A School of Love
In 2010, John Bowen asked me to write an article for the Institute of Evangelism’s Good Idea Newsletter after I presented the Parish of the Resurrection’s journey of “Re-Creating Community” at the Diocese of Toronto’s VCP Conference. Revisiting the article eight years later, I can still hear the Spirit’s wisdom in that emerging church – but that living church is no longer the same yet continues to emerge. Since 2010, we have now come to terms with the reality that we are a small, rural parish, with limited resources. Our programing, still important and prevalent, has lessened, and our hospitality ministry has become more focused.
Community Building in the School of Love
What has emerged since 2010, and is most important to us, is intentional and widening experiences of community building – which we refer to as our School of Love. Sunday is our main community gathering day with three meals – breakfast and bible study at 9 a.m.; Scripture and Eucharist at 11 a.m.; community lunch at noon and Christian meditation in the evening. Wednesday is our other community building day which includes yoga, Christian meditation, afternoon tea, and a knitting group.
There a number of other areas of community building that have become important to us. These are with “non-Sunday” participants who would still consider the Resurrection their spiritual home. One such community within the community is our Bereavement Support Group. We run a five week course in the fall, and then facilitate monthly meetings throughout the year. Most of the people in this group are not Sunday participants, but consider the Resurrection their spiritual home and contribute financially to the parish. One other area of community building is our monthly Saturday Buffet Breakfast. Although this is a revenue generator for us, it has become what I refer to as “Saturday Church.” We serve over 100 breakfasts at this monthly event, and 80% are non Sunday church-goers. They come not just for the food, but for the warmth, love and attention they get. Many of these people also would refer to the Resurrection as their spiritual home.
Going forward, we have also realized through our lived experience, that having a new and nice Church House is not enough to attract people and to grow hearts in love with God. In the coming months we will be looking at Alan Roxburgh’s “Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World – The New Shape of Church in Our Time.” God is very far from being limited or contained to our House, where we have at least some idea and experience of how to be church. We hear the Spirit inviting us to listen more deeply for what God is doing outside of our building – in our neighborhoods and regional communities and other caring organizations. It is time for the church to learn to join God in what God is already doing “out there” – with or without the church.
Looking Back - Alpha, Lectio and Three Cups of Tea (written for the October 2010 edition of the Institute of Evangelism Good Idea E-Newsletter - with some editing)
The Church’s prayer in every generation is always for the people of God to be renewed. When our hearts and minds are renewed it opens us up to the unifying love that is Christ, brings the desire to serve others, and offers peace and hope to our families, communities, and to the world. This, of course, is the Church’s mission and raison d’etre.
In order for the local church to be effective in its mission in every generation, its pastors need to be intentional and systematic in guiding its people—and ultimately its whole region. The people of God need to be loved, cared for, and shown compassion and mercy. And the people of God also need to be well instructed in the Christian life.
In our Canadian context we are living in a predominantly un-churched society, where perhaps only 10 to 15% of the population is affiliated with organized religion. Moreover, the influence of our secular society on that 15% is substantial.
Here is our story
In 1999, recognizing the church’s mission mandate, and well aware of this societal conditioning, the Anglican Parish of the Resurrection in South River, Newfoundland, began a process of renewal, educating our Christian community and re-creating ourselves.
In the fall of 1999, the parish was a four point charge with small, diminishing, and tired congregations. It was evident that we would have to become one congregation, with all the heartache that would entail or we would die. This is how we managed, with the grace of God, to recreate ourselves into one vibrant congregation.
Becoming One Congregation
We began experimenting by pooling all the human resources from the four congregations in such a way that we would function administratively, liturgically and catechetically as a one point parish. Liturgically, we had one main service on Sunday mornings that moved each week around the parish. The music was more contemporary, and the children’s church was worked into the liturgy. Those who appreciated the contemporary worship and children’s church would “move” to a different building each Sunday morning. Administratively, all four vestries met and worked as one body responsible for the entire parish; and a single financial team was put into place to manage all parish finances.
These “experimental” changes made the running of the parish more efficient and the liturgy more life giving. But the factor that gave the process deeper roots and the desire to persevere was the intentional, systematic, and ongoing catechetical evangelization of the congregation. If the parish was going to survive, to be renewed and to be made effective in ministry and mission, it was evident that we needed to challenge those already in the pews to learn more about their faith, and to deepen their spiritual practice.
Our first Mission Mandate
So, at the same time that the administrative and liturgical changes were happening, we introduced the Alpha Course to the parish. All four vestries and others from the congregations were challenged to take part in that first Alpha course. And, thank the Lord, most vestry members responded. This first Alpha was life changing for a number of those who participated, not only by deepening their experience of God, but also by building new relationships across the boundaries of the four congregations. This was a major factor in bonding together in faith and friendship those who hardly knew one before.
The Alpha Course in the fall of 1999 was only the beginning of the catechetical evangelization of the congregation. A Sunday Breakfast Bible study and a weeknight Bible study began right after that first Alpha. In addition, we dedicated two nights each week to Christian Education. Thursday nights was set aside for Alpha, and Monday nights for other Christian education opportunities such as After Alpha, various other programs, and guest teachers who would come to speak on selected themes.
The Move to One Building
As the faith of the congregation was deepening and maturing, many were being prepared to make the hard decisions to become constitutionally a single congregation with one vestry, to sell our old buildings, and to construct a new House for the Church. During this interim between the old order (with four buildings) and the move to the new House for the Church, the Alpha and other various courses, including Bible studies, continued to renew and transform our people. The Sunday homilies, strategy and visioning workshops, and special lectures also became very important in educating the congregation about the liturgical principles that our new Oratory would embody, and the ideas of hospitality that would direct our new “Emmaus Café.”
After moving into our new community home in 2006, we added to our Christian Education menu a Wednesday afternoon Spiritual Reading Group. This group meets after the Wednesday mass and lunch, and has read and discussed books including such classics as Augustine’s Confessions and The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, and popular works such as The Shack. During the fall of 2010, the Spiritual Reading Group will be reading and reflecting on Three Cups of Tea, the popular story of one man’s encounter with the Pakistani tribes high in the Himalayas, and his response to their great kindness to him.
Outreach into the community
Another strand of catechesis we’ve been developing over the last four years has been outreach to the wider community: courses on marriage, parenting, bereavement, divorce and separation courses (using resources available through Alpha Canada) and relevant support groups. We’ve moved into this area for a number of reasons: we want to be seen as a resource to our region for people who are not members of our parish; we discerned a need in this area for our region; and there is potential that when folk participate in the outreach programs that we run out of our café, they may decide to explore faith issues with us as a parish.
Continued Growth within the Congregation
Finally, for those interested in learning the disciplines of meditation and contemplation, and early in our process of recreating our community, we introduced the practice of Lectio Divina, which has become an important aspect of our catechetical evangelization. This has developed into a regular corporate practice on Sunday evenings, and, when we moved into our new House for the Church, on Wednesday mornings also.
Our schedule for catechetical evangelization in the fall of 2010 is full: the new seven week Alpha course; a Bereavement Course; the Spiritual Reading Group discussing Three Cups of Tea; Sunday morning and Tuesday evening Bible studies; corporate meditation on Sundays and Wednesdays; Sunday and Wednesday Mass; and a Parenting Course and a Divorce and Separation Course on request. The winter schedule will be similar, except that we will add the Marriage Course.
As we have sought to develop a mission focused parish, we have discovered that ongoing, intentional, and planned “catechetical evangelization” needs to be a regular component of congregational life. The results, by the grace of God, can be remarkable.