On the frosty morning of January 30, participants at the Vital Church Planting conference at St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto took some time to explore the virtues of slowing down, accepting uncertainty and embracing weakness.
The session, titled “Course Correction,” looked at the struggles new churches face in the first years after they are founded. It featured the Rev. Duke Vipperman, incumbent at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Toronto, Kevin Makins, founding pastor of Eucharist Church in Hamilton, Ont., the Rev. Grayhame Bowcott, founding priest of the Anglican Regional Ministry of South Huron (diocese of Huron), and Darryl Dash, leader of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto.
The Course Correction panel, inspired by the conference’s theme of the church as a ship on a journey, dealt with a question that many church plants face: what happens when you achieve your vision but it doesn’t turn out to be what you expected?
Vipperman started the session by talking about the “slow church movement.” He explained that at the first church planting conference he attended about 10 years ago, experts from the United States said to give new starts three to five years of declining revenue, then cut off the stream.
“That doesn’t work in Canadian waters,” he said. “We’re now looking at seven to 10.”
Building a community takes time, and not all of that time will necessarily feel purposeful. “You cannot create community unless you can waste time together,” he stressed. “The Rez [the Church of the Resurrection] is now a healthy resource parish with 500 on the parish list because we learned to waste time together and with our neighbours in a variety of ways.”
This was a point that Makins also noted. Reflecting on his experience planting a church in downtown Hamilton, Makins was candid about his struggle to accept that building a congregation involves time and a good deal of uncertainty.
Having originally planned for his church to be a neighbourhood church rooted in a few square blocks of the city, as it grew he began to realize it was made up of people from all over downtown Hamilton.
Although it wasn’t easy for him at first to acknowledge what was happening, he learned to accept it. “None of us really know what we’re doing. We’re all just experimenting and trying things out and trying to be faithful,” he said, adding laughingly that he found the process “strangely liberating.”
Bowcott came at the problems of growing a church from a very different place, but arrived at remarkably similar conclusions.
Working in a rural part of the diocese of Huron, Bowcott has personally seen the deconsecrating of 30 churches. But he has also seen the rebirth of one of those churches, St. Anne’s Mission Church, in Port Franks.
“When we die, we leave all the depression and all the baggage of the old church behind,” he said. “In a mission church, all of the new members get a chance to make decisions…it’s chaotic, it’s beautiful, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure Christian faithfulness.”
For Bowcott, surrendering the comfortable but failing older structures in favour of an approach to church in which the parishioners take ownership and leadership, may be unsettling, but it leads to renewed growth.
The final speaker was also the most personal. Dash spoke of his own challenges doing mission in Toronto’s up-and-coming Liberty Village neighbourhood, a part of the city thick with condominiums but “bleak” in terms of faith.
Dash spoke of the importance of accepting weaknesses and limitations as a core part of doing ministry, rather than a cause for shame. “Revel in your weakness—God loves to meet us in our weakness.”
It was a message that seemed to resonate with many of those present.
“This is probably the best conference I’ve been to—ever—and I’ve been a priest for a long time,” said the Rev. Annette Gillies, who serves the rural parishes of Holland Landing and Roches Point in the diocese of Toronto. “It’s new, it’s refreshing, and it’s not someone telling us how to do our job.”
Ken McClure, a layperson works alongside Gillies, agreed. “One of the most powerful statements this morning was that none of us know what we’re doing—we’re all in this confusing state of experimenting—but we’re doing it together.”