Listening vital to determine God’s mission

Published June 6, 2011

Bishop of Sheffield Steven Croft is flanked by Anne Croft (left) and Bishop of Edmonton Jane Alexander.

Imagine a Christian church that takes shape by listening and responding to the needs of the community it serves.

There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” church, Beth Fellinger, a community pastor and church planter told more than 80 people attending the Vital Church Planting (VCP) West Conference in Edmonton, May 26-28.

A church plant should begin with listening to God-“He’s already ahead of us, we just need to pray and listen”–and “understanding the community we live in,” said Fellinger in her keynote address. During 30 years working in pastoral ministry, Fellinger has initiated four church plants. She says she spent the first six months as lead pastor at Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ont., her most recent plant, “having conversations at coffee shops” to determine the needs of the community around her. At one point, she even called the mayor to have a chat.

“The door between church and community swings both ways,” said Fellinger. “Church is about bringing people in, but it’s also about us going out.”

Listening is a vital tool for determining God’s mission, for determining the role of the church and, ultimately, for bringing people to Christ; the Rt. Rev. Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, told the VCP West Conference, hosted by the diocese of Edmonton and co-sponsored by the Wycliffe College School of Evangelism at the University of Toronto.

The gap between church and society has been widening for decades, said Bishop Croft. People used to be drawn naturally to church by baptisms, weddings, religious holidays and the Sabbath. Now they are pulled in many directions by work and family commitments, social and recreational activities.

“As a society, we are relationally poor,” said Bishop Croft. “People don’t know each other. Yet to encounter Christ, we must encounter one another.”

Bishop Croft’s commitment to helping the established church embrace new ideas and challenges of mission began with his appointment as Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions in England. He encouraged church leaders attending the conference to reach out to their communities; to let down their nets in deep water, so they might catch a “fresh vision of Christ.”

“We need to hear that we are being called to move out beyond our safe places, to where people are waiting to hear and receive the Gospel,” said Bishop Croft. Just as the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, a man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, to Antioch to preach the word of God to Jews and Gentiles we, too, are we called to mission.

Since her consecration in 2008, Bishop of Edmonton Jane Alexander has challenged parishes in her diocese to live out the “Five Marks of Mission” as adopted by the National Church: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, to teach, baptize and nurture new believers, to respond to human need by loving service, to seek to transform unjust structures of society and to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Bishop Alexander launched the Barnabas Initiative to encourage and support “fresh expressions” of church in the Edmonton diocese. VCP West participants had an opportunity to see firsthand, or to hear about many local “fresh expressions” of church. The conference began with an interactive Interface worship service, facilitated by St. Paul’s Anglican Church parishioner Jim Robertson. Interface worship incorporates visual imagery, symbolism and artistic expression to recognize the points through which God and humans interface with each other. Conference goers were also invited to participate in “Standing Stones” – a distinct worship service, developed by the Rev. Travis Enright, Canon Missioner for Indigenous Ministry. The Standing Stones circle incorporates Cree symbols and Christian ceremony, cultivating a climate of understanding and reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.

During a workshop on Worship and Ministry for Families, Priests-in-Mission the Rev. Nick Trussell and the Rev. Maddie Urion, spoke about parishes in the diocese of Edmonton that have embraced a family-oriented and Christ-centered form of worship called “Messy Church.” Many parishes now have their own version of the popular mid-week service, originated by Lucy Moore in Portsmouth, England, to engage families in meal-time, crafts, games and worship.

Serving alongside her husband, the Rev. Quinn Strikwerda, in the suburban Edmonton community of Spruce Grove, Urion said it took time and patience to determine the needs of the young families in their affluent community. Initially the parish was enthusiastic about its own Messy Church expression called “Friends at 4” but after two years interest had waned.

“What we discovered was that families don’t necessarily want to worship together all the time,” Urion said. She now leads a moms’ group that talks and prays together over coffee and muffins while children play together in another room, supervised by volunteers. “This group has become a beautiful (fresh expression) experience,” she said.

Rural Ministry workshop leader Lutheran Pastor Tim Wray recalled how, fresh out of seminary, he was called to serve the country parish of St. Peter’s, Millet, a half-hour drive from Edmonton. He was surprised to discover a community of devout Christians who were commuting to several different churches out of town, but who had never connected with each other. Believing that “meaningful conversation is a gift churches can give to rural communities,” Pastor Wray invited the young adults in his community to join a weekly photography group. As they work together to create an exhibit of pictures, the young photographers talk about what matters to them in their community, engaging on a deeper level.

Aboriginal Ministry workshop leaders, the Rev. Amos Winter from Kingfisher Lake in northern Ontario and Archbishop David Ashdown, Bishop of Keewatin, described the key role disciplined listening plays in reconciliation and healing between aboriginal groups and the church. Through this process of listening, Archbishop Ashdown explained, a group of ordained elders in the diocese of Keewatin determined that the aboriginal community needed to be an independent, self-determining church. In 2010, the aboriginal community in the diocese of Keewatin’s northern Ontario region elected its own bishop, Lydia Mamakwa, the first indigenous female bishop. The Rev. Winter spoke about local initiatives and new forms of training rooted in the needs of the people of the region, who along with the church, continue to deal with the after effects of residential schooling.

While fresh expressions of church are still considered to be pioneer ministry by many, it is Bishop Croft’s hope that they will become part of “normal, mainstream thinking.” Hope, he adds, is as a virtue, a strength of character to be practiced and cultivated.

“We’re called to practice hope in the same way we’re called to practice love and faith,” he said. It is the perspective of hope that gave Simon the courage to believe in Jesus and say, ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’

“I’m forever changed by this conference,” said VCP West Conference Participant Ross Bliss, who attends St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Vancouver. “Fishing in deep water is messy, it’s murky. But that’s where the gold is. It’s where we need to be working.”

Sessions on Fresh Expressions Canada, Missional Action, Vision 2019, Contemplative/Sacramental Ministry and the Church in Postmodernity, rounded out the VCP West 2011 Conference schedule.

— Margaret Marschall is Edmonton editor of the diocesan newspaper, Anglican Messenger.


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