A unifying characteristic of the fresh expressions of church I visited in the UK was the commitment to being church in context. Now Trinity United Church in Thunder Bay is not technically a fresh expression because the main emphasis is not reaching out to people who have never or no longer connect with a church. And yet Rev. Randy and his congregation are doing something fresh in its truest sense. In the particular context of Northern Ontario and the unique circumstances of distance and isolation they are connecting various worshipping communities together. Using technology, those who would not be able to worship otherwise, now do so fully.
When I arrived at the church, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would there be cameras everywhere and multiple screens? Thankfully no. They would have seemed out of context in a century old stone and timber church. Rather there are small cameras unobtrusively dotted around the sanctuary and one large screen set up at the back of the chancel. In front was the communion table prepared with the elements. This was Worldwide Communion Sunday, shared between 3 congregations with only one minister.
The service began normally enough. Apart from the projected numbers counting down behind Randy, it could have been a worship service back home. Randy offered announcements specific to Trinity while worship leaders in Nipigon and at Broadway (just outside Thunder Bay) did the same. And yet the connections they're making was also clear as Randy announced a fall supper taking place at one of the six congregations connected through live streaming (they don't all connect every week).
As the clock reached 0, a rousing organ, and a piano, began to play. We rose to sing together. I looked around and noticed that the pianist was wearing headphones. She was playing along as the organ music was livestreamed in from one of the other churches. Then as we sat down to share the Call to Worship, it was led remotely by a leader in another of the churches. The service continued in this vein. We were experiencing what Randy illustrated in the children's time when he read just one page cut away from a picture book. Just as you need more than one page to hear the whole story, we aren't church fully unless we are in connexion with each other.
Communion reinforced this reality. As we moved forward to share in the elements, images of the other congregations were projected on the screen. We were disconnected from each other and yet we were truly together sharing at one table.
I am very glad I decided to travel to Toronto the longer way around. I may have shaved off some hours of driving through the vast forested expanse of Northern Ontario, but I would have missed an experience of church rooted in the unique context of this geography. They had responded to their context. We all need to do the same.