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.
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.
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.
Once again, we arrived to a packed house on May 13. One woman who arrived late had trouble finding somewhere to sit. The sanctuary is rather small, but they also have a balcony that allows an average attendance of 150 with 40 children & youth. All children & youth workers are volunteer and they have an active youth group that meets every other Sunday evening for fun activities, worship, Bible study & serious check-in. The youth love it! They are involved in Worship leadership regularly and with Outreach projects including the TRC group, partnering with the Barrie Native Friendship Centre and becoming involved in a Nicaraguan partnership with a local church. Their motto with the Nicaraguan partnership is to build relationships, not buildings, so that they do not take away work from locals. Many of their outreach projects are supported by grants and lay members write grant applications. The congregation’s multiple outreach projects have attracted newcomers.
This congregation plans for a budget surplus every year. They have many fundraising dinners and opportunities for socializing. On the Sunday we attended, they announced two fundraising activities that collectively raised about $10,000. To assist with these activities, they invite as many volunteers as possible, including newcomers so that they can feel as if they belong. Newcomers don’t have to earn their stripes, but are invited right away to help out with projects and leadership. Newcomers constitute about half of their membership, some of whom came from recent closures of other United Churches.
They felt their congregation to be warm and supportive without pockets of conflict or tension that frequently mar congregations. At the end of each Board meeting, everyone offers words of gratitude. This is particularly helpful if they have had difficult conversations during the meeting. The Board welcomes critique and regularly engages in self-reflection, making room for newcomers to implement new ideas. Long-time members do not seem to guard ownership over their areas of ministry, but welcome others with different ways of doing things. They are willing to risk new ideas, recognizing that some will not work while others will take off. This allows space for the Spirit to move creatively in their midst.
We found Bedford to be a warm & welcoming church. It has an average attendance of 275 with 40 children.
Below are thoughts and comments from interviews and lay leaders and staff:
“This is a community that has a disposition of abundance, not poverty—it’s a ‘yes we can’ community, not ‘I’m not sure.”
This church expects you to do your part & take responsibility: “It’s not a place for people to just dial in anonymously.” We have a welcoming team of 62 people who log all who come in the door with their names & interests, make a point of speaking with them each week, introducing them to others and inviting them to join a small group. Our small group ministries help people get to know each other beyond the superficial social conversations.
We’re not afraid of change: “if you don’t change, you’ll die.” “We take risks without recklessness.”
How did we choose which churches to visit? I asked people living in different parts of Canada to recommend churches that were thriving. I also asked the same of a group called “Below Average” (United Church Ministers who are below the average age of ministers in the United Church–which I think is 50?). My partner and I then poured through the stats for each church, comparing 2017 with 2015. Fortunately, we found more churches than we had time to visit. So–if your church is not one of the ones on our list, it doesn’t mean that you are not thriving!
I consider churches to be thriving if they:
• have a consistent or growing membership
• are financially stable
• engage young people
• make meaningful contributions to their neighbourhood, city and world
• offer challenging, inspirational and creative worship
• offer educational opportunities for all ages
• provide a supportive faith community for people of diverse identities
• participate in justice partnerships
• foster interfaith and intercultural relationships
Sunday was a great send off for my sabbatical. Westworth United Church covenanted with worship and pastoral care leaders who will keep the home fires burning. My partner and I were commissioned to travel across Canada and visit thriving United Churches. I felt loved and sad to leave my Westworth family for 4 months. But we tucked gifts of chocolate bars, Timmie’s gift cards, maps and stories, prayers and well-wishes into our bags. We know that we will not journey alone.