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Reaching Canada Today
They are looking for churches that help them draw closer to God and that are contemporary, inclusive, relevant, and genuine.

In the article “Connecting Canada to Christ and the Church,” we saw that weekly church attendance in Canada is up five points from 20 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2005. Still, 45 percent of the nation is praying regularly! We conclude that 21st century Canada is increasingly interested in spirituality and is beginning to come back to church! We saw further how one nation is composed of distinct generations, ethnic groups, and religious affiliations—all of which feature both overlapping and differing values and customs. We reviewed Leonard Tilley’s 1866 hope that “the Dominion of Canada” would become a nation where Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, would be an empowering influence “from Sea to Sea” (Psalm 72:8).

Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley

Now we ask the question, What approach, therefore, shall we take to reach Canada for Christ and His Church today?  

First, a note of optimism from the data: the most recent Project Canada survey (see Reginald Bibby 2005) found that 62 percent of Canadians who attend church less than once a month would be receptive to greater church involvement if they found it to be “worthwhile.” Even among the “nones,” who have no religious affiliation, 37 percent declared themselves to be open to the idea! What do they mean by “worthwhile?” They are looking for church ministries that will match their interests and meet their specific needs. They are looking for churches that help them to draw closer to God and that are contemporary, inclusive, relevant, and genuine.

Churches are challenged to meet these kinds of felt-needs as they share a message that will stimulate people to re-prioritize their needs and enlist these new converts in the proclamation of the three angels’ messages. “Then I saw another angel in midair, and he had the eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation [Canada], tribe [First Nations, generations like baby boomers and millennials, occupational groups, Muslims], language [French, English, Cree, Tamil, others], and people [nominal Christians, Blacks, Whites, Chinese, post-modernists]” (Revelation 6:14).

Paul’s missionary manifesto

Our approach—as we seek to reach Canadians and ex-pats living in Canada with the Gospel of Jesus Christ—will take as its inspiration the missionary manifesto of the apostle Paul. Everywhere he went Paul kept his core philosophy of ministry in mind: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. . . . I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In short, we will identify with the groups and individuals to whom we are called, while not compromising our biblical morality—so that there will be no needless barriers (whether cultural or personal) that could prevent them from receiving Christ and joining His last-day church.

Keeping this mission manifesto in mind, let’s note four specific facets of our approach to Canada that are borrowed from a comment by Ellen White, a missionary to Italy in 1887. “When we came to Italy, it was with the desire that (1) we might learn something of the habits and customs of the people, (2) and the best means of reaching them, (3) but that we might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters, (4) and that we might also obtain a little much ‘needed rest’” (Historical Sketches of Foreign Missions, 236). I will superimpose this statement with a well-known comment by the same author on how to reach people, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men [and women, boys and girls] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’” (Ministry of Healing, 88-89).

“Learn something of the habits and customs of the people”

One of the reasons Paul was chosen to lead the church’s first century missionary advance was his knowledge of the habits and customs of the Jews (he was Jewish), the Greeks (he spoke and wrote fluent Greek), and the Romans (he was a Roman citizen). As we “mingle” with people, we learn their habits and customs. We may think, for example, that patting a child on the head would be a show of love, but in some societies it is almost the worse thing you can do. I once observed a foreign missionary on the platform beckon to someone off stage with the uplifted index finger (the way one would call a dog in that society), rather than with all four fingers turned down. 

… the quality of the relationship may take precedence over doctrinal content.

But culture goes deeper than people’s habits and customs; as we mingle, we also learn about their core values. For example, when reaching out to postmodern secular people—whether Generation X (post-baby boomers) or millennials— the quality of the relationship may take precedence over doctrinal content. If we are willing to meet them where they are, in time we will be able to help them to see the connection between trusting relationships and doctrinal truths.

Care must be taken not to stereotype people by assuming that every individual in a subculture automatically shares our customs and values. Our knowledge of the habits and customs (including the speech patterns) of the people is background information that establishes a comfort zone as we reach out to them as individuals. While it is difficult to “mingle with people as one who desires their good,” if we disregard their innocent habits and customs in favour of our own, it is no more acceptable to overlook their unique personalities while focusing on the cultural “norm.”

“Learn the best means of reaching the people”

There is a connection between learning “something about the habits and customs of the people” and “learning the best means of reaching them.” White mentioned this point again in an 1887 letter to D. A. Robinson and Charles Boyd, American missionaries sent to help start an Adventist work in South Africa. “. . . You need not feel that all truth is to be spoken to unbelievers on any and every occasion. You should plan carefully what to say and what to leave unsaid. This is not practicing deception; it is working as Paul worked. . . . He varied his manner of labor, always shaping his message to the circumstances under which he was placed” (Testimonies to Southern Africa, 1977, p. 16).

Contextualization. Today we use the term, contextualization, to describe what White was talking about in that letter. It means, “shaping our message [and methods] to the circumstances under which we are placed” or context in which we work. We can reach the people by meeting them where they are, by beginning with practices (such as prayer) and beliefs (such as one Creator God in the case of Muslims) that we share. It means using familiar local “Nova Scotia” stories and “Manitoba” metaphors to illustrate the message that we preach. In Canada it means making a special effort to reach out to non-attending “affiliates” (people who identify themselves as Christians even if they do not attend church regularly) because surveys have shown Canadians are less likely to switch denominational affiliation than are Americans, for example.

Contextualization is “risky business” because, if conceived outside the Holy Spirit’s guidance and without remembering Christ’s teachings, it can result in the “watering down” of doctrinal and lifestyle distinctives. In identifying with the people, we are not called to partake of their sins. So, truth in particular contexts can be known only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13).   This guidance involves “teaching us all things” in our specific contexts while “reminding us of everything Jesus taught” (John 14:26).  

So, contextualization is only a tool. It is a tool that God wants us to have in our toolbox; but it is a tool that must be kept sharp by the Holy Spirit. And it is a tool that is necessary at every stage of soul-winning: personal contacts and home Bible studies, public meetings and decisions for baptism, and the way local congregations in specific contexts serve their communities, nurture their members, and worship God.

Love and Friendship. People—whether spouses, relatives, work associates, clients, long time chums, next-door neighbors, or townspeople—are best reached of course through love and friendship. White called it “mingling with the people and desiring their good.” It means “showing our sympathy,” “ministering to their needs,” and “winning their confidence” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 89). In order to do these things we need to respect their customs and values, but that is only one aspect. We need to be convinced that Jesus loves us before we can reach out and share that love with others.   “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).

Making Disciples. Once we have gained the respect of the people by identifying with their customs, habits, and values; and once we have gained their trust through love and friendship, how do we “bid them to follow Jesus?” In the case of secular postmodern people and some non-attending affiliates, they may inquire about our own personal walk with God. They may be curious about what happened this morning during our devotional time. Even though we may have considered that a private matter, if we are committed to reaching them for Christ, we may be surprised at how the Holy Spirit can empower us to share. People who mistrust organized religion and “sacred Scriptures” may want to hear about how their friends have been directly touched by God. Many wish they could believe, but need a little gentle encouragement. Postmodern people have been burned by religious promises that could not be kept. Some long for Spirit-based community. 

When we are comfortable discussing spiritual matters, we may invite them to a neighborhood prayer group which eventually begins to study the Bible in a way that clearly shows the relationship between teachings and practical matters of daily living such as personal relationships, work problems, or family misfortune. When the time is right, we may see these friends attending evangelistic meetings and making a decision to commit their lives to Christ and join the Church in our quest to prepare the world for the return of Christ. Obeying the Gospel commission of Matthew 28: 18-20 means making disciples and planting churches as we go.

“Strengthen and encourage the brethren and sisters”

Third, White wrote in 1887 that she and those travelling with her into Italy “might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters” who were already church members. When people from out in the world come to church or come back to church after a long “break,” they look for an island of peace in a troubled world. They look for real community with an emphasis on the unity. Those of us who are old-timers may minister to them simply by not squabbling with each other! We can reach out by reaching in, by nurturing a church family that is characterized by a spirit of encouragement rather than fault-finding.

When we die to self, we make unity with our fellow church members possible.

Just a few hours before Jesus went to the cross He knelt in the garden and prayed for Himself, His disciples, and “those who would believe in Him through His disciples’ message”—namely, us! He saw the relationship between believer oneness (unity) and mission accomplishment. “I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).  

What is this glory that Jesus promises to give us? What is the glory that enables us to experience the “complete unity” that informs the world about Jesus? In John 12 Jesus predicted His death on the cross when He said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). The hymn writer also related Jesus’ glory to the cross: “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story—gathers round its head sublime” (John Bowring, 1825). So, the glory that Jesus promises to give us is the privilege of taking up our cross and following Him. When we die to self, we make unity with our fellow church members possible. When the world sees this unity, many [in Canada] will believe in Jesus (see John 17:21). In fact, they will know the truth about Jesus (see John 17:23).

“Obtain a little much needed rest”

The last desire of White and her group of European travelers when they came to Italy was that they might “obtain a little much needed rest.” Of course she was thinking primarily of the need for physical rest, relaxation, and recreation in the Italian Alps. We too are reminded of the dangers of imitating the workaholic lifestyle of Ellen White’s husband, James. 

But perhaps we may use this comment to remind ourselves of the need to rest in God, leaving the results with Him as we partner with Him in His mission. If we have done our part in acquainting ourselves with the customs and values of the people, reaching out to them in love and friendship, and bidding them to follow Jesus—we may welcome the Holy Spirit to convict their hearts and urge them to be responsive to our efforts. “Unless I go away,” Jesus said, “The Counselor will not come to you but if I go, I will send Him to you. When He comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7-8).


How shall we reach Canada for Christ and His church today? Perhaps we may take a clue for our sojourn in Canada from a comment White made as she and her travelling companions were about to enter Italy. “We came to Italy . . . with the desire that we might learn something of the habits and customs of the people, and the best means of reaching them, but that we might be the means of strengthening and encouraging the brethren and sisters, and that we might also obtain a little much needed rest.”

…Jesus Christ “shall have dominion also from sea to sea…

As we connect Canada to Christ and His church, we may consider the following seven-point strategy for reaching out:

  1. Find out where the people are: a little research
  2. Select the people: for example, non-attending affiliates, first nations, post-moderns, immigrants, millennials, French Canadians, or simply the townspeople of “Pleasant Valley,” British Columbia, etc.
  3. Get together: team unity based on self-sacrifice
  4. Meet the people: love, friendship, and service
  5. Share the Gospel with the people where they are: contextualization
  6. Stick with the people: discipling and church planting
  7. Send the people out in self-nurturing evangelistic teams: cycle completion

Our goal for Canada is the same as that of Leonard Tilley of New Brunswick, one of the Fathers of Confederation: that Jesus Christ “shall have dominion also from sea to sea [from the Atlantic to the Arctic and from the Arctic to the Pacific], and from the river unto the ends of the earth [from the St. Lawrence to the northernmost islands of the world]” (Psalm 72:8).

Doug Matacio is Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Canadian University College.

Originally published in Canadian Adventist Messenger, November 2007. Updated, October 2008.




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