Years ago, my best friend Janet and I travelled from Halifax to Vancouver and back again on a student Via-Rail pass. For 21 days we sat, slept and snickered in coach seats, eating peanut butter sandwiches and once an entire cream pie. We giggled through northern Ontario and cackled through the prairies, until, to our utter bewilderment, someone finally snapped.
Our fellow passenger shouted “Would you please stop that incessant giggling!” The rest of the car applauded. They weren’t clapping for us. Amazingly, they were clapping for the man who told us to shut up.
We were stunned to discover not everyone — not anyone, actually — thought we were the cat’s meow. And that’s how the church is to some people, in some neighbourhoods. The church has become irrelevant, and maybe even annoying!
This past year, I had the privilege to interview and write the stories of 13 Canadian churches — of various sizes, shapes and denominations — across Canada who have decided to get relevant, big-time. Going Missional: Conversations with 13 Canadian Churches who Have Embraced Missional Life is the book, borne of that research and co-written with Willard Metzger, then World Vision Canada’s director of church relations.
All across Canada, there are churches embracing missional life. They are moving out of their comfort zones into a more intentional local engagement and serving their own communities in remarkably creative ways — not to grow their churches — but to grow their obedience to Jesus’ teachings to deeply love the people and places that surround us. And they are doing it in partnership with all kinds of people and community groups already active in their midst.
Partnerships was a huge part of many of the missional adventures I learned about. Ask, then listen, advised Judy Paulsen of Christ Church, Oshawa, an Anglican congregation profiled in the book. Going out to meet with community groups, asking how the church can serve them, then coming up with creative partnering possibilities is a staple of the missional life.
I shared this idea of partnerships with people in the community, who weren’t necessarily the least bit churchy at all, with our own church’s Mission and Outreach group. Inspired, we formed a team to go visit the local schools and offer our church’s assistance for students in need. The result, after months of talking and re-visiting, is a bursary for social action at the high school, and a sizable donation to another school to build up their literacy program.
We feel certain we are on the right and very new track.
This immediate application of what I was learning happened again and again during the writing of Going Missional. Because our own congregation of the Ascension in Port Perry is well on its way to a renewed incarnation in our community, we were able to apply some of the missional lessons right away, which is the very point of the book.
We fellow travellers on the missional road – and many would argue there is no other road — can learn so much from each other. Simple things like dialoguing with the community to find out how we can help — and not presuming to already know. Realizing that God is already at work in Port Perry and elsewhere, whether we are a part of it yet or not. And knowing that simply being a friend can be the greatest witness to Christ’s love. One church I spoke to built a homeless shelter right down the hall from their sanctuary; another offers fixed-up cars to the poor in their community, yet another asked surprised parishioners to donate their coats and boots (on a cold Saskatoon Sunday) to a homeless shelter downtown. A west-coast church volunteered in droves for an Aboriginal Olympics taking part in their hometown, and did more to build bridges in two weeks than in the decades previously.
I ended this project feeling like it was a good time to be a Christ-follower in Canada — and in my very own community. For the first time in a long time, I am excited about what is to come.
Going Even More Missional
I interviewed 46 people, from 13 diverse church communities from coast to coast, for Going Missional. Here are some more ways these congregations are living out Christ’s call in their communities.
1. Work with other churches: In almost every case, churches who are deeply engaged in their communities are open to collaboration with other — often very different — congregations.
2. Be prepared to help when the community needs you. A large Montreal congregation founds its missional feet during the ice storms of 1998. Their sanctuary became a shelter, and their reputation as a church the community can trust grew exponentially.
3. Know your community. The churches in the book spent time asking questions, hearing from community groups and even just travelling on city buses to hear and absorb what the needs of their communities really were.
4. Encourage lay people. Often, the best ideas for missional outreach come from parishioners who want to share their passion and their gifts. Sometimes, clergy are most effective as cheer leaders.
5. Move from writing cheques to being present. The churches in the book, especially Christ Church, Oshawa, have intentionally moved from mostly financially supporting needs in their communities to actually rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. Parishioners love the switch.
6. Preach and teach boldly. One church in Winnipeg tells members that if they aren’t willing to get to work in the community then they are just taking up a chair someone else could use. Ministry opportunities are presented on their website like job descriptions and everyone has a chance to participate.
7. Open your doors — for free. A large Saint John congregation opens its building (rent-free) for community meetings and events and has gained a reputation, starting with that simple act, as being on the side of the city.
8. Train people how to serve. A St. Catharine’s congregation that houses a homeless shelter makes sure its volunteers are well-trained and comfortable. They present varied “on-ramps” for engaging parishioners in missional activities.
9. Invite the community in — even on Sundays. A church in Duncan, B.C. invites community leaders to join them for a Sunday service and share what they do for their town, then the church offers to pray for their work, right there and then.
10. Do your programs well. A Saskatoon church took a load of their “Sunday best” clothing, in new boxes, to a homeless shelter and the shelter staff were moved to tears. Another church-run homeless shelter washes their visitors’ clothes and offers them fresh pyjamas to sleep in. Offer the world your best.
Going Missional: Conversations with 13 Canadian Churches who Have Embraced Missional Life is available through The Leadership Centre, Willow Creek Canada, at www.growingleadership.com
Karen StillerFreelance writer and editor, associate editor of Faith Today magazine, and wife of Brent Stiller, an Anglican priest serving in Port Perry, Ont.