A Future for Christian Higher Education, Part I

Problem #1: The Church is experiencing a crisis in Canada.

Canada is experiencing rapid changes in its social, spiritual, and moral climate that increasingly conflict with traditional Christian beliefs and values. In slightly over a year, Canada passed Bill C-7, expanding euthanasia law1, Bill C-4, criminalizing conversion therapy without clearly defining what “conversion therapy” means,2 and increased spending on abortion in response to the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.3 Canada’s 2018 Supreme Court decision to rule against Trinity Western University’s appeal to have a law school that required a Christian code of conduct for students demonstrated limits to religious freedoms under Canada’s Charter.4

The church in Canada is similarly battling both external and internal threats to its integrity and identity. With publicity featuring heated divisiveness over COVID-19 regulations, sexual scandals involving prominent Christian leaders in Canada and internationally, and the church’s historic involvement with Canada’s Residential Schools, it is little wonder that opinions of the church are declining among both Christians and the general population5 and that “the proportion of Millennial Christians who feel the Christian Church is ‘harmful’ or ‘detrimental’ has doubled” between 2019-2021.6 COVID-19 accelerated an already marked decline in church attendance, particularly among Millennials,7 and the emergence of Generation Z introduces the first “post-Christian” generation.8

With the prominence of online platforms featuring intelligent, aggressively evangelistic atheists intent on “de-converting” believers,9 the rise of “deconstructed,” “progressive,” and “Exvangelical” imposter Christianities,10 and at least two decades of “moralistic therapeutic deism” having replaced historic Christianity in the beliefs and teachings of too many churches,11 the church is experiencing a crisis in Canada at least twenty years in the making. Reflecting on the church’s “vapid” theological witness as revealed by the 2002-2004 National Study of Youth and Religion, study researcher Kenda Creasey Dean remarked over a decade ago:

[Y]outh are unlikely to take hold of a ‘god’ who is too limp to take hold of them. Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary.12

For too long, in too many places, the church has failed compellingly to present a robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered alternative to secular culture. And it has caught up with us.

What is the solution?

1. We need a robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered church.

Over two thousand years ago, Jesus’ solution to the world’s social, spiritual, and moral problems was to offer himself and to introduce the church as his witness. Canadian theologian Clark H. Pinnock puts it, “The church is the instrument of Christ, called to carry on his mission in the power of the Spirit.”13 When Jesus concluded his earthly work, he promised his disciples empowerment for mission (Acts 1:8) and commissioned them to:

“go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Jesus’ solution was to teach leaders, who would teach other leaders, who would teach other leaders, continuously, to establish church communities throughout both time and the world. Paul passes the same practice on to Timothy:

“What you have heard from me through many witnesses, entrust these things to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well” (2 Timothy 2:2).

How do we (re-)establish a robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered church?

2. We need robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered leaders.

Jesus’ solution to focus on leaders could have come from any contemporary leadership literature. As John Maxwell’s familiar maxim states, “everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Students worship at Horizon's Open House event, 2022.

Students worship at Horizon’s Open House event, 2022.

Keep reading Who will lead Canada?

Young adults worship at church.
Keep Reading

______________________
Dr. Jeromey Martini, President, Horizon College & Seminary and Professor of New Testament Studies

1 See Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, “The EFC Laments the Passing of Bill c-7” (March 23, 2021) at www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Communications/Official-statements/March-2021/The-EFC-laments-the-passing-of-Bill-C-7.

2 The bill passed into law on January 7, 2022, rushed through both the House of Commons and Senate in just a week (a process usually taking months) with no opposition from any political party. Concerns have been raised not against banning the harmful practices of conversion therapy, but with the highly ambiguous terminology used to define conversion therapy – the “attempt to change one’s orientation towards a predefined goal.” The EFC expresses concerns “about whether a sermon series or a youth Bible study or other programs on sexual ethics offered to those wanting to order their sexual lives in accordance with their religious conscience would be construed to fit the definition of a practice, treatment or service. And since the definition of conversion therapy includes reducing sexual behaviour, programs offered in a church or ministry setting that consider sexual behaviour could be considered as being toward a ‘predefined goal.'” See EFC, “Bill C-4 to Ban Conversion Therapy” (November 29, 2021, with 2022 update). www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Resources/Government/2020/Bill-C-4-to-Ban-Conversion-Therapy. See also Flyn Ritchie, “Bill C-4 Criminalizes Conversion Therapy – Without Opposition” The B.C. Catholic (December 15, 2021) at https://bccatholic.ca/news/canada/bill-c-4-criminalizes-conversion-therapy-without-opposition.

3 Government of Canada, “Government of Canada Strengthens Access to Abortion Services” (May 11, 2022), at www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/news/2022/05/government-of-canada-strengthens-access-to-abortion-services.html.

4 See the discussions in Bruce J. Clemenger, “Making Sense of the TWU Court Decision: Part One” at www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Communications/Articles/June-2018/Making-Sense-of-the-TWU-Court-Decision-Part-One. Parts Two and Three follow.

5 Barna Group, “The Connected Generation: How Christian Leaders around the World Can Strengthen Faith & Well-Being among 18-35-Year-Olds” (Barna Group, 2021), p. 23.

6 Barna, “Connected,” p. 22.

7 This is particularly pronounced among young adults. According to the 2021 Barna/World Vision report, 41% of Canadian young adults reported they are still attending the same church they attended before COVID-19, and nearly 1/3 has stopped attending altogether with 1/3 reporting they are unsure whether they will reengage. Barna, “Connected,” p. 42. In 2011, the EFC had already identified the mass exit of young adults from the church
in their study by James Penner et al., “Hemorrhaging Faith,” available at https://faithformationlearningexchange.net/uploads/5/2/4/6/5246709/hemorrhaging-faith-april-4-2013.pdf. The 2018 follow-up report, “Renegotiating Faith,” focused on what retains young adults in the church. See a summary by Alex Newman, “How Young Adults Renegotiate Faith: What Churches and Parents Need to Know about New Research” in Faith Today (Sep/Oct 2018), accessible at https://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/Communications/Articles/November-2018/How-young-adults-renegotiate-faith-What-churches.

8 Generation Z is typically measured as those born between 1995-2009, with Generation Alpha as those born from 2010. Pew initiates GenZ in 1997. This generation has fewer members with associations to Christianity than those without them, marking them the first truly post-Christian generation. See James Emery White, Meet Generation Z; Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker, 2017), p. 49.

9 The enduring YouTube popularity of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris or Duke New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman continue to compete for the faith of church-going Christians. A popular Christian program that offers counterpoints to these views is the British podcast (and radio show), “Unbelievable?” accessible at https://www.premierchristianradio.com/shows/saturday/unbelievable.

10 The attraction of authors like Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr and the late Rachel Held Evans is their offer of a Christianity consistent with contemporary culture – a Christianity that not only champions social justice and care for the environment but that also embraces religious pluralism, affirms LGBTQ2+, and advocates for racial justice through theories of intersectionality and rejection of “white privilege.” On the other side, John Mark Comer represents a popular Millennial pastor advocating for a return to biblical Christianity. See his recent book, Live No Lies: Recognize and Resist the Three Enemies that Sabotage Your Peace (WaterBrook, 2021) and his podcast, with Mark Sayers, This Cultural Moment at https://thisculturalmoment.com/ – “a podcast about following Jesus in the post-Christian world.”

11 Sociologist Christian Smith and his team at the National Study of Youth and Religion, University of Notre Dame, concluded back in 2005 that the “Christianity” present among US youth surveyed in the church between 2002-2005 was sufficiently foreign to the markers of historic Christianity that it had to be classified as something else. The team settled on “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a means of describing this feel-good, generic, low-commitment view of God. More alarming, the team discovered that youth typically mirrored their parents’ religious views. That suggests that now, twenty years later, the youth interviewed for that study are today’s parents, and their parents are the grandparents of today’s youth, entrenching “moralistic therapeutic deism” for at least two generations in the church. See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2005), 30-71. See additional resources at the NSYR website, https://youthandreligion.nd.edu/. See also my brief essay: Jeromey Martini, “Contextualizing the Gospel: Protecting Next Generation Witness,” in His Witnesses: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World (Mississauga: The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, 2013), pp. 101-110, available in its longer, pre-publication form at https://celectcdn.s3.amazonaws.com/files/0030/5123/Contextualization_Needs_Content_FINAL2.pdf.

12 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 36.

13 Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (IVP, 1996), 116.

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