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Getting Back to the Basics
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

I’m reminded of the basics when I meet Christians in the developing world who live in the midst of poverty and conflict. Their relationship with God is part of their daily survival. Even though our “survival” and challenges are for the most part different in Canada, our reliance on God is still important.

It sounds easy. But Christians have struggled with the tension between these two loves...our faith and our works...

Vacation this past summer has been a time of reflection and refreshment. I’m grateful for this opportunity that so many people in our world are denied, but now it’s back to work and regular schedules. But before the feeling of being in ‘vacation mode’ has fully worn off, it can be easy to over-commit, only to realize mere weeks down the road, that we’re also back to feeling frazzled and stressed.

The Gospel of Matthew records that when the Pharisees asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment, He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It sounds so easy. But Christians have struggled with the tension between these two loves—between our faith and our works, or between “being” and “doing”—ever since.

In this article we’re exploring that tension, and asking, ‘What does it look like to truly love God and our neighbour, here in Canada and overseas?’ Keep reading and you’ll find interviews with three experts on how Canadian Christians are doing on the basics. You’ll also find thoughts to inspire you, resources to equip you and practical tips to help you help those you lead get back to the basics too! (Dave Toycen, President, World Vision Canada)

Statistics

Do people who attend weekly worship services volunteer more than those who don't? We take a look at service and religiously active Canadians.

1. The vast majority of Canadians identify with the Christian faith. 72 percent of Canadians identify themselves as either Roman Catholic or Protestant.

2. Increasing numbers of Canadians report simply that they are “Christian” without specifying a Catholic, Protestant or Christian Orthodox faith. This group more than doubled (+121 percent) in the decade leading up to 2001, to 780,400, representing 2.6 percent of the population in 2001.

3. Canadians who claim a religious affiliation are more likely to volunteer than those who don’t.

4. Canadians who attend a place of worship weekly are far more likely to volunteer than those who don’t; 47 percent of weekly attenders volunteer, compared to 26 percent of non-attenders.

5. Religiously active Canadians give the most in terms of financial resources to charitable and non-profit organizations.

6. 42 percent of the total value of donations given to charitable or non-profit organizations in Canada is collected in places of worship.

7. 46 percent of the total value of donations is given to religious organizations:

·        15 percent is given to health organizations

·         9 percent to social service organizations

·         6 percent of the total value of donations is given to international organizations.

8. From 2004 to 2007, there was a 17 percent increase in the average donations made by religiously active Canadians.

9. Religious organizations do not receive as many donations as some other types of organizations, but they receive the largest amounts.

Loving God, loving neighbour

What are some of the unique issues facing Canadian Christians that challenge our attempts to love both God and our neighbour? And how are we doing at coming to terms with those issues as we strive to live fruitful lives? We approached three experts for their thoughts on these and other questions.

“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’”

Ted Byfield (TB) is a long-time journalist and publisher of The Christian History Project, a multi-volume series of beautifully illustrated, hard cover books that chronicle the history of the Christian faith. In the introduction to the first volume, he writes that documenting our faith history is important, to understand “who we are and how we got here.” He works with an editorial team that gives oversight to the project, representing Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant perspectives.

WW: The tension between “being” and “doing” (or between faith and works) familiar to so many Christians today is not new to this generation of believers. Help us understand the roots of this dilemma.

TB: The tension goes right back to the apostolic period where some have long seen a rift between Paul (whose epistles stress that faith plays the pivotal role) and James the bishop of Jerusalem (who argues in his epistle that faith without works isn’t really faith at all). Many theologians, however, deny there was a rift between the two, that it was all a question of which should get the greater emphasis.

The issue appears very strongly during the Reformation when Luther argued that we are saved by “faith alone” (solo fides) and that James’s letter in the New Testament is “an epistle of straw.” The Catholics on the other hand held that we were saved by both “faith and works.”

I pretty much agree with C.S. Lewis’s synopsis, that it’s like trying to decide which blade of a pair of scissors is the most important. If true faith is present, the works will invariably follow. And the works won’t mean much unless they are driven by faith in something.

WW: Jesus taught that the most important things we can do are to love God and to love our neighbour. How are contemporary Canadian Christians doing at living out those two commands when compared to  our forefathers in the faith?

TB: Frankly, I don’t think we’re doing very well. For some time we have tried to persuade ourselves that what matters is what we do—how “caring” we are, how “sensitive,” how “concerned” about such things as poverty and the environment—not why we do it. [Why] didn’t much matter.

We descend from a society that cared greatly both about what it believed and what it did. Notice that it was the first that fueled the second. But our belief in God through the last half of the 20th Century undeniably diminished.

If church attendance is an indicator of “faith,” then faith is evaporating, and works can be [expected] to decline with it. Many say, “You don’t have to believe in God to do good.”

This is certainly true of some individuals, but as Gallup has clearly shown, across the whole spectrum of the American population it is by far the church people who most liberally support secular charities. I doubt Canada is much different.

Is it not therefore possible that our faith is like an endowment fund left to us by earlier generations? We can either increase the fund or draw it down. In the last half century, the fund has been in steady decline and the social consequences that appear as private “charitable” work are increasingly taken over by government.

One other influence is also hastening this tendency. “Selfishness,” once considered a despicable quality, has been renamed “selfism” and has become not only acceptable, but even admirable. Indeed, some educators declare the development of “self-actualization” or “self assertion” to be the proper goal of the school system.

WW: What are the basics of the historic faith that all Christians—regardless of our particular denominational leanings—dare not lose sight of?

TB: Historically, the various creeds of the Church, or statements of belief, were set forth to answer this question. In general, there were three creeds:

1. The Apostles Creed. Its origins go back to the second century as the Christians found they had to contend with Gnosticism and therefore needed a symbol or statement of faith to distinguish what they believed from what the Gnostics taught.

2. The Nicaean Creed, composed after the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century.

3. The Athanasian Creed, which came about soon after the Nicaean.

I know some churches deny they need creeds, but it seems that when they say this they are referring to the specific creeds mentioned above. If you stop to think about it, it would be very difficult to have a church without any creed at all. How would you organize it?

Well, one might reply, we could simply say that all the people who want to belong to this church must believe in the Bible. That’s fair enough, perhaps, but notice what they have done. If you believe in the Bible, you can belong to the church. So the Bible, in effect, has become the creed. As Dorothy L. Sayers once wrote, it’s very difficult to work up much enthusiasm for a strong belief in nothing [whatsoever].

Christian commitment varies widely…

Frank Jones(FJ) is the Managing Director and Director of Research of the Christian Commitment Research Institute. A former senior analyst with Statistics Canada, and former adjunct professor of economics with the University of Ottawa, he is a current Research Fellow with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

WW: We know that statistically, the vast majority of Canadians identify with the Christian faith. Can you quantify the impact of that level of Christian identification on Canadian culture? In other words, what difference does it make?

FJ: Yes, in part. Our aim [at the CCRI] from the beginning in 2000 was to encourage Christian commitment, and to explore the nature, causes and consequences of religious commitment, Christian and non-Christian. We focus entirely on Statistics Canada survey sources that include questions on worship frequency and denomination, as a minimum, and any other questions on religiosity (How religious are you?), family (child, mother and father) worship and denomination, and the importance of spirituality in daily life.

I say we can quantify the impact “in part,” because you will find a far richer exploration of the nature of religious commitment in Professor Reg Bibby’s surveys and work. We relate our measures of commitment to such things as community engagement of many sorts, health of the individual, family and denomination, and happiness and well-being, and in these respects the Statistics Canada surveys cannot be matched, either in terms of the variety of impacts, or the sample sizes which are big enough to allow denominational, regional, ethnic and occupational detail.

WW: Help us understand the nature of Christian commitment in Canada.

FJ: Christian commitment varies widely by region, from lows in Quebec to highs in the eastern Arctic and Atlantic Canada, especially Prince Edward Island. Commitment also varies widely by denomination, being highest among Pentecostals and Baptist and other small denominations, and lowest among French Roman Catholics, followed by liberal Protestants—United Church and Anglican especially, but also Lutheran and Presbyterian, both of which have significant conservative and orthodox wings.

Ethnic variations are also great: commitment is highest among the Dutch and relatively low among the French and British, including the Welsh I am sad to say. Volunteering and charitable giving, health of body, mind and spirit, and happiness are strongly and positively related to Christian commitment within the denominations. We have produced many perspectives on commitment and its impact, over 50 studies averaging over 300 pages each perhaps, all available free at our website.

WW: Do you have any sense of the impact of this kind of commitment beyond our borders, in the developing world, for example?

FJ: Very few published sources I have examined quantify the impact [of Canadian Christianity] on other countries. In some of our studies we have quantified the volunteering and charitable giving going to foreign aid and internationalism, but it is very small compared with that going to domestic concerns. It is this lack of involvement that makes this hard to quantify because the samples are so small. There are two major data gaps: informal giving of time and money, and giving by voluntary organizations to other countries.

John Stackhouse (JS) is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College. A popular public communicator, he draws on history, sociology, theology and philosophy to explore the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary culture in North America and beyond. His recent books include Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (revised edition).

WW: Given the fact of our post-Christian, post-modern culture, do you think it’s getting harder to live an authentic Christianity than it has been in the recent past?

It is very hard to feel and to practice love for the neighbour when one is feeling embattled.

JS: It is certainly harder in many respects to live an authentic Christianity in North Korea or the western Sudan than it is in North Vancouver or western Ontario. But in [terms] of Canadian society, perhaps it is in some ways harder to live an authentic Christianity in Canada today than it was a generation ago. We do live in a post-Christian society that continues to bear some of the marks of the Christian culture that preceded it even as it also is divesting itself of other vestiges of Christianity as quickly as possible. And we do live in a society of fragments—disparate values, contradictory currents, incoherent lifestyles—that some would link with post-modernity. In such a situation, it is harder than it used to be, perhaps, to identify what is praiseworthy from a Christian point of view and what is not. Our situation requires us to analyze ever more carefully what is going on around us so that we may approve what is good, whether it bears a Christian label or not, and resist what is evil, whether it bears a non-Christian label or not!

WW: Jesus taught that the most important things we can do are to love God and to love our neighbour. What is your sense of how we, as contemporary Canadian Christians, are doing at walking out those two commands?

JS: It is very hard to think loving thoughts about, and perform loving actions toward, people who seem to resent and fear the joyful core of your life—namely, the Christian faith. We Christians therefore often disappoint God—we even bear false witness about Him—as we angrily encounter our non-and anti-Christian neighbours. It is very hard to feel and to practice love for the neighbour when one is feeling embattled. Helpfully, however, we have instructions about such love from an embattled Lord and an embattled New Testament Church.

WW: What are some of the unique issues—imposed by our culture—that heighten the tension between loving God and loving our neighbour, and how do we come to terms with such issues in order to live as obedient, fruitful believers?

JS: We desperately need a theology of creation to encompass and interpret our theology of redemption. We need to come to believe that God created the world, however marked it is by sin, and that he put us as human beings over it to garden it. That is our permanent human calling, and everyone who helps to garden the world, everyone who contributes to shalom, is doing the will of God—whether or not he or she identifies with Christianity. We need to encourage such neighbors and, indeed, join with them in that good, generic human work.

Yes, we must also be ready to do our specific, Christian work of testifying to the Gospel and to do all we can to make disciples of Jesus Christ. But that Gospel is a Gospel of God redeeming the whole world, not just saving human souls, and it is a Gospel about a renewed whole world. Thus everything matters, not just the spiritual, not just the ecclesiastical.

We are human beings first, and Christians second—and only temporarily, until Jesus returns. We badly need to recover a global sense of God’s work in the world and the goodness of all good work, whether done explicitly in Christ’s name or not. We will be much better neighbors if we can believe this biblical truth.

Without love

The greatest influence a leader can have is to be a channel of expressive love to God and an example of God's love to others. We take a look at a few passages from Matthew that give evidence of the centrality of such love in Christ's own life.

The hope of every leader is to have an impact, to influence others for the good. Yet it is that desire itself that can distract leaders and compromise the impact that God desires.Writing in his letter to the church at Corinth, Saint Paul the Apostle insists that without love, we are only noisy gongs or clanging symbols; we have nothing, and we gain nothing.

…any and all efforts at ministry not motivated, directed and infused by love will end in futility.

In other words—for the Christian leader—any and all efforts at ministry not motivated, directed and infused by love will end in futility. It’s worth pondering that simple truth as we reflect on the importance of keeping love for God and love for our neighbour central in our lives.

How did Jesus give evidence of the centrality of such loves in His own life? Consider the following passages from the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew:

·         Jesus sought obedience to the Father’s plans in His actions (see Matthew 3:15)

·         Jesus worshipped and served God alone (see Matthew 4:10)

·         Jesus cared for people’s physical, emotional, intellectual, mental and spiritual needs (see Matthew 4:23)

·         Jesus placed a higher priority on service to God and His neighbour than He did on His own comfort (see Matthew 8:20)

·         Jesus placed caring for the needs of others ahead of caring about His own reputation (see Matthew 9:10-13)

·         Jesus was compassionate (see Matthew 9:36)

·         Jesus put caring for His fellow man ahead of legalism (see Matthew 12:12)

·         Jesus was careful to attend to His own need for solitude and prayer (see Matthew 14:13, 23).

The example of Jesus is a clear reminder then that the real impact of a leader is linked to the ability to remain focused on God’s intent to express love, grace and mercy. The greatest influence a leader can have is to be a channel of expressive love to God and an example of God’s love to others. For it is always better to impact with love, than it is to be driven by a love to impact.

Willard Metzger is the director of church relations for World Vision Canada.

For a related reading list and resource guide, please see the WorldWatch, September/October 2009 newsletter.

Originally published in World Watch, September/October 2008.

Related article:  Leader to Leader

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.                                                 C16SE09

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