“How Did it Go?” “Thanks for Asking!” – A Report from Vital Church Planting East 2010

\"\"The fourth annual Anglican church planting conference, hosted jointly by the Diocese of Toronto and the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism, took place last week at St. Paul’s Bloor Street. Numbers at this conference have grown from 60 in 2007 to 180 this time. As one of my colleagues commented, “Aslan is on the move!”

Those attending were from many parts of Canada between Winnipeg to Newfoundland. (Western Canada has its own conference, sponsored by the Diocese of Edmonton and the Institute, hosted by Wycliffe grad Thomas Brauer, in May.) Most of these were Anglicans, though a contingent of interested United Church pastors was there too. Six bishops—the five Toronto bishops plus Don Philips of Rupert’s Land—also attended.

Who spoke?

We had two speakers. One was Dr. Rachel Jordan, who works in the national office of the Church of England as an adviser in evangelism and mission, and researches developments in fresh expressions. She is presenting a report to their General Synod this week on what his happened since the ground-breaking report, Mission-Shaped Church, in 2004. Pernell Goodyear is a Salvation Army church planter in Hamilton, who in 2001 moved with his family into Beasley (the third poorest neighbourhood in Canada) and started a church called the Freeway in an old bank building.

These two created a different atmosphere from those in previous years. Previous speakers have concentrated on theological aspects of mission, ecclesiological issues, cultural issues, and story-telling of success and failure. Those were certainly present again this year but there was also an added dimension. It would be over-simplifying to call it devotional or spiritual or supernatural. Maybe it could be described as a different balance between head and heart, with a gentle tipping in the direction of the heart.

Perhaps you will get a flavour of what I mean if I say that Rachel in her opening talk led us through a study of Hebrews 11 and the “heroes of faith” in that chapter, pointing out how fallible each of them was, and challenging us to think what might be said about us in such a chapter: “By faith, John . . .” “By faith, Dave . . .” By faith, Rachel . . .” Pernell talked about incarnational ministry, its effectiveness, its joys, its pains, telling lots of stories about life at the Freeway (see www.frwy.ca/ ). At the end of her final session, Rachel gave us time for silent reflection and prayer—and then unexpectedly, out of the silence, sang a beautiful solo of an Iona Community song, “Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, My love is stronger than your fear. And I have promised, promised, to be always near.” It was deeply moving. Maybe we were feeling the warm breath of Aslan in a new way.

\"\"Learning about new ministries

There was (naturally!) a wide range of workshops. Let me give you as sense of the diversity. The bishops and other diocesan leaders had their own sessions to talk about diocesan strategies. An Anglo-Catholic archdeacon from Newfoundland talked about recovering the ministry of catechesis as a form of evangelism. (He also said, “If your parish leadership cannot give an account of why they are followers of Jesus, they should not be in leadership!” A great one-liner.) Wycliffe grad Rob Hurkmans explained how his “Church on Tap” in a pub in Port Colbourne works. Judy Paulsen (of the Wycliffe board) talked about “Messy Church” in Oshawa. Tay Moss (Church of the Messiah) and Ryan Sim (St. Paul’s) explained how to use new and social media in evangelism. Ann Crosthwaite led a workshop on “Contemplative Fire,” a more Catholic fresh expression of church. And I did an introductory workshop for those new to the language of church planting and fresh expressions of church. (In these sessions, I tend to lean heavily on Rowan Williams’ writing for credibility. Fortunately, they are numerous . . . and accessible. E.G. Sceptic: “But is it really a church?” RW: “Let’s wait and see.”)

On Wednesday night we took over the Spotted Dick, a pub near St. Paul’s, and over a buffet supper and a beer listened to local Baptist pastor Mike Wilkins as he gave us a demonstration of how he introduces his “Jesus Who?” course at a pub in his neighbourhood. There is a huge difference between being told how something works and experiencing it for yourself. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next six months a dozen “God in the Pub” events spring up across Eastern Canada.

Lasting networks

As with all good conferences, some of the best things often happen in the cracks—over coffee and lunch, and between sessions. Relationships begin, emails are exchanged, ideas are swopped, and problems are debated (and sometimes even solved). This has been one of the advantages of holding this conference each year: not only has it gained numerical momentum, but people come back year after year, learn to speak the same language, and lasting networks of encouragement and wisdom begin to emerge. It’s difficult to be a pioneer in isolation.

Were there any low points? For me, the most depressing moment was during the Q&A when one person asked, “I am finding a conflict between, on the one hand, the fact that we’re wanting to do this for the sake of self-preservation and, on the other, the fact that we’re talking about authenticity. How can we do both these things?” Pernell dealt with the question far more graciously than I would have done, and explained that following Jesus was never a matter of “self-preservation,” and that following God’s mission always involves laying down our lives. You’d think it was obvious, but apparently not.

Is anything achieved?

So does this conference achieve anything? Frankly, I am too old to have any patience for conferences that leave you with a set of notes you never look at again, and warm feelings that evaporate within a week. So I am glad to report that the answer is yes. For example, one priest, Chris Snow, from St. John’s Newfoundland came the first year, as he told us later (as) to check out whether there was any theological substance to this thing and (b) to see if it was just an evangelical clique. He decided we were OK on both counts, went back home and hired a young curate to start a Messy Church out of his church. The next year they both came, and reported on what they had done. During the year that followed, the Messy Church grew into a Eucharistic community. Once again, Chris and Sam came back to the conference and inspired us with their story. And the number of such first-person stories increases year by year. (Some of them are told on the Fresh Expressions Canada website: www.freshexpressions.ca.)

So I pray (and invite you to pray too) that the seeds sown at this conference will be nurtured and bear fruit across the country for years to come—I believe it may take twenty years for significant change to come—not for the survival of the Anglican church (it’s about mission, not survival, remember) but, much more important, for the furtherance of the Good News of Jesus among those who have never heard it.