Borderland Churches -- An Interview with Gary Nelson

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 cousins 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.

Until recently Gary was the General Secretary for Canadian Baptist Ministries. on Febuary 2nd he accepted the post as the new President of Tyndale Seminary.

Gary brings a wealth of experience to his efforts, and the book straddles an academic and practical line with ease. While Gary works at a theological task, 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.

In the book Gary begins by noting the paradox that in Canada spiritual interest is growing at the same time as churches are dwindling. This observation has been supported by others like Reg Bibby, or in the American context by Reg McNeal who quipped that "the church is now more secular than the culture."

Q. Gary, this is one observation that is difficult for those within the church culture to understand. How do we help our churches to make sense of this?

One the comments that I would make from a Canadian perspective is simply look at where most of the major large churches are located in our cities. The "tribe" I serve, Canadian Baptists, is one of the few groups of what is commonly called "evangelical" that still have older established churches in most of the major downtown cores. The reason is simple- we became particularly adept at drawing in a certain kind of people and churches moved with their people. This is customer service at its best-we sell the product that people want-our kind of people that is. So Christianity and church has become a decidedly middle class suburban activity: a dwindling market share but one which we were good at reaching.

We have become a subculture entrapped in a language, assumptive frameworks, values and behaviours that simply mirror the culture and are disconnected with the everyday person searching for God who is looking for transformation: freedom from those things that have entrapped them. We do not know how to be natural in those relationships because we are unsure how the gospel has changed our lives. Neither to we take time to be there and listen. The result is we don't know them. Most of our attempts to engage them are simply what I call "in-house alterations". The fact is that Canadians are spiritual people they just aren't sure that we in the church will take their spiritual searching seriously and frankly they are unsure of the difference that our spirituality has made in our lives.

Q. You describe our current predicament, and note the first challenge (p9). "It will be impossible to lead others to places of effective missionary engagement if we, as leaders, are uncomfortable in the borderlands." Ouch. It's not hard to affirm this idea in principle. But you are really calling for significant change. Most Christian leaders are wondering how they will survive the next year, not how they will free up ten hours a week to get to know the community outside their walls. How do we help them make the shift?

I can't think of a more critical issue than this one. I think we are struggling with an "in-house revolt" which tends to be more reactions to the church backgrounds from which we grew up and less about the cultures we are called to engage incarnationally. Reactions tend to be superficial and more about us. Most of we who are Christian leaders/pastors etc. grew up in church-that is not all bad but too often our desire to see changes are wrapped in an our cultural experience of church. We who see ourselves as radical do so within the confines and affirmations of the churched culture we live out of. Radical discipleship should be framed in the understanding of David Augsburger in Dissident Discipleship who calls to not only believe in Jesus but live the things Jesus believed in. The problem with an in-house revolt is that we change our worship services or introduce new terminology to old frames (senior pastor to pastoral team leader) and we think we have done the hard deep work of change.

I find it humorous to listen to some leaders now in reaction to their past- who start colouring their language thinking that this shows a radical engagement to the culture. One of these guys-someone I really respect-told me it helps him identify with the culture that he was engaging. I had to restrain myself from laughing. Having always served downtown congregations-I wondered what linguistic alteration would need to take place in my preaching if I were to do that-and at the same time I marveled at how superficial that was having grown up most of my young adult life in football locker rooms.

The critical question for leadership is who are we playing our lives to? Who is our audience of significance? Too many Christian leaders are playing to their churched culture while using the language of cultural engagement and outreach. Go to a pastors conference and listen-the language of significance and who you play your life to, is woven into the fabric of those events. Smaller church pastors are insecure around larger church pastors when in fact they may be more missionally effective. The measurements of success are in-house measurements.

I have a friend who has pastored a church for 25 years-it has not grown beyond a couple of hundred people for all sorts of reasons (mostly sociological- people moving etc) but consistently that church has been effective in connecting and impacting its community. The beautiful Christians do not go there-it is too real-too dangerously messy. The gift that my friend brings to that community of faith is the gift of genuineness with people in the community. Within his denomination he is less admired as he is within the community. That has been difficult for him but it is the choice he made.

If Christian leaders find their "audience of significance" as the church and seek affirmation from those kind of people they will miss the natural places that they are already connecting with and the possibilities God is placing before them.

Q. You quote 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. Alan Hirsch, Alan Roxburgh and others have noted that we have done a good job of marginalizing prophetic voices. Do we need to welcome them back?

It depends. I think Alan and Alan are right-we have had a tendency to marginalize the voices that are so crucial in showing us the way. My tribe is famous for it- it's in our DNA. Joel Barker the business guru used to say that if you want to know where we are going look to the edges because those voices are telling you the direction. He also said however that those voices may not get you there. Prophetic voices at their most effective best are black and white people. They tend to speak in "this is wrong" and "this is right" language. Again hear me-they are usually right-but the life of ministry and the church is not lived out in that simple a frame. The reality is congregations are made up of people. We used to have a joke in the church I served in Edmonton-church would be so much easier if there weren't any people. But there are. They bring a diversity of journeys- relationally, spiritually, economically, culturally and emotionally. Change agents in churches are always navigating the white water of congregational change with more than a prophetic mindset. They must hold in tension both the prophetic and priestly role. Some prophetic voices find that difficult to do. So we need to hear them and provide place but at the same time affirm those other voices that can hold the prophetic priestly tension and actually make the change happen.

Prophetic voices of the most effective kind do not live that tension in the same way. As a result they sometimes do a good job of marginalizing themselves. They speak the truth that needed to be said and sometimes that hurts both them and others. They need to be heard but even prophetic voices are wrong sometimes and the problem with the cranky prophet is that they don't always take time to listen to each other or seek to learn from people different then themselves. I also think being a prophetic voice is not a self affirmed reality-it is confirmed in community. The most effective prophetic voices are the ones that hang in there for the long term- people like Eddie Gibbs, Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas and others who grow in their journey.

Q. The second chapter is titled, "Crossing Over." The title contains a certain poignancy. While every church and every leader wants to make this crossing, like Moses, some will not make it. How do we communicate this sense of urgency to church leaders? Do these stories of the people of God facing previous transitions offer us resources we have not tapped?

This is a great question-this is where I think Canada is further down the journey than our sisters and brothers to the South. We have been on this journey much longer- we just are not that vocal about it. Many people in the US are writing what many of us in Canada have been feeling for a long time. We have been living in the realities of an impotent and ineffectual church for a much longer time and I would suggest (this might surprise a lot of people) that we are even further along in the responses than we give ourselves credit for. The problem in Canada is that the responses are not portrayed and tend to be isolated and siloed. We lack a coherent centre that could distribute the stories of response.

Stuart Murray's idea of After Christendom is critical here. The fact is "After Christendom" has not happened in the US in the same totality that it has in Canada. It is our lived experience birthed out of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec and furthered by a socio-political frame where values of the other are more important than individual rights. Mark Noll does a good work on this in his lectures, "What happened to Christian Canada?" We are After Christendom and while the neighbours to the South love the dialogue on post modern as an idea -- we live it as a nation.

I believe that we feel the urgency and my travels across Canada over the last 10 years and sitting with struggling churches (the larger percentage of church life) confirms this. Another problem is that we have little confidence in ourselves-that the answers God is placing before us are actually contained within our own contexts. This is killing us in the Canadian church. We need to be listening more to our own unique voices- small prophetically formed communities throughout Canada that are actually making the transition but not being seen. The critical discovery is there.

Q. HOW we move forward - how we engage - is also crucial. Some may want to rush across into the new land. This is also a choice generated by anxiety and fear. We want to rush into solutions. So if we actually SEE our situation the second challenge comes in managing our anxiety about it, and the anxiety of the system. I'm starting to think that it is a rare leader who will have the faith resources to survive this?

I agree with you. I think we have been inadequately trained and formed to face these anxieties-in fact the isolated church models in communities where pastors do not even seem themselves as a part of a larger Kingdom system formed by God to be a missional presence in those communities makes the issue even worse. The more I see myself as alone and apart- the more the anxiety will grow.

Q. You typify the difference in American and Canadian approaches to change. The American approach may be to rush ahead. The Canadian approach may be "let's have another conversation." : I like to think another conversation is a good idea.. but maybe I am too Canadian. How do we encourage networking and reflection while also moving beyond "analysis paralysis?"

By affirming the practice of it and not criticizing it-a typical tendency of Canadians. When failure happens- affirming the attempts to experiment with new forms of church.

On a humourous note-less conferences on it and more local dialogues which are place specific and supportive in the activity of missional living.

Missional conferences have replaced the old evangelism conferences that used to take place. In those you came together and the speaker told you how people were lost and you weren't doing anything about it. Now we simply frame it in a more community based framework but it is still talk until the practitioners are the voices you hear, and the context you are working in is the place for the conversation. Practice takes longer and implementation is the more difficult path. Too many leaders today can articulate some kind of missional ecclesiology but are struggling with implementing. The conversation needs to go there even though we as Canadians are fearful of programs and techniques.

Q. You note that as a Borderland community we live within the missio Dei - we are sent. "The church's mission," says Robert Webber, "is to be the presence of the kingdom." Then you note Newbigin's distinction between the missionary dimension of the church and its missionary intention. Why is this distinction significant?

Partly because we live our lives in the tension between reality and ideals-between intent and realities. Newbigin's distinctions are helpful for me- simply because they tell me where we are going (intention) and how we will measure the depth of that journey (dimension).

Q. At the opening of the fourth chapter you write, "Leaders of today's borderland churches are living on a new pastoral landscape and require a new toolkit of strategies comprised of a new understanding of their role, an honest evaluation of themselves, and the ability to create a variety of secure places of relationship. They image their leadership in the frames of apprentice-pastor-theologian-missionary."

And I can just hear the groans out there. Who can be all these things?

This is not about technique and the acquiring of another skill which can then be added to the already imposed sets of skills forced on us in the previous decades. This was the problem with the church growth movement in the 80's and 90's- and why we fell in love with the pastor as CEO model-it was a skill set we could train for.

This is really about a life of faith in which I live out a particular discipline that is within a formational journey motif. These characteristics are not optional but actually the foundational frames of what it means to follow Jesus. We are all called to nurture our faith in Christ (apprentice), to worship and live in communities of faith expression (pastor), to not simply have acquired a set of doctrines but to do the hard work of thinking about how our faith interacts and challenges our worlds (theologian) so that we might be what Andy Crouch calls "culture makers" within the places we live our lives (missionary). The fact is we are all called to this and it must be modeled. Paul says in Thessalonians, "you became imitators of us."

Q. This chapter closes with the need to jettison the Christendom view of the Church. We need to do the theological work to recover a biblical expression. You write, "Pastors and church leaders lacking a grounded theology of the church live in a panicky obsession with data and technique. Data and technique junkies find themselves caught in an obsession with "managerial missiology" (Engel and Dyrness). This approach enables leaders to focus on the quantitative and cosmetic frameworks of strategy and programs while avoiding the theological, relational, and content-oriented processes that are the places where visions and dreams are realized." (71)

This sounds complex, but it's an echo of the observations of many that in modernity we succumbed to pragmatism. Our obsession with models was an obsession with success and with numbers. Writers like Bob Webber observed that the pragmatic evangelicals have ruled and their rule is now collapsing. The younger evangelicals are about embodiment - and are willing to do the theological work needed. Are you seeing this shift in Canadian leaders?

I am and I am encouraged by that- in fact I think much of the change is going to be actualized most clearly in the next generation of leadership who "get it" and will not be willing to sustain outmoded "Christendom" frameworks that no longer make sense.

However, I have a caution (I am a Canadian after all- we always have cautions and respect the other side), John Cougar has a line in a song that I love- "I see the balance, I see it every time I swing by." The caution is this: be careful that the shifts are not simply reactionary responses because these kind of responses do not correct, they actually do the opposite. In counseling I was taught, "that doing the opposite is doing the same"-the placating child and the rebellious child are actually the same thing-they are both responding to the controlling parent the response is just different. So the seemingly rebellious church leader and the placating traditional church member of the same age actually may be the same person. They are still amazingly "churchy" and controlled by the fault lines of Christendom.

I was coming to speak at a church in our tribe one day-phoned to check what the dress code was-he passionately told me-"we don't wear ties." The way he said it, made it sound like the act of taking off a tie was a revolutionary act on the same scale as the civil rights movement in the 60's. I didn't know what to say- I mean is this how bad it's gotten- how superficial-that we think the act of taking off a tie is a dissident act of discipleship. It may be inside the church but frankly very few people outside the church are that superficial. This is why I believe that thinking theologically is so crucial-it helps us think beyond just the simple reaction.

Q. You get to the heart of the issue in the next section: "the personal tool-kit." You point to the need for personal differentiation. This is an issue of spiritual formation, something we didn't give much attention to in the pragmatic systems of modernity. But this conversation on spiritual formation is about thirty years old. Are we making progress, or are we still living in our heads?

I think we are making progress- but I will celebrate the time when spiritual formation is not simply an individualized act but an act of the community. It is at its best when it is "located," grounded in community. The new monastic movements are a response to this and while it may not be for everyone, it points the way for all of us.

Q. You write, "It is obvious to [secure leaders] that vision and possibilities emerge from the community and not just the leaders. Borderland leaders are community builders that draw vision, giftedness, and relationships out of the community while warring against the tendency toward going it on their own. In this cultivated atmosphere, the missional imagination of members emerges in greater clarity. it is a vision that does not come from pre-planned strategies void of dialogue or process, but from the community's shared experience of God's moving in its midst." (77)

This is a reframe not only of our leadership lenses, but of our ecclesiology. We have tended to focus on leadership the last twenty years or so, with not much missional impact. Is it time to rediscover the community? Where will that leave all of us professionals?

That is the $25 dollar question. I know what some people are saying. The only thing that I would say is that it is going to be different. In fact economics may speak first to this issue long before ecclesiology. I serve a global mission organization right now and someone observed that "we were not appointing missionaries as much as before." I was a little taken back by the comment because the implication was that we were failing in our missional activity. I thought about it for a long time.

The success of our mission used to be about the number of missionaries that we appointed every year-now the measurements have changed-it is about community impact in the places we serve. Sometimes that has less to do with a Canadian leaving kith and kin and going overseas than it does about the right partnership and commitments to transformation. Frankly we are more concerned about that measurement because it has Kingdom value. I think that will be the case for the church in the future. The measurements are changing and that change will impact everything-even the training of professionals and their deployment. More tentmakers-bivocational? Who knows?

Q. You ask us to "face the call," and one role for leaders is to be theologians. "The role of theology has been suppressed in the last decade because of our love for the pragmatic... deep theological and biblically reflective frames must be formed in the pastor's life." (84) Don't we have enough theology out there already? Isn't that the role of seminaries and academics?

That is what Christendom offered us-a segmentation- so that disciplines were compartmentalized. I still believe in seminaries but not as the segment that does our thinking for us-I believe in seminaries and academics who teach us to think in a life-long discipleship of interaction with the worlds that we live in. I had a former Seminary president tell me that the church has always needed the seminary to do its prophetic thinking for it. My reply might not have been kind - I said that frankly that is why the church is in such trouble we allowed the seminary to think for us and then they began playing to the academy for affirmation and forgot about us. The prophetic voices are now emerging in the church apart from the academy.

Don't get me wrong seminaries are changing but the change needs to be in the context of realizing who they serve-ultimately their audience of significance is the church who God calls to join Him in his missional activity to the world. They do a disservice to the church if they do our thinking for us.

Q. In chapter five you address leadership from the perspective of context. Leadership transitions sometimes fail because a leader is imported from a long distance away.. and the distance is also social and cultural. Wow.. it seems to me that with this comment you open Pandora's box. Most churches import leaders. We haven't been much good at "growing local." Is this one reason that we have many congregations and few communities? Many teachers "and few fathers?" And are you making a connection here to a theology of place?

More and more churches are calling from within because a theology of place is being rediscovered.

Q. You address congregational culture and the tacit assumptions that shape practice, create boundaries and really limit change. You note some of the key components in leading change, including uncovering the gatekeepers and learning the rituals. These issues increase in complexity with the size and age of a congregation. Is it these kinds of settings where we need outside resources - consultants or denominational leaders?

Yes but not unless they are empowered with enough authority to speak into the situations. This of course speaks to church polity etc. It will also require leaders willing to stay in for the "long haul". Change doesn't happen overnight-I think there are some leaders particularly called to this and they need to be affirmed in it. It is much easier to start from scratch.

Len Hjalmarson
FORGE Canada

See also Shalom and the End of Christendom


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008