Next Steps

Thank you for journeying with us through this blog as we have explored how particular United Church congregations are thriving. As mentioned in my first post, the good news is that there are far more thriving United Churches than we had Sundays to visit. The congregations we visited are only a small sampling of strong and vibrant United Churches.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sifting through my notes and recommended readings to identify patterns and common threads amongst thriving churches. In September, I will be presenting these to Westworth United Church, the congregation I serve in Winnipeg. Together, we will seek God’s guidance as we discern how these visits might inspire us in our future ministry. I anticipate that this collection of insights will make its way into some kind of printed format that will be available to those outside of Westworth. Please contact me through Westworth United Church in the late fall if you are interested in receiving more information.

This will be our last post in this blog. We are grateful to each of the congregations we visited for their inspiration, generous offer of time and willingness to engage in questions and discussions of both celebrative and challenging topics. May we all continue to be open to the Spirit’s guidance as seek to live out God’s grace in our congregations and in our world.


St. George’s United Church, Courtenay, B.C.

Inviting, inspiring and investing in the way of Jesus Christ, this congregation focuses on hospitality, worship and growth through outreach and education.

Five years ago, there was one child attending St. George’s when Rev. Ryan Slifka was called. In 2017, Rev. Ingrid Brown was called and St. George’s now averages 30 children. Lay leaders credit the leadership of Ryan and Ingrid for this growth. People are attracted to this congregation because of its inspirational preaching, diverse music, faith development for all ages, a strong, public ministerial presence and solid community outreach. They choose a different community non-profit organization each year and raise funds for them through a garage sale, concerts, $5 for every new person who joins the St. George’s email list, donations, the dedication of the Christmas Eve offering ($1,500 last year) and volunteer hours. Last year they raised about $10,000 for the partner organization.

Ingrid’s position has recently been expanded through a generous regional grant to work with Weird Church, a new church plant based out of Cumberland United Church, which recently closed. Weird Church is designed for those who have been harmed by the church and for the unchurched. It is “a social-justice oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, radically inclusive community seeking to follow Jesus in a way that allows for personal and social transformation.”

St. Andrew’s- Wesley United Church, Vancouver

In one way or another, all churches are under construction–or at least should be! St. Andrew’s-Wesley is physically under construction and its sanctuary is closed for a major, 2 year renovation. During this time, its three Sunday services are held at a neighbouring hotel, Baptist church and Anglican church. Yes, the building closure is having a somewhat negative effect on attendance–buildings do matter!–but the congregation is thriving none-the-less.

Factors helping them thrive include out-standing preaching from former moderator Gary Paterson and Lead Minister Dan Chambers, extensive adult faith formation programs and diverse music. Music Director Darryl Nixon disbanded the choir in order to form a number of professional vocal ensembles, instrumental groups and congregational choirs that would sing a few times a year. Why? So that the music would be diverse and could better match the evolving themes of worship and mission of the church.

Also key is the camaraderie amongst staff and lay leaders. Lead Minister Dan Chambers noted that there is no sense of territory or ego-investment, which can lead to pettiness and smallness. Instead, they connect well and collaborate according to the needs of the church.

Lastly, they are a risk-taking, permission-giving church that has established a quick process of assessment and support for individuals who bring forward ideas for mission projects.

Next Sunday will be our last church and last post in this blog. We will be visiting St. George’s United Church in Comox on Vancouver Island.

Eagle Ridge United Church, Coquitlam, B.C.

In 2002, there were only about 40 people attending Eagle Ridge. Pastor Dave Anderson brought a paradigm shift that slowly began building up the church into a strong community of 300 families that is diverse in race, age, sexual orientation and ability. He knew that we no longer live in a Christendom era–our secular society is clearly post-Christendom. In order for a church to most effectively minister and thrive in this context, it needs to shift from a membership model to a discipleship model. Rather than asking how can the church can meet our needs or how we could meet the church’s needs, we might ask how we can each tap into our God-given potential, talents and passions to find our own calls in life. In a discipleship model, the church’s purpose is to help people better know themselves as lovingly created in God’s image and as disciples of Christ, called to live out their personal gifts.

This has led to a program-intensive church that encourages everyone to be part of small groups. The small groups help form spiritual friendships that produce a caring community that looks after one another and welcomes change. As Pastor Dave describes, “If you are afraid of change, you will be afraid of newcomers, because newcomers will bring change.”

Eagle Ridge has just received a generous, three-year United Church grant to start the Waypoint Centre for Spiritual Growth. They have hired Pastor Sue Rodgers, an ordained minister who is trained in Spiritual Direction and business management. She has conducted an intensive community assessment and determined interest in spiritual matters that are not explicitly religious (i.e. meditation, support groups for single parents, bereavement, divorce, healing touch, etc.). The church is closing the daycare that rents space in their building in order to rent to Waypoint, which hopes to become self-sufficient through grants and course fees within three years.

This coming Sunday, we will be heading to St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, Vancouver. They are undergoing a major building renovation, so their three Sunday services will be held in nearby locations.

Red Deer Lake United Church, Calgary

Red Deer Lake has worked very hard to spread a message of welcome and acceptance. They recently became Affirming and have prioritized gender and sexuality, diversity and ethnicity, mental health and accessibility.

This church lies on the outskirts of Calgary and calls itself both city and country, old and new. It added a significant addition to an old, country church and attracts people from all over. They have identified the uniqueness of their location and take advantage of it. In their case, their building is in a field, just off a main highway to Rockies. They noticed a number of nearby parking lots full of cars for those who were car-pooling to the Rockies. Hence their sign…

Red Deer Lake UC received national coverage for their innovative outdoor crèche that was modernized and racially diverse. Astronaut Roberta Bondar, Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde and singer Michael Franti were depicted as the magi by artist in residence Larry Stilwell.

One congregant told us that the key to their ministry is congregational care. Vi Sharpe, their Congregational Care Coordinator, has excelled in organizing a bereavement support group, a lay visitors team, congregational workshops and funeral hospitality. Another congregant points to Nick Coates, their minister, for his enthusiasm and deep spiritual knowledge. Nick’s informal style of worship invites the congregation to sit, stand, wander, get coffee and even visit throughout the worship service. It’s one example of being a permission-giving church.

Next Sunday we make our way to Vancouver, where we will visit Eagle Ridge United Church.

Hillhurst United Church, Calgary

Hillhurst measures all that it does by its core values of spirituality, radical hospitality, social justice and risk-taking. At each Board meeting, they take turns being a listener for these values. These values are also named at the beginning of each worship service, along with a warm welcome to their coffee station during the service and a meal following worship every Sunday.

Tony Snow, Right Relations Lead Staff, leading worship on theme of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls

Public Theology is an intentional evangelistic goal of Hillhurst. Their website includes a tab of media reports. As Rev. John Pentland says, “Why pay for advertisement in the news when you can be the news?”

Monday nights are dedicated to sessions on spiritual nurture. Contemplative services are held every Wed. at 7 am and 7 pm.

Next Sunday journey with us to Red Deer Lake United Church.

Symons Valley United Church, Calgary

While the church began about 35 years ago, its current building is 10 years old, with a state of the art sanctuary, complete with theatre lighting & AV booth. There are no permanent religious symbols in the sanctuary, to allow it to be multi-purpose. As it is the only church in a new suburb that is also without a community hall, this has become the community’s building for various events. They have shared the space for 9 years with a Muslim community, with whom they have a strong partnership. The cross, made from a railway tie, is on wheels and wrapped at the base with the liturgical colour.

Worship is diverse and includes youth-led shadow play, skits, reader’s theatre and congregational testimonies of how God broke through their brokenness. The construction of the sanctuary allows for small tables to be set up for table talk. The congregation has a strong ethnic diversity, which I would name as multicultural, on its way to becoming intercultural.

This is what you see when you first enter–a strong welcome complete with an Affirming rainbow and smiling greeters! They try to find the right balance of welcoming newcomers without being overbearing, offering a place for everyone.

In a couple of days, we will finish our visit with Hillhurst United and will post. Then, the following Sunday we will be visiting Red Deer Lake United Church in Calgary

Stay with us on the journey with us as we discover new places and ideas on how to help our churches thrive!

Charleswood United Church, Winnipeg

What draws people to Charleswood? Some of the lay leaders and staff named diverse worship with a variety of music styles based on themes (e.g. Jazz, Dixiland, Beatles, contemporary) and a long-term pastorate with their minister, Michael Wilson, who provides excellent preaching, pastoral care and visioning. Others named the multiple, weekly programs where people can connect and become involved.

The 11:00 am service with over 200 people. There were over 100 who attended the 9:00 am service

I found a spirit of enthusiasm. They said that they are a permission-giving church, willing to try new things. People look forward to attending and supporting worship and events. They run a surplus budget regularly and are able to hire multiple staff to meet new dreams and visions.

Next week join us as we visit Symons Valley United Church,Calgary and Hillhurst United Church, Calgary

St. Martin’s United Church, Saskatoon

As their sign board notes, St. Martin’s is clearly welcoming of young families with children, no matter the noise they bring! During the worship service we attended, no one seemed phased (including the preacher) by a child turning a garbage can and heat register into a drum during the sermon. I’m not sure how that affects their online ministry–they post a youtube of the service every Sunday. Due to copyright, this cannot include music (hymns or anthems), but the liturgy, readings & sermon are appreciated by those who cannot attend the service. The congregants name St. Martin’s primary strengths as the sermons and a diverse music ministry of multiple choirs & instrumentalists offering different types of music.

St. Martin’s also has a strong lay pastoral care ministry. 23 volunteers call every family in the congregation twice a year just to check-in. A prayer mate for each caller offers a prayer while they are making their calls. Lay pastoral care givers also visit those who are shut-in, offer home communion and bring “Christmas in a Bag” to those who cannot attend the Christmas Eve services. The bag contains the Christmas Eve liturgy, reading and meditation, a tea bag and a tea light.

They have developed strong financial management of bequests and large gifts that are used to support building maintenance, capital projects, education and social justice initiatives of the congregation. Whenever they receive a gift, they encourage the congregation to match it and the congregation responds well to this challenge.

On the Sunday we attended St. Martin’s, they showed a 50 minute video following the service about living into our treaty obligations. St. Martin’s Affirming group has included the TRC Calls to Action as part of their mandate.

These are just a few snapshots of the ministry at St. Martin’s. Next week, we will return to Winnipeg and visit Charleswood United Church.

Grace United Church, Brampton Ontario

A decade ago, Grace United was talking about shutting its doors. It was losing people and the ability to maintain a 25,000 square foot building. That was when the visionary leaders began to dream. They incorporated the church hall as a non-profit community resource centre called Grace Place. It rents space to community organizations, including addiction recovery groups, and Regeneration, a ministry that serves the homeless and disenfranchised with meals 365 days a year, washing machines, housing advocacy and programs. The General Manager, Lucy Kristan, has brought in 2 million dollars of grants to renovate the building.

high school students volunteering at Grace Place
Lorne McKay, artist and guest at Regeneration. His grandfather told him that if he can put his shadows down on paper, they will not be able to get to him.

In the meantime, the congregation of Grace United began trying different experiments to attract new people. Some of these didn’t work, but others did! They have learned to risk change to worship, music, and programs. Most recently, they called Rev. Lawrence Nyarko, who has brought energy, dynamic faith and prayer, and connections with the multicultural neighbourhood.

Rev. Lawrence Nyarko with tambourine after children’s time

The connection team welcomes newcomers with welcome packages and introductions, helping them feel part of the church family as soon as they arrive. Young families are attracted to the relaxed and flexible atmosphere of worship. They are living into their motto of being a church with a heart in the heart of the city.

Keziah, Matthew, Micah and Shalom ringing the church bell

Next Sunday: St. Martin’s United Church, Saskatoon