It takes all kinds. Of types of churches and services, that is, to speak to and serve people of diverse backgrounds, tastes and past church experiences, and that’s what 135 people gathered to discuss at the third annual Vital Church Planting Conference at St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto on Feb. 17 to 19.
“Evangelical denominations have been doing this for decades and, for various reasons, mainline churches have not been thinking about it,” said John Bowen, director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, which co-sponsored the conference with the diocese of Toronto.
“Our attitude is often that we are so concerned about churches declining and dying and closing and selling off the buildings and merging congregations, this isn’t the time to think about new congregations.” But he went on to say, “What I am hearing from evangelical friends is, ‘What are you going to do? Wait until all of your churches have died before you think about something new? That’s ridiculous.'”
Many of the speakers at the conference spoke about the ways that they have tried to attract and invite people who may be completely unfamiliar with church or have stopped attending church for various reasons. Canon Phil Potter, the director of pioneer ministry for the diocese of Liverpool, spoke about his own experiences doing just that in a parish he served for 15 years in England.
Paul Bayes, the national mission and evangelism adviser to the Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council, a forum for strategic planning and thinking, offered a big-picture view of such efforts in England. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams established the initiative Fresh Expressions that supports and encourages new ways to “do church.” About 650 groups have registered their fresh expression of church on its Web site.
Offering one of several Canadian examples were Rev. Chris Snow and mission priest Sam Rose from St. Michael & All Angels in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Mr. Snow attended the first Vital Church Planting Conference in 2007 and was able to get money to hire Mr. Rose to run a Messy Church ministry, a type of service developed in England that often takes place on a Saturday. Parents and children attend together; there are games, crafts and food, but also Bible study, prayer and worship.
The ministry is popular, and this year Mr. Snow and Mr. Rose reported that they have created an additional new service at the request of these families, a more traditional, liturgical, eucharistic service.
“Here’s an example of the conference actually bearing fruit over two years and three conferences,” said Mr. Bowen.