Q How did the book come about?
A World Vision had organized a series of workshops across the country that demonstrated the sea change Canadian churches were experiencing. Out of that, Rev. Don Moore from World Vision received many stories of churches that were being daring and innovative, and he approached me and Patricia Paddey to put some of these together in a book.
They gave us 200 stories to start with, and we worked with our own church networks to find others. Then we winnowed them down to 40. We wanted to make sure that we were denominationally diverse, represented churches of all shapes and sizes, and were geographically balanced across the whole country. I was particularly interested in what small churches were doing.
Q What surprised you the most?
A The story of Cornerstone Baptist Church in P.E.I. surprised me most. I didn’t realize Charlottetown was a centre of immigration, but what better place is there to settle than Prince Edward Island?
The church responded by going to the government immigration office and offering to help with immigrant families, and the immigration office said yes. It was a great example of a church that said, “Use us. We are here to serve.” I loved it. They offer conversation circles so new immigrants can practise their English, and they partnered with the Salvation Army to make that happen. They meet people where they’re at, not only in terms of physical needs, but also spiritual ones — without trying to convert anyone.
I was pleasantly surprised that churches were not rolling over and playing dead, and that the vast majority of churches are in it for the right reasons: they are there to serve their communities.
Q What did you learn yourself?
A My biggest revelation was that immigration can enliven the Canadian church. The church can serve the immigrant community, and the Christian immigrant community wants to be in community with the church, so it’s a win-win situation.
I was also reminded that small churches can make a great impact. Meadowgreen House for All Nations, which was the smallest church we studied, works out of a storefront in Saskatoon and partners with a number of different organizations. They are small but mighty. Eighty percent of their neighbourhood is made up of new immigrants, so the church offers language training, cross-cultural awareness events, youth gatherings and nutritional and basic health skills. It has been transformative for them. We need to listen and not come in with preformed answers, and I think that churches are on top of that.
Q If you look at the statistical trends for mainline church membership, they are pretty bleak. What would your message be to the United Church?
A I would never presume to offer the United Church an answer to sustain numbers. My co-author and I both grew up in the United Church and love the church. It gave us pleasure to feature United churches in the book, and it wasn’t hard to find these two great stories from Trinity United in North Bay, Ont., and Woodlawn United in Dartmouth, N.S. Both are doing great things. Trinity has reinvented family ministry by recognizing the needs of time-strapped contemporary families, and it’s helping to reverse the aging trend the church is facing.
I think that service speaks volumes to our community. Our game is not to lure people into our church to keep it alive — I don’t agree with that. We are here to serve because we are followers of Christ. If we do that, I do believe that things will turn out okay.
Q In serving the community as these churches did, was there an impact on the worshipping congregation?
A Our faith is meant to be lived out, and when we do that, our faith grows. An example of this is the youth group story from the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Grand Bay-Westfield, N.B. Their youth serve a homemade meal each month to about 60 people who are struggling and need a sense of community. There is also the Compass Church in Regina, where the ministers said, “We aren’t going to play games anymore; we aren’t going to pamper Christian children. Instead, they will serve and be in ministry.” At first people left, but the youth really grew in their faith and had an impact. It was the same with First Baptist Church in Lloydminster, Sask. — they too gave up games and shifted to a model of ministry. At first, they lost half their youth group. But by the second year, they had surpassed their original numbers because youth were experiencing genuine spiritual growth.
What we didn’t hear was that our churches were exploding with growth on Sunday mornings because of these new initiatives.
Q Secular society often regards churches with suspicion. Did you see churches breaking down these barriers in their communities?
A We saw that in many cases. Evangel Church in Gander, N.L., has an amazing furniture ministry that has made an impact on the whole community. People in need have had their whole apartments furnished down to the cutlery. It has changed people’s view of the church. Evangel’s pastor Ralph Benson says, “People still believe in God, but they don’t believe in the church. We need to change that perception.”
There are lots of stories across the country about how service overcomes suspicion. I think we can get too caught up in worrying what people think about us and trying to be relevant when we simply need to be salt and yeast. I did a story on Woodlawn United in Dartmouth, which was my home church growing up. I was back for a family funeral, and the minister, Rev. Philip Kennedy, did a great service. I spoke to him about ministering to families, and he said that while 11 a.m. on Sunday is convenient for the church, it might not be for others. So they created Open Table, a monthly Saturday-night gathering that is an alternative meeting of church — it’s a place to discuss theology and the world, designed for people for whom Sunday morning no longer works. It’s another way of breaking down barriers, offering options to experience church.
Q What did you take away from this experience — not only as a writer but as a church person yourself?
A I was encouraged that I am a part of something that is so much bigger than me or any individual church or denomination. I was impressed by people who are really trying to serve their communities because that is what we are asked to do by Jesus. The idea of partnering with other churches and organizations without being competitive was also hopeful.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This book is really about good old-fashioned service. It’s a reminder to the church to stop worrying about its survival. It gets very boring when we do that. Go out and serve.
This interview has been condensed and edited.