A recent CBC news article projected that 9,000 Canadian churches will close over the next 10 years. That’s approximately one-third of Canadian churches gone in a decade. It’s not news that the church in Canada is dying, but it is shocking how fast it’s happening.
Many denominations are responding to this current crisis by adopting a missional approach to church ministry. Most missional conversations seem to be fixated on reaching the millennials, the Nones, the Dones and the spiritual-but-not-religious people. Here is a concise summary of these four groups that are distinct but have many overlaps:
- Millennials are a diverse group of people born in the 1980s and 1990s (this is the general categorization). Millennials are the largest generation in Canada—currently tied with the boomers—making up more than 27 percent of the Canadian population.
- Nones are a diverse group of people who don’t identify with any religion. Some are atheist or agnostic, while others believe in God or a higher power; 24 percent of Canadians are Nones, but this percentage is higher with younger Canadians (34 percent of millennials, for instance). Nones are the fastest growing “religious” group in Canada.
- Dones are people who used to be active in church but have stopped participating. Many Dones grew up in the church and left in early adulthood. The Canadian church loses between 60 percent and 90 percent of its young people by early adulthood (stats vary depending on what research you look at). Dones are not just young people, though. Many in their 40s, 50s and 60s are leaving the church as well.
- Spiritual-but-not-religious people are a diverse group who value spirituality and spiritual growth but mistrust, or are opposed to, organized institutional religion.
The question most churches and denominations are seeking to answer is: “How do we reach these people?” I don’t have answers to this question but I have some observations.
First, this question is part of the problem. When we talk about reaching people—or worse, when we talk about evangelizing, winning or saving their souls—we are creating a relational barrier. This barrier is our subtle—and too often not-so-subtle—sense of superiority.
Most Christians don’t think of it this way, but our outreach attitude typically communicates that we have what everyone else needs. What we have is better than what they have. Even with approaches like “relationship evangelism,” we fail to develop authentic spiritual connections with people because they sense this attitude of superiority.
The only way to build authentic spiritual connections with people is to develop relationships of mutual trust and respect, with mutual transformation as the goal. This takes time, humility and openness. It also requires a theological and spiritual shift in us.
To make mutual transformation the goal in any relationship means recognizing God is present and active in the other person, whether Christian or not. It means acknowledging God’s intention for bringing us together is, in part, so I can be healed, renewed and transformed. It means expecting the Spirit to teach and “disciple” me through this person or, at the very least, to be open to this possibility.
In Acts 10, we see God is active in the lives of both Cornelius and Peter. God brings them together so they can both grow and be transformed. Peter is an apostle and leader in the early church, whereas Cornelius is an unclean Gentile and centurion in the Roman army. Yet notice in the story that Peter’s beliefs and theology are changed as much as, if not more than, Cornelius’s beliefs and theology. This is a story of mutual transformation. This is authentic spiritual connection.
In my experience, when Jesus calls us to “reach out” to people, he calls us to let them in. Into our homes, social circles, friendship networks and church communities. He calls us to invite them to our kitchen tables and communion tables. He calls us to open our hearts and minds to their stories, experiences and wisdom, so we can be transformed by the Spirit through our mutually transforming relationships.
I’m learning that when I let others in, I let Christ in. As I actively listen to others, I increase my capacity to hear the still small voice of God. As I love others, I understand and experience God’s love for me more clearly.
Our “success” in faithful outreach is not measured by how many souls we save. It is evidenced by the ongoing transformation in our own lives as we genuinely connect with others and let them in.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is slowly learning how to genuinely connect and let others in.
Read more Life in the Postmodern Shift columns by Troy Watson:
Healthy interpersonal confession
What 'confessing your sins to one another' isn't
Confession as a personal spiritual practice
Worship as an act of loving God
Sharing life with your tribe
—Updated June 20, 2019