Rev. Glen Soderholm is a musician and minister serving with Two Rivers Church, a church plant in Guelph, Ont.
Having been a parish pastor in the rural/suburban community, there’s definitely been a call on my life to engage with the city. My call happened through meeting an old friend unexpectedly. I had been exploring the options, having become frustrated with traditional kinds of church—a building that people commute to from all around. He’d been exploring the idea of what the church looked like in the neighbourhood; it was reclaiming the word parish which is an important one in this discussion.
Missional is something which has been entering the lingo for last 10-15 years, perhaps longer. It’s basically the idea that the church at the moment is attractional: you’ve got your buildings and your programs and your mission, where you’re reaching out. We invite people to our buildings and programs and to learn our subculture. The primary means of outreach has been inviting people to our church services, particularly in the Presbyterian Church. The missional church is saying: the church is always being sent. God’s mission to the world is to reconcile the world, and in Christ and in the incarnation that is the fullest example of God’s reconciling purposes and that was descending into the culture, joining the culture.
What we’re saying is, if God is sending us, how are we to be sent? Especially in a post-Christendom era. We’ve totally lost Christendom. Society is completely secular. So the church isn’t working. We’re trying to live in a Christendom model and it’s not working, we’re dying, we’re greying, we’re getting older and older and we have to open our eyes. I think in the last couple of years, in the conversations I’ve been having, wow, this has really gotten bad.
I’m hearing the Presbyterian Church will be closing another 300 congregations in the next 10 years, or something like that. There’s been a lot of conversation about an article [last year] by Margaret Wente [in the Globe and Mail] about the United Church. She generated a ton of conversation; she was saying the liberal church is dying because there’s no identity anymore beyond being do-gooders. So it’s thrown the cat among the pigeons. But people have been saying that for years and recognizing that.
If we believe God’s purposes are reconciliation in Christ, how do we make that happen? The missional church is saying that it’s not by inviting people back to our building and our programs. It’s about living out the Christ-life in our lives, in the market place and the work space and our neighbourhoods—what it means to worship where you live. That’s the fundamental description of what the missional church means. I think it’s an important word and useful to hang on to identify a certain approach.
Within this stream of missional church are varieties of expressions of it. I’m interested in the new parish movement; it’s about local and place. Central to that are questions people need to ask: how does place shape us? There’s the natural environment and the built environment. Geography shapes us. But the problem is, if church is about being a community of faith, the way we’ve been doing it is by the wrong means; the main culprit is the automobile. What we do is build churches in places where we have to leave our streets and our neighbourhood and travel into a different neighbourhood. In the downtown churches you’ll have people travelling from all over the greater Toronto area to go to them. It’s hard to have an impact on your community when the people who are going there are leaving every week and travelling back to somewhere else.
What’s of interest to me is how we do church where we live, where we inhabit, work and shop. We see it as a response to globalisation, a reclaiming of our community. People buy food that’s been grown close to where they live, for example. People go church-shopping, they shop around for a church that they think will meet their needs. That creates abstract communities. What connects those people together? There is a place for it; and there are mega-churches people commute to and they do good. If they get people coming to Christ then that’s good. What I want to know is what it will be like to be part of a church that people walk to, that people are connected to because of a desire for human flourishing in their neighbourhood.
It’s kind of colonialism—you go somewhere, extract all you can and move on. It’s consumerist and colonial. What would it look like if we chose to place ourselves in a community?
The first thing to do is to listen to what’s going on in the community. It’s so easy for Christians to go into their holy huddle and listen to each other. We’re not only attractional, we’re extractional. If someone over here is touched by the Spirit and wants to follow Christ we tend to take them out of where they are and say come over here and learn all our stuff, when really we need to say, what resources can we offer and what can we do to help you worship Christ over here, where you live? Because that person has a whole network of people that ideally you can now impact for Christ.
But we’re not good at that. Christians need to be seen as people who are committed to our community. My friend was saying that some churches are really great at social justice and serving the neighbourhood, but it’s a handout; here’s food or money, but were not integrating those people into the community. It’s difficult to get to a point where we walk with those people in Christ when we form that kind of relationship. But what if we made a commitment to human flourishing in a place where we live and the church becomes an agent for bringing people together.
The main scripture used to be Matthew 28: go make disciples of all nations was our evangelism verse. Now Luke 10 has become the new test text for the missional church: go out as lambs among wolves, go out without money. Luke 10 becomes us being sent out to places where we find people receptive to the word and then we plant there and set up places for them to worship. The other verses are Jeremiah 29, where the exiles are living in Babylon and the advice to them is to build homes etc., and pray for the flourishing of the city where you are and establish a community there. They have been important verses.
Right now, I have a group that meets in my house. There are a dozen of us and our goal is to make disciples of God and we want to do that where we live. So we ask: how can I live in this place where God has set me and my family and be concerned about my neighbours needs and what they’re up to? Hospitality is a big word in this, we’re building relationships and it’s a slow thing, it’s not going to happen fast. In a fast society, we want to build a slow church—slow and quiet, planting in the place you live, building relationships and living your life following Christ and showing others what that’s like. It’s intentional, but it has an understanding it is a long slow process.
Worship is still an important part but we’re looking to do that in third spaces, like a pup, a place where the community gathers, those places where people come and are non-threatening. Churches are springing up in pubs and libraries, interesting cultural, community spaces.
Our interest is an arts orientated church. As we listen, we notice this is what the town is interested in. The town is interested in arts and one of our seven core practices is culture making and how we can tie that into people’s needs. Also, we’re interested in storytelling as a core practice; every community is a narrative so how do we tell our story as individuals and show how it works itself out in God’s greater story?
Our church doesn’t have the structure a church would usually have because we’re not classified as a congregation; we’re a ministry. I’ve been sharing the vision with the members of the PCC. Now we have problems with the lingo because we don’t have a session but the language is becoming dated and unhelpful. We’ve got a bit of freedom and there is more freedom out there to shape congregations in the way we’re doing church.
The metrics of success become different in this scenario. In the past it’s been bums in seats. That’s the way most pastors judge whether they’re being successful. The missional model is different. Obviously we want people to come and more people is a healthy sign, but maybe human flourishing in a community is another measure of success. If the community is changing for the better because this faith community has been at the heart of it and they understood each other’s needs.
One of the things in community is helping people find their gifts, and another thing is partnership. It’s hard to do this alone but if you’re connected it’s easier. We see it as a network of villages. We’re not saying if you’re not in walking distance of our community you can’t come, but we’re committed to our flourishing and we want you to be committed to the flourishing in your community. Try it on your street, in your neighbourhood. We’re not putting all our eggs in a Sunday night basket. What we’re saying is, every week have an open house, especially focused around food, because you’re most human when you’re sitting round a table with people. In these villages you’re having people come together around a table and then conversations about God and being a disciple happen. So we get together once a week to worship but also, beyond that, we’re engaging in acts of service to the community, offering tutoring, cleaning a community pond—things you hear the community needs when you listen. It’s not rocket science. It’s not a new thing. But it feels like we’ve lost our way and have forgotten about the people who live around us.
I think it would be hard to argue with the theory that we’re doing church, but it’s going to be more difficult to inspire people to break out of the traditional patterns. I have found a lot of sympathy for these ideas as I’ve shared them. People are desperate. People know we need to do something.
And actually, in Canada, we missed the whole Willow Creek model where you make worship more attractive. It’s still attractional, with rock worship bands and videos. But it mainly attracts Christians and it forgets about making real disciples by focusing on fun programs. Things are changing, but it will be slow to change because there will be those who are happy to fade away, and those who are desperate enough to say, ok we’ll change everything to make sure we stay alive. There are questions about how to transition but they’ll need to find a new group of people within that congregation to push this forward. They’ll face resistance. People will get jealous. People will feel they’re creating two congregations, but what alternatives do we have? Church is not working the way it is.
We’re not losing the liturgy, the traditional stuff, but we’re being culture savvy. You have to be aware of the culture of an area in order to communicate. We don’t want to fall into the trap of church being all we do on a Sunday evening.
The main strengths of doing church this way? It insists that our faith is personal; currently church feeds the idea that you can have a private faith, but personal means something built on relationship. We’re saying you can’t follow Christ if you’re not in a community that’s committed to doing that together. Secondly, it takes the locale seriously; it shows the community Christians are committed not to an abstract idea but to practicing the faith in tangible ways. Thirdly, it takes seriously spiritual formation; we expect that people will grow in their faith and not stay in a level of immaturity. I think it’s hard for church to call us into our faith more seriously.
If we only think of church as beginning at the doors we’ve driven to, then we’ve got the idea wrong. We need to think about what it means to live out as disciples of God among the people we live with and shop with and work with.