The Changing Religious Culture

The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of the Columbia Contact:

From mega churches to house churches to traditional churches to community churches, the diversity in expression for the people of God in cities is vast. Yet amidst all the diversity, there is one commonality among North American urban churches: they all exist within a changing religious culture. Whether a church chooses to adapt, engage, withdraw or reject such change, they can't deny that the church's role in culture is in fact changing.

Some church leaders have identified this changing culture as a state of liminality. Liminality literally means a threshold in which something or someone experiences ambiguity and disorientation. Related to the church, Anabaptist leader and writer Len Hjalmarson explains liminality as a time of transition for the church. “When the church is in transition…confusion surfaces. Even casual conversations can become complex, with people using language in very different ways. Words like church and evangelism and even Christian carry baggage they didn’t once possess.”  Urban churches face this liminal context everyday.

This cultural transition for the church involves many different social aspects of a city, from increased diversity and multiculturalism, to changing socio-economic conditions in specific neighbourhoods, to a general suspicion of anything related to traditional religion, be it Christianity or otherwise. Canadian churches are forced to navigate commitment to the way of Jesus in a culture that is hesitant to commit to anything.

First United Mennonite Church
Vancouver pastor at First United Mennonite Church, Greg Thiessen (Dip. ’03), describes the experience of liminality for their church with “the transition of our neighbourhood from ‘Little Berlin’ as it used to be nicknamed to a very multi-cultural and predominantly Punjab area of Vancouver.” Thiessen also notices that neighbourhood transience, especially for young adults and families, further complicates how an urban church can effectively minister in their neighbourhood. Rapidly changing neighbourhoods are part of a rapidly changing urban culture that the church is left to address in one way or another.

It's into this context of liminality that some urban churches are adopting a new spin on an old concept: parish ministry. Parish ministry stresses the importance of local neighbourhoods as the primary context in which the gospel is lived out and shared. Based in Seattle, the authors of The New Parish, refer to a parish as “all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out its faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.”  First United Mennonite Church, for example, has responded to their changing neighbourhood by engaging their literal neighbours and building relationships with them, including increased involvement with local community events.

Artisan's Mt. Pleasant Parish gathers here at the Grand Luxe Hall 
Artisan Church, pastored by Nelson Boschman (BA ‘93) and Lance Odegard (BA ‘02), has adopted a parish model of church planting that focuses on "reproducing incarnational neighbourhood parishes that focus on discipleship through covenant community." Artisan organizes their small groups geographically as a way to maintain a consistent presence in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Boschman and Odegard stress that “each person's gifts are required” to make this relationally-based church model work, as each person is continually invited to “participate as ‘co-artisans’ in God's movement of renewing all things.” Artisan’s first parish was based in Downtown Vancouver and they are presently launching an East Van parish.

The focus on presence in local neighbourhoods with the parish church model is just one example of how urban churches are adapting to a changing culture while remaining faithful to the gospel. Columbia Bible College is excited to have the opportunity to lead students to grow in their discipleship as future residents and leaders in our cities. As Thiessen reflects on the impact of Columbia on his urban ministry, “Columbia has helped equip me with a sense mission that is not just professional in nature – not reserved for pastors and missionaries – but for all Christians to live out.  Columbia also helped expand my own horizons of what it means to look like a Christian – that it is not just the German-Mennonite mold I grew up with but reaches across cultures in diverse expressions and understandings.”

As Columbia continues to partner with urban churches, our goal is to continue developing students who positively impact their careers, churches, and communities in cities around the world.

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