How one community pursues church unity for the sake of mission
When the ice storm knocked out the power just before Christmas, the Methodists were in trouble: no heat, no light, no sound system. Did that mean no Christmas Eve carol service? Not in the small community (pop. 9,704) of Acton, Ontario. The Methodist pastor did the obvious thing: picked up the phone and called his friend the Anglican priest across town, where there was power. What resulted was a beautiful blended service, with leadership from both ministers, and a stronger witness to the meaning of Christmas than would have been possible for two separate services on opposite sides of town.
Such things do not happen out of the blue, of course. But in Acton, seventy kilometres north-west of Toronto, there has been active partnership between the nine churches in town for over sixty years, so this was a perfectly natural thing to do.
Every year, the churches work on a number of events together. Some are ministerial meetings or joint worship services—the sort of thing that occurs in many communities across Canada. But what it is striking about the work in Acton is that there is an explicit intention to work together, not as an end in itself, but as a means to more effective mission. Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 makes it clear that only when his disciples are united will the world recognise who he is, and believe. He prays “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (21) Unity and mission are inseparable.
So what kind of things do the churches in Acton do?
Events are a healthy mixture. Some aim to strengthen relationships between clergy and congregations. Other events seek to be a witness by word and life to the community around.
- Leadership of the ministerial rotates. At present, meetings take place at the Roman Catholic church; the chair is the Christian Reformed pastor, the Vice-chair is the Anglican priest, and the treasurer is a Salvation Army officer.
- For Back to Church Sunday in September, cards are distributed around the community, not recommending any particular church or denomination, but simply inviting folks to visit “Any Church in Acton.”
- In Advent, the churches work together on a “Keep Christ in Christmas” advertising campaign. Large signs are placed strategically around town, and smaller ones are sold for people to place on their lawns.
- In early Advent, churches partner with the local funeral homes to arrange a Christmas Memorial Service. Ads are placed in the newspapers, and personal invitations are sent to all those who have lost loved ones during the previous year. Different churches take it in turns to host the service, and representatives from each church participate.
- Then, once the busy Christmas season is over, members of the Ministerial and their partners meet to socialize and enjoy a dinner prepared and served by the Knights of Columbus. Not surprisingly, the social aspect of Ministerial meetings has emerged as a valuable tool for growing friendships within the group and enhancing our unity.
- On the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, as for the last twenty-one years, all the Acton churches cancel their individual services and gather together at the Acton Legion for a town-wide joint service of worship. This service attracts between 500 and 700 worshippers and features a Unity Choir drawn from all the churches, a praise team, and a children’s program. While all clergy are involved in the service, each year a different denomination chooses the guest speaker. This January, it was the turn of the Anglicans, and John Bowen of the Institute of Evangelism was the preacher, on the theme, “Has Christ been Divided?” The offering at this service is a major source of funding for Ministerial events throughout the year.
- Good Friday marks another public witness to faith, with a procession featuring a cross making its way through the town. The procession stops for suitable readings outside each church. The event ends with hot cross buns (of course!) and hot drinks at one of the churches.
- In 2013, the Ministerial undertook an ambitious evangelistic campaign involving the purchase and distribution to every home in the community of 5,000 copies of a DVD based on the life of Christ to every home in the Acton area. This was accompanied by an invitation to a Palm Sunday performance of an Easter Cantata by the joint church choirs. In the weeks that followed, every church reported that people had come by asking for more copies of the DVD.
Has the community noticed what is going on?
It’s indicative of the answer that the Mayor has approached the churches in Acton to provide volunteer help with a Spring Clean-up to deal with the debris from the ice storm. A guest speaker from a community support group, “Links2Care,” will shortly be addressing the ministerial about ways they can partner with the churches to provide social support in the community.
And at least one church has experienced a growth of 20% in recent years, attributable largely to the outward-looking focus of the churches.
Working with Habitat for Humanity
In the fall of 2013, the Ministerial took a further step to serve the community of Acton in the name of Christ. Since Acton is an area of low income and in need of affordable housing, it made sense to see if they could co-operate on building a house for Habitat for Humanity. What they did not know at that point was that Habitat for Humanity had already identified Acton as an area of great need, and were in the early stages of seeking a Community Champion to generate local support.
They were delighted to partner with the Acton Ministerial and, at this year’s 2014 Unity Service, representatives from Habitat for Humanity announced to the assembled churches that the land had been identified, and the planning application submitted to build—not just for one home, as expected, but for up to thirteen homes on a piece of land known as “Trinity Court.”
God is at work in Acton
Nine diverse churches working together are bearing witness to the Gospel in a far more powerful way than would be possible for any one church alone. Our prayer is that Jesus’ prayer may be answered, and that many may believe as they see his disciples at work together in the community.
Brian Galligan is the Rector of St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Acton, Ontario.