Two Vital Conferences: a Brief Report

Two strategic conferences recently took place in the East and West of Canada.

It’s always a risk running a conference at the beginning of February. Will there be a snowstorm? (There was.) Will people come? (They did.) How long will it take them to get home again? (That varied. The longest reported so far was forty-eight hours from Edmonton to Montreal.)

Toronto, January 31st –February 2nd

In Toronto, some 200 people showed up for the seventh annual Vital Church Planting conference, co-sponsored by the Diocese of Toronto and the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism. Some came from as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, and seven or eight denominations were represented.

One draw was undoubtedly the plenary speaker, Bishop Graham Cray, who is currently the Archbishops’ Missioner and Team Leader for Fresh Expressions UK. Graham was also the chair of the committee that wrote the ground-breaking Mission Shaped Church report, back in 2004.

The theme of the conference was “Dying to Live: Disciple Making and New Christian Communities.” Graham argued that the main motivation for starting new Christian communities is not to put more “bums in pews” or to prop up failing budgets, but to give more people the opportunity to become disciples of Jesus Christ in his work of redeeming the world. He challenged us with the question: “Who will not be reached with the Good News if we just keep doing what we are doing now?”

Workshops explored different ways that discipleship can be encouraged, all the way from children’s ministry to preaching and teaching, and to small group ministry. Bishops, diocesan executives, and leaders of other denominations had their own track of workshops, led by Bishops Linda Nicholls and Graham Cray, to discuss issues of putting discipleship into the DNA at the heart of our church structures.

On the Saturday of the conference, sixty new people (mainly laity) joined the conference for an intense day of learning. After an introductory talk from Graham, folk went into a series of three workshops, with a break for a bag lunch, and then ended the day with worship and a closing charge from Graham.

A number of those who have been to previous VCP conferences said this was the best so far, and I tend to agree.

Edmonton, February 5th – 7th

After the Toronto conference, Graham and Jacky Cray, Nick Brotherwood (of Fresh Expressions Canada) and I flew on to Edmonton for their Vital Church Conference. Here there were three plenary speakers: Bishop Graham, James Penner (an expert on Canadian youth culture and spirituality), and Terry LeBlanc (an Aboriginal Christian leader).

Although at first there seemed to be few connections between the three topics, by the end it became clear that the thread connecting them was the importance of relating church to different cultures, and not seeking to impose a form of church that is alien—whether on young people, First Nations, or other groups presently uninvolved in church.

For many of us, the highlight of the conference was the panel discussion, chaired by Nick Brotherwood, on the final day, when the three speakers got to interact—often humorously—with one another over these issues.

About seventy-five people attended the conference—the third such, co-sponsored by the Diocese of Edmonton and the Wycliffe Institute.

Archbishop Rowan Williams coined the phrase some years ago, “the mixed economy.” By that, he meant that the church in these post-Christendom days needs to pursue God’s mission along two fronts: the revitalization of existing churches, and the planting of new Christian communities. These conferences helped move both agendas forward. The only question now is what we will do with what we have learned.