No congregation will ever enjoy an abundant mission life until they have first discovered who they are. Sounds simple enough—a little history and geography and the job’s done, right? Maybe not. In the case of the church I was called to serve a decade ago, a lengthy period of self-examination, experimentation, and committed effort was required to discover who we were and what we were called to do—despite what appeared to be a long history of vitality and commitment to mission.
Windsor Park United Church was founded in 1958 in the mud of a new subdivision, and in its early years it thrived. Even though there was no church building for the first five years, the congregation grew steadily from a portable trailer into a nearby elementary school and then into the community’s large secondary school. As the suburb grew, families seemed to pour into the church without a whole lot of effort or planning on the part of the church leaders.
Once the congregation moved into its own building, they were able to offer a nursery school program and a seniors’ club along with hosting Guiding and Scouting groups. The sanctuary was full for both morning services, and area schools still needed to be used to accommodate the huge Sunday school. It was a heady time. By the 1970s the church board realized that a plan was needed to guide the congregation’s growth in the future, so a seminary student was hired to study the neighborhood, which now encompassed another substantial housing development, and to prescribe a strategy for the church’s ministry. Despite this foresight, the church later began a period of decline.
By the mid-1980s, attendance had slipped to the point that only one morning service was required. The congregation had undergone periods of conflict, and it did not have a constitution nor an operating structure that enabled the laity to take full leadership of the ministry and mission. In 1989 the church entered a period of intentional interim ministry that lasted nearly eight years. There were a number of reasons for this unusually long sabbatical from called ministry. Most important was the need to stop and reflect after a long pastorate, but there were still conflicts that needed to be resolved as well as patterns of leadership that required reflection. Although the congregation achieved a much healthier calm after several years of interim ministry, the church’s leaders still felt that more needed to be done if they were to be in a position to embark on a call to a new minister, so in 1995 a retired minister was invited to give leadership to a vision committee. Over the course of many months a variety of folk from the congregation were gathered for discussions about the future. They wrestled with the lack of youth and young adult programming, the explosion of residential development in the neighborhood without an attendant change in church membership, the challenges of church finances, and the special needs of an aging congregation. For the most part the vision committee was energized by their work and full of hope for the future of the church. I was called in 1997 to what I believed was a healthy, vital congregation.
While the reports of the study undertaken in the 1970s and the work of the 1995 vision committee named youth ministry, community outreach, and the need for a mission focus as critical to the congregation’s future, there was little or no initiative to act on these findings. When I arrived, I encountered members of the congregation who fondly recalled the years when the church had offered two morning services and boasted nearly a thousand children in the Sunday school, but that was not who we were in the late 1990s. We were a church looking inward and trying hard to survive without changing.
This called to mind a huge debate that had taken place in Canada in the 1960s. The Anglican Church of Canada had commissioned popular writer Pierre Berton to give an outsider’s view of the church. What resulted was the bestseller The Comfortable Pew (Lippincott, 1965), a scathing denunciation of an institution that had lost its passion for the very beliefs it espoused. (Similarly jolting findings of complacency, irrelevance, ineptitude, and aimlessness emerged from a United Church of Canada symposium held in 1966.) Berton challenged the church to liberalize itself and to engage in the world. This call to mission became the rallying cry for a lot of church leaders, but it also signalled a significant and costly shift in the church. Mission and faith became increasingly distinct from each other, and church membership declined steadily. Too often we substituted social action for an authentic call to mission based on a lively, informed understanding of scripture. We acted as though the Bible and the life of Christ had no relevance to current affairs. In the 40 years following the ferment of The Comfortable Pew, we continued to wrestle with fuzzy self-definition as believers and a lack of clarity on why we do mission. This was the situation I found in 1997 at Windsor Park United.
Fast forward to 2007 and we find a very different congregation than the one I came to 10 years ago. The core membership from 1997 remains as dedicated as ever, but there is clearly a transformed atmosphere. Our worship attendance has risen to the point that our unused balcony has been returned to service, with gym bleachers providing seating for nearly 60 worshipers. We’ve hired a youth minister and are planning with youth and young adults in mind. We’ve committed to a variety of mission projects that involve not just money but the gifts of our time and skill. And we’ve identified our community, figuring out who lives within the catchment area of our church, and have taken steps to invite them in.
This transformation did not happen by accident or come about without considerable discomfort, but what has occurred is the direct result of embracing who we were and what was needed to get where we wanted to be. When a church stops living by its own mythology and confronts its reality, the potential for faith and mission explodes. We have discovered that when you nurture a faith community you inspire a mission community.
Making the Connection
After coming to Windsor Park United and recognizing its reality, I saw that if we were to change as a faith community then I would have to do some serious soul searching and make some changes in my preaching. Like it or not, the worship hour is the main source of spiritual nurture for most people. In the busy 24/7 world of our culture, many families don’t have the luxury of expansive church involvement. This means that in the worship hour we have to feed the souls and send them out with a challenge.
Without a doubt, I preach differently today than I did a decade ago. Having learned more about my congregation, I now know that many of the people in the pews on Sunday have little or no experience of church, in contrast to churchgoers of decades past. For instance, some of them need the index to find a book in the Bible (not having that informative Sunday school song rattling around in their brains like so many of the rest of us!) Theology and creeds and denominationalism aren’t part of their vocabulary. An indicator of this was the response to a sermon I preached in September 2006, which addressed a question a member of the congregation had asked several months earlier: “What are the differences between being religious, pious, faithful, and spiritual?” We received more requests for transcripts and tapes of that sermon than any other sermon I’d ever preached. At the core of the question the sermon spoke to was a desire to know what our Christian faith is and what we are to do with it.
Over time it has become increasingly clear to me that the people coming to our church bring a yearning for meaning in their lives. They are young, bright, busy, and successful. They are populating our growing suburban neighborhood and filling our schools and recrea
tion centers. Curiously, for all they have attained, there is still something missing. They want their lives to have value on a higher level. For many it is a return to the faith left dormant since childhood. For others, embarking on a faith journey is an adventure into unknown territory.
When I realized this, I started to reframe how I approached preaching. I began searching for ways to make scripture more understandable in worship. I have always used an introduction to preface the reading of scripture, but now I do so assuming that it is all news to the congregation. This has added a fresh and invigorating focus to the Word. I also began to use The Message, Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, more often. Sometimes Peterson’s choice of words or phrases can be quite startling, but this has given me the opportunity to do some comparing with the NRSV right in worship and has intensified how the congregation hears scripture. The Bible has become less locked in ancient times and far more relevant and interesting.
The other major shift for me came directly from the call to know who we are. I have started asking a different set of questions of the people in the church, new and old: What do you do? What are the issues you face at work? How does your faith help you with those issues? At first, most people politely answered the first two questions and looked baffled by the third. Most simply didn’t see a connection between their faith and their work. Their immediate reaction was to say that it would be inappropriate to talk about religion where they work. When I agreed, they tended to look even more confused. From there the discussion moved to Christian values and which ones we could name and how important they were to our lives. Then we talked about the discomfort that comes from feeling like we live our lives in distinct compartments so that one aspect does not intrude upon another. What remained—and this was critical for me as a preacher—was to discover how to remove the dividers and make connections between faith, family, work, and play. That has become the core of my sermon preparation now. The message of scripture has to make a clear connection between the faith of the individual and the world he or she inhabits. To me, this is non-negotiable. If people are to address their yearning and find meaning in their lives, the church worship hour must be the place where this happens.
Meeting New Needs
Another next step toward helping people understand who they are and what they believe was to look at our educational programs. Typically, study groups met in the evening. Attendance was low. The regulars would be there no matter the time or topic, but we had to ask ourselves why all the others were staying away. Family and work commitments were the most frequently heard excuses, so we included an insert in our bulletin one Sunday, asking when people would find it most convenient to participate in study programs. To our surprise, Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. over breakfast was the top pick. So that’s what we did. We attracted a few folks who had not attended before.
We implemented other new programs at new times, too. Two years ago we embarked on our Living the Questions1 program, which includes dinner. We were overwhelmed by the response, which we attributed to the timely subjects covered, such as how to be a mainline Christian in an increasingly evangelical world. This year we added a new twist to our plan. One of the barriers to participation in study groups was the desire of parents to have evenings with their children. In the fall we decided to offer a children’s program to coincide with the adult study of Serious Answers to Hard Questions. Again, the floodgates did not open, but we did get several more families involved because their children were treated with the concern and commitment of the congregation. This has been another way of discovering who we are—in our case, a congregation of many young families—and responding with programming that addresses our members’ needs. Now with Saving Jesus, a new 12-part program on the person of Jesus from the Living the Questions resources, we see steady growth in participation and a diversity in our participants that more closely reflects the diversity of our neighborhood.
The other significant shift that has occurred in the last five years is in our membership process. No longer are candidates for church membership teenagers just doing what their parents have told them to do. Instead, we have had to make adjustments to accommodate the people who are now presenting themselves as candidates, many of whom are between 30 and 50. Some have never been baptised and others come from traditions different from the United Church of Canada. In many instances they have been active in the church for a long time but are only now making this very official declaration of their faith and commitment. This is hugely significant. It is indicative of a deepening of their faith, and that is a reflection of what is happening more broadly in the whole congregation. Our faith, collectively, is intensifying in a significant way.
So what does this have to do with mission? When I was a seminary student, a boycott of Nestle was in full swing. Advocacy and social justice advocates within and outside churches discouraged the purchase of Nestle products in an effort to stop the company from supplying baby formula to mothers in developing nations. Baby formula was seen as a poor alternative to breastfeeding given its price and the difficulty in obtaining suitable supplies of clean water for preparation. One of my high school friends got very involved in the boycott and found a means to participate through a church. I was surprised by this turn of events given that she had not attended church while we were growing up. Curiously, when the boycott ended, she left the church. Her reason to be there had disappeared. This confirms my belief that it is hard for any church to do mission if the congregation is not acting out of a mature, nurtured faith. If we are not constantly feeding the quest for spiritual meaning and connecting it with the real world, then we will have succeeded in producing only contemplatives or ungrounded do-gooders.
This is where the fun begins. As one member of the congregation described it, “We’re finally being the church we said we were in our mission statement!” He’s right about that. Our mission statement declares that we will embrace diversity, reach out to others in the surrounding community, and work together in service to Creation. As recently as a decade ago these aspirations always took a back seat to looking after ourselves. Not anymore! Now this church is abuzz with activity. Even more important, people are living their faith with joy!
Let me give you just a sample of what’s happening now. We decided that our growing neighborhood needed to know where to find us. After several tries we finally found a communication vehicle that works. Three times each year we send professionally designed postcards to all 13,000 households in our catchment area. These postcards outline upcoming events at the church and feature pictures of past activities. The response they’ve generated has been amazing. We get a dozen or so phone calls and e-mails in the week after the mailing. Our Web site gets more hits. Families arrive at our door for worship. It works!
We now offer contemporary worship about six times per year as part of our Sunday mornings, complete with music from our teen Praise Singers and Praise Band. Those who said there would be a mass exodus on contemporary Sundays have been forced to squeeze into their favorite pews, which are now overflowing with newcomers.
These contemporary services stemmed from an outreach ministry we spent three years doing in the newest suburb adjacent to us. That effort involved holding evening services in a newly built school. While this gave us a c
hance to worship in a new way and to explore new music and drama, it didn’t result in a sustainable worshiping community. Rather than see this as a failure, however, we instead brought in a staffperson from our presbytery to help us evaluate the ministry. By doing so we discovered a long list of things that we’d learned and did not want to abandon: We wanted to continue to explore new forms of worship. We wanted to keep trying new ways to reach out into the neighborhood. We wanted to discuss issues that mattered to us that were happening outside the church. We were excited about our lives as Christians and wanted to share this with others. This led us to institute our periodic contemporary services. Thus success emerged from what had initially appeared to be less than successful.
In the spring of 2006 our pastoral care team reminded us that there are people grieving or dealing with challenges in life who would benefit from a style of worship that is focused more on healing. That inspired the worship council to develop monthly evening services beginning in the fall of 2006 based on the Taize and Iona traditions. (Taize is an ecumenical community in France that grew out of the World War II that focuses on healing, justice, and renewal through worship and service. Iona is a religious community born in the late 1930s from the Celtic tradition that also places emphasis on worship and justice.) Our musical leadership for these events comes entirely from within the congregation and is made up of young adults whose gifts were not being utilized previously. An invitation to these services is offered to neighboring churches, and the response has been most encouraging. A church in our neighborhood has a very good, well-established grief program to which we send our members. Now they send their participants to us for the healing services. In this way, our churches are collaborating, to the benefit of both congregations.
Ten years ago we talked about our commitment to our youth. Now we are walking the talk. Three years ago we hired a youth leader. Upon his university graduation we offered him a half-time position as youth, education, and outreach minister. We have all flourished since he has come on staff. Suddenly our youth are popping up all over the church, not just at their Saturday night gatherings. They have served food at a congregational dinner, collected board games for one inner-city mission and craft supplies for another, and they have taken a prominent role in the design and leadership of our worship. The energy entering our congregation from this component of our membership, for so long untapped, is exhilarating.
Like most churches, at Christmas we prepare and deliver food hampers to needy families. A few years ago, however, the same people who prepare the Christmas hampers asked themselves if it was fair for families to go without at Easter. After a few phone calls to local schools, we were able to identify families who needed Easter hampers. The members of the congregation who delivered these gifts after Palm Sunday worship were moved to tears by the thanks they received. When you believe in the way of Christ and you get a chance to act on that belief, your life is forever changed. Once again, we have had a profound experience of connecting “I believe” with “how I live.”
We also have a tireless team of knitters who make afghans for women’s shelters and homeless agencies. Hundreds are produced every year by a group of people in the congregation. As word has traveled through the community, others have offered to pitch in, moving this program beyond the confines of our own congregation.
Likewise, our refugee committee is bursting at the seams. It has become a place for many in our congregation to find an outlet for their service. We have welcomed families from Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Congo. Every aspect of this work—planning with government settlement agencies, gathering household goods, finding accommodations, making the transition with language, school, and work—happens almost magically through the untiring efforts of the team. We have learned so much about injustice and tragedy from our refugee families. Their stories often frighten us, but their courage drives us to do more. While we are committed to our work as partners in the resettlement of refugees to Canada, we have also discovered other new and rewarding ways to be a part of the transformation of the lives of others.
In 2000 I embarked on a great adventure that ultimately led the congregation to other mission work. I had been asked by the Diocese of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa to work on their Land Reform Project, which involved identifying all the churchowned land in the diocese and developing a process to turn it over to South Africans. Because of apartheid, land ownership was only a dream for the vast majority of South Africans. During my visit to South Africa, the head of the project, Rev. Jesse Sage, took me to visit a preschool in the area. Jesse’s late wife Gil had seen the need for a program for young children, so, with the help of some local volunteers, she had had a shipping container moved to land next to the nursing station (the only safe public space in the shantytown), had doors and windows cut into its walls, and transformed it into a nursery school. In 2005, with help from the European Union and local officials, a much larger preschool was constructed. It now serves nearly 200 children, many of whom are AIDS orphans. When I returned from South Africa, I invited the congregation to consider being a partner in this project—over and above the support they were already giving to the United Church Mission and Service Fund. The congregation embraced the project. Our first fundraising effort went toward financing the school’s construction costs. Later efforts went toward paying tuition for the many children who have been abandoned. Now we provide the funding for the school’s noon meal each day.
In the fall of 2006, our Outreach Council decided we could do more. Some of the council members had met Akim Kambamba, who had talked in our adult membership classes about his life in Sudan and his work with the African community in Winnipeg. As a result of the inspiration Akim provided and our Outreach Council’s vision, we held our first African Night in January to a sell-out crowd. Participants in this event enjoyed food from Sudan, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and South Africa, as well as dancing, music, and inspiring messages. Most important of all, the night closed with a passionate commitment to do more. Out of our celebration of African culture we discovered that the local African community had a vision for a cultural center. We have now joined with them to work toward that goal.
There are many other ministries I could tell you about as well, such as our Little Moccasins program for mothers and young children, which touches families in need. We also offer computer training, a program especially popular with area seniors. We furnish the food for a meal program at an inner-city mission and drive their clients home from the book bank. We’ve hosted informational sessions on a wide variety of topics, including racism, human rights, drug addiction, estate planning, and the perils presented by a hog processor proposing to set up shop nearby. We have let it be known that our doors are open and we will respond to the expressed needs of the community.
The congregation here is fueled for its mission. You can feel it in the air. This is a congregation of faith and passion that connects who we are with a life of purpose.
When I began writing this article, I asked the members of my congregation for their input. Not surprisingly, I received a lot of e-mails. Let me share this response from Dorothy Talman, who came to Windsor Park United about six years ago:
I remember reading once, a long time ago, that “to lose yourself in others is to find yourself.”
I have found that by getting involved
in our various church groups/outreach work, I can make a difference, perhaps even change the lives of strangers who need help.
I have found that working alongside members of our congregation, listening to their chatter that goes on when in the kitchen/attending meetings/participating in outreach work, I am able to share in the sorrows and joys that take place in their lives, and as a result become closer with each of them.
I have found that, because of my involvement in mission work, I am not alone, but have learned, through my church family, to be as caring and compassionate as they are, and can forget about “me.”
I have found that I have become more aware of the needs in our community, city, and world, and to respond to these needs as best I can.
I have found my involvement in the mission work of Windsor Park United Church a very humbling experience.
Dorothy’s comments touch the heart of our experience: We have found ourselves at Windsor Park United. We have discovered who we are, where we are going, and what we will have to do to get to our destination. We have become a church that has made all the connections necessary so that faith, family, work, and service are part of a continuum that blesses the lives of our members with meaning and purpose. In finding ourselves as children of God we have discovered our call to the world—and we will never be the same again.
_______________1. Living the Questions (http://www.living thequestions.com) is a source of courses and media designed to help people explore the future of Christianity and what a meaningful faith can look like in today’s world.
Questions for Reflection
- Who are you as a person of faith? Where do your values and sense of purpose in life come from?
- Describe your church—its strengths, its weakness, its mythology, its aspirations.
- Do you believe you can have faith without mission or mission without faith? Why or why not?
- What do you do to connect faith and mission in your church?
- When people are grounded in faith, how does mission transform them?