Wednesday, 25 November 2015

An epic journey comes to an end

This past week as I drove into Calgary, my epic journey was coming to an end. I had flown from Edmonton to Newfoundland and on to the UK, traveled around the UK by train, car and on foot, flown back to Canada and drove close to 15,000 km from Edmonton to Ontario, down to San Diego via Minneapolis and Denver, and home again. I visited with 10 ministries/churches/clergy in England, Scotland and Wales and more than 30 ministries/churches/clergy/organizations in North America. It ended up being so much more than I had planned, as each visit opened up the possibility of yet another conversation or visit. As people suggested different books to read or websites to check out I now have a list of some 25 books, webpages and blogs to explore. It was epic, exciting, sometimes exhausting, but always enlightening.

As I visited with the good folks of Hillhurst United Church, I came full circle in my journey, having begun my time away with United Church leaders at General Council, one of whom was Danielle Ayana James who is now in ministry at Hillhurst. At General Council a group put on a series of skits, one of which likened the United Church to the Titanic. At times it can feel like we are on a sinking ship, the reorganizing exercise we're engaged in a rearranging of deck chairs. And yet there are amazing places like Hillhurst in Calgary that remind us that church decline is not an inevitability. With attendance quadrupling over 7 years, they are poised to begin a third worship service. With Radical Hospitality, Social Justice and Spirituality as its touchstones, this congregation emulates some of what I saw in the new and thriving ministries I saw on my sabbatical: we need to be willing to take risks and sometimes fail, be intentional about welcoming newcomers and helping them feel at home, practice true hospitality of everyone, regardless of orientation, gender identity, race or status, invest in ministries with children, youth and young adults, talk less and be open to incorporating ritual elements in worship, be less churchy in music and language and open to what gifts the culture can bring to our life together, and commit to living out our Sunday in day to day justice and outreach.

As I sat at Danielle's table enjoying dinner the conversation shifted from what's going on at Hillhurst to what else I learned on my sabbatical. Here are some things that I gleaned:

1. The Way of Jesus still draws people.
I visited ministries that are mostly twenty and thirty somethings. They gathered to pray, to be inspired, to be part of a community that wants to  transform the world. They heard Jesus' radical message of justice and love and wanted to take that message seriously. We can take Jesus seriously and still be open to other faith traditions. We can preach Jesus without the constraints of conservative theologies of atonement, etc.

2. What doesn't draw people is top-down institutions.
The ministries with the largest percentages of younger people were flat in their structure and permission-giving in their culture. In a variety of ways they ensured that people felt their voices mattered. It may have been divying out the various parts, having people pray for each other in small groups, having a more conversational preaching style, including lay preachers on a regular basis, the list goes on. The common feature was a more democratic, participatory approach to church.

3. Community is important.
People spoke most positively of ministries where they felt at home. They were hugged. They were welcomed as they are. They were part of a small group where they were both affirmed and challenged. They shared meals and laughed together. They felt supported in times of crisis. For some, this means living in intentional community, either together in one house or by meeting regularly to pray together, share

4. So is cultural context.
One of the challenges of traditional Christianity is our tendency to hold on to inherited patterns without critical thought. We use language that carries theological baggage. We use churchy words that no one really understands and so create an "us" and a "them". We can reframe what we do in the sub-cultural contexts of our post-modern world. There is music in popular culture which speak more deeply of Spirit than many hymns. People want to feel their lives are affirmed, that who they are is valued. This means more than embracing technology. It means expressing the gospel in indigenous language and ritual - be it Cree, Creole, goth or geek.

5. We are bodies and so worship needs to be embodied.
Protestant worship tends to be very heady. We talk a lot. We fear too much silence. Rituals are suspect. And yet where I saw the largest numbers of younger adults, the worship was embodied. Evangelicals sharing communion every week. People bringing symbols from their lives to share with others. Candles and incense and icons. Body prayers. Anointings and the laying on of hands. Art and dance. Going outside and lying under the branches of a tree. Listening to the heart of the earth.

6. We need to raise the bar rather than lower it.
It is important to create a space where everyone is welcomed. But that doesn't mean we water down what it means to follow Jesus. We walk his way 24/7. We pray for the world and more than that get our hands dirty responding to the hurt of the world. It may be bleaching needles for safe-injection sites. It may be finding ways to give gang members viable job skills. It may be living simply, eating locally and buying ethically. It may be finding ways to honour creation. Whatever the expression, we need to take seriously what it means to be a disciple. And we do it in community, offering both challenge and encouragement.

7. We can't invite others to follow Jesus unless we are following him ourselves.
The United Reformed Church in the UK very wisely decided not to be a partner in Fresh Expressions until they had embarked on a course of adult education. They understood that one of the prime barriers to being a more outward-focused, missional church is lack of confidence as people of faith. One of the assumptions of planting a new ministry is that as we grow in relationships, people will start asking about Christ. What do we say when asked? We have created a professional class of Christians, with churches as lecture halls where laity come to be told what to do. Instead, churches need to be hospitals where we heal from our brokenness and labs where we ask questions and explore faith for ourselves. Then when we go out t work with others in the world, we can share why we follow the way of Christ at a more personal level.

These are just a few thoughts about what I've learned. The experiences I've had and the insights I've received can only deepen over time. In many ways the epic journey I've been on has only just begun.


  1. Best post yet; it sounds like your sabbatical was illuminating in many ways, from the personal to the professional. Looking forward to having you back for a bit!