The EFC Holds True to Its Roots
By Debra Fieguth
Article written for FaithToday's September/October 2004 Issue
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, formed by a group of pastors in 1964 in order to promote fellowship, cooperation and a united voice to media and government, has grown and matured without abandoning that original vision.
As the new pastor of Danforth Gospel Temple in Toronto in the early 1960s, Harry Faught noticed his colleagues tended to stick to their own denominations. “There were so many good men, but it seemed to me they weren’t having anything to do with each other,” recalls Faught, a Pentecostal. “They all worked independently of each other. I thought it had to be a good thing if we had more fellowship together.”
Harry Faught was one of the first to suggest an evangelical fellowship of Canada.
Faught had enjoyed meeting with Christians from other churches when he was a student at Dallas Seminary in Texas. So he tried, informally at first, to promote more cooperation among Toronto pastors. Their resistance surprised him. Once he asked Oswald J. Smith, founding pastor of The Peoples Church, to speak to his congregation. “He said, ‘I don’t speak in other churches in Toronto.’ And that was such a perplexity to me.” Smith changed his mind, however, and Faught kept building bridges.
He began meeting with a handful of other pastors, including Arthur Lee of Calvary Church and Harold Telfer of Temple Baptist. Faught had attended some meetings of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the U.S. and was keen to have a parallel group in Canada. Clyde Taylor, who headed the NAE, encouraged the formation of a similar group and even attended some Canadian meetings.
In 1964 at least a couple of hundred ministers met at Knox Presbyterian, pastored by William Fitch. “That was the last sort of ad hoc meeting,” says Faught.
Out of that meeting, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada was born, with Faught as its first president and Smith as its honorary president.
The main goal from that inauspicious beginning 40 years ago was to promote understanding and fellowship among churches. “We were viewed cautiously among the old line churches,” recalls Faught. “My own denomination thought that to be involved in something outside of ourselves had to have some compromise. They got over this later on.”
It wasn’t exactly national at the time, but there was a sprinkling of ministers from the Kitchener and Niagara areas who came on board from the beginning. Within a few years, the fellowship did become national in scope. In 1967 Faught crossed Canada with American theologian Carl F.H. Henry, holding meetings from Vancouver to Halifax and inviting individuals to join the EFC. It was shortly after the “God is dead” philosophy had permeated Western culture, and Henry spoke about the rise of theism that followed.
Over the next two decades the fellowship started commissions to study various issues, published a magazine called Thrust, sponsored preaching seminars and encouraged cooperation among evangelical denominations and individuals from mainline churches. Presidents and executive members came from Presbyterian, Alliance, Brethren, Baptist, Associated Gospel, Pentecostal and other churches. [Editor's note: Other early leaders, after Bill Fitch, included Mariano DiGangi, Bob Thompson and Don Macleod, some of whom also helped birth World Relief Canada.]
The budget was bare bones and, apart from some paid secretarial help, there was “no remuneration for anybody, time-wise or travel-wise,” recalls Faught. There were some tough times: John Irwin, who was treasurer of the EFC in the early 1970s, remembers a moment in the parking lot after his father’s funeral when he, board member Jim Clemenger and others signed notes on the hood of a car to go to the bank and borrow money to keep the organization afloat.
Tackling Social Issues
Brian Stiller had been watching the development of the EFC since he was a student at the University of Toronto and attended the organization’s second annual meeting in 1965. A Pentecostal from Saskatoon, Stiller looked to Harry Faught as his mentor and shared his interest in evangelicalism. To him, Faught “represented the kind of evangelicalism I aspired to and wanted to be a part of.” Stiller saw the core values—the centrality of the cross, the authority of Scriptures, the fellowship of believers and the importance of sharing the good news—as things evangelicals could share without compromising their denominational distinctives.
Brian Stiller became the first executive director of the EFC in 1983 and quickly transformed the organization.
Stiller joined the staff of Youth for Christ and later became its national director, participating in the EFC at the same time. He was named chair of the social action commission in 1978 and was later appointed to the fellowship’s executive.
By 1981 the EFC had concluded it was time to hire a full-time director, even though there was no money in the budget to do so. Stiller was on the search committee. A conversation in the fall of 1982 with Mel Sylvester, then president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance and an EFC executive member, was a turning point for Stiller.
“He looked across the table and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time you left YFC and took on this assignment?’” Unbeknownst to Sylvester, Stiller had just told his YFC board chair that he was leaving his job—without knowing what he would do next.
Stiller became the first executive director of the EFC in the spring of 1983 and quickly transformed the organization, building its individual membership to 17,000 and expanding its budget. By the time he left in 1997 the budget had grown from about $60,000 a year to $3.5 million.
The fellowship also began to take its place in Canadian society. For Stiller, a key goal was to help evangelicals understand the role they could have in engaging the public and government. “We had so long vacated that role,” he says. To that end he developed a seminar called Understanding Our Times and took it across the country.
Under Stiller, the EFC became a more visible presence. “What became obvious to me was that evangelicals were looking for a voice,” he recalls, “a voice to government and a voice to media.”
Stiller began building relationships on Parliament Hill, most notably with Jake Epp, a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, and with parliamentary secretary Len Gustafson (now a senator), who got Stiller into the Prime Minister’s Office. “That showed the political community that we were a bona fide group with something valuable to offer,” says Stiller.
One of the key issues the EFC got involved in also landed one of its biggest blows. In 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s abortion law in a move that became known as the Morgentaler decision. A carefully crafted bill was meant to introduce a new law that would be acceptable to most Canadians. But it involved a compromise, and was voted down by pro-choice MPs as well as strident evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The result? Canada is “now the only country in the Western world that has no legal protection for the unborn.” Stiller calls the loss “one of the worst moments in my whole 14 years” at the EFC.
During his tenure, Stiller launched an issues-related television program—first called The Stiller Report and later Cross Currents—on the new Vision TV station, and remodeled the EFC’s flagship publication from Thrust into Faith Alive and then Faith Today. He also became a frequent guest on television and radio programs. By 1996 Stiller fulfilled the dream of opening an office in Ottawa.
Facilitating Ministry Partnerships
When Stiller accepted an invitation in 1997 to become president of Ontario Bible College and Seminary (now Tyndale University College and Seminary), Gary Walsh became president. Walsh, who was bishop of the Canadian Free Methodist Church, began to focus specifically on ministry partnerships.
Walsh “picked up a thread that had been woven into the pattern all along but had not been addressed in an intentional way,” comments Aileen Van Ginkel, director of EFC’s Centre for Ministry Empowerment, who worked closely with Walsh.
There was a new emphasis on nurturing partnerships. Denominations, organizations, educational institutions and congregations began to share their resources for a common purpose. Together they created ministry “roundtables”—on evangelism, global mission, higher education, Christian media and more recently on poverty and homelessness. The EFC was the catalyst in the formation of these roundtables, and it continues to support them with financial, administrative and communications help, explains Van Ginkel, who has worked with the EFC for 15 years. These partnerships continue to gain momentum and are enabling increased ministry effectiveness.
Gary Walsh encouraged a new emphasis on nurturing partnerships.
Simultaneously, as Walsh encouraged the EFC leadership to embrace this role more intentionally, international evangelical networks began increasingly to call on the EFC to help them with this work.
At first, Walsh says, he was surprised to hear leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance talk about the EFC as a “world leader” in partnership facilitation, but the label proved accurate. Some of the initiatives set in motion at that time have led the EFC to the point today that it regularly shares its expertise internationally.
Under Walsh’s leadership there was also more emphasis placed on gathering the community, both literally—through events such as the annual Presidents Day, when leaders of affiliated denominations, institutions and some congregations get together—and virtually, through a new web site, www.christianity.ca.
The new emphases on partnerships and gathering are consistent with the original vision, says Van Ginkel. Creating a forum for evangelicals to meet and share together is “right there at the heart of Harry Faught’s vision.”
Mobilizing For Ministry and Public Witness
In the late 1970s, Bruce J. Clemenger, then a Toronto student, joined thousands of Canadian evangelicals across the country who participated in church-sponsored events based on Francis Schaeffer’s popular book and film series called How Should We Then Live? This idea of integrating personal faith with life motivated him throughout his university years when he studied economics and history, and later political philosophy.
He had grown up witnessing a commitment to cooperative evangelicalism. His dad, Jim Clemenger, had served on numerous boards, including the EFC’s. “I remember that through my father’s work the idea of communication and cooperation across denominational lines was very familiar,” Clemenger recalls. “That was part of the assumption and ethos he lived.”
Clemenger grew up with links both to missionary organizations and political figures. One of the EFC’s early presidents, federal politician Robert Thompson, was an old family friend. Living in a non-sectarian environment that mixed politics, ministry and business gave Clemenger a rich appreciation for the broader evangelical Church. “The impression, for me, was that denominations had distinctives that were important, but they weren’t walls or barriers.” It was just assumed that ventures would cross denominational lines.
Bruce Clemenger established the EFC's Centre for Faith and Public Life in Ottawa in 1997.
Having served with the international relief agency Samaritan’s Purse and after returning to graduate school to study political philosophy, Clemenger joined the EFC’s social action commission in 1989. He came on staff in 1992 as research coordinator, then moved into working with national affairs, public policy and legal interventions. In 1996 he moved to Ottawa to open an office to provide a more consistent presence there, and in 2003 was named president of the EFC. During these years he became the primary spokesperson for the EFC in matters of law and public policy.
The establishment of the Centre for Faith and Public Life in Ottawa, which today is led by Janet Epp Buckingham, is the fulfilment of a long-time dream for many. Even in the early days, says Charles Tipp, a Fellowship Baptist pastor from Niagara Falls who became the first secretary, EFC founders thought about having representation in Ottawa, much as the NAE lobbied for evangelicals in Washington. Harry Faught also remembers hoping for a stronger role in Ottawa back in the 1960s.
“Since they opened the Ottawa office there’s more of a presence in government circles,” he notes, “which was something we were hoping for and working towards.”
How does the EFC look in 2004 in view of its early goals of fellowship, cooperation and a united voice? “I think in many ways we continue to fill out and expand and mature those original impulses,” says Clemenger, who sees the organization as “helping to mobilize evangelicals by promoting collaboration for ministry and public witness.”
The EFC continues to grow as a gathering place for evangelicals and a national forum for collaboration. In its 40th year it has increased to 40 affiliated denominations. The number of affiliated ministry organizations and churches is also growing. New ministry partnerships continue to be formed, and the EFC is increasingly being sought out by government agencies and media for comment on matters of faith as well as politics. New initiatives include Celebration 2005, designed to help mobilize churches to share the gospel in creative ways, and plans to open an office in Quebec. And as the second largest national evangelical association in the world, the EFC is involved in several initiatives to assist the growth of sister national alliances, to address the persecution of Christians, and to build international ministry partnerships addressing issues such as HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Edify, Equip, Speak from Consensus
Applying biblical principles to contemporary issues is a thread that has been woven into the EFC fabric over the years. Just how to apply those principles remains a tricky balancing act. For Mariano DiGangi, a Presbyterian minister who was president of the EFC in the early 1970s, it means helping evangelicals to understand the issues and think about them. “I think that wherever we have some key issues, we should have scholarly papers that can be made available to help shape our own thinking,” he says. Although the issues might change, “the principles to be applied remain the same.”
Clemenger goes further. “The need for a strong voice promoting biblical principles in the public square is vital, as it is to provide resources to help evangelicals think about how biblical principles apply to some very complex issues,” he says. When the EFC makes submissions in a political or judicial case, “we seek to advance the application of biblical principles in public life, and on many issues there is general agreement on the general policy implications of these principles. Yet there is also considerable diversity among evangelicals on politics; we don’t vote as a bloc and we cannot claim unanimity or a like mind where it does not exist. ”
Church historian John G. Stackhouse Jr. concurs. Attempting to speak for such a large and varied group of Christians is difficult, says Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College in Vancouver. “The vector is to edify the church, inform us about what’s going on and then equip us to do better in the political sphere.”
Clemenger understands the complexity of representing such a diverse group on matters of law and public policy. “Yet there are some issues on which even evangelical politicians from different political parties will vote together. Our commitment is to foster dialogue on the implications of biblical principles for contemporary society and—where there is a consensus—to speak boldly.” Where there is no discernible consensus, such as on the death penalty, “we don’t advance a position.”
There will continue to be lively debate about the role evangelicals and the EFC can and should play in Canadian society and especially in politics. One thing is sure, however: the fellowship will continue to challenge Christians to reflect deeply on the issues in our culture and respond to them.
“How do we deal with the broader implications of living our faith in the public realm?” It’s a question that Bruce J. Clemenger and other thoughtful Canadian Christians continue to ponder, long after the Francis Schaeffer film series was shown across the country, and 40 years after a fledging organization called The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada took flight.
Debra Fieguth is a Kingston freelancer who has been writing stories for Faith Today since 1986.
The Council of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) in 1986. Many WEF leaders began to recognize the EFC as a world leader in partnership facilitation.