Rev. Douglas duCharme is a United Church of Canada minister at a church on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. He was formerly a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
The math of one building ¬plus one minister plus one congregation equals church has us in a straitjacket. It’s very difficult to break that down in terms of sharing buildings and sharing ministers. Not all ministers are good or competent at everything, yet ministers are often lone rangers and they are protective of their church.
While a medical practice may be collaborative, it’s extremely difficult to break this culture of church; but the urban church is forcing the issue. The idea is, in urban churches, ministers serve several churches through collaborative ministry, where a minister who’s really good with youth and kids, and one who’s good with the elderly and pastoral care, one who’s really good at worship, one who’s good at Christian education and faith formation, are forming a team to serve five or six congregations. I’m aware of nowhere that has happened yet, but the urban church is pushing that possibility.
There’s a lot of social demographic stuff to consider. Before the Second World War you had urban and rural communities. But after the war there was a lot of pressure on urban communities—there was violence; there was poverty; the inner core of our cities became really run down but churches pulled out of the inner city in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. They sold off churches and basically abandoned the inner core of North American cities and focused on the suburbs where everyone was happy and we had lawns and you could walk and there was no violence.
So we built all these little suburban churches on side streets and that was when denominations grew. In the ‘50s they exploded and they made programs and resources. So now we have buildings like 50 Wynford Drive [the church's national offices] bursting with bureaucrats. And, of course, much of it was good. As ministers we have to admit that there were pensions and benefits and people have to administer that. But what used to be a few people essentially staffing the General Assembly became a bureaucracy. It was growing like mad and the Sunday schools were full and that image came to be burned into people’s understanding as normal.
But now we are closing suburban churches all over the place. Now (with urban neighbourhood gentrification), lots of immigrants are moving to the suburbs and they’re buying houses and they’re not Presbyterian or United. Most of the churches built in the suburbs were only built to last 50 years, so now they’re in bad shape and the congregations don’t have the money to redo them and church attendance society-wide is reduced.
People are moving into the city; there is greater density in the urban core; it’s now funky and where people want to live. We’re focused now not so much on the car as on public transit. The largest growth population in this area of Toronto is Bangladeshi, and they’re mainly Muslim.
The focus is back on the urban church because one of the things we did in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s was abandon the urban core; we left vast swathes of the city empty of any faith presence.
I chair the mission strategy committee for the presbytery which has 65 congregations and outreach ministries. We discovered that on the west side of the Don River where there is huge redevelopment happening and it’s becoming a dynamic, lively, and cultural place, there are no churches. There’s a Salvation Army men’s mission and a couple of old Orthodox churches but that’s it. And it’s a huge chunk of city growing and developing.
We closed a big church in this presbytery, took a chunk of money and tried to think of how to re-plant a church in that neighbourhood—building a community that would reflect the culture of that set of neighbourhoods. We don’t have a clue what we’re doing because we haven’t done that sort of urban mission work in a while. We’re spending some of that money to hire somebody with urban church planting skills to discover what is and isn’t working. We’re dancing around the word evangelism because it has a bad name. We want to build intentional, alternative Christian communities in new ways in growing, changing neighbourhoods that the church abandoned in the ‘60s.
On the other side of the Don River, the east side, we have 10 United churches in an area with 265,000 people. On average, we have 800 people in those 10 United churches on a Sunday. So, here we have the opposite problem to the west side of the Don Valley. There they have a growing population and no churches and here we have too many churches and little connection with the community.
We’ve hired a staff person to help build collaboration between the churches. But it has been very challenging, once again, to try to break through the traditional idea of church I spoke of earlier. You have each of these churches struggling to survive and they’re focused on that. They don’t see the answer in other churches working together with them, developing a sense of common identity and a common sense of mission in this city. But it’s going to come as we’re closing churches. We seem better able to deal with that; we are becoming equipped to close churches well. They hit the wall, they can’t pay the minister or redo the roof, so we close the congregation and sell the building for redevelopment.
We keep trying to address the theological implications of a missional church but for most of these congregations, people are tired. They are confused because they’re still telling themselves the old story of the ‘50s: Where are the kids in Sunday school? Why can’t we afford the new roof? We used to have two full-time ministers, why can’t we afford that now? It’s very discouraging and we’re in this in-between place. We don’t have a new story yet.
We have emerging church, things like Fresh Expressions. The Church of Scotland had Church without Walls. We keep throwing these things up and digging around in the Bible for new models and we try to understand how society is changing, culturally, in terms of inter-faith relationships. One of the crucial turning points that is coming is missional church. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said, ‘It’s not that the church of God has a mission but the God of mission has a church.’
Rather than the attractional model, where we do handstands trying to convince people to come to church, (we’ve got all these programs and worship with a praise band and it’s not working), we realise God’s not waiting for us. God is busily at work in the community around us planting seeds of life and wholeness and reconciliation that the church has nothing to do with generating because we’re so busy dealing with our own issues, our own self-identity. We’re convinced church means people coming into the doors of a place that has a building and minister and congregation and hymn books, etc. Flipping that on its head and saying, no, we need to identify where God is active in the community around us, we need to come out into the society, doing the things of God, and recognize what’s going on and make common cause, make partnerships with that, is very humbling. But also grace-filled. It will be a long time coming.
The point is not to get people to convert. This congregation has become very isolated from the community around it because the people who used to live around here have moved to the suburbs, but they keep coming back here. They probably drive past eight or nine United churches to get here, and in the meantime the community has changed dramatically. So they no longer recognize the community, while the church is still a reflection of what they found valuable and meaningful 40 or 50 year ago. They gradually feel disconnected from, or even betrayed by, the community around. It isn’t like them; it isn’t interested in what they’re doing; it doesn’t come to their events and doesn’t have any idea of what goes on inside these walls. So the community in turn has this benign neglect of whatever goes on behind the walls of that building on the corner, and the congregation has a suspicious reaction to the community. In the meantime the community is busily organizing itself.
It’s rare today for ministers to live in the immediate neighbourhood of the congregation. When I became the minister here, I went over to the Neighbourhood Centre and introduced myself as the minister and they put me on the board. One of the things we were working on was the urgent need for community space in the neighbourhood. There was no community space. Schools, because of tight budgets, charge phenomenal amounts to rent space; community centres are full with their own programs. There is no available, accessible and affordable community space. Meanwhile, at Hope, we have downstairs 7,500 square feet of space in two halls that are used rarely, apart from Weight Watchers and AA and a local theatre group using it a couple of times a week.
We started to look at the needs of the community, at collaborations with Hope and with other groups, so we could draw resources to renovate this below-standard space and upgrade it to be used by the public, families and children. It would be clean, well-lit, safe, with decent washrooms, and a commercial kitchen.
We formed a collaborative team and did a study of the neighbourhood. We received a grant for $14,000 from the Centre for Social Innovation. We did a huge survey, a feasibility study and got a lot of data from the community. We figured out who was out there and what they need and what they would appreciate. We came up with a proposal to draw from various sources about $1.3 million to renovate the downstairs halls, which were to be a collaborative space with Hope United at the table to manage how this space would be used and it would become a community hub. We would have our sanctuary up here, we have the World Association for Christian Communication as partners in the building, we would have a seniors’ centre attached to the building, and community space downstairs which would open this place wide open.
Our congregation is maybe 35 people; they’re elderly and they don’t have a lot of money. The needs of the community who’ve moved in—like immigrant new mothers who need to know how to cook for their babies with unfamiliar Canadian foods—the folks in this congregation have little awareness of that and little capacity to cope with people with mental health problems. But the community has those resources and what the community needs is space and location. We have those and they have the competency in terms of skill sets and resources. So we partnered with them. God is in the work that these community programs are doing, there’s life there, there’s community, there’s relationship; they are cutting across cultures and finding common cause. We need to be a part of that.
Basically, the board here at Hope struggled with the model. It was too much and they couldn’t understand how this would work. It felt like they were losing control over their building and it didn’t look like church to them. When we got to a crucial part where we had to put in an application to a major funding agency, the Board at Hope United found that they could not do it. They said we don’t get it, we don’t understand. So it died.
It was very traumatic for the church and for the community. Our church would have only been one person at the table with a bunch of other groups. Other community groups would have been represented, in many cases, by people from Africa and Asia and we aren’t as used to that as we might be. They were also speaking a different language—English, yes, but community development language is very different from church-speak! But at some point something like that will have to happen because the church is not viable as a self-standing entity without some form of partnership. It forces the question in a different way but it will have to be answered.
Building partnerships with community organisations involved me sitting on their board for five years and building trust and relationships, holding some events here in the space as it is now so people from the community came into the building. Most had never set foot in here. Then I was trying to figure out what they want, what we want, what they need, what we need and trying to bring that together in a way that would have developed a dynamic partnership. That’s what missional church could have looked like here.
It was not about converting people; it was getting the church involved in what God is doing in the world that we have no clue about and no connection with. It is about trusting that God is present; God is actively at work and God is not waiting for us. God is planting seeds out there. We need to be a part of it and nurture it and harvest the light that is coming from that. If in the course of that people find meaning and community and expression that is linked to the Christian story then great, but we don’t need to start by labelling people first. If what our story is about, and what the rituals and expressions and experiences of community are about, have something of God in their very DNA, then it will make sense to people. People will pick that up. But they might not respond to me explaining it to them.
Missional church means trusting God and not trying to do it myself. It is grace in action. It’s not about me trying to turn myself inside out trying to attract people into the church—which is like works justification. It’s that we discern where God is at work in the world and then we work out how we can be a part of that.
The biggest challenge to urban church is from the church itself. This [missional church idea] is so different from what most of our congregations in urban communities have experienced. The people who left a long time ago probably would not have as much of a problem making the connection. But the people who are sticking it out, they value loyalty and tradition and stability. And part of that is generational.
The capacity to handle change is much more fluid, much less anxiety-producing for newer generations. It’s not that the new generations don’t know where we want to get to. They have a sense of a core vision, identity and commitment. But they are not so focused on the getting there as on being clear about where “there” is. We can get there in a lot of different ways. But the 20 and 30-year-olds aren’t in our churches.
Then, too, many of our church buildings are not structured architecturally to look like anything we need them to look like for anything we want to do.
The tragedy is that the people who have kept this church going for the past 30 years of really tough struggle are the very ones who, now that we can imagine the things we can do with the church, are having a very difficult time with that happening. It’s painful and ironic. On the one hand, I’m so grateful to these people in their 70s and 80s who have slogged away and given time and resources. And I’m so frustrated because there is such a gap between what they know and trust and what God is doing—things we read, pray, preach, and sing about in worship—and they cannot see that God is in what the community is yearning to create with us. They see God in what’s here as it is. That’s painful, pastorally, and it puts ministers in a very difficult position.
Sometimes, though, it’s the minsters that get in the way! They’ve got mortgages and kids in university and they’re not looking to put their positions at risk. I am probably among the last generation of clergy who will be able to spend their entire working lives in ministry. You’re not going to be 40 years from now working full-time in ministry. But the ministers of my generation get very intransigent if you suggest that they are not willing to try something new. Often the reason things get stuck, in the face of the degree of change we are being presented with, is because people like me, clergy, are blocking it. And the clergy hide behind the congregation saying, ‘Our people are not ready for this.’
This is a society that yearns for authentic community and connection. Church is a place where at its best people are sincerely looking to drill deeper into their lives for meaning and purpose. Church community is a safe space, in the best of all worlds, a place for people to build connection and for expression and growth. There are still churches in very strategic places in the city and they can be community-gathering places. We can open ourselves to the community for the community’s purposes. In the urban core of cities, because of where churches tend to be located—on corners, at key intersections—the church can be vital, sacred space in the city.
I have no doubt that we’re in a transition place where our formerly clear sense of purpose, focus, mission and identity has become dispersed. We don’t know how to be church in this new situation in society, but we’ll get there and these urban churches will be a part of that, along with house churches and other models.
In the meantime, churches are closing at a rapid rate. We don’t know how to positively engage with these churches that are closing because of this formula, one building plus one minister plus one congregation. We don’t get engaged with struggling congregations because it’s not ‘seemly’ to do. As a result, we wait until a church phones the presbytery office and says we can’t pay the minister this month or we’ve missed three months payment on our insurance. Once the building isn’t covered, it’s closed. They’re the most common reasons: the insurance or the minister.
Unfortunately, sometimes those churches are in really strategic, growing places in the city where we actually want to stay. We closed a church on Queen Street about eight years ago that was in a growing, changing neighbourhood and sold the building. Now stuff’s happening down there and it was in a strategic location. But we closed it because no one else knew what to do and that worries me. We don’t have bishops who can say, hang on, let’s be strategic about this. We can’t do that because we’re democratic and have to sit and wait and make a democratic decision. Often we’ve lost the opportunity to do something innovative because a church in an unpromising location remains viable, while another that is dying in a neighbourhood in dynamic transition—in terms of location and transit and demographics—closes. Bringing theology and ecclesiology into dialogue with the official city plan would be a welcome breakthrough!