A WINNIPEG pastor is poised to become the new moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Peter Bush, senior minister at Westwood Presbyterian Church, is the sole nominee for the position, which will be voted on at the denomination’s annual assembly in June in Kingston, Ont.
Although he is the only one tapped for the position, it is possible someone else could be nominated from the floor and he could fail to win election. But, Bush says, "it has never happened."
When he assumes the role, Bush, 55, will be taking leadership of a denomination facing change and decline — but he’s not dismayed.
"The story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada today is one of decline," he acknowledges, "but there are also points of excitement, some bright lights."
Like other mainline Canadian denominations, the Presbyterians have seen a fall in membership — to 91,036 in 2015 from 202,566 in 1964.
At the same time, congregations have become smaller, with most having fewer than 100 people at worship services on Sundays.
With statistics like that, Bush knows for many Presbyterian this is a "scary time." Some churches, he says, will close.
"The traditional model is not working" for most churches, he says, noting many congregations aren’t large enough to support a full-time pastor.
At the same time, he sees this as a an opportunity for experimentation. He is especially excited by new house churches popping up in different parts of Canada. In these cases, several "congregations" share a pastor, meeting in homes at various times of the week.
"We may need to launch more neighbourhood churches like these," he says. "This could be a way to bring some people back to church and reach new people."
Bush is also encouraged by how immigrants to Canada are changing the church.
"They are bringing energy and excitement," he says. "Ethnic ministries are the brightest lights. Ethnic congregations in every province are growing."
He also sees opportunity as denominations work together.
"Denominational lines are becoming less important to many people. I think we will see more interdenominational co-operation in creating new churches."
By way of example, Bush points to Manitoba’s Pinawa Christian Fellowship, which is an amalgamation of four denominations: Mennonite, United, Anglican and Presbyterian.
In the future, he says, there may be more churches like this. "Denominational divisions will matter less. What will matter is our common faith in Christ."
As for the role of the Presbyterian Church in this increasingly secular and post-Christendom age, he says the church "has become less influential" in society — and that’s OK.
"We need to stop hankering for the days when we had more influence," Bush says of those who might bemoan religion’s waning impact.
Instead, he says, Christians should put their "focus on the community level, get our hands dirty" — not worry so much about whether the broader culture is paying attention to the church.
That said, Bush does believe the church has a role in holding governments to account, especially regarding issues such as poverty, refugees and climate change.
"Sometimes church and state can work together, as with the sponsoring of Syrian refugees," Bush says.
"But we always need to keep (government) at arm’s length. Getting too close to political power is deadly for the church."
He also believes in evangelism, but not the kind where people "shove the good news down people’s throats."
For him, the best evangelism is "neighbours talking to neighbours, by being in relationship with people and being open to when the Spirit says to say something."
Looking ahead, "God is faithful, the church will survive. It may not look like it is now; it may be very different. It may be something new and unexpected."
Whatever it is, local congregations will be at the centre, Bush believes.
That, he says, "is where the light and hope is... it will be found in our service in our neighbourhoods as we become intentionally engaged with people.
"We worship a saviour who died and was resurrected," he concludes.
"The church has again and again reached moments when it has died and found new birth. We need to tell stories about how the church is growing, adapting, changing."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.
Updated on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 8:05 AM CDT: Headline fixed