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Christian Outreach

Notes for an address by David Kilgour
To the Congregation of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
230 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto
, April, 18 1999

Your invitation to discuss Christian outreach in this influential pulpit is a great honour. Your minister, Dr. Andrew Stirling, is much admired by the Christian community in Ottawa for exemplifying fundamental United Church principles well. As a Presbyterian out of Anglican roots, I appreciate his skilful ability to keep focused on Christ’s Gospel.

Outreach arises often through business and professions. Telling evidence is right here – a church memorializing the witness of a Christian who applied in his store principles learned in his Methodist worship. A friend whose father was a devoted Eaton employee for about 40 years said his dad’s loyalty came from respect for the founder’s practices such as:

  • discouraging window shopping on Sunday by drawing the curtains,
  • banning the sale of tobacco and liquor products,
  • challenging conventional practices of "buyer beware" with the policy "Goods satisfactory or money refunded,"
  • strict truth in advertising copy and sale prices,
  • paying non-contributory retirement allowances to long-service employees and benefits long before a general pension plan was instituted in 1955 and public health insurance enacted. During a bout of rheumatic fever in the '20s, my friend said his father was visited regularly by a company-paid nurse.

Small wonder that Eaton’s gained such wide acceptance across Canada by offering a firm Christian witness, revolutionary at the time.

The Great Commission reading from Matthew (28:16-20) has arguably done more than any other in the Gospels to change the course of human history. Jesus, once resurrected, met first with eleven of his disciples in Galilee before appearing to other contemporaries. His message to them was astoundingly ambitious. I must point out that Jesus made a subtle change here to their reason for being. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’. One sent on a mission is known as an apostle. Henceforth believers have a mandate to be apostles, rousing people everywhere to become learners of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If anything is clear in history, it is that the disciples took the direction seriously. All but one I believe – John – paid with their earthly lives as martyrs. I’ve had the good fortune to see where John is buried at the church of St. John near Ephesus, Turkey. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is believed to be buried not far away. When I told one student in my Sunday school class this a few years ago, she was surprised, saying something like, "You mean, Mary really lived?" Something wrong with her teacher, don’t you think?

Anyway, the mission field for the disciples began on the mountain where Jesus appeared to them. The mission field for you and me is no longer China, East Africa, Belarus or Fort Smith. It’s outside the doors of this beautiful church. Indeed, I’m told that in one church in Orlando, Florida there is a banner over the parking lot which reads, "You are now entering the mission field." It’s the person beside you on a flight somewhere, or with difficulty in the subway, or over a back fence, or on an Internet chatline. Our task is much easier than that of early Christians because, according to most opinion surveys, approximately eight in ten Canadians believe in God at least nominally.

Canadians Listening

I’d argue too that these days more and more of our fellow citizens are interested in questions like, "Is something right before God?" Which of the other gods – the phoney ones have not fallen in recent years – existentialism, atheism, -isms of virtually every hue? Consumerism is still obviously important to many, but what thoughtful person doesn’t eventually outgrow it?

Let me say in the context of the above a word about Easter, which we celebrated three Sundays ago. Easter removed timidity among many Christians of the day, comforted those who felt abandoned, including sceptical "doubting Thomas", whose faith depended on proof. How many of us are like Thomas? How many of us require Jesus to say to us what he said to him, "Put your finger here?" You and I and thousands of Christians in this city and elsewhere have to care in the name of our Saviour and say to wounded believers, "I’m sorry such and such happened. We’re not perfect. Come and believe again."

Easter released the Spirit into the church. That Spirit doesn’t produce or require great deeds – it simply requires faith. Faith is life lived in the belief that Jesus is here in our world. The church is here among people who feel fear, who are suffering loneliness, futility, estrangement from God, from themselves, from one another, from life. Easter means that there is also the possibility of change, of joy, of life now. Jesus, risen and ascended, doesn’t mean we are alone. God, who was in the flesh in Jesus, gives His Spirit to the world through us.

Christianity Today

What is the place of Christian faith at the end of the second millennium? An answer at one level would be that it has probably never been stronger around the world. Statistically, one reads estimates that there are worldwide today 1.5 billion Christians in a total population of 5.8.

It has been my immense good fortune to travel widely since the Cold War ended in 1989. In virtually every country I’ve been, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan in Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Bulgaria and Albania in Europe, approximately 25 countries on the continent of Africa and most nations in the Americas, I’ve been struck by the vigour, confidence and optimism of local Christians. I wish every Canadian believer could have had the same opportunity to see Christianity abroad.

This is not to say for a moment that in some of these lands Christians have it easy – quite the contrary – but at least there is now more tolerance and growing congregations even if they must often meet in secret. For example, several of us Canadians were permitted to speak of our faith at a private dinner with National Peoples’ Congress officials in the Beijing room of the Great Hall of the People in China’s capital. In Moscow, the Christian Embassy of Canada hosted a brunch for elected members of the State Duma a few years ago. One of those attending had earlier distributed Bibles to a large number of members of the Russian army.

The collapse of ideological competition has virtually everywhere made it easier for both Christians and other faith communities. The "crisis of the soul", to use the phrase of Aleksandr Yakovlev (the advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian ambassador to Canada), which afflicted the Russian people for decades has clearly begun to change. There are plenty of bumps on the road, but a vitally important process has begun.

No one here this morning needs to be reminded that the persecution of Christians is undiminished in other parts of the world. A recent series of very troubling articles in the Ottawa Citizen by Bob Harvey reminded us that fully half the Christians who have died for their faith since AD33 probably have done so since 1900. The estimate of those martyred in the 20th century is more than 35 million – about 163,000 per year at current levels.

For Canada herself, a fair answer to the state of Christianity today is difficult. The Charter of Rights protects freedom of religion, but believers of most faiths, including our own, have plenty of critics in the media and elsewhere.

Statistically, I understand that more Canadians attend church services weekly than sports events. Many who don’t are non-practising believers. Regular attendees of religious services are more likely than others to say they are happy and satisfied with their lives. The author Ron Graham concluded in his book, God’s Dominion, several years ago that "for all the talk of Canada as a secular and materialistic country there seems to be more and more attention to spiritual issues". Do you not agree here too with C.S. Lewis: "I have discovered that the people who believe most strongly in the next life do the most good in the present one"?

Christianity in Canada Today

Numerous Canadians before and since Confederation founded towns, colleges, universities, and a host of other institutions out of religious convictions. The YMCA and YWCA are but two of many such bodies. The Christian faith sustains many of them down to the present time.

Interestingly, one of the myths Christians must often dispel today is the notion that being religious makes one intolerant. The American pollster, George Gallup, demonstrated many years ago that practising Christians are much more accepting of other creeds and philosophies than are non-believers. His study also indicated that people of what he termed "strong" religious convictions were more ethical in personal dealings, more tolerant of persons with different backgrounds, more apt to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society and happier than others.

Data gathered by Reg Bibby, the Canadian researcher on religion, indicates that teenagers who attend church services regularly "are considered more likely than teens who never attend services to place a higher value on such traits as honesty, forgiveness, concern for others, politeness and generosity". Any thoughtful parent, teacher, legislator, social worker or young person should be interested in such a conclusion.

Bridging Right/Left Divide

Our ecumenical movements have worked to develop unity among Christian denominations, but it has become increasingly apparent that one of the greatest threats to unity is not the gap created by differences between denominations but the gap found within denominations … between those who are sometimes called "the religious right" and those who are sometimes called "liberals or activists."

Thus Anglicans are divided against Anglicans; United Church members are divided against United Church members. A Roman Catholic who is a social activist tends to feel more affinity with activists from other denominations than with a fellow Roman Catholic who is theologically conservative and whose concerns focus on the personal.

The unity for which Christ prays allows for different cultures, preserving individual historical organizations, cultures, ecclesiastical interpretations of worship style. Our common acknowledgement is that Jesus is the Son of God and our only Saviour. In Christ, as God reminds us through the Apostle Paul’s writing, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. There is common Good News that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son’s life to redeem it."

How do we come together? How do we bridge this Right/Left gap? It is an important challenge for it is clear neither side alone has the answers which are needed to address the critical problems of our society, problems such as loneliness and poverty to name only two. Those who advocate personal spiritual renewal while turning their back on issues of social justice reject the direct revelation of God as given in Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Those who focus on personal spiritual renewal, while ignoring social justice needs, are rejecting this divine word. Those who speak only of social justice distort the Gospel of personal faith. Our denominations desperately need an ecumenical movement showing these two views, called left and right – the evangelical and social activist – are parts of the whole, inseparable if Jesus’ work is to be done effectively.

What is urgently needed in our churches is a renewed ecumenical movement which seeks to find common ground between the Left and the Right, between the evangelical and the liberal, between those whose primary concern is social justice and those whose main concern is personal faith.

Prophetic Spirituality

Can common ground between the so-called Left and Right in many congregations not be found in the "prophetic spirituality" which is described in so many of the stories of the Old Testament, where concerns for righteousness and justice are melded into one? Is not such common ground epitomized in the person of Jesus himself, who not only preached personally turning to God in faith, but also proclaimed good news for the poor who were oppressed by systemic injustice?

When someone attacks a Christian – or any – faith community anywhere in our own country unfairly, wouldn’t it be more effective if members of other denominations – or better perhaps the leaders of them – were to reply immediately? More specifically, if a media outlet ridicules, say, the Catholic church, Protestants should come to its defence thoughtfully but with vigour.

None of us here needs to be reminded of the awful things done in the name of our faith in the past, including the Inquisition, the Crusades, and Canada’s residential schools. Most of us deeply regret these acts. Today, like you, I’m delighted when Christians stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other faith communities on issues of persecution of any human being for their faith. In Edmonton, for example, Christians participated with Muslims in a large rally at City Hall a few years ago over the persecution of Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia. Kosovo is, of course, on all our minds today. Christian MPs and senators of all parties were members of the Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s, and so on!

Yes, there is much we can do, but at the same time we know the individual churches to which we belong are good places to be. Philip Yancey’s recent book Church: Why Bother?, has much to say to us. He notes that when critics say a particular parish fails to live up to the New Testament’s high standards in some respect, "anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that church is also only a beginning." None of us has perfect parents, children or spouses, so why give up on a parish church because of imperfections? Many have done so. Let us do everything in our power to invite them to give the church a second look.

I am reminded here of something that one of Canada’s greatest writers, the late Gabrielle Roy, noted in her autobiography, Enchantment and Sorrow, about her return to the church:

Many years later, God’s presence throughout this world seemed very clear to me, leading me to consider the Church’s practices not so puerile after all, since they had helped keep the light at its nucleus alive for me. I won’t deny that when I returned it was partly from a nostalgic desire to be kneeling again beside my dead mother, and how could I do this except through God.

Eating Tears

The New Testament holds up the model of a church which exists primarily for the sake of non-members. Most parishes fall short here, but many have enormous outreach in their communities. In Greater Toronto, I understand churches are involved in shelters for the homeless, ministries to street people, safe places for abused women and food banks to name only a few. I am especially impressed with the work of L’Arche founded by Jean Vanier. The late Henri Nouwen of Toronto’s L’Arche community wrote often about lonely abandoned people without people to love them. Nouwen tells of a young minister who has nothing to offer an old man facing surgery except his own loving concern. "No man can stay alive when nobody is waiting for him," he wrote. All of us, priests, ministers, and laity, can fulfil this role of eating tears for someone.

Yancey thinks our parishes should ideally be "God’s neighbourhood bar, a hangout like the television show Cheers for people who know all about your lousy boss, your mother with heart trouble …, and the teenager who won’t do what you tell him; a place where you can unwind, spill your life story, and get a sympathetic look, not a self-righteous leer." Can anyone disagree? The suggestion has been made that AA in its meetings is very close to the early Christian Church such as the one in Corinth.

No-one can be a Christian alone for long. Parish churches exist primarily to worship God; His reconciling love transcends all differences of nationality, race, age and gender. In the words of Blaise Pascal "the real strength of Christianity is that it is adapted to all."


My own conclusion is that each of us, you and me and the persons sitting in the row ahead of you, have a duty to reach out to others. Someone wrote that personal faith is like a candle; it’s only useful when lit, attracting other people to it.

Why don’t all of you resolve to speak to one person you meet or already know next week about Christianity? If as many as eight in ten Canadians believe in God, the chances are that the person you speak to is already a believer even if only nominally. Why not see if you can get him/her to come here to Timothy Eaton next Sunday?

There is probably a greater need for committed Christians in every walk of life today than at most other points in human history. We believers in our own lives must place a high value on the empathy, grace, kindness and numerous other qualities associated with Christianity. Our lives must somehow manage to remind others that there is a Redeemer for our "tormented public and private world."

Should Christians each in our own way and space not also attempt to do what the Apostle Paul and millions of lesser-known believers have done down through the ages? We could use C.S. Lewis as a model for our age. If Lewis was the twentieth century’s most influential Christian author, was he not also, as Dorothy Sayers put it, "God’s terrier"? Believers in any situation should be terriers for our Saviour too. Each day presents new opportunities for ministry.

Let me in closing quote from the highly-respected Czech President, Vaclav Havel:

A modern philosopher once said: ‘Only a God can save us now.’ Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. ... Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbours, and thus honour their rights as well.

God bless you all!

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