by J. D. Payne
A Western pioneer church planting strategy in Newfoundland, Canada, includes relationship-building and follow-up.
What do pioneer mission fields look like in the Western world where everyone and everything is “post”—post-Christian, post-modern, post-denominational? These fields look something like St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, North America’s oldest city. Using a recent mission trip to the province as a case study, we will discuss the changing role and significance of a short-term mission team in the initial stages of a Western pioneer church planting strategy.
In May 2005 I led a team of individuals from Louisville, Kentucky, to work with Gary Smith, church starting strategist for Eastern Canada, and Mark Puckett, pastor of King’s Way Christian Fellowship of Montague, Prince Edward Island and church starting coordinator for Newfoundland. Both men represented the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists (CCSB). There are no Southern Baptist churches and few other evangelical churches in Newfoundland today. This history-making trip into Newfoundland was the initial step in a larger church planting strategy of the CCSB.
Following the example of the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:11-15, Dwight Huffman, national church starting team leader for the CCSB, gave us the assignment of scouting the land for “Lydias” (persons of peace who would be the foundations in the first churches). Our approach to locating these Lydias included three steps: (1) discerning the receptivity of the people to the gospel message, (2) gaining detailed stories from the people which would provide insight into the culture of those living in St. John’s and (3) developing a contact list of individuals who may prove to be the initial persons of peace.
ST. JOHN’S: CITY OF LEGENDS
It was a journey to the most easterly point of North America. Over five hundred years after John Cabot first arrived by boat our team arrived at the St. John’s International Airport (which, incidentally, is closer to Europe than it is to Vancouver).
We were standing on one of the largest islands in the world, where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first trans-Atlantic wireless message; it is also home to one of the world’s most accessible viewing points for icebergs and whales. St. John’s is the capital of Canada’s tenth and newest province. Of the 512,930 people residing in Newfoundland, 172,915 live in St. John’s.1 This cosmopolitan city has been described as Newfoundland’s center for “commerce, culture and progress” and is home to the suburb of Paradise, the fastest growing area in the Atlantic Provinces.
The majority of the population descends from both Ireland and England. In fact, the distinct Newfoundland accent is similar to that found in Waterford, Ireland. There are numerous parks and trails scattered across the city, a major hockey arena, a vibrant arts scene and the infamous George Street. Education is seen as extremely important and the campus of the largest university (Memorial University of Newfoundland) in the Atlantic Provinces is found here.
Although the provincial motto is “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” and scores of beautiful historic Anglican and Catholic church facilities dot the landscape, there is very little witness for Christ here. Through the years many of the older generations have substituted religious traditions for a personal relationship with Christ, while many of the younger generations are more secular and are exhausted with empty religion masquerading as truth. The city’s beautiful, yet weathered, cliffs overlooking the North Atlantic reflect the soul of a people who are barren and in need of the gospel and healthy missional churches.
Role #1: Scouts—Discovering the People and What God is Doing
Our team had the initial role of serving as “scouts” with responsibilities that included looking for persons of peace, developing a contact list of people we met and informally gathering cultural data.
Contacts gathered. From our encounters with the people of St. John’s, we compiled a three-tiered contact list of individuals we met. We assigned each of these individuals a label (“hot,” “lukewarm” or “cold”) according to their response to the gospel and interest in Bible studies in their area. In order to be placed on our contact list these individuals had to be willing to provide us with their contact information. The “hot” contacts were those who were most likely our persons of peace. Relationships found in the other two categories would have to be cultivated from afar primarily through email. It is our prayer that these individuals would soon move into the hot category, or at least remain friendly to us so that they might serve as contact persons for later church planting teams.
Cultural discoveries made. We spent many hours dialoguing with residents on the sidewalks, in parks, at restaurants, in stores, etc. The Newfoundlanders were willing to share their stories with almost any visitor willing to listen respectfully. The following are nine conclusions we made based on our informal qualitative research.
1. Those living in St. John’s seem to be very close to their families. Most who grew up in St. John’s clearly informed us of their desire to remain in the city. There were several occasions when the younger adults and college students talked about their desire to leave for a time to experience other places; however, most planned to return.
2. St. John’s residents are extremely proud of their heritage and legacy. One girl in her early thirties informed me that the people of St. John’s are Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. In conjunction with this pride comes a strong archetype as well as the stereotyping of others. Newfoundlanders have a strong understanding of who they are and are closely connected with their land. Partly because Newfoundland is an island, there is a sense of isolation that may contribute to the people stereotyping others who are from other parts of the world, especially other areas of Canada and the United States.
3. Religiosity is prominent generally among those in their forties and older. These individuals have a heritage of growing up attending denominationally-controlled schools, either Catholic or Protestant (generally Anglican). It is difficult for them to separate their religious heritage from their personhood; to do so would be to lose their Newfoundlander identity. Among those in their early forties and younger, the element of religiosity is scarce.
4. The younger population is dissatisfied with institutionalized religion. We were informed on several occasions that “my parents attend church, but I don’t,” and that the Bible and the Church are forms of bondage and are “oppressive.” For many younger adults Christianity is a burden and is abusive. There was great shock of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Many people have their own therapeutic faith systems and/or spiritualities.
5. The people of St. John’s have an active social life. Closely related to this is the fact that many people are gregarious in nature; the people are extremely friendly and cordial to strangers and love to talk about their culture. Tied to this is a high consumption of alcohol among the populace. There are numerous bars and pubs that can be found in St. John’s; in fact, it is popular for its own rum, Newfoundland Screech. There are numerous large festivals and outdoor events throughout the summer months. Sports play a large role in the culture. The St. John’s Regatta is the longest continual sporting event in North America.
6. The arts are greatly appreciated by those in St. John’s. While one of our team members was speaking to a musician he was told that the Newfoundlanders memorialize every major historic event in the form of a poem or song. Although there are many artistic expressions in St. John’s, the Newfoundland music style (containing folk, bluegrass and Irish influences) is unique. Musicians can be found playing on the streets everyday.
7. Tolerance is another value cherished by those in St. John’s, particularly in relation to religious issues. Much like the rest of the Western world, the people of St. John’s want to embrace only what they believe is the good in the Christian faith and reject any forms of an exclusive gospel. There were several occasions when people who knew our views but radically disagreed with us made comments such as, “I want you to know that I truly respect you” and “I think it is great that you are so strong in your faith.”
8. For many in St. John’s, quality of life issues and education are extremely important. Although Newfoundlanders have had a difficult history, they desire a high quality of life. Numerous individuals commented that there was very little crime in St. John’s, and that you could leave your doors unlocked at night. Many see education as the key to success. I spoke with one man who was an agnostic, but was willing to pay $10,000 per year to send his two sons to a Catholic elementary and junior high school for the better educational quality.
9. Perseverance and resilience are two values found in Newfoundlanders. The history and climate of the area reveal that the people had to be tough to survive. Many live off of the fish they catch; this is not always a secure occupation. It is a common expression to describe the weather as RDF, “rain, drizzle and fog.” For the province, the per capita income in 2004 was $24,677 and the April 2005 (unadjusted) unemployment rate was 18.8%.2
Despite these figures, the people of St. John’s seem to be undaunted.
Barriers to spreading the gospel and planting churches. Our team identified at least four barriers to the effective communication of the gospel and the planting of churches in St. John’s. Many of these barriers are directly related to the people’s cultural values.
1. The prevalent nominal Christianity among individuals in their mid-forties and older. For church planters, a good knowledge of both Irish Catholicism and Anglicanism, particularly as related to Newfoundland, is a must.
2. The lackadaisical and at times negative attitudes toward issues related to the Christian faith among younger adults. For many, this negative view of religion understands the Church to be irrelevant, an artifact, oppressive and binding to people. When I asked a non-Christian young woman what could be done to reach the people of St. John’s, she responded that at first I should not use the word “Bible” or “church” because of the baggage that comes with those terms. She suggested having a “spiritual” discussion group and to include the Bible in it “because the Bible is a spiritual book.”
3. The pervasive and growing influence of secularism has created a very tolerant atmosphere in St. John’s to any belief as long as it does not claim to be the only way. The people of St. John’s will dialogue with church planters about the gospel (until they are tired of talking, at which time they will change the subject or leave) and will respect believers; however, they are quick to admit that they have their own faiths that work for them. In certain encounters, we gave away gospel tracts, New Testaments and copies of John Piper’s The Passion of Jesus Christ; these were all well received.
4. There is a strong sense of individuality that emphasizes self-exaltation, self-sufficiency and self-survival. An ignorance of their depravity and God’s holiness is present. These characteristics may be a combination of secularism and the history of the Newfoundlanders (a casual examination of their history clearly reveals the people’s rebound from disaster after disaster). I met one young woman who had just lost her job earlier that day. She told me she believed that “when one door closes, another one opens. Today I drink, tomorrow I will start looking for another job.”
The strong provincial identity of those in St. John’s should reveal to church planters the need for proper contextualization of their methods in the city. Church planters here must treat their ministries as if they were ministering in Southeast Asia or Africa; they must learn to capitalize on the provincial identity and plant Newfoundland churches, not American or other provincial imports. The people are too dependent on the outside already; their churches need to spring from the island itself.
Role #2: Cultivators — Developing Long-distance Relationships
Following the trip, our role shifted from being “scouts” to becoming “cultivators” of the relationships made in the city. In Western societies where many people value their privacy, we discovered that although many individuals may not be willing to give a total stranger their phone number and home address, many are willing to release their email address.
Following our return to the States, the team made the commitment to cultivate these relationships. Through the use of the Internet we have been able to continue our dialogue with the people we met in St. John’s. A few of these contacts are interested in a Bible study; some have no interest at all. It is our hope that those who fall into this “cold” category will eventually move into the “hot” category; until that time, these people still offer much insight into the culture of the city and province.
Role #3: Networkers — Making the Important Connections
Recognizing that not only was our time in the field limited, but that it was necessary for the Canadians themselves to reach their own Newfoundlanders, the team realized that our long-distance relationship cultivation must result in connections made between our contacts and future Canadian church planters. Prior to our arrival in the province, the CCSB had no solid contact with any resident of Newfoundland. Now, as their church planters enter St. John’s, our team is able to email our Newfoundland contacts and establish meetings between them and church planters from other parts of Canada.
The significance of this networking cannot be understated for it provides a natural starting point of identity and conversation between the church planters and the Newfoundlanders. Rather than teams repeating the work of the initial scouts, they are able to enter the city with an appointment to meet the initial persons of peace or other contacts who are willing to share about the needs of the area. The cultural discoveries we made as scouts have revealed to us that Newfoundlanders are very sociable to total strangers. It is my hypothesis that they will be even more open to engagement with future strangers whenever an acquaintance from our team introduces those strangers to them.
STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS OF OUR METHODOLOGY
Critical self-assessment is never an easy or a fun task, but biblical stewardship demands it. I will begin with what I believe to be the strengths of this initial stage in the CCSB church planting strategy for Newfoundland; I will follow up with the limitations of our work. It is hoped that this assessment will benefit others considering such a paradigm.
Strengths. First, it was an encouragement to the CCSB. Unlike its American counterpart, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists is much smaller and only has approximately two hundred churches. Short-term teams can quickly be trained in scouting techniques and readily used by church planters with little resources.
Second, by using a scouting team we were able to collect a wealth of cultural data that normally would have taken one or two church planters much more time and energy to develop. Prior to our arrival on the field our team did cultural studies of Newfoundland through Internet research and books. We compiled much of our pre-field research and field research into a manual that was given to the CCSB to be used to prepare future teams entering the province.
Third, as scouts we were able to develop a contact list of nearly seventy-five people. Although only a small handful of these contacts were persons of peace, we were able to establish connections with residents of St. John’s who will serve as future points of contact with other teams entering the city.
Fourth, scouting allowed for much freedom and flexibility in the process of finding persons of peace. This approach is based on a theology that the Spirit is working in the lives of the residents and that he will lead us to the proper people in his time. Our plan was simply to prayerwalk the city and intentionally spend our time in dialogue with the residents. Prior to the team’s arrival, CCSB leadership and I met to discuss the areas of the city that the team should enter first. After plotting these areas on a map, the team was given the assignment each day “to pray and allow the Spirit to guide you in the various areas of the city.” During our morning and evening team meetings, testimony after testimony was shared of the miraculous work of the Spirit in communicating the gospel to the residents.
Fifth, in a modernized city such as St. John’s, email is an excellent way to continue one’s connection with a total stranger. It is a non-expensive means of rapid communication that is accessible to many people. Email allows for “anonymous” communication to occur. In our role as cultivators, we were able to ask our contacts more personal questions than those they would feel comfortable responding to during a face-to-face conversation with a stranger. Email also provided us with an opportunity for ongoing witness of the gospel.
Limitations. First, our team was the first of its kind to attempt such an approach to locating persons of peace. Although Huffman had pioneered scouting in Western Canada for several years, it had not been used in Newfoundland.
Second, much of our paradigm was developed “in flight.” Since we were the first team in Southern Baptist history to enter Newfoundland with such a mission, we were learning as we went. Few plans were in place prior to our arrival.
Third, it is still too early to determine whether or not our methodology is effective in locating persons of peace and networking them with church planters. As mentioned, we developed a substantial contact list, but there were only two or three individuals who were ready to be a part of a new work in their city. Only time will reveal if these individuals are our Lydias and if the other contacts move from being “cold” to the notion of a Bible study to also becoming Lydias.
Fourth, this methodology requires a serious level of commitment by the team after they return home. Although team members may be eager to serve as scouts, the role of cultivator takes longer and is not as glamorous. People return to their regular routines and forget to pray for and maintain contact with the people they met. To alleviate this problem, I have placed in my monthly calendar a reminder to email the team reminding them of their continuing role as cultivators.
Fifth, although many individuals were willing to share their email addresses and spend a substantial amount of time in significant conversations with us, it has been discovered that many do not respond to their emails.
Finally, the development of the methodology while on the field was a challenge for some of the team members trying to understand their roles. It would have been helpful to have a clearly articulated picture of the transitory role of the team for the members prior to their arrival on the field. Some members struggled with understanding where the mission trip fit into the overarching church planting strategy for the city.
Postscript. Although the first missionaries will hopefully arrive in 2007, as of this writing no CCSB missionaries are serving in Newfoundland. A year after I completed this article, I returned to St. John’s with a team of students from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and CCSB leaders on a follow-up trip. During this second mission trip, I was able to get a glimpse of the value of the cultivator who transitions to become a networker.
When hearing of my arrival, one woman whom I did not meet on the initial trip, yet who had encountered one of our team members and continued a year-long email relationship with her, invited me and a teammate into her home and offered us dessert and coffee. She provided us with much information about life in the city and her faith. Although we were total strangers, she and her husband were willing to share personal and private information with us because of a connection we had with her long-distance friend. Prior to our departure, she gave me several island souvenirs to take back to the States.
There is not enough evidence to affirm or reject my hypothesis that such strangers will be open to engagement with future church planters whenever a cultivator becomes a networker and introduces them to such church planters. The verdict is still out, yet experiences gained from the second trip lead me to believe that the paradigm of scout to cultivator to networker has much potential for the future of church planting in Newfoundland.
J. D. Payne is a national missionary with the North American Mission Board and the assistant professor of church planting and evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also director of the Church Planting Center on the seminary’s campus.
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