Born into a staunchly atheistic family, Mark Clark has built Village Church into a community of 6,000 worshippers in multiple places across Canada. The success, Clark tells Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi, springs from fostering a Gospel-rooted church for the de-churched.
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Convivium: You didn’t grow up as a person of faith. You attended church for the first time at 19. Take us back to that beginning. What drew you to the church?
Mark Clark: I grew up in an atheist, agnostic home. My dad spelled my brother's name with one ‘t’ because he didn't want to spell it as the Bible spells it. His name is Mathew, and they named me Mark four years later. There was no church, no God, no Bible, no prayer.
I was introduced to Christ at summer camp when I was a kid. It was there that I gained the concept of the Gospel and Jesus. I would go for two or three weeks and move on with my life. When I was 17, there was this guy who was an ex-drug dealer, womanizer type who talked to me about Jesus. His life had been changed. He said, “You know you got to get right with Jesus.” That's when I really started to pursue God.
Then I had a friend who was constantly saying, “You gotta come to church.” It took me a couple of years because I thought church was going to be boring. I finally went when I was 19. It was exactly like I’d expected. Everyone was 200 years old; there were shag carpets and mothballs in this old Baptist church. But, there were some girls there, and some people I liked, so I stayed. The youth pastor and a group of people spoke into my life.
I was going to go into the film industry, but this group of people spoke into my life and said, “You should think about going into ministry.” I didn't really know what that was. I had to actually sit down with my parents and convince them to let me go to Bible college for a year. I had to pitch the whole idea of what a Bible college was. They said, “Well, this is weird.” I said, “Just give me a year.” I went in my first year at Tyndale and they could see that I excelled at it, and so we went from there.
C: Fast-forwarding a few years, you moved from your home city of Toronto to Vancouver in 2004 to attend Regent College. As someone who has lived in Central Canada and is now on the West Coast, what have you learned about the faith landscape of Canada?
MC: I think Toronto is very secular, atheistic, agnostic. The West Coast is more spiritually inclined. It's a spirituality marked by Lululemon pants and yoga and eating kale and connecting to the universe. They're open to spiritual conversation.
Having lived in two very different parts of Canada, I think we’re wrestling with the same kind of questions. We’re all asking, “How do you reach de-churched people? How do you re-evangelize a country that isn’t part of the conversation of faith anymore?”
Canada has come through Christianity and out the other side of it. Now the question is how do we re-evangelize our country? How do we reframe the Gospel to be different and to push against their worldviews and what they thought Christianity was?
C: You are the founder and Senior Pastor of the Village Church. Take us back to the beginning. What was the heart and vision behind the planting of the Village Church?
MC: We began our church by asking, “How do you reach unchurched, de-churched people like me, the sceptics?” Our church isn't for everybody.
I wasn’t aiming to speak to the churched, conservative, really safe, domesticated person. I wanted to go after the unchurched person with a discipleship message. I wanted to bring a message that was Gospel centric, focused not on a generic God, but on Jesus. Who He is? What has He done?
I try to be winsome and persuasive. I teach the Bible. I do it verse by verse, but I do it with a sceptical filter. People started to bring friends and family because I was actually addressing them and talking to them week in and week out.
C: Currently, Village Church has multiple locations and serves approximately 6,000 people. When churches begin to grow in an age that many would describe as secular or “post-Christian,” people become curious. What is it about this community of believers that is drawing people in?
MC: I'd say our commitment to addressing the unchurched and de-churched has drawn people in. Perhaps it’s that and the passion with which we are committed to delivering the message of the Gospel. People say if you set yourself on fire, people will come from miles away to watch you burn. I take that approach to every week. Somebody recently asked a former attendee why they left our church. They said, “It's too intense. Every week he talks as if this the most important thing that's ever been.”
We try to be authentic and lead from a limp, lead from brokenness, talk about our own failures. We have to make up for people looking into the church and going, "Oh, it's just a bunch of people who think they're perfect. They're high and mighty. They're self-righteous." I'm constantly saying, “I need you. I'm just trying to work through this in myself.”
We believe church planting is the way to reach new people. It's the best evangelistic strategy that there is: to plant new churches, new works, new groups of people gathering in new cities and towns. Telling people about Jesus is the way to reach people. We've seen that in our own history.
We’ve been conscious to plant churches in some of the major influential cities across Canada – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa. We wanted to pursue the question, “What does it look like to actually put Gospel centered churches in these cities in order to impact and influence?”
C: You are “passionate about contextualizing the gospel, teaching the Bible, and seeing people transformed by Jesus.” Can you share a little about the importance of contextualizing the Gospel?
MC: In Canada, when I say the Gospel or I say God, am I aware of what that means and how that is being received by the culture I’m in? Canadians speak a certain language. They talk and think a certain way. How do we speak into that? How do we call it out? How do we give the hope of Jesus in the midst of that? It's learning a language, learning the way people think, and then figuring out a way to speak into it.
C: You’ve said that, “it takes a community of people to do anything significant.” How does that affect what you believe in regards to the theology of the communal or the community?
MC: To be a church planter, you need to be a leader of course, but you also need an amazing team. When people look at a Village Church, they constantly go back to our origin story. This church began with 16 people in my house. Those 16 people are very high-quality selected people from the church I was attending. They were all leaders. They served with their life and their time and their money and their energy. Now there are 48 staff, and hundreds of volunteers.
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The way that we have had 1200 people baptized in seven years is because the people are out there telling their friends and family about Jesus. The church is being the Church.
We have three priorities in our church: Gospel, community, and culture. The church is community on mission, not community as an end in itself. I think the church serving the Church is beautiful in and of itself. I'm just saying if it stops there, I think we're losing part of our mission to impact and connect to culture.
C: You’ve recently published a book titled The Problem of God. It has been described as a kind of tool to “equip followers of Jesus to have informed conversations with their friends and neighbours,” as Bruxy Cavey has said. What is its message for your readers?
MC: For Christian readers, this book is meant to equip you, both to give you confidence in your faith and to be able to answer questions brought to you by your friends, family, and coworkers. Peter talks about the idea of giving an answer for the hope that's in us.
I ask sceptics reading the book to “doubt their doubts.” Think through your own worldview and be willing to hear the challenge of the Gospel. The Gospel does disrupt your life, your family, your finances.
C: If you were to say one thing to encourage or challenge communities of faith as they live, belong, and worship from coast to coast, what would it be?
MC: We need to have a good, clear, Gospel-centric theology worked out in our worship, in our living, in our thinking before we try to move on and solve a bunch of the stuff that I see the Church trying to address.
I see leaders trying to plant churches or lead churches, without having a sense of what the Gospel really is yet. They don't have a deep-rooted Biblical theology. They're jumping right to methodology and pragmatics. When I listen in, I don't see a real centered theology on Jesus, the Cross, the death of Jesus for sin, the Resurrection. Without that, we're going to be speaking to things and solving issues with no long lasting impact. We're going to be hitting social issues without Gospel solutions to them.
As I look at the Church in Canada, I become aware that when you’re not living like a counter cultural community, and start to wash down theology into some sort of mainstream message, you collapse, over and over again. If you look at the denominations and churches that have died in Canada, they're the ones that don't hold on to an orthodox, robust theology.
I don't want people to be convinced that they need to come up with some new theological paradigm so that Canadians can be convinced. If you look all around the world, the stuff that's thriving and growing is pretty orthodox, old school, marked by a Biblical theology. I just want the church to really retain that sense of robust orthodoxy and not feel like they've got to come up with new stuff in order to reach people.
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