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American pastor in Canada doesn't miss culture wars, church growth pressures

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Justin Joplin heard something few, if any, ministers hear when interviewing for senior pastor positions in U.S. churches.

“The chair of the search committee made it really clear to me: ‘We want to grow in our faith … whether that means more butts in the seats or not, doesn’t matter,’” Joplin said. “There is something liberating about that.”

And the liberating — and often astonishing — differences didn’t end there for Joplin, lead pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, Ontario.

Yes, as in Canada.

Joplin, 39, and his family arrived in that country in 2014 after he served congregations through youth ministry and pastor positions with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations in his native North Carolina and in Richmond, Va.

The move wasn’t about politics as much as it was about a quest to experience a Baptist identity free from anxiety over a decline from majority cultural status.

In the U.S., Joplin said, “I would drive to work past seven Baptist churches, all of which were struggling and needed to merge with each other. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could serve some place where this doesn’t exist?”

He got his wish in a small, Toronto-area congregation that worships in space appropriate for its attendance and, he added, in a nation of immigrants and refugees where Baptists are a small slice of the Christian and religious pie.

“I read somewhere there are about 300,000 Baptist in all of Canada. I think in the greater Toronto area alone there about 400,000 or 500,000 Muslims,” he said. “So, we are a minority up here and if you look at Baptist history, we have done some of our best work as a minority.”

Joplin said he’s been inspired by the courage of that minority, represented in part by its vocal and heartfelt apology for its historic roles in the persecution of indigenous people — including the notorious residential school policy that tore children from their families in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Joplin spoke with Baptist News Global by phone about his experiences of church and culture in America’s northern neighbor.

Justin Joplin helps a child light candles at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Ontario, Canada, where he serves as lead pastor. (Photo/Courtesy of Justin Joplin)

Have you been especially glad not to be in the U.S. since the 2016 elections?

In a way, absolutely. But it goes beyond politics. Things I don’t miss about living in the States would include gun violence and health-care costs. Socialized medicine is an amazing thing and we are really fortunate to be experiencing that. … We didn’t expect the 2016 elections to go the way they did. … I got a Christmas card from a colleague from the States asking that if things get worse, can they move in with us?

Culturally and theologically, how is Christianity different in Canada than in the United States?

I’m not sure the polarization is quite as pronounced up here. The different sides aren’t quite the same. Just the descriptor “evangelical” doesn’t carry some of the same baggage up here as it does in the states. … Some of the trademark issues that distinguish you as either a progressive or conservative Christian in the States are not the same here. In a way, it’s kind of hard to get your bearings.

What is different about Baptists in Canada?

Our denominational identity up here in the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, the CBOQ, reminds me in some ways of an organization like the Baptist General Association of Virginia. There are some people within our family that are very conservative — that I would describe as fundamentalists. And there are people who are progressive, too. We do have a difficult coexistence, but it is a coexistence. Sometimes, I feel like I am living in the old Southern Baptist Convention as it is described to me — as a big tent with different constituencies inside. … There is also a lot of cultural diversity that creates differences in the church landscape. The biggest churches in CBOQ are ethnic churches. Chinese Baptist churches are massive. … The closest thing we have to an American-style megachurch is Mennonite.

Evangelicals are holding prayer meetings in the White House. Do you see anything approaching that in Canada?

I don’t think there’s very much of that. That’s not to say there’s none. … A year ago, I went to the Ontario prayer breakfast. … The governor general was the speaker — that’s the queen’s representative in Canada. He spoke openly and very sincerely about his Christian faith. … Faith really matters a lot to a lot of Canadians, but without a triumphalistic, in-your-face attitude.

Many Canadian Christians recently apologized to indigenous people for decades of oppression and discrimination. What did Baptists say in their apology?

[Executive Director] Terry Smith, in the Canadian Baptist Ministries apology, said we didn’t get involved in residential schools as Baptists, but that’s only because we weren’t big enough. When the government was looking to run these schools, they looked to the larger, more established churches that were in the cultural driver’s seat. … The CBM apology said that while we are not directly complicit, where we really messed up is that we didn’t speak up for indigenous people when we had the opportunity.

Does your church have a relationship with indigenous groups?

The First Nations community is something my congregation has a high degree of passion for. … They have a couple long-term partnerships in First Nation communities.

How has immigration impacted Canada?

There is this infusion of people of other nationalities and ethnic groups. … It changes the church landscape. There seems to be a much greater openness toward immigrants and refugees. There is certainly not this emphasis on fear being stoked up. I think both the United States and Canada are nations of immigrants. Canada seems to have a better grasp on that truth.

Is doing church much different in Canada than in the States?

Canadians are not as big on joining a church. In Richmond, I had a 500-member church, but we had 70 people (in worship). Here, I think I’ve got a 125-member church, but I have 170 (in worship). If everybody shows up, we have 225 to 230 and it’s hard to get a seat. We have the right-sized sanctuary for the number of people who are here.

Is there pressure to grow membership?

Certainly not. … I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, “gosh, how can I get to a bigger church.”

How has being in Canada influenced your own faith and ministry?

In a country where the sharp divide between conservative evangelical and moderate, progressive Christians doesn’t exist in the same way, there’s a little less pressure to keep up appearances. … In the States you have to distinguish yourself as not this kind of Baptist or that kind of Baptist. … Up here, we’re not pulled as much into the culture war stuff because there’s not as much of the culture war stuff going on.

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