I corresponded with chapter leader and TGC Council member John Mahaffey, senior pastor of West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario. We discussed his hopes for the conference but also explored the overall state of the church in Canada, especially the rapidly changing demographics. After reading the interview, check out his short video on leading a multi-ethnic church and listen to him address “Building Gospel-Centered, Intentionally Multicultural Churches.”
Can you give us a feel for the state of the church in Canada today?
In 1900, 25 percent of Canadians were evangelical in conviction. That number fell to 8 percent in the 1980s, but has since rebounded to almost 11 percent. This resurgence since the 80s is encouraging, but this devastating decline over the last 100 years has left a negative mark on Canada. Theological liberalism was primarily responsible. The United Church of Canada's (UCC) drift into apostasy from its strong evangelical Methodist heritage is probably the best example of what has happened. The UCC is still believed to be Canada's largest Protestant denomination, but more people can be found worshiping on any given Sunday in Pentecostal assemblies than in all of the UCC churches combined. The effect of the UCC's abandonment of the historic gospel can be seen largely in my generation (baby boomers), who attended booming UCC Sunday schools in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. We were left largely untouched by the gospel and for the most part are no longer active in church life at all. This lost generation has produced the next largely unchurched generation in Canada today.
In spite of this I sense optimism today among those committed to gospel-centered ministry. There is a renewed emphasis on church planting, and some churches are experiencing consistent growth. In my own denomination (Fellowship Baptist) we have seen a significant number of new churches started in the last few years. Evangelical churches in Canada support a missionary force of more than 7,000 people around the world. When I travel to new communities and new housing projects and see churches being erected it is undeniable that the vast majority of them are committed to the gospel. French Canada is largely unreached with the gospel, but during the 70s and 80s great strides were made by evangelicals in Quebec. The rate of growth since that time has declined somewhat, but there are signs of renewed vigor, and churches are being planted. There has been an explosion of ethnic churches reaching out to the growing immigrant population.
Can you comment further on immigration to Canada and how this has affected the church's mission?
Canada holds the gold medal for immigration by taking in the highest percentage of immigrants each year of any nation in the world. For us that's 300,000 people per year. That's lower than the numbers who immigrate to the United States, but when you consider the fact that Canada is just 35 million people, 300,000 is staggering. Toronto is the most international city in the world, and Vancouver is actually the second-largest Sikh city in the world. This has presented great challenges and opportunities for the church in Canada. There has been a significant increase in the numbers of ethnic-focused churches, and denominations that once only existed in Africa, Asia, or the West Indies now have churches in Canada. These churches have done a great job in reaching their people with the gospel. Worship on any given Sunday in Toronto occurs in more than 130 languages. The numbers of Chinese churches in the greater Toronto area and in Vancouver have grown considerably.
Churches serious about the gospel and mission have had to rethink how they do ministry. How do we communicate the gospel to a Hindu? How do we share the gospel with a Muslim? These are questions we have had to wrestle with. Our Jerusalems with which we were so familiar now look and feel like Samaria. Our neighbors used to be those who were physically close and culturally close. Now they are physically close and culturally distant. In major urban centers where the concentration of non-Christian religions is the highest, pastors and churches have had to think and function more like foreign missionaries if they want to reach people with the gospel. Many churches have not adjusted well to the demographic changes in their communities and have closed their doors. Others have looked upon the new multicultural reality as an opportunity to remake themselves into a diverse community that actually looks like the kingdom of God. This was my experience when I pastored in Toronto. The moment the church I pastored stopped fighting the providence of God in allowing our community to change and embraced the people with Christ's love we began to grow and see many conversions. Today that church has people in its membership from more than 70 different nations. The churches in Toronto that are thriving today are either ethnic-focused or muticulturally focused. The church in Canada is no longer just a missionary-sending church. It is also a missionary-receiving church. We need experienced bicultural missionaries to come alongside the church and assist us in our mission. SIM Canada now operates an ethnic ministries department and helps place missionaries in churches that are serious about reaching their multicultural neighborhoods.
In addition to the challenges the Canadian church faces in reaching people of other cultures and religions, the greatest challenge is to uphold the glory of Christ and the gospel in the midst of a multicultural world. The emerging generation of Christian young people who have grown up with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists as neighbors and classmates can easily have doubts about the exclusivity of Christ. It's easy to believe that people are lost when they are on the other side of the world. It's another thing when they are your nice next-door neighbors.
Are there changes in Canadian churches and in your ministry that you have observed over the past decade that are personally encouraging to you?
There are three I can think of that deserve comment. Generally speaking I am seeing more of an outward focus within our churches. For so long we were just trying to maintain ourselves. A “hunker in the bunker” mentality was prevalent. Today I sense that churches are realizing that protecting the gospel doesn't mean hiding it. With the pastors I regularly have contact and fellowship with I sense that this is changing, and our focus is shifting to reaching out with the gospel. The second thing is the shift away from a fixation with methodologies. For at least a decade at every denominational conference I attended the focus was on ministry programs, being relevant, seeker sensitive, contemporary, etc. I don't hear a lot of that anymore. The emphasis now is on prayer and the primacy of the gospel. This is resonating in our churches. It is certainly our greatest need. In terms of my own ministry, what can I say? In June of this year I will be 56 years old. Getting older and heading into the home stretch of ministry has made me ask serious questions of myself. What do I want to accomplish in the next ten years? Where should I be placing my energy and focus? As I have prayed about this I have experienced a growing burden to influence the next generation of pastors and preachers. Interestingly, in just the last three months there have been six young men within our congregation who have approached me because they are sensing God's call into ministry. I am thrilled to be meeting with them and my prayer is that they will be just the first fruits of many more.
Why are you having a TGC conference in southern Ontario?
At the last national conference in Chicago in April 2011, I believe that close to 10 percent of the registrants were from Canada, so one might wonder why we would have a Canadian conference. Canadians are not so geographically distant that they can't attend a TGC conference in the United States. TGC's vision is to have regional chapters, but I view this as more than just a regional chapter. We want to give a Canadian identity to TGC. We appreciate the network and close relationship we have with American Christians and church leaders. Many TGC Council members are part of this relationship, but we have a need, particularly in southern Ontario, to bring together Canadian pastors who are in sync with TGC's foundational documents to fellowship and dialogue together around the gospel and the unique challenges that we face in our ministries in Canada today. My hope is that out of this conference we will be able to strengthen a Canadian identity to TGC and foster a greater network and cooperation among pastors and Christian workers. In addition to our plenary speakers we are also having David Short as our special guest to share with the conference the St. John's Vancouver story. This is a uniquely Canadian story of faithfulness to the gospel within a denomination in theological drift that needs to be told and will be a great encouragement to Canadian pastors.
How might your American brothers and sisters in Christ encourage the church in Canada?
The greatest way to encourage the church in Canada is with your prayers. The church needs revival. We desperately need a spiritual awakening. Joining us in prayer will have a great impact. If God is calling you into ministry, why not consider Canada? There are many opportunities here. Usually when you think of missions you think of heading to South America or across the Atlantic or Pacific. Do you realize that the largest unreached people group in the Western hemisphere is French Canadians?