20 June, 2024

Western Canada: Helpful Trends, Hopeful Dreams


by | 21 August, 2005 | 0 comments

By Ron A. Fraser

There are about 6,400 people in 84 congregations with Restoration Movement roots in Western Canada (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Nunavut Territory). A little more than half of these are a cappella congregations. We count them all together, simply because in a growing number of instances our fellowship leads to common causes and common ministry.

Helpful Trends

Several trends among Christian churches and churches of Christ in Western Canada are noteworthy.

First is the urbanization of what was historically a rural movement. All but one of the 11 largest (200-plus) congregations are in cities. There are also healthy rural congregations. The two oldest congregations in Alberta, Great Bend and Nanton, celebrated centennials in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Great Bend completed a beautiful worship facility with seating for 185 in time for her celebration. The urbanization of the church has followed general flows of population. This has also meant that a number of smaller congregations have died, or are in decline.

A second trend is the continuing, creative struggle for identity. Among some, particularly larger, a cappella congregations, there has been a struggle for what it means to be a part of a larger Restoration Movement family. The walls that have separated us continue to crumble. While there are separate colleges””Alberta Bible College (independent) and Western Christian (a cappella)””we have shared common conventions and retreats, a common youth conference (Prairie Young Peoples Association, now 77 years old), and in Alberta a common camping program is shared by many.

In 1996, all three streams of our movement cohosted the World Convention of the Churches of Christ in Calgary. At least three a cappella congregations in Western Canada, all led by younger leaders but supported by visionary elders, have rejected, as one of them puts it, “the values of the sectarian sanctuary.”

Alberta Bible College, with a long history of shared independent-Disciple ministry, now has board members and faculty from a cappella congregations as well. There is an increasing occurrence of hiring ministerial staff without respect for previous identity: a cappella congregations hiring independent preachers, and vice versa.

Journey Christian Church, a new plant in suburban south Calgary expected to launch in 2006, has finances and most personnel in place. It is a joint project of two a cappella congregations, two independent congregations, and the Church of Christ Development Foundation. It speaks unapologetically of a “missional fellowship.”

Among most of the independent Christian churches/churches of Christ has been a creative struggle for identity within the larger evangelical community, recognizing that we have much to offer, as well as much to gain from these broader relationships, including spread of the gospel.

Most western Disciples, who have traditionally been theologically more conservative than their counterparts in the rest of Canada or the U.S., continue to struggle with their identity within the Disciples, as ecumenical and theological agendas are seen as a distraction to evangelistic growth.

Among all streams of the movement, the struggle for identity goes on as relationships are renegotiated in the context of decreasing sectarianism and increasing evangelistic opportunity. In many ways boundaries have become more fluid.

A third trend is the developing indigenous character of the Restoration churches in Western Canada. No longer do we regard ourselves as a colonial outpost of Eastern Canadian, or American, ministry. There is an increasing feeling of empowerment, that “we can do it,” translating itself into unprecedented indigenous, home-grown ministry.

This is partly geographical: Edmonton is a long way from Toronto, Ohio, or Texas! It is also historical, as Western Canadian churches were marked early and deeply by their cosmopolitan makeup. Our first churches were a kaleidoscopic blend of nationalities and religious sympathies that ranged from strict Scotch Baptist influence from Eastern Canada, to the more irenic Campbellites of the American frontier. These pioneers found ways to work together creatively and confidently in their new setting.

As Gene Kuykendall, an elder for many years in the Grande Prairie Church of Christ, once explained, “Our experience from the States proved that we could do it. But our experience here proved that the way we did things could be, and in some cases, had to be, different or there wouldn”t be a church.” One consequence is tensions and divisions from far away, while very real and present, have played out with a certain “foreign-to-us” skepticism. Another has been an openness to experiment with new approaches, many of which failed, but others that have proven highly effective.

The historical and geographic factors have led to the development of indigenous leadership. Most Restoration churches in Western Canada are led by Canadians. This does not mean that everything needing to be done is getting done. But what is accomplished oozes the quiet confidence of grassroots craftsmanship, as we discover ourselves to be at least part of God”s answer to reaching “the ethnics” who happen to be Western Canadians. By the same token, needed expertise and resources from beyond Western Canada, particularly in church planting and Christian education, bear witness to a dynamic partnership in the gospel, despite national and cultural peculiarities.

Helpful Dreams

The Restoration Movement in Western Canada is working to define itself ever more faithfully with the mission of our Lord: “to seek and to save the lost.” There is much to be done and the laborers are few! Some major centers have very little witness. Vancouver, on the beautiful British Columbia coast, has more than 2 million people but only two ethnic Filipino congregations. Winnipeg, Manitoba (750,000), has a similar situation. Prince George and Cranbrook, British Columbia (both 35,000-plus), have no congregation. Fort McMurray, Alberta (40,000), which sits on more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and is growing, has little Christian witness of any kind. And there are great opportunities in small centers, even villages, many deserted by mainline denominations. Restoration experience at places like Clearwater and Vavenby (British Columbia), Clyde and Nanton (Alberta), and Outlook (Saskatchewan) demonstrate the dynamic cultural impact of faithful, creative, discipling ministry.

There are three key ingredients to fulfilling these dreams: youth work, leadership development, and strategic church planting.

With numerous and noted exceptions, much more needs to be done in youth ministry. Many more resources are needed at the local church level and in intercongregational ministries like camps.

Youth ministry is a precursor to leadership development. Alberta Bible College and Western Christian College share vital roles in developing leaders, and have done so faithfully for many years. ABC has hit enrollment records in eight of the last 10 years. Both are in accrediting processes with the Association of Biblical Higher Education.

Five entities are currently focused on church planting in Western Canada:

“¢ Alberta Church Planting Association focuses on major urban areas in Alberta, and has been a principle catalyst in three plants in the last decade.

“¢ Canadian Church Growth, now a joint venture effort between interested Canadian and U.S. churches, has one church plant just started (January 2005) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

“¢ Bringing Christ to British Columbia is consolidating works begun in the 1970s and “80s.

“¢ Bow Valley Christian Church has been directly involved in two recent church plants, Xalt Community, focused on postmoderns, and Connections Christian Church, a growing house-church network.

“¢ The Church of Christ Development Company (Edmonton, Alberta) in 2003, set aside funds for an endowment to create a church planting impetus across Canada. Currently under the leadership of John Nicholson, these funds are available to churches being planted in all three Restoration streams in Canada.

In addition, in January the first of a series of “national church planting summits” was hosted by Alberta Bible College. It brought together three dozen people involved in church planting from all three streams and all parts of the country, for encouragement, challenge, and strategic planning. There emerged a renewed commitment to pray for one another, promote each others” work, and work together on strategic issues, such as a national vision, assessment centers, and so forth. A series of regional roundtables are planned to draw together a significant number of young leaders who are already involved, or committed, to church planting. We hope to launch a national initiative similar to Double Vision, a U.S. church-planting strategy some time ago. May God speed the day of this revisioning! And may he continue to build his church in Western Canada!

Will these things bear fruit that endures? The hopes and prayers of many are that a new day of church planting, complete with indigenous leadership to sustain it, will bring just such a new day for our community of faith in Canada. And if the past is telling us anything, our fellowship with one another across provinces, and across previous breakingpoints, will be a delicious by-product.

Ron Fraser has served as president of Alberta Bible College in Calgary for the past 20 years.


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