This blog represents the thoughts of the author. While they may reflect the theological position of The Renewal Fellowship, they should not be seen as an official statement.
I'm a young-enough Christ follower to remember my seeker days. I was a believer in something. God for sure. Jesus, yes. But was He the actual Son of God, the only way to connect to the Creator?
I had my doubts. That despite having been raised in church, knowing the Anglican liturgy by heart, having completed confirmation classes and having a bishop place hands on me, having worked as a counsellor and senior staff at our diocesan summer camp and even, amazingly, making the sacrificial decision to send our sons to an independent Christian school and being an active part of a local church.
I'm going to hazard a guess that there are a lot of folks like me out there. Lost sheep, I like to call them. Raised in the church, or at least being exposed to a basic understanding of faith, the Word had been planted, but like that powerful parable of the seeds which fell on rocky ground or among thorns, there was no life. They are just waiting to be born again.
How do I know this? Well, despite the widespread belief that our world is bordering on hostile atheism, I'm going to suggest that it's more naively agnostic. The enemy undeniably has control of our culture and many have been sucked in. But what we forget is that our laws are based on Judeo-Christian principles and the first line of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) says, "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:" Yes, that's 1982, not 1882.
There is a deep faith foundation out there. The cause is not lost.
I also know this because not once in my eight years as a pastor has anyone been openly hostile in my face. Quite the opposite; I am respectfully received in the community and in my neighbourhood when I tell them what I do. Even more compelling is the fact that at every funeral I have done, I witness gently but boldly about the reason for my faith. And without exception, at least one unchurched person has approached me afterward and thanked me.
This gives me great hope.
So, when we locked our doors on Sunday mornings and cancelled midweek programs in mid-March, amidst dire predictions of illness and death, I changed the sign outside the church and did some website and Facebook house cleaning – putting on an inviting smiley face for all the desperate seekers bound to come our way.
While I'm glad that widespread devastation didn't happen, the lost sheep remain out there. And the ones commanded to reach them and teach them remain locked up in here.
Can we bridge that divide somehow? Yes. There are bold attempts going on to make connections. Cue the creative use of online technology.
Matthew Ruttan is minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Barrie, Ontario. He knows that church buildings might look scary. What actually goes on in there? Those who dare to enter – God bless them – might be mystified by the orders of service and words. Why do some of us do prayers of confession and hear words of assurance? Why are we so Bible-centric? Who are all these elders? And so on. All of that may be second nature to those in the pews, but it can be a huge barrier to the uninitiated. (Ever been in a court room? Lawyer talk is a foreign language unless you know the reason for it.)
People who have never set foot in a church use such terms as "Gospel truth" and "he's an evangelist for the company's business plan," Ruttan says. "We assume people know what the gospel is."
Of course, they don't.
That's one reason that he produced a two-and-a-half minute video recently, entitled The Gospel, which he plans to air at the beginning of every service. It's a lively, timely and accurate micro-primer of the Christian faith. Watch and listen to it enough, as maybe that's the primer that a seeker needs – a mini catechism.
This online gospel primer might not have happened if it were business as usual.
(For the record, you don't need special training to produce a video such as this. Just the desire. Matthew writes, "The music and pictures are free for Internet videos. I just use the native Movie Maker program that is on Windows operating systems. I find the videos on free video websites and use canva.com for the rest of the graphics. I use the free YouTube audio library to find music. Different free fonts can be found online too.")
In London, Ontario, the lead pastor of a growing non-denominational church plant tells me that his congregation's Bible study/fellowship groups were meeting in person and going quite well before the pandemic. What then? Meet online of course. He now uploads a personal 3-4-minute mini teaching, which the groups take in before opening Scripture and discussing on their own.
"We've got more community in those groups than there was before on Sunday morning," he says.
It's one of the essentials of the mission field: equip believers to make more believers. I look forward to seeing how this evolves.
These are only two examples.
In a general sense, congregations everywhere are seeing people online who would never have dared to enter a church before all this. At St. Andrew's in Dresden, Ontario, I'm sometimes getting more views of my 12-minute online weekly YouTube messages from folks on unique devices than I would get warm bodies on a Sunday morning. True, a view does not automatically translate into the full rapt attention of a person who takes in a satisfying spiritual meal. But then, how do we know that the people listening politely in the pews are doing the same?
All we can do is sow the seeds and allow God to do the rest.
At St. Andrew's, I'm told by reliable sources that some of these viewers are not regular churchgoers. One's a family member who lives somewhere east of Kingston, Ontario. Another lives only a few blocks away. Again, people are hearing the Word who would not otherwise.
Are we about to enter a new age of seed sowing? I am praying so.
This unexpected season of adjustment for church leaders is perhaps a wake up that most of us needed. Help us, as poet Robbie Burns once said, "to see ourselves as others see us." Help us recognize the barriers. Give us eyes to see where we are speaking a foreign church language. And doing strange churchy things. Then react accordingly.
Be honest. Tell the story that reveals the reason for the hope we have. Talk like normal people. Allow the Holy Spirit to equip us and provide the words. Sow those seeds.