship God, and all kinds of music should be used in worship. 

“I'm not opposed to contemporary music. It's just that we shouldn't have a steady diet of only that style, or of any other style, for that matter.”

 But the music should pass some difficult tests in order to be useful: Is it faithful to Scripture? Is it directed towards God? Is it about God? Too much music being used today is narcissistic—it's about us and how we feel about God.

Don't get me wrong; there are some very good contemporary pieces that call us to faithfulness. I'm not opposed to contemporary music. It's just that we shouldn't have a steady diet of only that style, or of any other style, for that matter. 

We need contemporary music, hymns, classical music, Gregorian chant, folk, roots, African, jazz or Taize and many others. each style has its place in the church. We need the whole music of the whole church to help bring us together to worship God.

It grieves me when I hear people say they don't like one kind of style or another, or they refuse to sing when a particular style that's not their favourite is used in worship. To me, that shows they don't love others in their church enough to sing somebody else's song. 

If a church is a community, then it needs to sing the songs of the whole community, not just one group. 

Style is not the crucial thing. The key is to carefully sort music and forms and styles and choose what is theologically appropriate and musically excellent. This winnowing process has usually already been accomplished in the case of songs that appear in hymnbooks and worship books. 

Though there are notable exceptions (as in the case of violent words or unsingable melodies), the hymns and liturgies that have stood the test of time have done so because their content is strong and their music felicitous. The most important question to ask in planning worship is not what style of music to use, but how we can best glorify God. 

JL: Some say a goal of worship is reconciliation. What do you think? 

MD: Reconciliation is God's goal for humanity. God wants to reconcile us to Himself. God is in the business of breaking down barriers. He also wants us to be reconciled to each other, and worship is one way we can do that. Worship can bring us together and unify us. 

“Worship is driving us apart. The ‘worship wars’ have become so destructive.” 

Unfortunately, it's doing the opposite today—worship is driving us apart. The "worship wars" have become so destructive. It's heartbreaking to see churches divide into contemporary and traditional services, one for young people, the other for older people. That means seniors can't share their songs with youth, and young people can't help seniors learn their new songs. 

As long as we think that worship is about the style of music I like, it will keep us apart. Good worship brings people together as we focus on God and praise God. And when we are reconciled to one another, we can become a reconciling people in the world, bringing others to God. 

JL: In our post-Christian and post-modern culture, some say we need to abandon the past if worship today is to be relevant. Do you agree? 

MD: No. One thing that defines post-modernism is rootlessness. Many people today have no sense of history; what's happening now is the most important thing. But this means that the great traditions of the Church don't get passed down. We have no sense of the testimony of God's people throughout the ages. 

“I don't think that the Church's worship language has ever been as narrow as it is now.”

That's one of the main problems with the style of worship being used in so many churches today. I don't think that the Church's worship language has ever been as narrow as it is now. By choosing only one style for worship, churches don't link us to our Christian forebears. 

I believe that the Church must provide an alternative to the culture—not adapt to it. But to do that, we need language, customs, habits, rituals, institutions, procedures and practices that uphold and nurture a clear vision of how the Church is different and why that matters. 

If our worship is too much like the surrounding culture it will be impossible to teach what I like to call "altar-nativity"—an alternative Christian way of viewing the world. 

In our worship, we are formed by biblical narratives that tell a different story from that of the surrounding culture. We gather together in worship to speak our language, to read our narratives of God at work, to sing authentic hymns of the faith in all kinds of styles, to chant and pour out our prayers until we know the truth so well that we can go out to the world around us and invite that world to share this truth with us. 

JL: You've been criticized by many for your opinions about the state of worship today. How does that make you feel? 

MD: It's been a painful journey. I've been misunderstood by lots of people. I've been accused of hating contemporary music—I don't. I've been called a curmudgeon, a traditionalist. But I'm not. I just want to see the whole Church included in worship. 

“It's been a painful journey. I've been misunderstood by lots of people.” 

At the same time, I've been encouraged by how many people want to thoughtfully engage this important issue. That includes many young people. A lot of young people today are realizing that the treasures of the Church from the past are being lost. They want to recover the ancient language of faith. 

They want more liturgy. They want more depth in the songs they sing. They want to be challenged to live lives of service and sacrifice, to make a real difference in the world. 

There have been times when I have felt like giving up. But the Spirit won't let me go. I've had diabetes for 40 years, my eyesight is bad, I have hearing problems, one leg is crippled, I had cancer and I had a kidney transplant last year. 

I shouldn't still be around, but God is keeping me alive for a reason. I feel a calling to do this work of teaching and writing. Every book I've written is one that I have felt called to write. It was as if the words were fire in my bones. 

JL: What is your hope for the Church's worship? 

MD: My prayer is that our worship will form us to be a people who dwell in God's reign and then carry God's kingdom wherever we go—people who are equipped to reach out to the culture around us with words of truth and deeds of faithfulness. I pray that God will grant our churches such worship—for His glory, and for the love of the world.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Setting the tone for the future unity of MB churches regarding LGBTQ+ engagement


Letter from David Warkentin to the BCMB and Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference executives; posted with David's permission.

March 22, 2021 

Greetings BCMB Executive, CCMBC Executive, and NFLT, 

I’m writing in response to the recent BCMB background explanation regarding Artisan Church (Convention 2021 Recommendations). 

As a credentialed BCMB pastor, member of a BCMB church (The Life Centre), and faculty member at Columbia Bible College, I take seriously my participation in our shared ministry as a family of churches in BC and Canada. 

Additionally, my teaching and research centres around dynamics of church and culture, examining the complexities of theological praxis in the 21st NA church. 

This situation of Artisan and BCMB is certainly complex and I am praying for wisdom and unity in this moment for our conference. It is in this spirit that I offer these comments on the matter. 

And to clarify, this statement reflects my personal views and do not represent either Columbia Bible College or The Life Centre in any official capacity. 

I appreciate the inclusion of explanation with the 2021 Convention recommendations; treating such matters of mere agenda items neglects the relational nature of the matter. Clarity and care with and for one another is vital for our continued unity as MB’s. 

I am concerned, however, that this statement unevenly represents the relationship between BCMB leadership and Artisan Church. 

BCMB leadership is described in a way that places them on the moral high ground for due process, giving the impression that where BCMB was proactive in the past 5 years, Artisan neglected discernment with BCMB leadership. 

There is reference to MB resources for discernment, but what specific resources have the listed groups provided? And how does BCMB know Artisan didn’t include MB theological resources in discernment? 

Nelson Boschman is a Columbia alumni and former faculty member; he has clearly been shaped by MB theology and praxis. 

Additionally, there is mention of BCMB requests to participate in the process, but this is a vague statement. What was the suggested involvement? BCMB Board members? PMC members? BCMB staff? And, what was the posture of this involvement? Listening? Teaching? Exhortation? 

These questions highlight how the ambiguity of the statement ends up providing a one-sided summary that assumes just because Artisan came to a conclusion outside of the MB Confession of Faith that their due process as a BCMB church was faulty. 

I’m not saying Artisan’s conclusions don’t warrant difficult conversation and due process in our BCMB family, but the dismissive tone of this summary towards Artisan and their transparency in practicing communal discernment as a BCMB congregation is disheartening to read. 

This dismissiveness neglects that Artisan is still presently a member of the BCMB family. Such a posture towards our sisters and brothers in Christ is regrettable and lamentable at best, and divisive and controlling at worst. 

It is not clear how this process has exhibited “love, mutual submission, and interdependence” (MB Confession of Faith, Article 6). The recent Posture Shift event, sponsored by BCMB, invited a tone of listening and respect amidst different opinions on LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

Can such a posture be applied to a denominational context? Can Artisan’s position be viewed as such for a time of communal discernment for a way forward? Can fellowship (i.e. koinonia) be maintained as BCMB churches strive together to bear witness to the good news of Jesus in the complexity of our given contexts (Phil. 1:27ff)? 

The tone of this statement implies that such fellowship is not a given, not a gift received by the unity of the Spirit at work in our midst (Eph. 4:1-6), but instead is controlled by the power of BCMB leadership structures in which short-term uniformity appears more important than the hard work of long-term unity. 

As a result, Artisan’s difference is automatically treated as institutional deviation instead of a relational matter in which one party (i.e. Artisan) has discerned faithfulness in a certain direction that would necessitate relational discernment with the household of God’s people that make up the BCMB body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 2:19-22). 

This statement reads as hierarchical discipline not relational discernment. The 10+ years of faithful presence for Artisan Church in Vancouver, including the faithful witness and leadership of Nelson Boschman in the BCMB family, deserve a better hearing as a member of this family. 

With these concerns in mind, my main request is that BCMB slow down the process for releasing Artisan from BCMB membership and take time once COVID-19 restrictions ease for in-person discussion and discernment for a way forward, choosing patience in dealing with this matter. 

At the same time, I recognize that Artisan’s priority, as it has been throughout this process, is their ministry presence in Vancouver, so I understand if they prefer to be released rather than serve as a lightning rod for a controversial MB matter of communal discernment. I respect their discernment for how to best participate in months ahead. 

To conclude, my study of trends in church and culture indicate that Artisan’s departure will not be the end of MB congregations actively discerning how to understand and practice LGBTQ+ inclusion in biblically faithful contextualized ways. 

This issue is not limited to one church that can be quickly released from BCMB membership; to process Artisan’s position and practice with such brevity avoids the realities facing Canadian MB churches in the years to come. 

How we respond in this moment will set the tone for the future unity of MB churches regarding LGBTQ+ engagement. 

No doubt, as MB leaders, you already feel the weight of these matters. I hope you receive this letter as my contribution to share in this weight of communal discernment as an MB family. 


David Warkentin

See other stories on this topic from Anabaptist World.

Canadian Mennonite Brethren talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion (March 12)

Asked to repent, LGBTQ+ Mennonite Brethren church withdraws from BCMB (March 16)

Open Letter Urges Canadian MB Dialogue on LGBTQ+ Inclusion. (March 30) 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Second Credentialed Mennonite Brethren Pastor Urges More Time to Address LGBTQ+ Inclusion


Note: As a correspondent for Anabaptist World, I am following the developing story of LGBTQ+ welcome and inclusion in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference. Most, but not all, of my stories will be published there. I will also use my blog to provide updates on developments. Links to stories in Anabaptist World can be found below.

A second credentialed Mennonite Brethren pastor is calling on the B.C. Mennonite Brethren Conference to take more time to address the issue of LGBTQ+ welcome and inclusion. 

In an open letter sent March 22, David Warkentin, who formerly pastored a church in the province now is Director of Integrated Learning and General Studies Director at Columbia Bible College, asks the BCMB conference to “slow down the process for releasing Artisan from BCMB membership.”

He goes on to say the conference should wait until after the province’s COVID-19 restrictions ease and hold “in-person discussion and discernment for a way forward, choosing patience in dealing with this matter.”

The letter, which expresses his personal views, was copied to the Executive of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren MB Conference and to the denomination’s National Faith and Life Team.

While grateful for the background explanation provided by the conference for why it is recommending the release of Artisan, Warkentin questions whether it “unevenly represents the relationship between BCMB leadership and Artisan Church” when BCMB suggests it was more proactive in processing the issue than Artisan leadership, and that Artisan’s leaders “neglected discernment” with BCMB leadership.

He goes on to suggest the statement from BCMB provides “a one-sided summary” that assumes because Artisan came to a conclusion outside of the MB Confession of Faith “their due process as a BCMB church was faulty.”

Warkentin acknowledges Artisan’s conclusions “warrant difficult conversations and due process,” but “the dismissive tone of this summary towards Artisan and their transparency in practicing communal discernment as a BCMB congregation is disheartening to read.”

It also fails to show regard for the church as “a member of the BCMB family,” he said.

“Such a posture towards our sisters and brothers in Christ is regrettable and lamentable at best, and divisive and controlling at worst,” Warkentin said, adding it’s not clear how the decision to recommend releasing Artisan exhibits the “love, mutual submission, and interdependence” between members of the conference as outlined in Article six of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.

As a result, “Artisan’s difference is automatically treated as institutional deviation instead of a relational matter in which one party has discerned faithfulness in a certain direction that would necessitate relational discernment with the household of God’s people.

This statement, he stated, “reads as hierarchical discipline, not relational discernment.”

Warkentin concludes by saying “my study of trends in church and culture indicate that Artisan’s departure will not be the end of MB congregations actively discerning how to understand and practice LGBTQ+ inclusion in biblically faithful contextualized ways.”

This issue, he added, is “not limited to one church that can be quickly released from BCMB membership . . . How we respond in this moment will set the tone for the future unity of MB churches regarding LGBTQ+ engagement.”

In a follow-up interview, Warkentin, who formerly pastored an MB church in B.C., said he was prompted to send the letter because he is concerned about the lack of information about the LGBTQ+ issue and Artisan and the proposed speed in making a decision.

He is also concerned about how the church promotes and sustains unity, how it exhibits “a faithful presence” in the world, and for churches that find themselves needing to speak up for people on the margins.

“The burden is often carried by these marginalized people and those churches which are taking risks of engaging them,” he said, adding that by walking away from Artisan the BCMB conference is “avoiding a risky conversation and hearing an honest reflection” from that church about why it came to that decision.

“The burden is often carried by those churches which are taking risks of going forward,” he said, adding that by walking away from Artisan the BCMB conference is “avoiding a risky conversation and hearing an honest reflection” from that church about why it came to that decision.

He also wrote the letter because of his work with younger people in the conference.

“This issue is front and centre for many of them,” he said, even if it isn’t for their parents and conference leaders.

“If we want to inspire them to have a vision for participating in the church in the future, we need to engage with them in issues they care about,” he said.

One thing he is sure of is silence on this issue is not an option.

“We can’t turn our backs on complex matters like this,” he said.

Neither Rob Thiessen, Executive Director of the BCMB conference, or Elton DaSilva, Executive Director of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference, were prepared to issue a comment on Warkentin’s letter.

Warkentin’s letter follows an earlier letter requesting more time for conversation from another credentialed pastor, James Toews and his wife, Janet, who recently retired from the Neighbourhood MB Church in Nanaimo.

Read David's letter here.

See other stories on this topic from Anabaptist World.

Canadian Mennonite Brethren talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion (March 12)

Asked to repent, LGBTQ+ Mennonite Brethren church withdraws from BCMB (March 16)

Open Letter Urges Canadian MB Dialogue on LGBTQ+ Inclusion. (March 30)

Friday, January 15, 2021

Belief in God in Canada, 2020: Scholars of Religion Weigh In

After Reg Bibby published his most recent findings about belief in God in Canada, I asked some scholar friends to respond to his research. I used some of their comments in my January 16, 2021 Winnipeg Free Press column about Bibby's research. Their full comments are below.

The average Canadian has moved toward no religion

Sam Reimer, Crandall University

I’m delighted to see Reginald Bibby continue his decades-long examination of religion in Canada. Without Dr. Bibby’s important work, our understanding of Canadian religion’s trajectory and current reality would be much more fuzzy. Many of us are building on Bibby’s foundational work.

Survey methods have changed over time (mail out surveys to online panels), and so comparisons over time should note this change. However, I don’t think this is an important factor.

Bibby’s findings are consistent with what other research has found—declining religiosity, with older, immigrants, women, and less educated being somewhat more religious. This strengthens his conclusions.

I continue to disagree with Bibby that “polarization” is the correct way to describe religion in Canada. For me, polarization requires Canadians vacating the middle (“somewhere in between” or “low religious”) category and moving toward BOTH poles (high religion and no religion). 

There is very little evidence that Canadians are moving to the more religious pole (they are moving to the no religion pole in droves), and we are requiring significant numbers of immigrants to even maintain numbers in the “high religious” category.

Nor is there clear evidence that the highly religious are becoming more committed or extreme in their views over time (even if there is greater space between them and the average Canadian. 

The average Canadian has moved toward no religion, while the high religious have hardly moved (which explains the increased gap).  

Finally, research over time shows increased disaffiliation, lower religious practice (like attendance) and lower belief is the dominate trend. Canadians become less religious as they age, yes, but the greater effect is that younger Canadians are less religious than older cohorts. In sum, it looks more like religious decline than polarization to me. 

Telling a pollster you believe that God exists means squat

John Stackhouse, Crandall University

A few thoughts:

Even though we’ve all seen similar statistics for decades, it’s still impressive that reported belief in God, even if qualified by occasional doubts (as I have them myself), has dropped from 70% in 1975 to 40% today. That’s just generic belief in whatever-you-want-to-define-as-“God.” We Canadians continue to race the Dutch—and perhaps the Aussies and Kiwis—for the steepest rate of de-Christianization since perhaps the French Revolution….

I’m more impressed this time by what isn’t different: 

First, there is no statistically important difference between men and women (when women typically are more religious than men as a global generalization); 

Second, there is no big difference regionally (not even “Prairies” as a unit, just SK standing out—an artifact of the survey?—and “Atlantic”…which I am learning from living here is slightly more “traditional” than the rest of the country, but not much).

Third, there is no big difference between older Canadians and Boomers—both now at around 40%…like the average for the country.

In sum, Canada is manifesting an increasingly homogeneous religious culture—with the exceptions being evangelical Protestants (whom Reg keeps calling “Conservative”—and in my new book on Evangelicalism I’ll show again what a bad adjective that is for evangelicals), observant Catholics, and observant members of other religions (who are still such a small group that they barely move the national needle). 

I’m looking forward to the National Household Survey/Census/Whatever the Heck We Have Left of What Used to Be One of the Great Religion Surveys in the World to see if indigenous Canadians continue to stand as the most Christian people-group in the country. But at the level Reg is measuring, yeah: it’s a pretty flat landscape, with those few spikes as exceptions.

I also have to shake my head at “God Is Still Doing Reasonably Well in the Polls.” I’m no political expert, but I should think that when a third of the country isn’t even confident you exist, no public figure should be beaming with pleasure.

And as a historian who also plies a trade as a theologian and teacher of world religions, I can’t help but recall James 2:19: "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Telling a pollster that you believe that God exists means (to use the technical Religionswissenschaftliche term) squat, the last time I checked with any theistic religion I know about….

Responses from the 1970s and today about belief in God not really comparable

Rick Heimstra, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

Reg is a pioneer on the study of religion in Canada and his work is the basis for those who come after him.

When he first started asking this question in the mid-1970s it landed in a more homogenous culture. The idea of what belief in God might mean and what someone might be asserting if they claimed to believe in God was more defined.

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t diversity then, but there wasn’t the same level of perspectivalism. Today one is more likely to say, “I believe in God, and this is what God means for me.”

In the past to say you believe in God was to assent to a creed, confession or other doctrinal statement. It was aligning with the perspective of your church or religious community, not with your own.

To the degree that we’ve seen this change, the responses from the 1970s and from today are not really comparable. The question may have stayed the same but the way it is understood has changed.

The more important questions both for the individual and for society are:

What are the consequences of what you believe about God?

How does it change the way you live and relate to others?

What is your relationship with God like?

Questions about what people believe are important, but questions about behavior are more likely to be predictive. When we do survey research we will often ask the eight questions making up Andrew Grenville’s Christian Evangelical Scale (CES). The question from this scale that will tell you the most about a person is still the question about frequency of attendance at religious services.

Weekly religious service attendance has fallen from 67% just after the Second World War to about 11% today. I think that religious service attendance and religious affiliation are better measures of religiosity because, not-withstanding that there are some more individual expressions of faith, for most people faith is communal.

The people for whom faith is most important are also those who participate most in a church or other religious community. 

For the most part, these findings don’t explain why we’ve seen these changes. What is striking, however, is that the changes in affiliation and attendance are fairly consistent across all sociological generations.

In fact, we may be seeing more fall off in religiosity among the Boomers than the Millennials. This suggests a cultural change rather than one explained by generations.

Yes, high levels of Millennials are Atheist, Agnostic, Spiritual or None, but in most cases they started there and have never had a serious encounter with the church or other religious communities. It’s not that they’re leaving at greater rates than other sociological generations. 

Belief in God is only a small piece of the larger puzzle

Joel Thiessen, Ambrose University

Headlines grab, and this headline is in step with several decades of “positively” framed headlines. Technically the headline is not incorrect; it just doesn’t capture the main storyline and shifting trajectory of decline that I might stress.

This said, while I don’t like his use of and application of “polarization” language in recent years, this re-framing in his work better accounts for the religious declines that are present … seems to strike a better balance than Restless Gods in 2002, for instance.

We do, in fact, see a spread of varying beliefs across the more religious and secular ends of the continuum, and his descriptive data helpfully show this reality.

My take is that the question on belief in God is only a small piece of the larger puzzle on religion and religiosity in Canada. This question alone does not really tell us much about how salient this belief is for the rest of a person’s life.

For example, I’m thinking of Nancy Ammerman’s great work, Sacred Stories Spiritual Tribes, or the book I am currently reading, Prayer as Transgression? The Social Relations of Prayer in Healthcare Settings. Here we see what difference something like belief in God may or may not make in a person’s life, the particular aspects of one’s life, and so forth.

This is not a knock on Reg’s work; survey data can only tell us so much, where these other qualitative projects are very useful to give us thick description.

As such, my read of the data is “meh” – interesting data on belief in God that doesn’t really tell us a lot about what difference belief makes or not to people’s lived experiences, thus how high or low should people be in response to this data alone.

I am more interested in the saliency and importance of belief ramifications to better interpret the starting descriptive data on belief in God.

One more thing that I was thinking about was the diminished level of certainty in one’s belief in God. As Berger discussed in the 1960s, and Steve Bruce has since picked up on, with greater diversity of belief in a globalized world it stands that a greater segment of the population might become less certain as they see the variety of beliefs and practices around.

This diminished certainty happens simultaneous to the increased degrees of certainty at either end of the continuum (i.e., polarization in its worst form in society, as manifest in the USA, for instance).

Change from the past so striking

Stuart Macdonald, Knox College, University of Toronto

What I will say is that Christendom was alive in the 1950s! Amazingly so and for whatever reasons, but it was alive, and people were building new churches because there was a demand for them. 

What I would note is the contrast between then and now. 

Yes, people still believe in God... okay. But it all seems very vague. The change from the past is what I find so striking. 

I also think the headline misses far more important issues. 

One thing I'd be focusing on in the current situation (if I were doing polls) would be the potential damage being done to the "brand" of Christian within the broader Canadian culture, given its political associations in the United States and Russia with authoritarianism. 

I appreciate that's different research completely. Butto me far more relevant from a variety of perspectives.

A more complex picture

Lori Beaman, University of Ottawa

I don’t have much to add to the already insightful comments. I am not sure what measures of belief in God tell us about religion and social change.

I’d be more interested in exploring how people perceive God’s impact in their day to day lives and intersections around important issues like climate change, social justice and so on.

In other words, a more complex picture that focuses on practice rather than belief, or in addition to belief.

More important question is how belief affects behaviours

Kevin Flatt, Redeemer University College

I agree with what the others have said. Whether people believe in God, however defined, and how strongly, are interesting questions, but the more important question in my view is what their (non)belief means—if anything—for their values, priorities, behaviours, relationships, etc. 

That's where the action is. I suspect that over the past few decades a big chunk of Canadians have gone from saying "yes" to a belief-in-God question, but it not mattering very much for their priorities, behaviours, etc., to giving a "maybe" or "no" answer to the question that likewise doesn't matter much for the aforementioned list.

Shouldn’t forget magnitude of the trend

Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, University of Waterloo

I echo most of what my esteemed colleagues have already said, and don’t have a huge amount more to add.

I will say this: It’s easy to get jaded or bored by a trend that we’ve seen develop over many decades, but we shouldn’t forget the magnitude of that trend nonetheless.

In Charles Taylor’s words, we’re transitioning from an age that lasted many hundreds of years during which the vast majority of Westerners believed in a Christian God, to an age now where belief and non-belief coexist and each group experiences the ‘cross-pressures’ of the other. It’s a fundamental shift in the composition and prevalence of worldviews that has many consequences throughout society.

Yes, the belief in God survey question is but one indicator and has its limits. And yes, there is a lot more complexity playing out in reality. But I do think it has its merits, and it is still a good indicator to help measure this overall shift going on.

I’m currently looking at Millennial numbers for the U.S. and Canada, and they are very much at the forefront and further along in this trend.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

What Was God Saying To Canada's Indigenous People Before the Nativity? Or, How to De-Colonize Christmas

At Christmas, Christians celebrate how they believe God came into the world through Jesus.

But before God came into the world 2,000 years ago in Palestine, what was he saying to Indigenous people in North America at the same time?

After all, it’s not like God wasn’t doing anything to communicate to human beings prior to that event—including to Indigenous people who have been living in North America for as long as 12,000 years. 

So what was God saying?

That’s the question I posed to my friend Terry Leblanc, an Indigenous Christian leader and director of the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies.

While affirming the traditional Christmas story of God breaking into the world as a baby in a particular place and time to provide redemption and restoration for all creation, Leblanc notes this doesn’t mean God wasn’t also speaking to Indigenous people before that event.

While the history we read about in the Bible was unfolding, “there was an historical timeline of equal length unfolding here and in other places of the globe,” he says.

This doesn’t mean “God, as Jesus, was here [in North America],” he adds, although he says there are Indigenous prophecies “of the arrival of the message of Jesus.”

But God “as Creator and God as the Spirit were here,” he states. 

If that’s the case, what was God saying to the Indigenous people of North America? 

According to LeBlanc, God was speaking about things like the seven teachings: Love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth. 

As an “Indigenous follower of the Jesus Way,” as he describes himself, the biblical story qualifies “the notion of the Creator’s sufficient revelation to Indigenous peoples in the past,” he says. 

“For whatever reason, God chose to enter God’s own creation in human form to perform the ceremony of redemption and restoration, through a particular people group, from a particular land, at a particular time, and that this was for all of creation.” 

When Europeans arrived on this continent, he notes, they assumed North America’s Indigenous people were heathens, people with no prior knowledge whatsoever of God. 

But they did, Leblanc says; they just had a different way of understanding and expressing it through stories. 

Christian missionaries assumed those stories “were irrelevant and/or replaceable by the biblical narrative, instead of recognizing the universal applicability of those [Indigenous] narratives,” he says. 

Blinded to the Creator’s presence among Indigenous people, and conflating Christianity with their own culture, the European missionaries sought to convert them to their way of being Christian. 

“It is this theologically aberrant understanding that has been thrust upon Indigenous peoples,” he says. 

But Indigenous people aren’t the only ones who need to de-colonize the theologically aberrant understandings thrust upon them, he suggests; it’s also something non-Indigenous Christians need to do. 

As Leblanc puts it: “Decolonization is just as needed for Euro-centric Christianity at Christmas as it is for Indigenous peoples. Only then will we be able to see a Christ-filled celebration that is not devoid of culture, but rather expressive of the intent of God through all cultures that have emerged through time.”

For him, that intent is “the redemption and restoration of all things . . . whatever hinders or redirects that intention needs either to be decolonized or set aside entirely.” 

So—what would it mean for non-Indigenous Christians to de-colonize Christmas? After all, it’s been colonized so completely by a culture of consumerism. Separating the biblical message from the cultural and commercial trappings of the season is almost impossible. 

One way to start is remembering the radical idea behind God’s coming to earth: to upend all rulers, structures, cultures and economic and political systems. 

Another is to remember how Jesus, during his ministry, discomforted the political and religious elite, overturned cultural norms and challenged theological certainties by doing things like eating with prostitutes, befriending tax collectors and re-defining the concept of neighbour. 

Or, as Christian author Jonathan Martin put it: If this Christmas the Jesus you worship “makes emperors feel comfortable and oppressed people feel unsafe, it's time for a grand reversal.”

Image above by Jackson Beardy. From the Dec. 21, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Cancelled Concerts, Lost Revenue, A Chance to Innovate and Be Creative: How The Pandemic Has Affected Christian Artists

In November I asked some Canadian Christian musicians how the pandemic is affecting them. A short story about their responses appeared in the December 5 Winnipeg Free Press. Here are their complete responses. 

Steve Bell 

Steve, who lives in Winnipeg, calls himself a Christian contemplative singer and songwriter. He is a member of St. Benedict’s Table. Visit his website at 

How has the pandemic affected you? 

Concerts have been cancelled for well over a year (I typically do about 100 a year.) When the pandemic hit in March, our first thought was that we may not be able to do concerts again until the fall. Besides regular concerts, we had to cancel a spring tour to Italy and teaching a summer course with Malcolm Guite at Regent College. Quite quickly it became evident that we needed to plan on how to survive until January 2021, which was unthinkable when the pandemic first hit. 

Now everything has been cancelled for 2021 including the CS Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford this coming summer as well the rescheduled summer course at Regent college. At this point we’re hoping to get back to touring in 2022. So, we’ve lost our major revenue stream for at least two years.  

CD sales are still somewhat significant for me because I have an older demographic that still buys them, although sales have dropped steadily as digital formats supplant traditional user habits.  

Digital sales earn the artist only a tiny fraction of what CDs did . . . so this is a rapidly declining revenue source. 

Donations, however, are up significantly. Within a few weeks of the lockdown we figured out how to get regular mini concerts up online that streamed to Facebook and YouTube.  We haven’t charged for them, but folks have responded generously through a digital “tip jar” ( and a donation portal on my website. 

We’ve also accessed government assistance, which has helped enormously. 

In the last couple of months, we launched an online media channel ( which allows us to put up new pay-per-view feature-length concerts as well as older concert videos and documentaries etc. that we’ve produced over the years. 

I just released a 90-minute concert celebrating my new album and plan to release a Christmas concert next month. In the new year we have plans for various themed concerts (Valentines, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day etc.) as well as releasing instructional videos for guitar enthusiasts and teaching videos around my book series Pilgrim Year. 

The impact spiritually and emotionally is hard to gauge. Besides the anxiety we all have to manage, I am fundamentally a live performer and so my primary area of gift requires gathering. I am learning to do online performances, and folks seem to appreciate them, but there is little joy in it for me. I feed off of an audience, and so, performing to a camera is a one-way energy flow that leaves me rather drained. 

I am having to learn to replenish in new ways which, for me, has meant being disciplined to get out for extended walks by the river and spending long periods sitting quietly in nature. With winter closing in however, this resource too is vanishing. 

And so, I’m really having to discipline myself to rise early to pray and read. Reading has always been important for me, even more so now. The difficulty though is the constant temptation to get sucked into the rapid-pace news cycle online . . . or just mindless internet surfing because it’s easy.

 What is the financial impact? 

Beside what I’ve already said above, with some austerity measures, donations, government helps and some new revenue from online innovations, we’re somehow managing to stay ahead of the bank. 

Government assistance, of course, will soon dry up, and it’s hard to know if people’s generosity toward this work will continue as the pandemic undermines their own financial security. But we’re managing so far. (By we, I mean Signpost Music, which consists of myself, my manager Dave, and two much needed support staff.) 

What can people do to support artists during this time? 

Every artist has a webpage or various social media sights where you can find out what they’ve set up for listeners to help them. Many have virtual tip jars like or Patreon accounts or other ways listeners can contribute. If you’re listening to the music, you should be contributing to its cost. 

Listeners need to understand that music platforms like Spotify are wonderfully convenient, but of no financial help to the artist. A song of mine got over a million plays on Spotify which yielded less than $20 for me. So . . . go ahead and use the platform, it’s a great platform, but please find a way to support the artists you listen to. 

Streaming calculator courtesy of Jon Buller.

Also, if you still have a CD or record player, please use them. We spend so much time and effort and money making sure our music has great sonics. Digital platforms (listened to on cheap earbuds) aren’t able to reproduce the fidelity of the recordings we actually make. It saddens me that so few get to hear and appreciate the delicate, loving attention that goes into this work. 

What gifts or opportunities has the pandemic brought? 

The pandemic is forcing all of us to innovate. And this is a good thing. We’re learning new skills as we come to better understand what our core gifts are and how they can translate into new mediums.  

By core gift, I mean the gift behind the music. I continually ask myself, How does God love the world through me? Some of us are encouragers, some are prophets, some offer praise, some offer prayers, others offer delight or beauty or simple melodies so that the heart never has to be without a hum.  

An unanticipated gift for me was that I got to record my new album without the constant disruption of heading out on the road. In 30 years of doing this work I’ve never had that luxury. With this one I could get into the headspace of recording and stay there throughout the whole project. 

The result, for me at least, is an album that flows in an easy manner that seems unique to this project. I hope others can hear that, but I can at least. And I really enjoyed the process in a way I haven’t been able to in the past. 

What is your hope for the church when the pandemic is over? 

This pandemic, coupled with the election south of our border, has been a true apocalypse. Apocalypse simply means to unveil, or reveal. And we’re seeing some things about ourselves that is far less than flattering; allegiances and ideological commitments that run in opposition to the way of Jesus which is, fundamentally, the way of self-donating (kenotic) love. I hope the church emerges chastened, humbled and re-newed to be the good-news gift the world needs us to be.

Brian Doerksen 

Brian, of Abbotsford, B.C, calls himself a contemporary Christian and modern worship musician. He attends a Vineyard church. Visit his website at

How has the pandemic affected you? 

I started out 2020 with 45 concerts booked in Canada and Europe. All of them were cancelled. I anticipate all live concerts in 2021 to be cancelled as well.  

What is the financial impact? 

The financial impact has been significant as we lost the income from the live concerts, as well, being that concerts is the primary place I sell CDs and any merchandise, that’s another significant layer of loss. (Especially after we had just ordered 2,000 CDs for the spring tour and paid for them and couldn’t sell them). 

Most of the buying public doesn’t realize that streaming pays the music creators virtually nothing so even if that area is increasing it increases by a few dollars a year. 

Because over 50% of my income is still connected to church use of my songs around the world (Canada, US, UK etc.) it didn’t wipe me out. And there was some funding that came from the government to make up the losses.  

What can people do to support artists during this time? 

The most important thing people can do to support artists in this time is to actually purchase music from the artist’s own webstore. Even if people don’t use CDs anymore, they can purchase a digital version of our albums (if people purchase that same album from iTunes the artist makes only about half of that sale.). 

Plus vinyl records are making a comeback (it’s the best physical format) and I have 2 of my recent albums available in vinyl. 

What gifts or opportunities has the pandemic brought? 

One of the great benefits of the pandemic thus far has been slowing down the pace of our life; by eliminating travel we are together more and just deepening our family ties. Eating dinner together every evening. This has been really good. More time with the family. More time at home. 

For my work and music, the pandemic is helping me pivot and prepare to do more online teaching seminars and song writing training. It looks like that will be my focus in 2021. And because the touring was cancelled, I decided to do a recording of hymns called ‘Hymns For Life’. 

The audio is turning out great, photo shoot is done and Roberta (in Winnipeg) is designing the artwork and packaging. This Hymns album wouldn’t exist with the pandemic and it feels like it may be one of my most resonant projects (release date March 2021) and one of which I will be the most proud.  

What is your hope for the church when the pandemic is over? 

My hope for the church is that we become less focused on the institution and buildings and more focused on relationships and spirituality that is rooted where we live, with compassion and justice for all. 

Honestly, I don’t how mega-churches that are program driven in large buildings can survive much longer. Perhaps they will find a way. The church always does, as long as she is willing to change, learn and adapt to what’s happening in culture. 

The beautiful thing about the gospel is it’s not about our programs nor dependant on our buildings . . . it about sharing life with each other.   

Our small church (Table Vineyard) in many ways hasn’t missed a beat because of how we do church. We don’t have any staff, we don’t have a charity, we don’t have a building (and we had none of these things before COVID-19.)  

We are all volunteers and we simply do life together, supporting one another, praying for one another as we share meals, go for walks together and worship together in a way that incorporates some of the ancient practices of the church while we maintain a relaxed informality. 

I feel like this type of church is sustainable, and was the only type of church I could be a part of after several intense church conflicts between 2006 & 2010 left me traumatized by so much of what church has become.  

Thanks so much for your interest in us as artists. What we do is not considered an essential service . . . but I can’t imagine my life without music and I can’t imagine life without the music of several of the people on the list that you sent this email to.  

Carolyn Arends  

Carolyn, of Surrey, B.C. is a folk-pop/singer-songwriter who attends an Alliance church. Visit her website at 

How has the pandemic affected you? 

Many canceled events; inability to work in the studio with other musicians during the early lockdown. 

What is the financial impact? 

I've definitely lost significant income from canceled concerts. I'm probably in a bit different position than most of the artists you are interviewing, however, in that, after 20+ years of full-time music, I took a "day" job five years ago. 

For this reason, I am not in a position of relying on my music as my primary income. I have to say, though, that I have been deeply concerned for my colleagues for whom music is their full-time income. For them, this has been a financially devastating time. 

What can people do to support artists during this time?  

I've noticed there are a lot of crowdfunding campaigns right now. I am definitely trying to support as many of them as I can and I urge others to do the same. I ran one on Kickstarter for two new projects in the summer and the support I got there has made it possible for me to create new music, which will be out early next year. 

I'd say if there is an artist whose work has meant something to you and you want to make sure they remain able to create music, investigate what pathways are in place for you to support them. That could look like a Kickstarter campaign, a Patreon or other ongoing support mechanism, a tip jar on live streams, or simply buying their merch online. 

Also, don't underestimate how much a quick email or direct message—just sharing what their music has meant to you—can be an encouragement to your favourite artist. 

What gifts or opportunities has the pandemic brought?  

For me, 2020 has actually been an unexpectedly creative year. Way back when the pandemic first hit, I was receiving the honour of having one of my songs ("Seize the Day") being entered into the "Song Hall of Fame" at the Covenant Awards. The in-person award show had to be canceled, but the organizers scrambled and held it online. 

During my acceptance speech, I was aware I was talking to a lot of artists for whom being unable to tour was going to be financially devastating. 

What came to my mind was the idea that this COVID season was a kind of exile, and I thought of Jeremiah 29:5-7, where God tells the Israelites that, in a time of exile, you should plant gardens and seek the welfare of the city in which you find yourself. 

I suggested that, for musicians, "planting gardens" might mean that this would be a season to write new songs, or at least to cultivate the soil for the writing of new songs by doing the sorts of things that nurture creativity (reading great literature, listening to great music, slowing down, praying, listening.) 

After I gave the speech, I felt hypocritical because I hadn't been writing much new music at all. So I tried to practice what I preached; slowing down, paying attention to meaningful things, praying, creating space. 

My duo partner Spencer Capier wrote a haunting fiddle melody called "After This," which we ended up turning into a song and a fan-sourced video (fans sent in their own photos and videos showing how they were experiencing lockdown)—all done from our respective houses in quarantine. 

Working on that song seemed to unlock something for me, and I experienced quite an intense wave of creativity, resulting in two new projects (my first in over five years.)  

Strikingly the second part of that biblical advice—to seek the welfare of the city—has become increasingly important during this COVID season as well. 

Not only in terms of following the guidelines to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but also in terms of paying attention to the heightening tensions around racial injustice and seeking to figure out how we can best be allies. 

What is your hope for the church when the pandemic is over? 

My own church (Pacific Community Church in Cloverdale, B.C.) converted our sanctuary into a food bank while we weren't having in-person services, and there was something pretty beautiful about that.

Yet at the same time, it has surprised me how intensely I have missed singing together in that very space. 

I hope we will emerge from this season more adaptive and innovative (having learned much about how we can connect online and still "be" the Church in the absence of our normal conventions), but also more grateful for the gift of community, and more aware of our need for each other. 

Don Amero 

Don, of Winnipeg, is a roots/country musician who attends Good News Fellowship. Visit his website at

How has the pandemic affected you? 

Once the Pandemic hit I lost all the gigs I had lined up from April to September. It was tough to lose those shows, however I have been going pretty hard in my career for over a decade and in some ways the forced "time out" was a welcome reprieve. 

I have three little children, so while I wish the pandemic had not been it has afforded me some good quality and quantity time with my family. Album sales over the last few years have been taking a hit due to the popularity of digital streaming platforms, so it wasn't much of a hit there. In fact my streaming numbers have gone up significantly this year.  

What is the financial impact? 

Financially it hasn't been as much a strain, but I attribute that to many years of hard work and the "back pay" of royalties are catching up to that work. So while for many artists it's been an extremely tough year financially, 2020 actually hasn't been that hard on my business. 

That said, that well is not an cup overflowing, so I am hoping that 2021 will see us being able to have shows again, but I believe for that, we're at the mercy of a vaccine for this COVID 19.  

What can people do to support artists during this time?  

There's quite a few ways people can support either with finances or without. A few simple ones are: playing our music on streaming platforms. At least in the country genre, those numbers can swing some radio support your way. 

Liking, sharing and engaging our social media content can go a long way in helping get our music heard. I know for me personally, I have a Christmas show coming up and it will be a virtual concert with a small fee. I'd love to see that be a thing people could get behind and support.  

What gifts or opportunities has the pandemic brought? 

I know I'm not alone here, but perhaps the best thing this season has brought me is an appreciation of the time we do have together. We all strive for connection and the loss of connection between artist and music lover is a really heavy weight right now. 

I have a feeling there's going to be some pretty epic gatherings once this virus clears and the relationship between artist and fan will be strengthened beyond what we've seen before.  

What is your hope for the church when the pandemic is over? 

My hope is that the church would focus less on itself and more so on how it can make greater positive impacts on the community around them. I think we often get stuck on the differences internally more so than focus on what we're being called to do.  

Jon Buller

Jon, of Vernon, B.C., isn’t sure what to call his musical style anymore. “I used to say ‘modern worship,’ but what does that really mean?” he asks. “I am a Christian music recording artist.” He is an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance church of Canada. Visit his website at

How has the pandemic affected you? 

All public events were cancelled or postponed. CD sales? I have a small closet full of boxes of Cds that will be recycled someday . . . or it might take 10 years to sell to folks that still use that mode of technology to listen to music. 

What is the financial impact? 

COVID, combined with the cultural shift of technology and streaming, has been the perfect storm for artists. Viable revenue models have been virtually erased. 

Streaming revenues for artists that make their living touring and selling their music have been diminished to the point that monetizing music revenue is next to impossible unless you are experiencing mass popularity.  

What can people do to support artists during this time?  

Any artist that is ‘crowdfunding’ could receive support directly through crowdfunding; it is ’the only’ real viable business model right now. 

People expect their music ‘for free’ and music has been de-valued by technology to the point that artists and record labels can no longer establish viable ongoing business models for their success or livelihood.

What gifts or opportunities has the pandemic brought?  

COVID has required not only artists but anyone with a message, to be willing to learn to communicate their message via technology. Anyone not willing to learn or adapt will no longer have their message heard. Anyone willing to embrace technology and learn to communicate and deliver their art form in a new way will survive and even possibly thrive. 

But the question holds the challenge. Many people are not willing to see the current circumstances as being opportunities. Instead they are “waiting it out.” Those who will continue or even thrive in the future are those that are embracing the challenge and mining for the opportunities that have been presented to them. 

In my world that means investing time and money into live-streaming, video / audio, internet marketing and creating products that are exciting, educational, interesting and entertaining in the world of the arts, modern worship, visual and performance arts, and leadership.  

Also, realizing that many people need help, affirmation and encouragement in those areas, and even that presents an opportunity and business model that can be viable in the future in the area of training and education. This is a clear win-win.  I need to learn, but so does everyone else.  

What is your hope for the church when the pandemic is over? 

I hope the Church will be willing to adapt and learn.  The Church must be relentless in reflecting the Creator who gave us creativity. We must not recycle or re-deliver our offering to the world, but instead re-think creatively what the world needs and ask how we can serve the world continuing the great commission to make disciples.