This is the ninth post in this series of fourteen. In the past fifty years our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by imported models and by a variety of traditions — you can name the one you know — but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the media — mostly from the U.S.A. The most prominent of these being Willow Creek.

We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life. There are signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadian believers. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.

My last post considered “Post-Charismatic?” by Rob McAlpine. This time we’ll look at Gary Nelson, Borderland Churches.

In seven chapters and seven appendices Gary Nelson offers a Canadian take on what it means to live in the borderlands. Or, more precisely, he challenges us to embrace the borderlands where we live. These really are two different things, because like our American brothers and sisters to the south, we have largely failed to live in the communities where we dwell. The borderlands are a place where faith and unfaith intersect, and a place decidedly outside the comfort zone of Christendom structures.

Gary is the President of Tyndale University College and Seminary. He brings a wealth of experience to this task, and the book straddles an academic and practical line with ease. While Gary works with a theological vision, his emphasis is on practice and to that end he stories this journey very well. Moreover, he is passionate about his purpose, and the stories he tells help us to envision a new kind of church and a new level of engagement in our communities in Canada.

The book is comprised of seven chapters, as follows:

1. Learning to Sing the Song
2. Crossing Over
3. Recovering our Roots
4. Landscapes and Tool Kits
5. Herding Cats
6. Missioning the Church
7. Mapping the Journey

On pages one to ten Gary offers an introduction. He sets his work clearly in the Canadian context, and then offers some reflections on the task at hand. Gary begins by noting the paradox that in Canada spiritual interest is growing at the same time as churches are dwindling. The tension this induces for religious leaders causes many to look for the “magic key,” a key which does not exist. But the hope and desire for that key has led us on a journey — from seminar to seminar, and book to book, and in particular attempting to import American models which were touted as the path to success or “the next great thing.” We often failed to do the needed work — theological and cultural-exegetical — or to engage in a listening posture in the places we live because we hoped we could simply adopt a working model from somewhere else.

BorderlandAt the same time, however, many churches and leaders have seen the writing on the wall. At one level or another there is a growing response to the movement of the Spirit, calling us to engage in the borderlands instead of remaining safely encamped around the boundaries. This brings us to the first challenge (p 9): “It will be impossible to lead others to places of effective missionary engagement if we, as leaders, are uncomfortable in the borderlands. Borderland living for the church requires catalyst leaders who are more than pastoral caregivers or great visionaries. They live what they teach… merely developing authority [and then] telling others what they should do will not be enough to mobilize.” Gary offers some examples, and then we move into chapter 1: “Learning to Sing the Song.” Psalm 137 is the paradigm.

“We aren’t in Kansas anymore.” Ripped out of the familiar world, Israel had to learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign place. Out of a deep sense of dislocation, the faithful of Israel must seek the face of the Lord. The temptation is to dwell in the past, in the “glory days” when there were predictable rhythms, adequate funds, respect in the wider community. When we lose these things we feel frustrated, often angry, sometimes desperate. Instead of pulling together and looking to the future we fight with each other about what change means and how to recover a sense of stability.

Gary quotes John Kotter of the Harvard School of Business: the greatest hindrance to needed change is lack of a sense of urgency (18). Kotter studied organizations which were struggling and found that complacency was entrenched. No one was asking if there was a better way. In fact, to his surprise, measurements of effectiveness were often adjusted to meet the downward spiral. Negative feedback was often ignored and the status quo was celebrated.

I appreciated that Gary closes this chapter with a challenge to theological reflection as well as courage to resist the calls to “go back to Egypt.” We want the story to be about us.. our comfort, our welfare. But this isn’t the story that God is writing — it is much, much larger. A consumer focused ministry is not about the Gospel, but about a distorted western reading shaped by the Enlightenment and a market culture. Gary quotes Eddie Gibbs in Leadership Next, and then we move to chapter two..

Previous posts in this “Made in Canada” series:

A Happy Ending, published by The Story in Sarnia, Ontario.
Beautiful Mercy, published by St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg.
The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg.
Where Mortals Dwell, by Craig Bartholomew in Hamilton
The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan, by John Bowen in Toronto
Plunging Into the Kingdom Way, by Tim Dickau in Vancouver
Sacred Space for the Missional Church by Bill McAlpine in Calgary
Post-Charismatic? by Rob McAlpine in Kelowna