If you were to find yourself sent to a distant land that had no Christian believers, and it was your job to bring both the truth and the action of the Gospel, how would you go about it? The church has learned from experience that the one thing we would not do is to build a tidy little white building and put a steeple on it, fill it with pews and install an organ, and then feel we had established a mission church! So why do we feel that we can be successful in a local established ministry by simply doing the things we have always done, and thinking that somehow that will produce new believers and the marks of Christian community?
The truth is that we in the church have drifted a long way from our own culture in which we live. It is time that we took a lesson from the cultural anthropologists we send to distant shores, and got back to the basics of good mission. It is time to try to figure out what makes our communities tick, what is broken about them, what their gifts are and what their needs really are. Only then can we begin to make real inroads and impact in the place that God has planted us.
A Sunday morning prayer walk
Two years ago, at St. James the Less in Rothesay NB, we took some time to do a prayer walk in the community. We did this on a Sunday morning after a shortened service. The idea was to get out from behind the walls of the building and actually go and pray in the community. We gave out maps and made suggestions of where people might go. You could walk a route, drive to a location, or (if necessary) remain in the church in prayer. Most people set out to walk or drive. Then, after about an hour, we reconvened at the Rectory for a shared meal and some sharing.
A number of us mentioned a particular road that was close to the water. Several people had impressions of the life and vitality that had once been there. Others had a sense that we were supposed to do something. Several good ideas were shared.
We took some time to discern together what the Lord was saying to us. What emerged was the impression that we should call together all of the organizations along that road that had contributed in the past to the old Village of Renforth before it was amalgamated into the town of Rothesay. As I made the calls to about a dozen organizations, clubs and individuals, the response was overwhelming and confirming. What I was proposing to them was that we have a day in the summer to have something like an open house for all of them and put on some attractions that would be free for children.
The church as community catalyst
Everyone agreed that this was long overdue. The list of interested groups included a Catholic Retreat Centre, the town recreation department, a ball field, a community centre, a tennis court, the rowing club, the kayaking club, a playground, a park, the town boat launch and wharf, the local boat club, the Lions Club, and the ice fishing association.
After fund raising enough for free bouncy castles, pony rides, face painting, musical entertainment and balloon animals. we printed a brochure to be given out as a guide to all of these organizations. We also involved the local school in an art contest entitled “What to do in Renforth”. We named the event “Renforth Shore Community Life Days.”
The event was held on July 11th and was a great success. The local sponsoring groups used their own venues to welcome people. Other booths were set up by groups such as the Red Cross, the power and sail squadron, and so on. There were even some food trucks. And the church had a booth where we offered free prayer and coffee. Nobody was aware that the church was behind this and in many ways we were not. I just happened to chair the committee and be the initial convener.
What had happened? I believe that the church had discerned a real need in our community. The need? To simply celebrate who we were as a community. Some fifteen years after we were absorbed into the larger town, there had been a loss of that sense of working together for the life of the community.
After our debrief, we were approached by the Lions Club with the suggestion that next year we add a dinner/BBQ and a dance to the event. They had even found a sponsor who wanted to make a big banner and pay for the bands. The committee for this year has begun meeting now and preparing for an expanded event, now rebranded as “Renforth Wharf Day”, since the wharf is almost like the town square.
As a church, we will continue to pray and serve the community that we live in and watch for those openings that the Lord gives us to share the Gospel. This past fall we began another new ministry that will be focused on the Health, Wellness and Safety needs of Seniors. Stay tuned!
Eric Phinney is the Priest and Rector of the Parish of Renforth in the Diocese of Fredericton. He is also Chairman of the Board for Alpha Ministries Canada and Vice Chair of Wycliffe Bible Translators Canada. He lives in the Rectory at Renforth with his wife Val. They have five children and four grandchildren.