Desert Brush: Deep Roots, Wild Branches

The Flourishing Congregations Institute reported a few years back that the United Church in Canada was closing a church every week. That can’t continue very long. Religious “nones” are the fastest growing religious group in the country–up to 25 percent of Canadians, and even a higher percentage of the younger generation. If churches contribute to the psychological well-being of their members and provide a rich blend of social capital for their communities (which churches do), something valuable is being lost in our country.

Churches have been commissioned to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ, which was spreading good news, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick. If the trend in Canada is the shrinking of these institutions, those that are left in this desert will need deep roots and wild branches (which is apparently the name of a book by Michael Beck). To me, that means they need to be fed by a rich tradition of faith–have some integrity and stability in their identity as a church–while simultaneously trying creative and adventurous experiments in ministry. They will need a non-anxious boldness, something I believe can be nurtured at the cross-roads of church and campus.

In this article “Churches are Closing. These Four Models are Thriving” Chris Morton talks about four fruitful church structures: dinner churches, an underground network, “blended ecology” and finally campus ministry. While all four are worth examining, it is the fourth which brings two strategic cultural institutions together: church and campus. Note that the case study mentioned in the article focuses on faith and leadership in the university context–directing university education towards engaging the problems and needs in our community. As Redeemer University’s motto used to say, “Learning is for serving” and leadership development is the way it happens.

The key for such campus ministry is combining the faith formation of the church with the wisdom and prophetic insight of the university. Its that nexus of church and school that creates leaders and in turn makes the church, school, and society much stronger. Global Scholars Canada does such campus ministry within a global network–growing branches that stretch beyond the national boundaries.

I am reminded that John Wesley said “The world is my parish.” This may have annoyed many priests who saw him encroaching on their local territories back in the day. But as the book The New Parish argues, churches can work together in the same parish and partner in community service. It need not be a competition. And speaking transnationally, especially with the common threat of environmental collapse, the world is our parish in a new and urgent way.

Yes, the church in North America is diminishing in number. This is not true in the Global South, for there the church is growing and in need of some of the resources of people and infrastructure that others might help provide. One strategic piece of such development is professors, academic programs, and universities that cross national boundaries. Higher education trains leaders; academics focused on the love of Jesus Christ create leaders who seek human flourishing.

This has been my vocation: to show one way to ensure flourishing is by bringing church and campus together–and now I think of this transnationally. Building a social fabric that weaves together churches and advanced training, which in turn engenders more democratic possibilities and economic development to happen. The hungry can be fed with good food, the sick can be tended to with caring and capable hands.

That’s good news for all.

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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church – in the heart of Toronto, beside Roy Thompson Hall

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