Summer is here! Many folks have at least one vaccine and, increasingly, two; Provincial Health Orders are being incrementally relaxed, and people are just aching to get back to normal activities. Perhaps your church has already started meeting again, (in some provinces, such as BC where I am, we haven’t been able to have even limited church services until a few weeks ago), or you are just now experiencing an increase in the number of people who can congregate.
Whatever your current situation, I am hoping we are not so excited to finally see our brothers and sisters gathered for worship that we quickly forget everything we have been learning these past fifteen months about ourselves, our societal and church cultures, our mission beyond a Sunday service, our discipleship, and our gatherings.
So I draw us back to the question I asked last month:
“In what ways do we meet again?”
As much as I am looking forward to meeting in person again, I must also confess that some aspects of online is enticing, especially the aspect where I actually have a Sunday left to be present with family, friends and neighbours. For people involved in hosting, facilitating and ministering on Sundays there is often little time and energy leftover for just hanging out with whoever might be around.
I am a walker. I have walked and prayed in my neighbourhood for more than a decade, usually after work or in the early evenings when the days are longer, and I rarely met other people. With a one hour service online, my walks have often been in the middle of the day and what I observed was how many people are actually home and about the neighbourhood on a Sunday! It turns out the one day I may have more opportunities to meet people who don’t know Jesus is the same day I predominantly spend with other believers.
This has alerted me. Here are the ripening harvest fields, yet the harvesters are not in the fields but beautifully and meaningfully gathering together in a building. I will say again as I have previously: I am not advocating brothers and sisters in Christ cease gathering – I am simply asking the question through a missional lens: “in what ways do we meet again”. This is a rapidly growing conversation being engaged by pastors and denominational associations and, I pray, by all of us who are followers and co-labourers of Christ.
As I was writing this article, my inbox box reminded me of unread emails (I hope I’m not the only one who has those!) and one of them was a post from Carey Nieuwhof earlier this week on his blog. The title caught my attention, “5 Confessions of a Pastor about Online Church Attendance”. It caught my eye since I am in the mood for confessing. In the blog Carey confessed his own enjoyment of a more relaxed Sunday and also shared the same observation in his neighbourhood as had I. Hmmmm.
Read it HERE and let us know what you think; what worries you; what challenges you and what excites you; and where you see God at work amid the things that are shifting. In everything we’ve gone through and learned during this pandemic experience, what have you been learning about joining God on His mission of reconcilliation, redemption and restoration in the world he so loves?
Shannon is the CBWC Director of Church Planting (and passionate voice for churches growing towards missional communities). Drop her an email at email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you!
In my previous blog HERE I wrote that church planting can be accidental outgrowths of our right-in-the-neighbourhood missionary impulses of evangelism and discipleship.
In the early New Testament church we find missionaries going to households where people, who were either Jewish believers or curious and/or God-fearers,1 lived. Often those would be people who lived near and around the evangelists. Think of Jesus in Luke 10 and “people of peace” but right in your own neighbourhood/community. There whole households heard the Gospel of the Kingdom of God through Jesus our Lord and Savior and were baptized. Those ‘households’ then became the church, people who assembled to tell the stories of their faith, eat together (which included the Eucharist), learn together, pray together and share the gospel with one another and others in their community.
This is in contrast to missionaries starting a service in an area of town that drew people to a building to participate in those same rhythms together. That came much later. There is no indication that the first missionaries were looking to erect a common meeting space that would be called the ‘church’, but that these localized, contextual ‘households2’ of faith were indeed the Church.
One might argue that the ‘first’ church was comprised of those who were followers of Jesus prior to his ascension plus those added three thousand at Pentecost as countering the idea of church in households, but the reality is where did those three thousand go for daily, weekly meals, prayers and participatory worship? At times they gathered in larger numbers around the temple in Jerusalem but the thrust of life and missionary impulse happened in these smaller ‘households of faith’ that facilitated and were leaders of this new Way. This is where the ‘adding of numbers’ continued and expanded. Often the period of the 1st and 2nd centuries and into the 3rd are cited as the most robust period in history for people coming to faith in Christ thus indicating that people predominantly came to faith through interpersonal relationships and the witness of seeing the lives of believers in their everyday rhythms and practices.
In 2008 a study was done on how many Christians it took to gain 1 convert. The study concluded that it took eighty-nine. Eighty-nine to one is not a good ratio! However, at the same time the author(s) looked at how many Christians to gain 1 convert it took in house churches with a missional ethos: 3:1 & 4:1 were realized in two independent studies. That’s a large gap. Whether that 89:1 ratio were 89 people along the path of life who influenced the 1, or a calculation of church membership over new conversions, one cannot miss the correlation that it takes far fewer relationships when people are in regular proximity and in regular social groups together. If those same 89 where in the smaller more localized churches the extrapolated conversions would be 22.
Personally, I don’t see the demise of larger church gatherings as a near future event – they will always have a place and purpose. But I do see the need for followers of Jesus, especially those who have a heart for those who are not-yet-followers to discover ways to engage with them. Though not limited to any one group, millennials in particular have left the church in stunning numbers, yet for those who have left but not rejected faith in God, they yearn for smaller, more interconnected communities of fellow sojourners.
What does that mean for our larger gatherings? How might we re-engage absent millennial Christians in the rhythms and practices of faith? How can the church make the most impact in evangelism and discipleship in a post-Christendom world that though seeking spiritual conversations would not consider a church building the place to engage them? How might our church gatherings begin to foster “community houses of worship” in actual houses again?
As churches begin to gear up for a return to meeting together, primarily in buildings other than homes, this is the prime opportunity for us to consider these and so many other questions. Rather than the question being ‘when can we meet together again’, is the most missional question can we can be asking is ‘in what ways do we meet again?’
Let us know what you think. We’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories.
By Guest Blogger Kevin Vincent – Director of the Centre for New Congregations Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada
Recently I heard Simon Sinek explain his philosophy of “existential flexibility”. He said, “existential flexibility is the capacity of a leader or an organization to shift 180 degrees and begin to plan and behave in an entirely new way, given an entirely new reality and environment. It’s the capacity to make a 180 degree shift to advance your cause.”
In addressing that specifically for churches, he said that as the church moves past the COVID-19 chapter, many faith leaders are simply moving back to the way it was, to what they know and to what they have always done. He said, “They know they can’t do what they used to do, but they don’t know what to do!”
Perhaps you can relate. As it relates to your church, you would say, “I know we can’t go back now! But I don’t know where to go now!” Let’s be “flexible existentialists” for the next few minutes. Let me prompt your thinking by heading down what would be a 180 degree shift for most churches moving forward and let’s begin with a radical question. Here it is.
Is it time for your church to cancel your Sunday morning worship service? Is it time to say that the current model of how most of us “do church” has run its course? Is it time to embrace the reality that the culture has shifted, people have little interest in weekly, larger, group gatherings and POST-COVID it’s not coming back. Is it time to abandon a tired old model of church?
If I’ve already said enough to tick you off, stick with me because I’m much more hopeful than I’m sounding.
A recent survey in the United States by the UNSTUCK group reported that churches that have re-opened have seen about 36% of people return.
Now I know those are American statistics. Hold your fire! BUT at least anecdotally, even if we don’t have as clear Canadian survey results, a lot of pastors are experiencing the same and are wondering, “Who’s coming back? When will they come back? Who’s not coming back?”
Let’s just imagine that we’re twice as good as the Americans (Canadians like to think that!). Let’s imagine that we get 70% of people back! Are we OK with that? Is 70% good enough? Perhaps we should just conclude that those that don’t return are simply the hard soil, the rocky and thorny ground, of Jesus’ parable. They’re a good excuse to clean up our membership list.
Even more shocking is that the American survey discovered that only 40% of those under the age of 36 prefer larger in-person gatherings. That means that 6 in 10 church-goers under the age of 36 aren’t sure that they care about your Sunday morning worship service anymore and aren’t looking to return. So should you cancel Sunday?
I believe the answer is No! But let me suggest an “existentially flexible”, new way forward that was true pre-pandemic and has been dramatically accelerated as we move toward becoming a post-pandemic Church. Here it is.
The future of the church in Canada will not be grounded in a single site expression but in a multiplicity of congregational gatherings, meeting at different times, in different places, with different people.
Single site. Single gathering. Single location. Single time. See you Sunday at 10:30 is not the future.
Now what could that look like for your church if you adopted that type of a posture? Is there still a place for a Sunday morning worship gathering? Of course! There are many who love that expression of church. In fact, 70% of the church-going Boomers surveyed want to go back to that traditional Sunday gathering. It’s still meaningful. It’s what they know and love. We can’t steal that. Moving forward it needs to be a piece of the reimagined church.
But the great majority of younger generations don’t share that conviction. They’re finding connection in the digital church. They’re enjoying a house church that has emerged with 4 other families. They’re creating dinner church experiences with a dozen friends on a Thursday night. They’re a Sunday morning “huddle church”. Some are creating their own “worship gathering and liturgy”. Others are joining together for a “watch party” of their church’s online service.
What would it look like for your church to consider a multiplied model? What would it look like to embrace a true hybrid expression of church that still celebrates the traditional Sunday gathering but also cheerleads and celebrates multiple, smaller congregations meeting during the week, in various locations, at various times, with many groups of people?
I think I can already hear some push-back. “Yeah but we’re a little church! We’re only small! We can’t multiply anything! That’s a big church model!”
No it’s not!! Don’t take your “existentially flexible” hat off yet! What if there were 31 people meeting on Sunday at 10:30am in your church facility. Perhaps there’s another group of 14 on Thursday night over dinner? And another group of 23 on Tuesday night over coffee in a café?
And what if fellowship happened? What if care happened? What if teaching happened? What if you started serving together? Could that in fact be a true congregation by New Testament standards? Could that simply be another expression of your church, another congregation, at a different time, in a different place, reaching different people, tethered together as multiple congregations and still ONE church?
Could THAT be a new forward? Could that be the answer that your church needs to consider? As Simon Sinek asks, “Do you have the capacity to make that 180 degree shift to advance your cause.” We must! It’s a new day for the Church! Jesus is still building His Church and His cause is too great not to try!
Kevin Vincent is the Director for the Centre of Congregational Development with CBAC. He is part of Canadian Baptist National Cohort along with Cid Latty from CBOQ and Shannon Youell from CBWC. Together we dream and vision and work towards sharing resources and imagination for our churches as they join God in extending the Good News into multiple communities in which the folk in our churches live, work, play and pray. And we laugh a lot.
BY: REV. CID LATTY, Congregational Development Associate Canadian Baptist of Ontario & Quebec
The now almost legendary TED talk by Simon Sinek about the essentiality of understanding ‘the why?’ is worth considering before you contemplate any new venture especially one that will affect the lives of people. The idea is simple, if you are strong about the ‘why’, you are clear about the ‘what’ and it’s easier to do the ‘how’. Therefore when thinking about micro church or a version of them like café church we must begin where any good seminary student begins, with good biblically based theology (the why) so that we can work out in our practice (the what & the how). Thankfully I don’t have to use much space here developing a theology of place or the repercussions of atonement as this has been done extensively elsewhere however let me summarize how I read a key scripture that I see as giving us a strong enough ‘why’ for the what that I’ll illustrate in the form of café church later on.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is found in John 1: 35-38 where we read:
The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
I call this (somewhat humorously) the least preached on verses in the bible. Why would the disciples want to see where Jesus lived? Notice first the context is one where years of prophetic silence have just been shattered by the loud call of the uncommon revivalist John the Baptist. His declaration is simple; Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the one from obscurity, was actually the long awaited Messiah. He is the bringer in of a new epoch who could put right the defragmentation of the cosmos. This was no small matter. It would be life transforming for everyone who believed. Now hear the words again of the disciples who have just been confronted with the culmination of Israel’s history. They say, ‘where are you staying?’ Yes, let me say that again, on the backdrop of a huge paradigm shift they enquire ‘where are you staying???’ This sounds like a strange question for sure. You see I think I might have asked a different question in that moment, maybe something like ‘how will you take away our sins?’ or ‘explain to me what Daniel meant when he saw the Son of Man?’ or better still ‘how will God rule the world when the culmination of the end times occurs?’ No, they don’t ask our good theological questions. Their question is all about hospitality, locality and humanity. In my paraphrase they are asking ‘can we come over for a coffee?’ or ‘Where is your house?’ Or even ‘Do you live like we live with the same mod cons?’ And it’s this line of questioning (not the one I would have) that John gives credit for seeing ‘his glory’ (John 1:14) because the one who was in the ‘closest relationship with the Father has made him known.’ (John 1:18) It seems that through the ability of Jesus to be relatable, accessible, giving people a view into the normal parts of his life they were able to connect with God. Now it follows that our good theology will ask ‘if God is like this how should we behave?’ Our theology will be seen in praxis. What we do as a result of what we see in God will be crucial. So any café church or micro church for that matter will need to incorporate being relatable, hospitable and accessible if it is to reflect the way of Jesus.
This was definitely the basis for what began in 2006 when we started a café church in Welwyn Garden City (a commuter town just outside London in the UK). Our question was how could we incarnate the gospel in the café culture around us? We could see how a thriving café culture was rapidly developing in our town. Coffee shops were opening up everywhere and this was also replicated all over the UK. In fact a staggering 50% of the UK adult population at the time visited a coffee shop (something that was unheard of before this time). Our own church congregation were a part of this café culture with many of them using coffee shops as ‘third places’ between home and work. With this in mind we asked our local Costa Coffee if we could develop a community in their store and were amazed when they said yes.
What we planned then was a themed event with quizzes, a short talk, discussion and live music – all with the added benefit of being served by friendly coffee shop staff. Our purpose was to help people engage with issues like debt, parenting or the environment from a faith perspective. We called it ‘coffee with a conscience’. People would not only be invited to enjoy a lively evening of chat, hope and humor but we would offer them resources and prayer to help them take action after the event was over. All this would form the basis of our hospitable community.
What we ran on that first night proved to be so popular that I began discussions with Costa Coffee Management and a few café churches were piloted in other stores. Due to the success of these, Cafechurch Network was formed. This registered charity was later given the ‘OK’ to put a café church in every suitable Costa Coffee store in the UK. Over the next ten years we would help to start more than one hundred café churches all over the UK.
Running a café church in a main street coffee shop was a win-win for the church and coffee shop. Stores benefit as café church helped them to feel part of the local community. The church would benefit as people who might not enter a more traditional church setting interacted with people who did. This may be one of the first steps for some towards going to church. For others they may feel that café church in a main street location was the kind of community they wanted to belong to. This then challenged us to re-imagine how we could help people in a café context move forward in their faith journey.
When developing a café church (or a micro church) one of the challenges can be the word ‘church’ itself. It can be a loaded word for some people as they may have either misconceptions about what it means or real experiences of pain in a church context that could be off-putting. While running a café church we often found ourselves having to reassure people that what we were doing was inclusive and not accusative in tone and texture. We therefore found that we ourselves had to learn how to communicate differently in a café context. For instance, while it may be acceptable in churches to expect people to sit patiently through whole services, offering only polite contributions and encouraging sentiments at the end, in a main street café context this is not the case. People come ready to talk with each other and are familiar with connecting in a relaxed environment. If the subject is not engaging and the talk is monotonous people will begin to talk among themselves and the whole evening will be lost. I would often say to café church leaders ‘whatever you do, don’t be boring.’ It is better to keep it lively and make a mistake (correcting yourself later) than to be mind-numbingly dull and risk jeopardizing the whole meeting. Part of the thrill of serving in this context is that the content needs to be transformational not just informational. We need to be an engaging presence not just a welcoming one.
The questions I ask today in Canada are ‘what do people enjoy doing?’ ‘Where do they enjoy meeting each other?’ ‘where do conversations happen?’ ‘where do people yearn for hospitality?’ ‘How can we address the pandemic of loneliness?’ If you can think of an answer to these questions then you are a step away from taking the principles of café church (being accessible, hospitable, a relatable community) and applying them to your situation. Our Canadian adventure could be a similar one to my UK story because the needs are the same even though the cultural expressions may be somewhat different. Here is a leaders guide that will help you run an online café church https://baptist.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/cafechurch-at-home-leaders-guide.pdf
If you can dream about the needs around you for a while, I’m sure that you can also translate your thoughts into doing something good to transform what you see. And as Paul said to the Ephesians God is ‘able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.’ Our first step is to begin with our own creative imagination so that we can step into the opportunities with our actions. Café church is a micro church expression that you could do today. The decision is yours. By the way I can hear my community asking me one question, and if you listen closely you’ll hear your neighborhood asking you the same question too. The question is this ‘where are you staying?’ What will your answer be?
 I will not offer a list of books and resources as these are readily available and almost without limit however a surprisingly good book that summaries the effects of the incarnation is ‘A community called atonement’ by Scot Mcknight Abingdon 2007
 Costa Coffee had at the time 900 chain stores of coffee shops similar in style to Starbucks. Costa Coffee is owned by Coca Cola today
 There are some excellent points on how to do this in the book ‘How to revive Evangelism’ by Craig Springer
“Meeting shoulder to shoulder in a building is only a model, not the mission. Marry the mission; date the model.” Andy Stanley
The church will be working through the changes Covid-19 has accelerated for years to come and if we keep God’s mission in view, then these can be good and fruitful changes. The idea that the only way we can be the church is to gather in a particular place or way puts the focus on a model of being the church. Not being ‘married’ to the model opens the mission to places and spaces where our traditional model is struggling to engage in.
One of the models that is currently giving the mission momentum has been around since the church was birthed. Ephesus had perhaps 200 house churches or using the more current moniker micro-churches; people in near proximity to one another through geography, culture or context, who gather to worship, share around the table, celebrate, gospel one another and be missionaries where they live, work, play and pray.
There are some who feel threatened by this idea, yet believers have been meeting this way for centuries both since Christ, and before within the Jewish communities of faith and practice. There is a misconception that it can only be church if certain criteria are present – an element of truth for sure – but often the criteria of what constitutes an official ‘church’ are around institutional structures, sustainability and membership rolls – or to put it in the more common language used – buildings, bucks and butts. And these criteria are more often than not lived out in a Sunday morning gathering. Coining Andy Stanley’s expression of these types of gatherings as ‘shoulder to shoulder’, they are but one model of joining God at work in his mission to redeem, reconcile and restore relationships between God and humans, human to human and human to all of creation through the message, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
‘Shoulder to shoulder’ gatherings in various models of the traditional church meeting continue to find growth through people who would consider visiting a church at least once, according to much of the research. But what of those who would not ever consider visiting a church, or have been disaffected, hurt, marginalized or are just ‘done’ with church or those to whom church and a life of faith in God has never been on their radar? .
In the last blog I wrote about the shift from content to connection and why this is crucial for the church to pay attention to. Our younger generations are not looking for content in as much as connections and they are also less likely to go to a church building to hear a lecturer teach about Jesus. They are more inclined to have seeking conversations in a small gathering of relationships to which they are a part foremostly because relationship has already been established.
Micro churches, of which house churches are one expression of, are a model that facilitates that. And they are easily reproducible – they rely on trained lay leaders who recognize the call of Jesus followers to become missionaries in their own geography, culture and context.
There is a beautiful outflow when different models of church co-exist and work together on God’s mission in the world. Our traditional models, which include any congregations whose primary function builds and resources community around a Sunday-centric service, can well be in position to plant multiple micro-churches into the communities around them at the cost of intentional discipleship and training of their own congregants as local missionaries.
Micro-churches are primarily led by lay leaders who are accountable to one another and to the elders and pastors of the planting church or denomination. These become networks of house churches planted by a single traditional congregation or denomination yet can also have a level of autonomy in how they express being the church. Other models are similar to some multi-site models where there is still lay leadership but they are more tied to the planting congregation or denomination in how they structure and worship.
The micro-church planting movement has many expressions, formed around geographical, contextual, or cultural demographics that determine gatherings in houses, coffee shops, pubs, and special-interest groups. Here is where we see people who may never cross the threshold of a Sunday morning church in a larger type gathering, finding safe places to explore and discover our God who yearns for all to come to Him.
In what ways might your congregation explore becoming multiplying, church planting congregations within a discerned context of micro-churches? Contact us, talk to us and let’s work ‘shoulder to shoulder’ together in some exciting ways in the 21st century.
Full disclosure: I love content and information. I thrive on it. I’m a good researcher/writer and will spend inordinate amounts of time on a subject or concept looking at it from every angle available. I say that just so you recognize, with me, that I can get lost in that. As a person at the tail end of the baby boomers, I was taught in a system where content was king – it led to knowledge and I like to ‘know’ and be current and ‘informed’. Memorize enough content and you can do anything! Know enough ‘stuff’ and you will be successful at whatever you do in life. You’ll be considered widely-read, knowledgeable, and everyone will want you for a Trivial Pursuit partner.
Nothing wrong with that in principle. I’m naturally a teacher and teachers teach, well, content. Don’t they? But I also chafe when the content has no application. No ‘legs’ as I often phrase it. Content without legs remains just content, information, storage. Content without legs fills us with good (or bad) knowledge but not necessarily wisdom or even the tools we need to embody that knowledge.
Jesus spent a lot of his time teaching his disciples how to embody that which they already knew about God and God’s mission in the world. He doesn’t seem to ever lead a bible study to increase the amount of content people can retain, notwithstanding that he was mostly speaking to people who had been raised in the Jewish faith and had some understanding of the content. For these he usually corrected how they embodied (or not) that content.
What he did do frequently was help his disciples put legs to the content – to understand what it looks like to be salt and light in a harsh and resistant world, and to recognize the ways in which the knowledge of the content of the scriptures hindered people from entering God’s kingdom action in the world to redeem, reconcile and restore all creatures to God’s good creation as he created it. And they lived it out as a community of people – most often as a community of 12.
A strong sense of community is what draws people to the content. Community is the ‘legs’ of it. This type of community comes by connection and relationships that are personal and transparent.
One of the things many churches are learning in this season of online church is that regardless of how good our offerings are via the internet, most people are yearning not for more content but for more connection. Our caution is to realize that this will not be entirely resolved when we can meet in person again – this isn’t a result of Covid-19 – however the circumstances have exposed what was already there in our churches and in our communities.
Jesus embodied the Good News of God’s kingdom – he put ‘legs’ to the scripture content in ways that transformed lives and communities. In the dislocation that Covid has caused, the Spirit is reminding us of this with renewed yearnings for connection and relational discipleship – where followers not only know the story (content) but embody it in ways that draw people to experience God-With-Us in back yards, work places, parks and maybe even church buildings.
Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”
No one has been unaffected by the events of the past eleven months. No one. Individuals, families, businesses, governments, weddings, funerals and places of worship. All have experienced the effects that a pandemic can have in our world.
Our churches have shifted and responded from no gathered meetings, to partial gathered meetings and back to no gathered meetings. Through all of this we have been prayerfully asking God to reveal himself at work around us so we are encouraged to continue being missionally and faithfully present in our neighbourhoods and in encouraging and discipling our churches.
We are all hearing stories of churches both adapting to the challenges and struggling with the challenges and changes. And some of those stories are surprises – we can’t always assume which churches will be struggling and which will find new ways to thrive and flourish. Some of those stories are within our current new churches/plants. Here are some of their stories.
Greenhills Christian Fellowship-Winnipeg-East
GCFWE is our newest plant launched from GCFW. This faithful and passionate group of Filipino church planters began training and discipling their core group in 2019. When Covid hit they were just ready to officially launch and had begun to gain some traction in their target area.
If you have the pleasure of hanging out with Filipino people, you will know how they evangelize – they eat together, have parties, bbq’s in the park and with the Code Red restrictions in Winnipeg it became very challenging to build neighbourhood relationships and do evangelism.
Yet, this past summer they celebrated baptism of new believers and as Pastor Arnold Mercado notes, in terms of people studying the Bible and learning the deeper truths of God, they’ve had more opportunities and people are growing in their faith. He reports that the best way to describe their planting community right now is in how God is building them, noting that ten months ago they hardly knew one another and now are growing together deeper in their relationships with Christ and with one another. They feel better prepared to saturate their neighbourhood with the Gospel once restrictions are eased.
This past fall they had their official launch from their sending church. Where God is at work and his people join him, even a pandemic cannot stop the work of the Spirit among the people!
Hope Church of Calgary
Pastor Mouner and this community of Arabic speaking believers are finding the challenges of Covid, well, challenging. Like all of us, they are deeply missing the opportunities to gather and be together. One thing I’ve learned about people from the Middle East countries is how excellent they are in hospitality. We may consider ourselves a nation of warm friendlies, but compared to our Middle Eastern friends we are really not that great in the area of hospitality!
Everything they do is around food and tea and visiting. Take those out of the equation and our brothers and sisters at Hope are discouraged and not adapting well to the online meeting applications. But even in the midst of these challenges, God is still at work.
Pastor Mouner faithfully delivers to each congregant’s home the elements of bread and cup for shared online Communion. An important element of Communion for them is the actual shared loaf of bread. It gives him an opportunity to have a safe-distance, non-virtual conversation with his congregants.
A new preacher among the congregation is being raised up. A blessing for the Pastor and congregation. Mouner has also begun an online connection with other Syrian ministers around the world and the testimonies from other places are exciting and encouraging. There are many testimonies of an amazing revival among Iranians and Kurdish peoples.
Even in the challenges and struggles, Mouner and Hope Church see God at work amid the chaos of Covid.
Makarios Evangelical Church
Pastor Jessica of MEC is an innovator. Like the rest of us, she has had to pivot and adapt multiple times in the past eleven months. This new plant, launched in 2018 has been very intentional in both the spiritual formation of the community of believers who gather at MEC and in their mission field of international students who are housed and schooled right across the street from their church building location.
Using social media, apps, zoom and other creative vehicles they are staying connected on a daily basis with one another and the students. This is vital for the students, already isolated from home, culture and family and now isolated from activities and relationships they were beginning to build in this foreign land. Meeting with the students via online can be challenging as they are already ‘online’ for all their classes, yet Makarios has found places that resonate with the students. One of the practices the church has been doing all along is to cook dinner together with the students and then eat, fellowship and talk about life, school, family and faith. Most of these students would be eating alone and this has been a very popular event for them.
Now restricted to their dorms, they eat alone, so the church is now ‘eating’ with them via zoom. Now that’s looking at your context, at the needs of your neighbourhood and finding a way to engage in spite of Covid!
Emmanuel Iranian Church
With Pastor Arash and Pastor Ali leading this growing, thriving community of Iranian people, discipleship is a key focus. A large percentage of the congregation are new converts to Christ and with hundreds of baptisms since they launched in 2018, there is a LOT of discipleship happening every day (and night!).
We’ve been celebrating the stories of new believers and baptisms since then. One might wonder how this can continue during a time of gathering restrictions, yet Pastor Ali reports that lives are being transformed on a weekly basis.
Many of us are experiencing congregants weary of zoom meetings (if they liked them at all) and disengaging with an online version of community. Certainly, EIC has struggled with that as well, yet Pastor Arash said that lately more people are getting used to this new way of meeting and it’s now become ‘real’ to people. In a recent evening prayer time, people reported, for the first time, experiencing the presence of the Spirit virtually connecting the participants spiritually and emotionally together! There are even people coming to Christ on their zoom meetings, so new people are engaging with the community, sense the presence of the one true God and raise their hands to commit to Christ.
EIC is currently praying and discerning another plant in the Surrey area of the lower mainland. Many new immigrants settle there and their desire is to serve in that community in a multi-cultural context with both Farsi and English speaking services to serve and train 2nd and 3rd generation young people.
Pray for and Celebrate Together
These are incredible testimonies and a reminder that God is certainly at work amongst his churches despite any restrictions placed upon public gatherings. We can choose to riff on all the barriers to ministry we are trying to navigate through, or we can allow our thinking and creativity to forge us into finding new rhythms and ways of being the people of God, called to be both salt to one another and light to those struggling in dark places. Yes there are challenges and some of us are really struggling to find our way. Let our stories of God-at-work among us shed some light into our own darkness and grant us encouragement to persevere through our trials.
Pray for each other. Pray for these new churches and for the churches in your area. Pray for light to breakthrough in the least expected of places. God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us and though it may seem like it some days, he has not done either but rather is stirring us up to join him in his work of bringing his kingdom come here on earth as it is (already) in heaven.
Hello 2021! We have entered our eleventh month of living in a Covid-19 world. Eleven months ago, we as church leaders and congregations were scrambling to figure out how we continue to be missionally faithful presences in our neighbourhoods, encouraging and discipling our churches. As we’ve tackled the challenges that have slammed into us, I am hearing stories of churches both adapting to the challenges and struggling with the challenges and changes. Many are hanging on waiting for when things can go back to in person meeting so the church can carry on their practices of worship, prayer, discipleship and joining God in his mission. Others are catalyzing the opportunities within Covid to rethink, reimagine and reorient their ecclesiology and asking good, hard and revealing questions.
Many have become aware of things Covid is exposing in our lives, our relationships, our work and our worship and how it is accelerating what was already happening. Often what we see is not surprising, we knew it was lurking around us all along and we managed to keep it from breaking the surface, but there are also things exposed that surprised us as well. The challenge, I believe, is to be open to the Spirit of God to work in the things exposed as opportunities rather than curses that lead us to discern how we are church both amid Covid and beyond.
One such church is New Life Church in Duncan, BC. I spoke with Pastor Ken Nettleton a few months ago about the shift this congregation is making in reidentifying themselves as a people on mission with God in their local neighbourhoods and beyond. As Covid descended last March, the strategy they adopted is a three-fold model of: House Church, Village Church, Cathedral Church. Each is dependent on the others with the shared purpose to “train and equip Jesus’ followers in the mission they are on”. This, of course, sounds like the mission statement of most churches. But the delivery is different. (for a brief overview of how each element connects to the whole click HERE
Full disclosure: New Life had already been working to reshape themselves, especially in the area of small groups. Their experience with small groups is likely your experience – add-ons to Sunday Services viewed by many congregants as optional and consumeristic. Ken and his leaders also conceded that while attendance was increasing and baptisms were happening, “measuring church health by attendance, buildings and cash” is the wrong metric. Rather, church health is measured by engaging relationally with each other and asking, “important questions of ‘how are you following Jesus this week inwardly and outwardly – how is that going?’ and being really intentional about that.” Shifting the metric meant also acknowledging that intentional committed discipleship happens primarily between Sundays, not on Sundays. “We needed to structure Sundays to resource our House Churches instead of expecting committed Sunday attendance but optional small group attendance. We wanted our people to eventually see their small group (House Church) as their most important community gathering.”
So, New Life focused on small groups, renaming them House Churches, and is working on shifting them in people’s lives from optional ‘add-ons’ to the most important gathering of the week. And thanks to Covid these House Churches have become right now the only community – where a small group of Jesus followers gather and are pastored by the House Church leader – a volunteer identified as someone called and willing to be equipped by the pastors to shepherd 8-15 people. These House Churches begin with the youth group who are organized and led in such clusters and carry on into adult ages.
Ed Stetzer, planter, missiologist and host of the New Church Podcast describes the differences in Episode 63. He says that home groups are ministries of the church whereas house churches are churches: they baptize and administer the Lord’s supper; they teach and preach for the purpose of deep, intentional, accountable disciple making; they have a mission. Ken agrees, and again points out that Covid has created exactly this opportunity to reorganize, learn and grow.
Ken also notes that house churches must look ‘outside’ themselves. “They have to go out into this valley as 35 churches that are New Life, each having a specific mission in this valley – and the mission isn’t the same. We should be having an impact all over this valley, working with non-churched people who are also committed to addressing issues of justice and mercy, and bringing Jesus with us as we do.”
Again, it’ is important to point out that New Life had already committed to shift in this direction prior to Covid, and see this pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate what God was already up to in our Canadian culture. “As I prayed about things, God impressed upon me that many of us have been asking Him to renew and revive His Church for a long time, and that we shouldn’t be surprised that the answer to our prayer would look like this. “What were you expecting my refining fire to look like?” were words that burned into my heart, and I had to admit that God’s activity almost always brings external pressure and change.”
As 2021 unfolds and we are all hopeful that we will begin to see restrictions relax, New Life is bringing imagination and good questions as to how best to gather in the ‘Cathedral’. As Ken explains, not all things work as well in House Church in a similar way that not all things work well in Cathedral. That is why all three aspects of House Church, Village Church, and Cathedral are integral and necessary. The strategy is to continue using the opportunities Covid has gifted us with as we wrestle with asking good questions and reimagining, through prayer and discernment, how God is shaping his church for the future.
What opportunities are you seeing in your church community? In what ways has the Spirit been encouraging you to reimagine being church? What good questions are you asking yourself?
Come join CBWC January 26th for a CBWC supported event for Pastors and their teams in an interactive webinar with Ken Nettleton, Cam Roxburgh and Tim Dickau and myself. We will hear stories both ours and yours and have time to ask good questions together.
As I write this article, it is snowing outside my window. Big huge, wet flakes are plummeting to earth. In only a few minutes everything begins to look a lot less green and a lot more white. Of course, living in Victoria BC guarantees that this snow, especially in December, will be short lived.
The snow causes me to pause and think about the elements that we consider necessary or even just enhancing for us to ‘feel Christmas’. Bing Crosby’s classic lyric “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” floats through my thoughts. Perhaps for you it is the “stockings all hung by the chimney with care” or, “… in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” There are all sorts of perspectives on what makes Christmas meaningful, on what ‘the true meaning of Christmas is’ and what each of us needs or wishes for to have a happy or merry one.
For us as Christ followers, we also look through the Advent lens of Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. This year as I’ve been reflecting upon that lens and as I’ve spoken with many people struggling with the concepts of joy, peace and sadly even a sense of love, I realized how hard it is to hold on to them when we don’t have the anchor of hope holding us steady. So often we try to manufacture peace, joy and love through all those things we ‘do’ and ‘create’ to make Christmas special, but in the end find ourselves celebrating the mediocrity of it all.
Perhaps this was the sense of Zechariah as he carried out his priestly duties just as he’d spent his life doing, yet not seeing his own hopes of either a child of his own or the anticipated Hope of Israel. Or of the shepherds, a social class of their own, huddling through yet another cold night watching dirty, stupid animals for little reward or hope of a better life. I wonder whether, in the same-old-same-old cycle of hope deferred, they had lost any sense of peace or joy or love. Without hope, can one even know or recognize the presence of the others?
Yet when those same shepherds, chilled to the bone, resigned to their lot in life, saw those angels and hurried off to gaze upon the babe in a trough whose birth they announced, returned to their flocks, their whole countenance had changed. They returned to the same mediocre life. The same dirty sheep. The same endless days and nights of poverty, marginalization, invisibility, disappointment that they’d always known, yet something had changed within them. Luke tells us they returned ‘glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen”. Hope had been enlivened within them. Joy sprang forth from their hearts and lips and God’s love in his promises blanketed them with warmth, comfort and a sense of knowing all will be put right in the world again.
Zechariah, too, gazing upon his own promised newborn, explodes in joy with prophesy and praise. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” He uses the language of salvation, rescue, tender mercy, forgiveness of sins and light shining on those living in darkness and the shadow of death, of peace.
For each of these, the meaning of Christmas is found not in the weather, the feast, the gifts, the celebrations or even in the religious rituals thick with their own meaning. It is found in a promise fulfilled. A gift already given. A future already in motion. For each, this single moment, this single gift, this single event embedded such hope within them they could not contain it. They carried it with them wherever it went. It lasted. It didn’t melt away in short order like Victoria snow. It sustained them as they returned to the mediocrity and reality of life in a broken world where once they knew only the absence and fleetingness of peace, joy and love. Now, with this anchor of hope, it welled over into the lives of those they found themselves among.
Today may be heralded as the longest night of the year – yet – it is only a night. The dawn comes each day. It is in the night, in the dimly lit places where we often most need to embrace hope, take hold of it to bring us encouragement, rest in our souls, peace in our spirits and love in our hearts. As Paul writes in Hebrews 6, this hope is an anchor for our souls, firm and secure. It tethers us to God and changes our expectations. It focuses us to fix our eyes on the Christ and the promises of God that have been enacted through him and the celebration God’s ongoing action within the world he so loves.
Whatever your Christmas is this year, let it be rich and thick with meaning that comes from the fullness of what God has accomplished, is still accomplishing and will be accomplishing through Christ our Lord. May our hope be so anchored in him that we are enlivened with his peace, his joy, his love in whatever places, spaces and circumstances we find ourselves in. In him we find the true meaning, hope, that springs praise upon our lips and gives witness to the goodness of God in the land. Merry Christmas.
Here I am, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion. When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness, and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. Isaiah 8:18-22
Just before Isaiah wrote the famous Advent words, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;”, he scribed the passage above. He sets the context for what the world is like, where hope has waned, if not disappeared, where both the present and the future are painted as a bleak, gloomy fearfulness, where people curse and blame both their government and their god. It all sounds so dismal, disturbed and pointless. If one were to never go on to chapter 9, one would consider the calamities of the day as fatalistic and humanity as on the precipice of expiration.
But, then, one has missed the beauty of what Isaiah is saying. He first acknowledges that as far as it is up to him, he will wait for the Lord, he will put his trust in him (8:17) and then he echoes his words from chapter six, “Here I am.” But he is not alone. The people whom God has given him, the people of God with whom he journeys, are there with him. And together they are “signs and symbols” from the Lord who dwells among them in the land. (8:18)
Signs and symbols of hope when hope seems to have fled the hearts of people. Signs and symbols of a light that pierces the fiercest darkness, saturating hearts with an unexplainable expectancy rising up in joy.
The writings are a poetic reminder that we, the God believers, the disciples of Christ, are called to shine our light and not hide it under a bowl. In that way we embody hope to the world.
In one of the Advent Readers I am following this season, the writer wrote these words, “Hope holds steady, clinging to peace in the midst of chaos.”1
This is powerful imagery in the reality of this particular Advent in 2020. In a time when many are embodying fear, anxiety, despondency, cynicism, hopelessness and anger, Isaiah and the Gospel of God’s kingdom invites us to cling to peace in the midst of it all. To be seekers of peace, joy and love. To be the embodiment of the kind of hope that fosters hope to and towards the world. God’s hope.
It is our “God of hope” who enables us to “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). This reality isn’t true only in ‘good’ times; in fact, it is dark and difficult times when hope truly shows its mettle.
Hope, God’s hope, disrupts the utter darkness we find ourselves plunged in. It displaces it with “a great light” revealing the shadows we live in are only that, shadows. They are dangerous, frightening, agonizing shadows that in the absence of God’s hope are bereft of any peace to cling to. But with God, with Messiah, with this great light that has already dawned, when we embody the presence of God calm comes with us.
In the midst of the chaos where suffering, grief and loss are so real, we, the people who call Jesus Lord and Savior, are to be signs and symbols of our God-With-Us. His hope is with us when we can’t leave our homes and are lonely. His hope is with us as we struggle with all the things that have been disrupted and displaced by this virus. And the Gospel invites us to embody that hope for others, to be signs and symbols clinging to peace, and our very demeanor, language and gestures embodies a hope that is disruptive to shadows we find both ourselves and others living shrouded in as our world feels thrust into darkness.
May each of us be signs and symbols of Disruptive Hope. Let us shine the light of dawn among our neighbours, our church families and our nation in humility and strength, love and grace, in this very different and modified Christmas Season.
Hold steady. Cling to peace. Together we are signs and symbols of our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Shalom.