Vibrant churches challenge complacency

Visiting churches and meeting with leaders has been a big part of Franklin Pyles' job as president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada (C&MA). On the eve of his departure from the post he's held for the past 12 years, he speaks fondly of the places he's been and the people he's met.

"It's been a lot of fun getting out into churches throughout Canada, as well as going around the world and seeing our workers," he says. "I found this very encouraging. Seeing their vibrancy made me believe in our family of churches."

Connecting with leaders in countries where churches are being persecuted has also made an impact. "I got to be in places and see and do things no tourist would ever see or do. Talking to national Christians is an enduring blessing for me."

And in these conversations, he's discovered a message in this for complacent Christians in Canada. "The Canadian church operates with a sense of moderation that I've somewhat absorbed," he allows. "It's good that we don't panic. The roof won't fall just because an issue doesn't go our way.

"At the same time, the Canadian church does need to freak out on some things. It needs to be stronger supporting the suffering church; it needs to take some stronger stands for plight of women, their exploitation, those on the fringes, the marginalized."

In that vein, Pyles is pleased that the C&MA launched "Justice and Compassion" as one of its four strategic emphases. "That was not part of our canon a decade ago," he observes. But this year Justice is the convention theme.

One key focus is the Defend Dignity project to "end prostitution in Canada." "We're out in front on this issue," he says. "We're pleased with our partnerships and wider church connections, and pleased to be working for justice. This is part of preaching the gospel."

When he became president in 2000, Pyles was a huge advocate of big churches. Rough realities have tempered his views. "I still like large churches, but I see we need a lot of variety. I still think our large churches do us well, but our midsize churches need honour. They have a lot of potential and can offer some things large churches cannot."

The C&MA has a number of large churches that are doing well although "several have gone into severe decline." Nonetheless, "the obituary on large churches is premature; there is a future for large churches and we still [have] some that are quite successful. At the same time, they're not proliferating in Canada like elsewhere.

"Then again, nothing is proliferating in Canada," he adds.

As Pyles sees it, "the task for this generation is how to evangelize Canada." He cites the rise of militant atheism and recent polls showing rising numbers of people who say they don't believe in God. "No matter how you cut it, there is a decline in belief in Canada. Capturing attention and communicating faith in a meaningful way is a difficult task. It requires our best minds, the leading of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God."

Has the job changed him? After 12 years leading a national denomination with global missionary reach, Pyles is "more appreciative of the wider Church than I ever was." He is pleased to work with a wide range of partners, including "the classic churches" (e.g. Roman Catholic, Coptic), where he has encountered a vibrant gospel witness.

Is it hard to step down? "You don't leave something you love without regrets," he replies. "I loved working in my office with my staff. I have great relationships. But I'm not going to cling to it. My time is done. I'm moving on."

As for what's next, Pyles is still considering his options, which are certain to include preaching and teaching. He currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, where he will be teaching courses on ethics and character this fall.

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