One Anglican congregation recently used the occasion of full union with a Lutheran congregation to use the resources and energy thus freed up to begin reaching out to its neighbourhood.
The Church of St Stephen and St Bede is a fully amalgamated Anglican and Lutheran congregation located in a 1950’s vintage suburb of Winnipeg. Having shared a building since 1970, and been joined for the main Sunday worship service since 1996, the two congregations moved to full union in the spring of 2002. One of the driving forces behind the amalgamation had to do with enhancing our ability to do ministry and evangelism. In our “parallel congregations in shared worship” format, we had tied up an enormous amount of time and energy in administrative infrastructure (14 people on vestry, 12 on the St Stephen’s Lutheran council, and another 10 on a joint board, all for a community that gathered roughly 100 people to worship on an average Sunday). With amalgamation came the promise of a much simplified board structure, freeing all of that other energy for hands-on ministry.
One of the key challenges has been to learn that evangelism is not about increased attendance and offering income, but rather about proclamation of the gospel and the deepening of the life of this manifestation of the Body of Christ. That is, or at least should be, self-evident, yet smaller church communities easily slip into a “we need new members” mindset . . . particularly when the $80,000 roofing estimate arrives in the mail. On that kind of day, the question of how we can be more relevant to the needs of people in our ever-changing neighborhood is one I’d rather we didn’t even ask!
Starting points for outreach
The more important question, however, is how we can be agents of change and (in the best sense) growth in our own backyard neighborhood. Put another way, how can we dissolve the walls of this church building so that this Christian community has a real and tangible presence in the wider community? Among our starting points have been the following:
- New signage, enhanced landscaping, and a general physical facelift, all signaling that we are serious about our place in the neighborhood. No dandelion pastures, crooked mailboxes or cryptic signs (HE BAS 1st and 3rd, LBW HC 2nd and 4th) here, thank you very much.
- We reinvented our traditional church picnic, moving it out of the local park and on to our front street. With a block party permit in hand, we threw a community street festival and invited the neighbors to a day of food, live music, street dancing, games and activities. We served over 300 people from our barbeque grill that day!
- For five years now, we have been present and visible on Halloween, with candy for the kids and hot coffee for the chilled parents. For any who are anxious about the occult or pagan roots of Halloween, remember that it was the early Celtic Christians who first claimed the night back from the pagan cult, transforming Samhain night into All Hallow’s Eve.
- On one of the last evenings of Advent, we invited the neighbors out for an evening of “Carols and Cocoa” in our parish hall. Yes, it meant sliding from Advent to Christmas a few days early (a bit of a compromise for a parish with some fairly catholic roots), but it was all framed as a fun and open way to begin to engage our neighbors in the deeper celebrations that would follow on Christmas Eve.
- On the day of the most recent provincial election, we stationed hosts in our building to offer a welcome to voters and general hospitality to the polling staff.
- We have presented an occasional series of concerts and coffee houses, featuring high calibre Christian musicians in a relaxed and intimate setting. Our goal has not been to turn any profit from such events, but rather to fill our building with people who might otherwise never come through the doors. At our last such event, held this past June, we had to scramble to squeeze every available chair into the hall to accommodate the crowd.
All of this, of course, is really pre-evangelism. These all provide points of contact with our living, breathing church community, as well as opportunities for our own members to invite their friends and neighbours to non-threatening, visitor-friendly events. We have managed to set a tone of hospitality, giving a taste of what we believe is a vibrant and creative parish community, opening the way for further contact and conversation.
The work of evangelism is a deeper and ongoing project, which has to do with making room for people to participate in worship, prayer, education, Christian formation and the life of the community. The all-but-indispensable key for this work? A personal invitation from an active parishioner. All of the strategies, tactics, and good ideas in the world cannot replace that simple reality.