Canada is 150 years old! Hooray! How do we tell the story of God’s good news of the gospel in today’s Canada – a Canada that is so different compared to 1867… or even 1967? Most Canadians are open to spirituality but not to anything that looks like “religion.” Not that long ago the question people asked of Christianity was “is it true?”, but in today’s post-truth, post-modern era, the truth-question has been eclipsed by the question “is it good?” In other words, is Christianity even good for me and for Canada, or is it bad for us?
It is not only the Canadian landscape that has been re-shaped: the church landscape has also morphed. The old pan-evangelical coalition held together
by iconic figures such as Billy Graham and John Stott has fragmented into many groups, each arguing with the other in cyberspace. Many are saying that it is time for a radical re-thinking of the church and theology, while some say we need to return to our roots.
Maybe both are true: we need a re-thinking and a return. The Protestant Reformation began 500 years ago. Baptists, technically, were not Reformers, because our ancestors did not look at the existing church and try to tweak it. Instead, they started with a blank piece of paper and re-imagined the Church from the ground up. They re-thought the Church by returning to what they saw as its roots in the New Testament.
I believe that there are some distinctive things that Baptists have in our historic DNA that can help us navigate the new Canadian landscape. If we can re-connect with these things, and find fresh ways to articulate and live into them, Baptist DNA might be especially suited “for such a time as this.”
1. BAPTISTS BELIEVE IN FREEDOM OF RELIGION.
Our ancestors believed that the human soul was so precious that no government or church had the right to coerce belief of any sort. They believed in the free interchange of ideas so that people could choose for themselves. Baptists – at our best – are passionate about evangelism while holding to a person’s right to say no. Religious freedom does not mean that all roads are the same or that they all lead to the same place; it is just about believing that humans are made in the image of God with responsibility for their soul, and so should be free to navigate their path. Baptists were birthed without expectation that they would have privilege in their society: they just wanted a level playing field. This is “mature pluralism.”3 Can we learn how to have conversations about faith that are embedded within warm trusting relationships, and have a winsome and attractive tone rather than an “I’m right and you’re wrong” tone? Can we be enthusiastic about finding new ways to articulate and embody the gospel that connect with our culture, while recognizing that others have the right to reject what we are offering? And if we did that, would that sort of a church play an important role in a Canada that is open to “spiritual exploration” but not to religion?
2. BAPTISTS BELIEVE IN A GOSPEL THAT IS SPOKEN AND ENACTED.
Jesus both proclaimed and embodied the good news of the Kingdom. When we invite people into peace with God, we are also inviting them into peace with one another and with the earth. In today’s post-truth Canada, words by themselves do not signify any objective or transcendent truth for people. Actions, however, are an embodied truth that can create the opportunity for trusting relationship to develop so that non-coercive words can be shared in the context of conversation. Even Jesus had to use words to give context and content to his actions, so we dare not assume that actions in themselves are enough. Baptists believe in the “good news of the Kingdom,” and a Kingdom assumes both a King and a reign. This means that we invite people to enter the Kingdom by knowing the King of that Kingdom. Historically, for example, Baptists have worked against the slave trade and slavery, produced publications that communicated the gospel and discipled people, were at the forefront of public education and health care, and supported evangelistic efforts such as Billy Graham crusades. We believe in an embodied Kingdom and in the King of that Kingdom. Might that combination of beliefs be especially suited for today’s Canada?
3. BAPTISTS ARE (POTENTIALLY) LOCAL EXPERTS ON HOW GOD’S KINGDOM BECOMES PRESENT IN OUR CONTEXT, BECAUSE OF OUR BELIEF IN CONGREGATIONAL GOVERNANCE.
A colleague of mine once wryly said that Baptists believe in “congregational governance” on an episodic basis! He was, of course, referring to how our way of organizing ourselves may at times not bless entrepreneurial leadership, or may allow bullies and loud voices to dominate a situation, and thus hinder needed change. Our ancestors, however, did not come up with this form of governance because they believed in democracy: Baptist governance is not a Christian version of democracy. Rather, they believed that a group of Christ-followers could gather together, and with prayer, discern the mind of Christ for mission in their neighbourhood or town. In other words, they did not need a bishop or overseer to tell them what to do. At its best, Baptist congregational government can make us experts in local knowledge. It also allows us to see how God is at work around us, and how we can come alongside that. If our culture is indeed post-truth, it is moving past any trust in large institutions and movements, and it may be that the future is about millions of mini-contexts, where “truth” is discovered in actions and words in the context of a web of local relationships. Might it be that our belief in congregational governance is especially suited to today’s Canada?
Five hundred years into the Reformation, and 150 years into the Canadian journey, might this be the time for Baptists to be like the Tribe of Issachar, who knew the times and what to do with them?4 Rather than clinging to the past or abandoning the past, might the way forward be to re-connect with our historic DNA and re-imagine how to give expression to that in these times?
We need to acknowledge, however, that our historic strengths have shadow- sides. A belief in religious freedom can devolve into individualistic self-created beliefs. An integration of words and actions can collapse into either just talking (a dis-incarnated evangelism) or just doing (a Kingdom with no King). Local expertise can collapse into radical independence where we stop learning because we are isolated.
However, if we avoid our shadow-sides and build on our strengths, imagine who we could be! We could be people who are passionate about Jesus, but also passionate about freedom of religion; people who love the Kingdom and the King; and people who become experts on how that Kingdom is expressed in their local context.
Happy 150th Birthday, Canada! The best gift we can give our country is for us to return to our roots and re-imagine how to express them in today’s Canada. God keep our land glorious and free. Amen
1 Angus Reid Poll, published March 26, 2015. http://angusreid.org/faith-in-canada/
2 Esther 4:14. 3 Donald C. Posterski. True to You. Wood Lake Publishing, 1995. 4 1 Chronicles 12:32