good idea! interviews John Bowen about his new book
good idea: In a single sentence, what is this book about?
John Bowen: It’s a book of essays about the future of the church and its mission in Canada in the 21st century. The title is Green Shoots out of Dry Ground: Growing a New Future for the Church in Canada, and I am the editor.
gi: What gave you the idea for the book?
JB: It was inspired in part by the Church of England’s Mission Shaped Church report, which came out in 2004. Church reports are not usually best sellers, but this was an exception. In fact, it has so far sold over 25,000 copies and become one of the major catalysts for the Fresh Expressions movement around the world.
However, I found that, as people in Canada were reading Mission Shaped Church, their reaction was often, “There’s great stuff in here, but it’s so English! Isn’t there something like this for Canada?” And the whole point of the Fresh Expressions movement is to think like missionaries, and to start new Christian communities which are culturally appropriate. So that seemed a very valid concern.
Then, in the first half of 2012, I had a sabbatical. In the previous year, when I was thinking about a suitable sabbatical project, I began to wonder about the possibility of writing a similar book for Canada. But Mission Shaped Church was written by a committee, not by an individual, and that seemed to be a sensible approach. The book would reach a wider audience if all (or many) of those audiences were represented in the book.
So, with lots of help, I came up with a list of chapters and authors, and got to work. By the end of September 2012, the complete manuscript was in the hands of the publisher, and by some magic I do not understand they got it out in exactly four months, just in time for the Vital Church Planting conference in Toronto at the end of January.
gi: So what makes this book uniquely Canadian, eh?
JB: Here are three things that I think make it distinctively Canadian:
First, I thought it was important that the book should represent the length and breadth of the country. So you will find that the authors and the stories come from Vancouver and St John’s, and many points in between, such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Fredericton, and Toronto. The North is represented by Mark McDonald, Canada’s National Indigenous Bishop.
Secondly, different chapters discuss issues that are uniquely Canadian, or at least ones that take on a distinctive shape in Canada: our cities and our vast rural areas; what we can learn from new Canadian church planters (one Nigerian, one Philippino); what aboriginal Christians have to teach us about mission; where Canada’s young people are in relation to faith and church; and even what mission and ecology might mean for Canada.
It also seemed important that the book represent different denominations in Canada. As a result, the authors are (in alphabetical order) Anglican, Baptist, independent, Lutheran and United; some of the stories in the book also represent the Christian Reformed and Mennonite traditions. The scope would have been wider, but a dozen potential authors had to turn down my invitation for one reason or another.
gi: And what’s the significance of the title?
JB: I am struck by how often Jesus uses imagery of natural growth. As I look across the country, in many ways, this does feel like a “dry” time for many churches—a time when nourishment is hard to come by and there is little growth as a result. But at the same time, there are many “green shoots” springing up in the most surprising ways and places.
Once I had decided to use that imagery, it was easy enough to make use of it in different ways throughout the book. There are three sections. The first one, “The Lay of the Land,” sets the stage for what follows by offering a theology of mission, an overview of Canadian cultures today, and a personal reminiscence of church planting in Toronto in the 1950’s.
The largest section, “Nursery Gardens,” contains chapters on what is growing in the various “fields” of Canadian mission. This is where the chapters occur on our cities, our rural areas, new Canadian churches, First Nations, youth, and the environment.
The final section, “A Garden that will Last,” suggests what is needed for mission to bring about sustained and lasting change. The writers discuss what kind of spirituality is needed and what kind of leadership we should look for; how we exercise missional discernment in our communities; how denominations might be transformed for mission; and what resources are available to maintain healthy growth.
gi: So is this just a book of theory?
JB: No. First of all, most of the authors are practitioners of mission, who write out of their own experience. But then, sprinkled throughout the book are ten stories—examples of “Green Shoots”—of innovative ministries, creative church plants, and fresh expressions of church from across the country and across the spread of denominations, written by Canadian journalists Diana Swift and Kirstin Jenkins. I suspect that, for some readers, these will be the highlight of the book!
gi: How do you expect readers to respond to this book?
My prayer is that readers will find hope in the book: God has not given up on the church in Canada. There is a future, even if we do not know much about what it will look like. Secondly, I hope readers will find their own vision rekindled, that they will feel empowered to “dream dreams” about how the mission of God might be freshly expressed in this country. And, thirdly, I hope that it might help to create a network of mission-minded people who will find common cause to serve God in their local communities.
I was touched and encouraged by the response of one of the first readers of the book, Colin Johnson, the Anglican Archbishop of Ontario. In the Afterword, he writes:
Some chapters will offer immense and surprising hope, while others will introduce the troubling voice that suggests we need to rethink some of our longstanding opinions. I find myself stretched and chastened, encouraged and shaken, affirmed and challenged, intrigued, and slightly unnerved by what I have read here.
I have to confess, that’s how I felt myself as I saw the book coming together. And I suspect others will feel the same.
gi: One final question—and I hope it’s not too personal. Doesn’t it feel a little strange to be interviewing yourself?
JB: Not at all. Most people talk to themselves from time to time.
gi: Thank you.
“Green Shoots out of Dry Ground” may be ordered from Crux Books at Wycliffe College for the price of $34 plus postage. You can call Crux at 416 599 2749 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is also available from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, at wipfandstock.com, and through Amazon.ca