Preaching in Canada

March 30, 2018

by Jason Byassee

Preaching is always particular. One has to know where one is, who one is talking to, to be able to talk well. This essay will be about preaching, eventually. First a word about where I am as I write.

What’s it like living in Canada as an American? I’m often asked this, especially by the sorts of Americans who talked about moving to Canada after the 2016 presidential election. Few actually did, but my family moved just before it, meaning we were here for the building and dedication of Trump Tower, Vancouver’s second tallest building. We often see tourists taking selfies as they flip off the gilded T-R-U-M-P sign.

The answer is that it’s weird. Canadians are supposed to be so much nicer than Americans, so much more socially and racially tolerant, so much more like Europe with high taxes and correlative social services and live-and-let-live. What’s the joke about what a Canadian is? An unarmed American with health care. But we haven’t quite found what we expected. Canadians are nice until tested. Ever watch hockey? They’re skating around beautifully and then a fight breaks out for no reason. It’s like that here. Canadians who stand calmly in line normally broke out into fisticuffs over the passing out of sand buckets at fire stations last winter in Vancouver. Five minutes for fighting. Again, they seem nice, with “sorry” coming out at alarmingly regular intervals. But put out a For Sale sign and watch them converge like wolves to a moose carcass. The building where our church used to meet was put on the market for $10 million recently. It has four offers, one of which is for $15 million. British Columbians like their government, except when an economic sector is making money (first gold, then timber, now real estate), in which case it’s the wild west and every man for himself. If you have money to launder in Asia a great place to put it is in BC real estate—no one is asking questions.

What’s it like being a Christian in Vancouver? Weird too. Vancouver is actually a small city, some 2.5 million in the metro region. If estimates of church attendance between 2-10% are to be trusted, that means a small Christian community. It’s also increasingly diverse. Asians immigrating from China, the Philippines and elsewhere often bring a penchant for evangelical Christianity with them. If there is a Christian future in this pacific rim paradise it will be much less European and much more Asian.

I joke with my neighbours (note correct spelling) that Canada should be called “Not-America.” It’s not just that Canadians have to keep up with American politics and not vice-versa, though there’s that. Not just that the vast majority live within 100 miles (sorry, 150 kilometres) of the US border and every one of them, it seems, keeps a P.O. Box south of the 49th parallel. Canada is Not-America in a more literal way. After the American Revolution, some 50,000 British loyalists fled the newly independent United States to stay part of British North America. Of the 100,000 Vietnam War evaders who came north in the 1960’s and 70’s, another 50,000 or so stayed. One of those immigrants told me her family drove to the New York border, explained their pacifism, and were waived into Ontario with a smile. Canada has also waved in far more Syrian refugees than the US has per capita. But there’s a reason Canada is more immigrant-friendly: it’s really big. The second biggest country in the world. That’s why they welcomed Europeans to the prairies in the 20th century, Cambodian refugees after Vietnam too, and now other Asians and refugees from the Middle East now. Canada needed people from elsewhere to turn all that prairie into inhabited, arable land.

And part of the reason for that need is the eagerness with which she pushed First Nations people off their land. There is a great moral reckoning over this now—the country’s 150th anniversary this year has been marked by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, trying to come to terms with historic colonializing mistreatment of indigenous people. For all of Canada’s sneering southward, there are moments in its social history that rival the US for barbarity. As bad as our internment of Japanese-Americans was during World War II, Canada’s was worse. Japanese-Canadians were kept in camps until 1949 and their property was not returned (survivors were paid some reparations decades later). The Canadian Pacific Railroad is a great symbol of Canadian unity—its completion allowed travel from coast to coast and was a precondition for BC joining Confederation in 1867. And some 600 Chinese workers died building it. In 1914 a ship full of refugees from India was turned back from Vancouver, with 352 passengers denied food, drink, healthcare. A Canadian immigration minister, surveying the Jewish emigres from Europe before the Second World War, articulated the country’s policy this way: “None is too many.” White Canadians’ antipathy to racism today is not genetic. It is a fruit of a national reckoning with misdeeds. Monuments stand where that Indian steamer was turned back and where a ship full of German Jews were turned away from Halifax in 1939. These historic misdeeds and more are taught in public schools.

Could we use a little of that public moral reckoning in America?

In one way, Canada looks more pacific than the US. Indigo Books, Canada’s version of Barnes & Noble, sports a slogan in print so large it can be read from blocks away: “The world needs more Canada.” It’s a slogan from Bono, U2’s frontman, referring to Canada’s preference for peacemaking and keeping. Canada’s lone Nobel Peace laureate, Lester Pearson, won that award for heading off a potential nuclear war in the Suez Crisis in 1952. Self-congratulation like the Indigo slogan, coming from America, would sound unbearably jingoistic. Coming from Canada it sounds cute. An entire country is the master of the humble-brag.

In another way, don’t believe them. Canada entered the two world wars long before the US did. As part of the British Empire, she deployed with the rest of the Queen’s dominions. And she looked down her nose at the US for sitting out the fighting. Ugly words like “cowardly” were used. More recently Canada’s posture of superiority has been more than a little hypocritical since she could benefit from the American nuclear umbrella during the Cold War. Yet she was aware of the tension. The great Canadian theorist George Grant lamented that Canada had passed from being a vassal of Great Britain to an underling of the US. Canada had the world’s third largest navy at the end of WWII, built right here in Vancouver. During recent military exercises meant to intimidate Russia, she dragged her one working destroyer out to the Pacific. It broke down. The Americans towed it home. “Peace is patriotic,” the American left proclaims. Canada enshrines it.

Canada also sports the social welfare apparatus that America’s left dreams of—universal single-payer health care, inexpensive secondary education, high taxes, generous social security—a Democratic dream. And she has the withered church life that western European countries with similar social largesse have also seen. American conservatives worry that if we ask the government to do more, the church will have less to do, and fade accordingly. Canadian church participation is less than American, especially on the west coast. But perhaps that social welfare state is itself a tribute to liberal Protestant success, in addition to its undoing. Canada’s health care system is a near-universal source of national pride on par with the railroad. It was inaugurated by a Baptist minister-turned politician named Tommy Douglas, whose work with poor kids in the Depression showed him what a difference health care access could make. He became premier of Saskatchewan, persevered against a physician’s strike, and set a model for a whole country. A CBC survey found him Canada’s most admired citizen ever—a Baptist preacher!

This is precisely where I find the church here so inspiring. Tough hoeing makes for great gardeners. Grandview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver is building affordable housing units on a former parking lot. And it has started a non-profit to show other churches how to do the same. “Don’t sell your property,” pastor Tim Dickau begs his fellow church leaders. “What if the church were the answer to the housing affordability crisis in Vancouver?” First Baptist Church, where my wife now pastors, is building two residential towers that will loom over Trump’s on the city’s skyline when they are done (it takes the Baptists to trump Trump). They will include units for affordable housing and ministry.

This is why I love this town, and the church in this town: precisely when you’re ready to count it out, there it is, bouncing back. Who else has a single idea for helping with housing affordability? Those benefiting from sales of one-time middle-class housing stock by becoming millionaires sure don’t. Maybe a Baptist minister from a modest parish can revolutionize another sector of Canada’s economy; maybe a downtown church can show the beauty of giving away space it could sell for a mint. It seems ridiculous. Except that it’s happened before. And I’ve been around these Canadians long enough to know now, they can’t be counted out.

Now, preaching. For all these cultural differences, people are people. Anthropologically speaking, they want to be inspired. Theologically speaking, they are sinners whom the Holy Spirit is working to transfigure back into the image of Christ. I notice the same things “work” in preaching here as anywhere: saying a word that is urgent, well-crafted, funny. Sermons that are shaped by scripture are better than those based on whatever else. One fast-growing megachurch here in Vancouver meets in a former off-Broadway style theatre. A building that couldn’t sell tickets to Les Mis is full weekly to hear exegesis of Ephesians. Think about that a minute.

Some of the best preaching I’ve heard in Canada has been from very distinctive places. That is, churches that know who they are, even if who they are is weird. The smells and bells super high Anglican church in Victoria is the one parish in that city that’s growing. A Radically Orthodox Anglican parish in Winnipeg is doing likewise. The one United Church congregation that’s really nailing contemporary worship is preaching well and growing. In other words, “broad” churches just doing what they’ve always done tend not to have good preaching. But churches that are brave enough to be distinct, to notice their weird and double down on it, also tend to have good preaching and to grow. A colleague supervising pastors up here notes ‘90% of church fights would be settled if pastors could preach.’ And, I’d add, if they could lead a congregation in noticing their weird and accentuating it.

As a pastor at Boone Methodist, I noticed one small change revolutionized my preaching. I knew I was leaving before the congregation did obviously, and I started preaching every sermon as if it were my last. Never mind career changes—what if I’m hit by a bus on Monday. What would I wish I’d said to them the Sunday before? Something about preaching on the precipice of death cleared out clutter, focused me on the urgent, and disciplined me against saying anything that didn’t need a raised rabbi to work. That’s the sort of homiletical shift that can happen in western North Carolina, Canada, anywhere.
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