Carey Nieuwhof on Maintaining Your Mission While Changing Your Method
Today we’re honored to have Carey Nieuwhof with us. Carey is the founding and teaching pastor of Connexus Church just north of Toronto. Carey describes Canada as being a post-modern, post-Christian country. Going to church is the minority among the people. Most traffic on Sundays is caused by people going shopping or to the beach, not to church. In spite of these statistics, most Canadians do consider themselves spiritual, although they have no affiliation with a church.
Carey has spent his life looking for new ways to reach the culture as well as helping church leaders with develop their own leadership. He talks with us on this podcast about some of the ways he’s done that over the years.
- Use the culture to reach the culture. // Carey grew up in a traditional church, with stained glass, organ music and hymnals. He always wished as a young boy that the music inside the church could be more like the music outside the church. When he was preaching one day at his church, he realized that the traditional methods didn’t always work and that some things needed to change to engage the current culture and reach new people. “If we’re waiting on the culture to change, we’ll be waiting all day long,” Carey says. “We’re the ones who need to change.” Be willing to change the strategies within your church to match the current culture. We can confuse changing our methods with changing our mission, but the mission stays the same. Changing your method to reach the culture may mean changing the music during worship, altering the style of sermons, or changing the order of the service. Even contemporary churches can find themselves stuck and in need of some revitalization to continue to stay current with the changing culture.
- Take time to build relationships. // We’ve probably all been guilty of ranting on social media at one time or another, but attacking people in the world for the way they live is not going to win them to Christ. When we rant about things we don’t agree with, we can’t be surprised when the world doesn’t come running to join us at church. In all honesty, some Christians may see unchurched people as below them, or as projects that need to be fixed rather than people that God loves. There may be people that you don’t like or lifestyles you don’t agree with, but if you treat these people as if they are projects, or act like you don’t like them, how will they then hear that God loves them? The reality is human beings are going to the people they feel truly love them. As Carey notes: “In building relationships you need to have a lot of empathy—and empathy doesn’t mean agreement. If you don’t have a relationship, there is no way you can have influence in somebody’s life.”
- Invest in that relationship. // Building relationships with unchurched people takes time and intentionality. Make time in your schedule for that relationship. Plan activities together, such as bike rides or meeting for coffee. And don’t give up even when it doesn’t seem that you’re impacting them. Take the initiative as a leader to reach out to them because unchurched people won’t come to you first.
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Rich – Alright, well hey, welcome to the podcast, this has been a great month as we’ve been interacting with church leaders all over the world and today I’m really honored to be really connecting with a friend and a dear leader, a person who’s done a great job, Carey Nieuwhof. For folks that don’t know, which is probably not a lot of people, but for folks that don’t know, Carey is the founding and teaching pastor a Connexus Church, just north of Toronto, they have two campuses in Barrie and Orillia. He also has an incredible podcast and blog, careynieuwhof.com and if you can spell that you get some Dutch candy I think. So Carey, welcome to the show.
Carey – Hey it’s great to be here Rich, thanks so much for having me.
Rich – It’s always nice to connect with you. Well Carey is, you know for folks who listen, I am a Canadian, I’ve talked about that in the past, most of the people who listen to the show, a vast majority, I think it’s 95, it might even be more than that, are American but I’ve loved serving in The States, love being a part of that culture. Carey has continued to serve in Canada and so really is the Canadian expert in the room today.
Carey – Yeah, I have my Canadian shirt on.
Rich – Yes, the Canadian, I really appreciate that.
Carey – For those who are watching via video.
Rich – That’s very nice, The True North Strong and Free. Why don’t we start by, as we’ve been asking people, give us a sense of the kind of spiritual climate of your country, of Canada, give us kind of a sense of what that looks like?
Carey – Yeah well, I spent a lot of time in the US as well, they occasionally let me out of Canada and one thing I notice, and I’ve spent time in Europe, we were building new church leaders on a couple of occasions and some time vacationing there with my family and I think Canada is really a hybrid between Europe and the United States.
Rich – Interesting.
Carey – One of the analogies that helps me, apparently this is true, but a hundred years ago when you were in a coalmine you always had a canary there and apparently canaries are much more sensitive to toxic gas than humans are.
Rich – Yeah.
Carey – So the workers would be working around and then all of a sudden buddy over there drops dead, it’s like, “Oh, we should get out of the mine.”
Rich – Right.
Carey – But you have a canary in the mine because the canary will die before it really is lethal to humans. So you check the canary every once in a while, it’s like, “Oh, the canary’s keeling over, it’s time to get out of the mine.” So we’re the canary in the coalmine.
We are, I think, depending on your region in the US, like if you’re in New England, I think you can identify with the Canadian landscape a little bit better. If you’re in Georgia or Texas, probably not so much if you’re anyway near a bible belt.
You know, Canada is probably 10 to 15 years ahead or behind where you are, depending on how you look at it right, in terms of being post-modern, post-Christian, pretty much post everything. So for example, last year was the big decision by the supreme court of the United States on same sex marriage in the United States. Well that happened in our country a decade ago.
Rich – Right.
Carey – And when you look at a lot of Barna’s research, David Kinnaman stuff on millennials and sort of their spiritual attitudes and how they think 40% of millennials are post-Christian in the United States, well a millennial mindset is more like a baby boomer mindset in Canada, to the point that we have been thinking that way for two or three generations.
So the church is really a minority, I mean it’s just not expected, kind of like New England or Seattle, that anybody you know goes to church. You know, most of the traffic on Sunday morning, if there is traffic, is to the mall or to the beach or to the ski hill and Sundays have really drifted off the radar screen of most people living in our country. So you see the disappearance of collective guilt and nobody really feels guilty about not being in church. The question isn’t, “Hey, what church do you go to?” Which is still actually true in some cities, even like Atlanta. The assumption is, you probably are affiliated with some church.
Rich – Right.
Carey – Whereas in Canada that’s really unique. I’ll give you a very interesting example, I was flying back from Atlanta last Friday, or Saturday actually and I had this guy who was probably in his very early 20s sitting next to me on the plane. So I’m looking at his laptop, he’s looking at mine and as we’re descending I’m like, “Hey, so you’re a coder?” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m a coder.” He goes, “What do you do?” So I tell him, “I help church leaders, I’m a church leader,” and he goes, “Were you at a church in Atlanta?” and I said, “Yeah.” This guy does not look like a church going guy at all.
Rich – Right, right.
Carey – He’s got the nose ring, he’s actually heading to Tokyo to play and compete in the World Championships for this card game.
Rich – Really?
Carey – Yeah, yeah. A fascinating guy.
Rich – Yeah.
Carey – And he says, “What church do you go to?” and I’m like, “I was at North Point,” and he goes, “I knew you were going to say that.” So this 22-year-old and he goes, “That’s the church…” because he’s from Atlanta, he’s from Alpharetta, he goes, “That’s the church that if we go to church we go to, but like we haven’t been there in two years,” and the whole deal.
So we talk a little bit about it but he’s like, “Yeah, that’s kind of my parent’s church, if I go to church I’m there.” This is a guy who in Canada probably would not have that, he would probably be… you know, he couldn’t carry on the conversation beyond that but we had a really good time, I told him what to do on his layover in Toronto.
Rich – Nice.
Carey – You know, I wished him all the best at his championship, the whole deal. But there’s a guy who would not have any church background in Canada who has some kind of tangential affiliation or even knows what a North Point is, you know?
Rich – Absolutely.
Carey – You go around Barrie and Orillia and go, “What’s Connexus?” People would have no idea, or even The Meeting House where you used to be, you know?
Rich – Absolutely.
Carey – People are like, unless you’re in the church world you just don’t know.
Rich – Right, absolutely. There’s an interesting parallel of someone who straddled the border, I remember, there seems to be a part of the kind of American presidential process, I was just going to say presidential Olympic process, but presidential election process…
Carey – It feels that way.
Rich – It feels that way, where all the candidates have to kind of feign some sort of religious affiliation, like it becomes a part of their kind of brand and I don’t think any people really care about it, but it becomes like you have to at least say that you’re a Christian or talk about your spiritual background, where I feel like in Canada, if a leader at that level did that it would actually be a detriment to their political campaign, it would actually hurt them.
Carey – Oh totally. I mean you look at Stephen Harper, our Prime Minister for almost a decade, who was defeated last fall in 2015 in an election.
Rich – Yeah.
Carey – He is actually an evangelical Christian, but like that was a mark against him, not a mark for him.
Rich – Right.
Carey – Whereas Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister has nice hair and he’s spiritual but not Christian and that’s a bonus.
That’s the other thing, people think,” “Well in a post-Christian culture is everybody just an agnostic or an atheist?” I think the last data I saw, 76% of Canadians identify themselves as spiritual and there’s a lot who are now non-affiliated.
I’ll tell you a culture shift, even in my two decades of leadership. I do the odd wedding, not a lot, but like in the beginning, in the 902 and the early 2000s, I would say, “Hey Rich and Christine, what denomination are you?” What’s your religion I think is the question and people would say, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, you know, Pentecostal, whatever. Now, even people who go to our church, well we’re a non-denominational church here and now, but it’s like Christian or there’s no denominational affiliation, it’s either Christian or spiritual or non-denominational or whatever.
Rich – Right.
Carey – So, I mean, that has changed so much in the last 20 years, in even our hearing. So people just don’t identify and most people are spiritual, like I think only 13% of Atheist and the rest are Agnostic and 76% are spiritual if my data’s correct, but they just don’t think a church can help.
Rich – Right.
Carey – And spiritual is however you define it.
Rich – Right.
Carey – You know, someone might say, “Well I kind of like a little bit of Buddhism,” and you know, “I was in Alcoholic Anonymous and they helped me in that spiritual and I do Yoga and I tried some meditation.” It’s kind of, in American context it’s kind of a Tim Ferriss.
Rich – Yeah.
Carey – Tim would be very, very…
Rich – Yes.
Carey – He would fit in very well in Canada because he’s spiritual, he’s experimental, he’s left leaning and that’s just where the culture’s gone.
Rich – Yeah absolutely. That has been the context that you’ve lived in and grown in. The part that I love and one of the things that I respect about you as a leader, love about you as a leader, is you really do have a firm commitment to creating churches that unchurched people love to attend. That’s really been your life’s work, although you maybe haven’t articulated it that way all the time, that’s really been, when I watch the trajectory of your leadership, that’s been what you’ve been doing. So how has wanting to do that, how has that been impacted by the culture that you find yourself serving in, how does that work itself out in the church that you’ve led?
Carey – Oh it’s been completely defining for us. So we’ve used the language because we’re a North Point strategic partner at Connexus Church, of creating a church that unchurched people love to attend, but I can take you back to the moment Rich when that message got emblazoned on my ear. I mean I can take you to different points.
When I was 12 years old I wanted to translate the bible into English that people could understand right? Because I was reading…
Rich – As most 12 year olds do, as most 12 years old do.
Carey – As most 12 year olds do. I remember praying a prayer saying, “God I can understand this because I grew up in church, but I know that most of my friends can’t, so can I do this?”
I remember when I was struggling with the call to ministry, listening to the music that most normal people listen to, which is not church music going, “Gosh, if church music could ever sound like this.” Now I had no idea there was a Willow Creek, I had no idea. I still went to my church and it was organ or piano, “Which one are we using today?”
Rich – Right.
Carey – And, “Which hymn book, the red or the blue?”
Rich – Right.
Carey – I mean that was my church context but I had those inclinations. But as a pastor a couple of years into my leadership, we started to see growth and I just had a moment, these were in the historic three Presbyterian churches that I was in and the one that was built in 1893, I remember standing up there on the pulpit, looking out of the stained glass, a little church that sat about a hundred people, and I just remember being burdened and while I was preaching it was like kind of a weird, almost like a movie where something happens while something else is happening?
Rich – Right.
Carey – I remember getting this strong, strong, strong realization that God cares more passionately about the people outside of the windows than he does inside the windows and I think I said it that day and I said, “If we’re going to reach them we have to use the culture to reach the culture.” So that’s around the time that we, you know, I knew the music was bad but it was like, “Okay, we need a five-year timeline to make it great. We need to change our governance structure. We need to get out of these buildings,” mostly because we were outgrowing them. “We need to do all this stuff and if we’re expecting the culture to change, we’re going to wait all day long.”
Rich – Right.
Carey – “We are the ones who need to change. We’re the people who need to change our preferences,” because what unites us is the gospel and Jesus’ death for the world, what’s dividing, what’s separating the church from the world right now is this really weird, not very good church culture that we should get rid of and we should just sort of cooperate with the culture, we can use the culture to reach the culture and I’ve used that phrase for over 20 years and you know what, it works, it really works.
I think often we confuse the mission and the method and we just get so devoted to our method and even that right now, at Connexus, like we’re adding technology so we can do more beats in our music.
Rich – Oh yeah.
Carey – Because it sounds very… it could be 2012 at our church or 2008. So we’re trying to get younger, we’re making changes all the time because what’s happens, and you and I have talked about this before on my podcast, you end up with a bunch of 40, 50-year-old white guys making all the decisions in the church.
Rich – Right.
Carey – It’s like my 20-year-old says, “None of my friends listen to Cold Play, the only people who listen to Cold Play are people your age, everybody’s dad listens to Cold Play,” but my friends listen to them too. I’m sitting there going, “I’m incredibly relevant,” and he’s like, “No you’re not.”
Rich – Yes, it’s so true. No, it’s so true, I think the music thing is a big part of the equation. I’ve got teenagers which is a way to stay humble in life, but…
Carey – They actually come back with gratitude later, just so you know.
Rich – Okay, well that’s good, I’m looking forward to those days.
Carey – It’s enough.
Rich – You know, I think there is a part of… you know the music thing is keeping ahead of the curve and I’ve been saying this, and actually was saying this to a friend earlier, just earlier today, I said, “Do you know what, I really do think that our musical expression, I think a lot of what we consider contemporary in the church is a bit stuck,” it continues to be in this, how do we push to the future how do we…? It’s not even in the future, it’s just where is it today? I appreciate that.
What are some other… when you think of, there’s kind of the Sunday programming piece, trying to keep that relevant, continuing to… are there other kind of pieces of the equation that you’ve had to do to stay connected to a post-Christian culture?
Carey – Yeah relationship, you know, in the way you approach people who don’t go to church and don’t share your values or your convictions.
Reggie Joiner is a great friend and we’ve known each other for a while and he’s one of the best at this that frankly I’ve ever met in my life and he just said, “Nobody will be convinced that you love them if they sense that you don’t like them.”
Rich – Oh wow.
Carey – That is just so convicting.
Rich – That’s to the heart, that’s to the heart, oh gosh.
Carey – Yeah that’s like, “Okay, could you be a little more ambiguous, like just make it [Inaudible 00:13:58] Reggie,” but he’s right and a lot of Christians, you know, what do we do on our Facebook, what do we do in our social media tweets, we rant against the world and then we can’t understand why the world doesn’t come running to us.
So when I go, I got a text before we did this interview from my neighbor, “Hey, do you want to go for a bike ride today?” and I love my neighbor, but you know what, he doesn’t sometimes let some F-bombs fly and he’s never responded once to any invitations to church, but the question is, is he a project or is he a person? Is he somebody I’m going to…?
When you’re dealing with unchurched people you’re not going to agree with their lifestyle, some of them are going to smoke weed, some of them are going to have sex outside of marriage, some of them are going… you know, and some of them by contrast are going to be fantastic, wonderful people, morally and otherwise.
Rich – Yep.
Carey – Then they’re like, “Well I thought I had to be a Christian to be a good person but I’m already a good person,” and you’re like, “You know what, you are a good person, let’s just be honest.”
So I think a lot of Christians, we live in this stereotypical bubble where we don’t actually like unchurched people and we have reasons, we… You know Rich, what I think we’ve done in the evangelical church is, and I’m not criticizing Roman Catholicism at all here, but Protestants criticize Catholics for saying, “You’re all about works, you’re all about works salvation.” I think what we’ve done in the Protestant evangelical church, particularly the conservative church, is we have taken works and we won’t let them in the front door but we bring them in the back door. Now we’re like, “We are better than you. God loves us because we’re righteous and you’re not very righteous so you don’t really belong in our club,” and I’ve tried to smash that attitude in my heart, because it’s there, you know idols, they keep building themselves. So I’m trying to kill that in my heart, we’re trying to kill that in our church and we’re trying to be gracious and compassionate and empathetic, you know the way Reggie or Andy Stanley would say, “Man if I were you and I believed what you believed, I would live the way you live, like it makes perfect sense,” and when you have that kind of empathy, when you show that kind of grace, when you’re in relationships like that with people, with whom perhaps you do profoundly disagree at a truth level or maybe even disagree at a lifestyle level, but you don’t judge them, man it’s amazing, you just build friendships.
Rich – Right.
Carey – The reality about human existence is simply this, we listen most to the people that we love the most and if they don’t love you they’re not going to listen to you, but if you build a relationship and you actually just genuinely like them… Like I think that’s what attracted people who are maybe not observe and choose, people who were gentiles in Jesus’ day, it’s like, “This guy actually loves me, like this guy actually likes me,” and when somebody actually likes you, you’re open to them and you’re, “Okay tell me Rich, you’re weird but you go to church right? Like what is that church thing that you do on the weekend?”
Rich – Right, yes, right, right.
Carey – But if you’re Rich the neighbor who’s always calling the township because the guy hasn’t mowed his lawn or calling the city because, if you’re Rich the angry Christian, I’m not going to listen to you, in fact I’m going to do the opposite.
So what we’ve learned is that in building relationships, you need to have a lot of empathy and empathy doesn’t mean agreement and you need to keep the relationship, because if you don’t have a relationship there is no possible way that you can ever have influence in somebody’s life.
Rich – Well let’s get practical on that issue, because I think you speak to a lot of church leaders, a lot of people follow you, I think it can be hard for church leaders to have relationships with people outside of the church. Our lives can become swallowed up with, we’re constantly meeting with donors, with leaders, we’re trying to recruit people, we’re trying to meet with some young people in the church, so before you know it… I think there are those extreme examples of the guy who’s an idiot frankly, but I think more church leaders are probably impacted by the, “I just am not making space in my life for folks outside of the church.” How have you done that and how would you coach some leaders who may be listening in today, to make relationship space for folks in their lives?
Carey – As critical as this sounds, it doesn’t happen unless you schedule it.
Rich – Right.
Carey – So I have a couple of breakfast slots that are open most weeks, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and I will often meet with somebody who’s just going through a hard time or an unchurched person I’m building into. I always try to have one or two personal relationships, not like somebody I talk to for five minutes after a sermon one day, but like people I’m building into and I’m doing life with. It’s Andy Stanley’s Do For One, What You Wish You Could Do for Everyone and I think getting involved in the community outside of your church.
So I cycle, I tend to cycle alone unless I’m with an unchurched friend and then I’ll cycle together in a group with that person. But it’s just building relationships, it’s praying for them and you reach one or two people a year and it can make a really big difference.
Rich – For sure.
Carey – And don’t give up. I went for a walk this week with a guy that I met a decade ago, he was kind of unchurched, started coming to our church and then literally walked out of the door and we didn’t see him for five years and he just wasn’t very open.
Rich – Right.
Carey – Then his life took a turn last fall, he starting texting me again, he still had my cellphone, we had him over for dinner, built a relationship, he gave his life to Christ a few months ago and we just hang out and we’re just talking.
Rich – That’s cool.
Carey – You need to have that and you need to take the initiative as a leader, because unchurched people are never going to email you.
Rich – Right.
Carey – Leaders will email you, donors will email you, people with marriage breakdown, pastoral problems, emergencies, they’ll email you, they’ll text you, they’ll Facebook you all day long, unchurched people never will, so you just have to make the time for them and if I don’t put it in my calendar, it doesn’t happen.
Rich – Right, that’s very good, that’s a good word and that principle of applying, in your own personal life, of making room in your life for unchurched people, how are you expecting to do that as a church unless you are doing that in your own personal life, right? The principle is the same, we want to have the voice of unchurched folks in our church as we’re planning, as we’re thinking it through, how does our kid’s ministry connect with people who are unchurched, and what are we speaking about on Sundays that will connect with people who are unchurched? If we’re not making that space in our own lives, it’s very hard to do that in the life of our church for sure.
Carey – And I think Rich, you’re so right. There’s a certain point at which you have to start saying no to Christians if you want to build a relationship with non-Christians.
Rich – Yes.
Carey – Because I could fill every waking second my life with Christians who want to meet with me and I just won’t do it, I can’t do it. You have to say no to Christians for the sake of the lost, it’s kind of that parable Jesus told right, where you leave the 99 and you go and find the one.
Rich – Yeah.
Carey – We just live in a country where it’s like, “Well we’ve found one, we’ve just lost 99. So hey, you over there, sit over there.”
Rich – Yes.
Carey – “We’re going to go and find those 99.”
Rich – Definitely. Well you interact with leaders in the US quite a bit and part of what we’re doing this month, if you’ve been listening along, is actually asking leaders from around the world to kind of give some advice, some brotherly advice to leaders in The States about saying, “Hey this is kind of, from my perspective, if I was leading in your culture, what I’ve learned from my perspective might help you as you’re leading in an increasingly post-Christian, post-modern world.” What would you say Carey to church leaders in The States as they’re thinking about that issue?
Carey – Well this is a little political and I don’t want people to hear this in a partisan way, but I would just say, stop asking the government or expecting the government to do the work of the church, plain and simple. When I see Americans comment on the nation, they see the Christian foundations of America slipping away and I don’t think a political party is going to bring that back, I think a revitalized church.
If you look at it, eventually a government becomes a reflection of the people and if the people are increasingly unChristian, the government is going to be increasingly Christian.
So the way to do that, I mean you end up into theocracies or totalitarian states, where they start to impose religious views on people, no let it bubble up, like go and reach your city, go and love your city, go and love your community, make a difference in your state and make a difference in your region. As you win over heart after heart after heart, person after person, life after life, some of those people will end up being senators, some of them will end up being congress people, some of them will end up running for mayor and as those things change from the bottom up, you will see a nation transform.
But looking at the government, being angry, complaining about things, doesn’t solve anything. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, go and meet some people and with that you can change the world.
Rich – Well Carey, I really appreciate you being on the show today, if people want to get in touch with you or with the church that you lead, how could they do that?
Carey – Yeah sure, our church is just connexuschurch.com and you can find it and then my blog and leadership podcast, it all sort of can be found at careynieuwhof.com and Carey Nieuwhof, if you come even close Google will direct you there.
Rich – Nice, that’s great. Carey I appreciate you being on the show today. Thank you so much for challenging us.
Carey – Thanks.
Rich – I appreciate that.
Carey – I appreciate you Rich.