Category Archives: Church Planting

Reflecting on our little church

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This Christmas my wife, three kids, and I travelled to Southern Manitoba. In fact, all of my family travelled to my sister’s home in Morden. My parents, siblings, and all the kids. Sixteen of us in all. While the “City” of Morden may boast many things, tropical weather over Christmas is not one of them. There were a couple of days that registered at -40c with the windchill. Over the radio on New Year’s Eve came the words, “Happy New Year! Don’t leave your house if you don’t have to; you may freeze to death.” You might think the voice was joking. I did not.

The extreme temperatures had one benefit, however. They kept us all close together in the house. I love my family and we have a good time together. It’s a bit chaotic at times with kids running everywhere and me acting like I’m 13 again, but there are lots of laughs, games, and priceless times with great conversation around great food. We value these times together, especially because they don’t happen too often as we’re spread out around the country.

My family is not perfect. We bump heads now and again (Lord knows I’ve caused my fair share of tears). But they’re my favourite people. I’m proud of them. We can get deep and we can also get the giggles over the stupidest things. We support each other as best we can, and without a doubt we know we can lean on each other.

Yesterday, now back home and back in my office, I came across a quote from the late Eugene Peterson, a pastor hero of mine. I’ve seen it many times before and you may have seen it, too. Several years ago, at the age of 81, Peterson was asked what advice he would give to young Christians looking to grow in their faith. He responded:

“Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for six months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place… the smallest church; the closest church; and commit to staying there 6 months.”

Peterson lived his advice. He was a part of a small community church, despite his worldwide fame. He would often speak of the beauty and opportunities found within such an “insignificant” and imperfect place.

Almost a decade ago my wife, kids, and I moved from the West Coast to Hamilton. We landed in a beautiful little area of the city called Locke Street which was within biking distance of McMaster Divinity College, the reason for our big move. Very intentionally we wanted to invest and participate in a church that was local, small, and different. Having grown up and worked in evangelical churches of decent size, my wife and I were looking for something a bit different. That’s when we stumbled into St John’s Anglican Church: “The Rock on Locke.” While our time living in the area and attending St John’s was only two semesters long (8 months), that experience forever shaped our understanding of church and my ministry.

At “The Rock” we found a small church of kids, adults, and seniors who immediately welcomed us. Inside that beautiful old building was a family of people who genuinely cared for each other and worshipped Jesus together. While they deeply cared about their neighbourhood and were always thinking about ways to demonstrate service and love to the community, people were not flooding through their doors asking to be baptized. The sound system made funny noises. Polished, entertainment, and performance were not words I would use to describe the gatherings. It was not a perfect church. It was not a “full-serve” kind of place. And while my family didn’t experience any drama during our short time there, I think it’s safe to assume that doesn’t mean it didn’t or hasn’t existed. But what it was, was beautiful. The priest, David, was a warm, intelligent, thoughtful, soft-spoken man who was influencing the church to become those same characteristics simply by being himself. He was a gift.

We went on Sundays. We went to the potlucks. We helped where we could. We had a great time at the winter retreat watching everyone perform in the talent show. My one year-old daughter was baby Jesus in the Epiphany pageant. It was family. And I am so grateful for how that church cared for my family, let us serve, and shaped us.

For whatever reason, seeing that Peterson quote took my mind to our experience at St John’s and my experience over Christmas. The unifying image being a small and intimate family. And that makes me smile. Here I am now, seven years into starting a new church and honoured to be its pastor. And as I think about Peterson’s quote, Christmas with fifteen other family members in the house, and my experience at St John’s all those years ago, I realize how blessed I am to be a part of a church that reminds me of all those things.

My church is not glamourous. We’re small. We’re chaotic. We’re not polished. We’re “insignificant” by a lot of metrics some might use. But I love us. I always look forward to us. In our diversity, relationships, conversations, eating together, laughing together, crying together, working through tensions together, we’re experiencing the church in all her beauty. I count everyday I get to serve this church as a gift.

So cheers to all the little churches out there. You are extremely significant.

And cheers to families that get the giggles together. And all the younger sisters that put up with older brothers.  😉

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Your church will die.

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Drive down the main street of the city in which I live and you’ll see them: big, old, church buildings.  There are at least a dozen of them that sit either completely empty, devoid of all activity, or inhabited by congregations of less than 50 people looking quite scarce in their cavernous sanctuaries.  A few have “For Sale” signs on their lawns, a few are condemned, a few are being used by smaller churches paying minimal rent (which is great!), and even one is being turned into a high-rise condo.  There were days when these buildings were packed.  Those days are gone.

Someone, somewhere along the line, felt compelled to rally people around a fund-raising project and to build big.  Thankfully in those days, the majority of the buildings were constructed with theology and beauty in mind.  Yes, sometimes at the expense of function, but what we have now are at least buildings that, from the outside, add to the look of a city.  100 years from now I can’t imagine that the same will be said of the mall-style churches that are built these days out in the suburbs or warehouse districts.

But whether it’s a century-old beauty or a brand-new mall-style building, there is an unavoidable and obvious truth: buildings don’t last.  They fall apart eventually.  They don’t get better with age.  They demand upkeep and a whole lot of money to maintain infrastructure.  Millions of dollars are spent on maintenance let alone the amount spent to originally erect the facility.  And where does that money come from?  Usually the people who make up the church congregation.

I’ve worked in a money-sucking church building.  It was one of those projects that was undertaken at the height of “success,” only to go through the inevitable shrinking of its congregation.  It became an 1,100 seat auditorium hosting a congregation of 300.  When the numbers went down, the building became a heavy weight around that congregation, doing more than just demand money; it deeply affected the psyche of the congregation.  The building and its issues became to define the church.

Unfortunately my experience is not uncommon.  In my denomination alone we have several of these stories.  But here’s the kicker: we just keep doing the same thing.

I presume that in many cases the early days of all big-building projects and capital campaigns are exciting.  No doubt some buildings have been constructed for less-than admirable reasons, but generally I’m sure most have been built because people were coming to the church or settling in a neighbourhood in such numbers that a structure to facilitate the group needed to be created.  And in those moments, I wonder, where many people asking this question: “Who is going to pay for this in 20, 30, 60, 100 years from now?”  I bet that question isn’t asked very often because in the midst of the excitement, it likely feels like whatever this is, it will never end.

But it always does.

For 2000 years there have been local church congregations.  And for 2000 years every church that has been birthed has eventually closed its doors.  The Church will last forever.  But Scripture does not give us any indication that the local church will do the same.  Every church that builds will someday be tasked with figuring out how to maintain and sustain their infrastructure while dealing with dwindling congregations.  History suggests that this is an inevitable outcome.

So why do we not pay attention to our past?  Why do we continue to raise millions of dollars on a particular type of infrastructure that has shown itself to be unsustainable?  Do the ends justify the means?  Does facilitating current excitement and growth justify hamstringing future generations with all the problems that come with big infrastructure?  Why build big instead of building small in multiple locations — forming new contextual outposts of the Gospel in new communities and neighbourhoods?  Why build big and new instead of investing in existing structures and helping to solve the problems of brothers and sisters in Christ who are saddled with deteriorating buildings?  I believe that building big and raising the money to do so should be an absolute last resort — the idea at the bottom of the barrel.  There are better options.

I appreciate that infrastructure of some sort is needed to facilitate local churches.  We need space and that’s not a bad thing.  What I’m suggesting is that we don’t do a very good job of stewarding, creating, and using the right kind of space.  We too often fail to ask the right questions.  Instead of giving future generations within our churches the blessing of appropriate infrastructure, we saddle them with the types of infrastructure that make maintenance and the constant need for money the defining aspects of their church.  Instead of an infrastructure that is agile, low-maintenance, and ready for the constant shift in both our churches and culture, we leave them anchored to something that will end up driving their values and daily discussion.  I have yet to meet someone from a large church turned small that is saddled with a big building where the burden of the building has not become the thing around which all other conversations are centered.

I am convinced that the direction and movement of our Canadian culture demands that we evaluate our building habits.

Right next to the hall in which our church gathers and where my office is located is a cemetery.  It’s an old one (by Canadian standards) containing the resting places of a few people from as far back as the war of 1812.  I often walk the path through the cemetery on my way to appointments or when I’m just out for a stroll.  Cemeteries are odd places.  You feel sorrow, pain, death, and suffering.  As a Christian you also feel hope, resurrection, and a sense that this is not the end.  Either way, though, walking through a cemetery is a good way to remember something very important: you will die.  It’s a great way to regain perspective.

I hope that this post is a bit like walking through a cemetery: a pause in which we may find perspective.  Because your church will die, or at the very least it will get smaller someday.  You may disagree with the perspective I’m presenting.  That’s okay.  But the pause may be beneficial none the less.  Perhaps God has something else to say to you while you think on your (church’s) eventual death.

Feel free to comment.

 

The Shaping of an Identity

Our church has been in the process of shaping our written identity — our vision, mission, statement, or whatever you want to call it.  It continues to be a work in progress, but here’s the most current stab at it.  This is something into which we wish to live, become, and be.

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Here because of grace.
Because God acted.
Because God loves.
Because God is about redemption.
Because God pursues us. Always.

He loves humanity.
He loves creation.
He is good.

Here because of Jesus.
Because in him all things are being redeemed.
Because of his life.
Because of his death.
Because of his resurrection.
Because he is with us. Always.

He is our pastor.
Our teacher.
Our counselor.
Our healer.
Our lord.
Our saviour.
Our hope.

Here because we are a church.
Because together in the Spirit we are united as one.
Because together we are able to listen to the Spirit’s leading.
Because together the Spirit is making us whole.
Because together we are the body of Jesus, with all our diversity and gifts.
Because together in our brokenness we find life.
Because together in our weakness we find strength.
Because together we embrace mystery.
Because together we walk in God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness.
Because together we submit to the Holy Scriptures.
Because together at the Table we find Jesus.

We are becoming a people who are learning to love Jesus more fully.
Becoming a people who love others.
Becoming a people who live on mission.
Becoming a people who share our stories.
Becoming a people who live God’s kingdom.
Becoming a people of ridiculous generosity.
Becoming a people who serve locally and globally.
Becoming a people who value simplicity.
Becoming a people who laugh, play, cry, and live life together.

Here because we love this city.
Because we believe there’s a better way.
Because we have so much to learn.

Ancaster Village Church

http://www.ancastervillagechurch.ca