Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Role for the PAOC

My denomination is the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada – a denomination coming out of the Azusa Street Revival and is now almost a hundred years old. We have a fairly strong presence in Canada with over 1000 churches. Over the past few years we have been discussing our future. This is an open letter to the PAOC putting forward some of my ideas and expressing some of my frustrations.

I went to a denominational think tank meeting a couple of years ago. I was disappointed on a number of levels but the most disturbing sense was that I felt like I really didn't belong - an outsider in my own denomination. Maybe it's because I haven't really been part of “normal” church for the past 17 years and I don't feel like I'm on the same page as everyone else. In my ministry in Thornhill I really feel like I'm having church 10 or 15 times a week. I meet in groups of two or three or ten. Sometimes with pastors and sometimes with men I mentor and sometimes with non-Christian neighbours. We talk about our failures and confess sin to one another. We discuss and sometimes study Scripture together. We sing and pray and listen for the voice of God. We pray for one another and the lives of those who need to know Jesus and we pray for our city. We reach out to include our neighbours in this process. We recognize that our whole lives are lived out in worship to God. It's ministry by hanging out and walking around. I guess I hadn’t really seen that I'm doing stuff differently or looking at the world differently until I actually got together with “normal” pastors to do something like this.

In the last Canadian census the numbers for participation in PAOC churches plateaued. (For some of the reasons for that result you might want to check out an article by Rick Hiemstra called Evangelicals and the Canadian Census) Those results caused quite a stir when the numbers first came out. In spite of our passionate commitment to church planting, we've increased the total number of churches nation-wide by a total of ONE in the past 4 years. The total number of people served has increased by only 10000 in four years - that's 2 or 3 more people per church per year. Let's say we were wildly successful as missional churches and every PAOC church in our nation doubled its Sunday morning attendance with new Christians over the next 12 months. We'd then have reached exactly 0,5% of the population of Canada. We need to be looking at radically different models and paradigms of church not just tweaking what we already have. We are still talking about the church as a place or a time or an event instead of a people gathered to do mission. We are still talking about "our" churches or PAOC churches or Pentecostal churches instead of the one church in the city. We are still talking like the great commission is all up to us instead of a work of Jesus incorporating the whole church. We are still talking about single churches planting other churches instead of the united body of Christ expanding into uncharted, unevangelized areas.

Sometimes our focus as a denomination is how to keep growing and maintain our denominational distinctives. However, I think we need to be shifting our focus away from survival to finding new purpose. The PAOC has fulfilled its original mandate – bring the reality of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts back into the life of the broader church. We no longer have a monopoly on the gifts of the Spirit or on speaking in tongues. We no longer have an edge on great worship. We don’t plant the most churches and are not the fastest growing denomination. We have a bit of an identity crisis. This is a crucial time. What is God calling us to be? Who is doing that thinking and that praying? The other positive impact of the North American Pentecostal movement has been to spread that vitality around the world. The fastest growing segments of the church in the global south (the third world) are those that embrace Pentecostal belief and practice. This reality of the dynamic operation of the Spirit of God in daily life deeply connects to a culture used to dealing with evil spirits.

In terms of our identity, I think we need to be discipling people as Pentecostals and not as Baptists. We have abandoned anything that smacks of the wilder charismatic and instead adopted safe teaching materials from those who marginalize the work of the Spirit. For example we adopt the Modified Wagner-Houts Spiritual Gift Inventory (a decidedly non Pentecostal resource) to help teach people about the spiritual gifts. We also use things like the Navigators 2:7 course for discipleship. Both of these are excellent tools but don’t really do anything to promote a Pentecostal ethos or theology – even with supplemental materials and explanations.

We should be teaching classes on “how to listen to the voice of God,” and “how to pray for healing” and “prophetic intercessory prayer” and “prophetic evangelism” and “effectively prayer walking your neighbourhood” and even practical teaching on deliverance ministry. Instead we’ve left these to the fringe groups either because we are afraid to touch these topics or we don’t know how to teach them. The result of this “safe” approach to the supernatural and to the gifts has marginalized us to only emphasizing (and often apologizing for) the infilling of the Spirit with initial evidence of speaking in tongues. A spiritually alive church operating in the gifts of the Spirit can be messy and even sometimes unbalanced because we want to be open to the move of the Spirit. We also need to shift the focus from the infilling of the Spirit to the purpose of the infilling – it empowers us to attempt the impossible, to reach our neighbours, communities and cities for Christ. Our churches need to be outward focused and training centred, built to make disciples. We need to reject and confront the “church as shopping mall” tendency – congregants as consumers. We need to be focused on reproducing disciples.

So what is our next mandate as Canadian Pentecostals? We need to discover why we exist as a denomination. What does a PAOC church offer in the Canadian evangelical church milieu and in the broader context of world Christianity? I think it must be post-denominational in that our purpose needs to be much more about the church as a whole as opposed to a particular denomination. I think some of the elements of our new mandate need to incorporate an understanding of the unity of the church, of the city church paradigm (ie there is one church in a city – church in a locality as opposed to a local church), ministry to the poor (i.e. faith based social ministry), and developing radical new models for church in inaccessible locations. For example the city of Toronto is building 30,000 housing units (population 100,000 plus?) south of Queen Street in the east end. There is no land for traditional church buildings. How do we make church happen in that area? We need to be pioneering that kind of thinking – thinking that moves beyond church buildings and traditional models of church.

In terms of world Christianity, we need to be mentoring new Pentecostal denominations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, providing low cost biblical training schools for indigenous pastors. We need to be raising up African and Asian Bible college and seminary professors who are able to teach contextually and incorporate more local theologies. That takes courage and vision. We also need to be a home (or a “covering”) for those who will be immigrating to Canada. We may very soon see third world Pentecostals sending missionaries to North America. We may also see new Pentecostal denominations springing up in Canada that have their headquarters not in Mississauga or Springfield but in Jakarta or Dar es Salaam. We need to welcome and embrace them because they have much to teach us about passion and faith.

We also need to think about how we structure our denomination. We have too many levels of bureaucracy. We have a national leadership and eight district (more or less provincial) offices as well as a number of ethnic branches. I want to propose a more practical structural suggestion or two (just some wide open thinking here). First design districts around mission targets as opposed to arbitrary geographical or provincial lines. One that focuses on cities, and another for specifically rural areas,. We certainly should factor in the significant East-West-Quebec-Maritime differences unique to Canada. For example, we should probably have one district specifically dedicated to the city of Toronto and the GTA – one for English speaking congregations and perhaps another for ethnic mission in the GTA. Vancouver should also have its own district. Make the districts much smaller (20-50 churches) and have a district for rural churches and one for city churches. Then farm most of the district administration stuff to the national office.

Doesn’t it make more sense to have a national health care benefits provider? The higher the numbers the better the rate. Most district events and ministries could be nationally coordinated: youth, Christian Education, men’s and women’s ministries, conventions, training, etc. You could even have the same people speaking at events and just do a national tour. The economies of scale would be great. Then the districts could focus on local targeted mission – seeing our cities reached for Christ. Right now city pastors hardly talk to each other let alone plan how to plant new congregations or meet to pray for the mayor or local situations. My suggestion would be to have a district pastor/superintendent and some admin support all of whom should be able to have offices in one of the churches in their district. Their function would be more pastoral and (dare I say it?) apostolic. District staff costs would be greatly reduced and all district buildings and properties could be sold. National office would then be very administrative in its functions and responsible for world missions. They should also oversee training institutions and Bible colleges - which may be the topic of another post.

Perhaps these thoughts are only pipe dreams. Some of the suggestions may prove to be unworkable. Some things are already being done. My prayer is that we could actually anticipate the coming national and global shifts in Christianity and adapt our structures to fit the reality around us instead of redefining reality to fit our pre-existing, out-dated structures and philosophies.

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