These days, headlines frequently pop up alluding to the shrinking attendance of mainline Protestant churches in Canada. A Presbyterian church is without a pastor. A United church is closing its doors. A Lutheran church is facing budget challenges. However, a headline not often seen is one mentioning the drastic growth of a church — so much so, that a new church must be planted.
But, what if church isn’t about congregational size or attendance? What if, at a deeper level, it’s about the church’s mission and vision? What if a church’s theology is what influences attendance and size? Redeemer University alumnus Dr. Bill DeJong, pastor at Blessings Christian Church in Hamilton, Ont., advocates for a specific type of missional strategy that addresses these very questions.
“We wanted the new launch to have a missional character in every single dimension of its ministry, from worship to preaching to teaching to small groups.”
At the heart of this practical theology is the action of flourishing churches planting new churches. “Redeemer professor Kevin Flatt, with others, has discovered that churches currently flourishing in Canada tend to be theologically conservative and yet contemporary in worship and accessible in communication,” says DeJong, referencing the “Theology Matters” study published last December in the Review of Religious Research. “These are all things for which we strive at Blessings.”
Blessings Christian Church, an emerging church in the city of Hamilton, was launched out of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in January 2015. As Cornerstone approached 800 members, the facility began to reach its capacity and Bill, as pastor, started to feel overburdened. The church was at a crossroads.
“Instead of growing bigger or dividing the congregation in two, we decided to launch a distinctly missional church in the City of Hamilton,” says Bill. “We wanted the new launch to have a missional character in every single dimension of its ministry, from worship to preaching to teaching to small groups.”
Blessings’ missional strategy is compelling. Originally starting with 200 members, it has now nearly doubled in size. One reason for this is the church’s unwavering support of the city through volunteering and service. “We serve Hamilton largely by coming alongside existing ministries and providing financial support and volunteer assistance,” continues Bill. “We’re quite active with Christians Against Poverty, for instance, running both money coaching and jobs clubs and we volunteer at the Dream Center, 541 Eatery, Wesley Urban Ministries and a host of other organizations. I’m especially excited to see people in the church mobilized for the welfare of the city.”
“In many ways my education at Redeemer was more formative than my seminary education.”
DeJong’s educational background is also rooted deeply in Hamilton. A graduate of Redeemer in 1993, DeJong has recently successfully defended his doctoral dissertation on the nature of gratitude as a virtue at McMaster Divinity College. Sandwiched in between his undergrad and PhD is a M.Div. degree at Indiana’s Mid-America Reformed Seminary. “In many ways, my education at Redeemer was more formative than my seminary education,” he says. “The neo-Calvinism or neo-Kuyperianism that Redeemer winsomely communicated envisions the kingdom of Christ as more expansive than the church, the truth of Christ as wider than the Scriptures and the call of Christ as broader than evangelism. I remain convicted that the world is Christ’s.”
In a secular society, the concept of truth can be difficult to settle on, as can the language to properly convey it. Related to this is the idea of gratitude. If one rejects the existence of God, gratitude can be reduced to a kind of appreciation. “I argue that gratitude presupposes a gift which in turn presupposes a giver and that gratitude, therefore, has a social, relational quality that enables people to be not merely appreciative of things, but grateful to Someone for life, for beauty of creation and for the value of others,” says DeJong. “A Christian worldview that summons a robust gratitude funds a morally, psychologically and physiologically healthy life.”
A Christian worldview, full of gratitude, is what propels the mission and vision of a church like Blessings. “To be missional is to be convicted that God is a missional God and that just as he sent his Son into the world for the world’s salvation, so we are sent into our culture for the world’s betterment,” he continues. “We want the missional thread of the church to be weaved through every aspect of our church’s fabric.”
Mission is not one of the many forms of ministry, but the defining characteristic of every ministry. As church attendance waxes and wanes, churches responding to their surrounding community with the gospel are a constant. A practical theology of mission and a profound sense of gratitude are tools that, in the case of Blessings, have brought about not only growth, but glory to God.