Ask a room full of people about church and you will open up not just a box of stories but a range of meanings, connotations and denotations that are as varied as the people you are speaking to. Church is local and global, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, fully organic and also a human institution, a bureaucracy and a solace. Church needs money and people in the pews and church needs Christ and the Holy Spirit to keep her alive. We use the one word to say many things all at the same time.
While visiting ministries, ministers and churches in Calgary last spring I encountered this anew. In the following five profiles you will see common threads—congregations in transition, discerning their direction. In many ways these are representative congregations within the Canadian Presbyterian Church. Still I do not want to paint them with a broad brush; these are five ministers and their congregations wrestling with their own identity in a fast changing environment, a way of defining “church” for themselves which is local and global, equally dependent on a healthy cash flow and an ear finely tuned to the will of God for their ministry.
The sun pours in through the window of Rev. Helen Smith’s office at Centennial, Calgary. She is seated facing me, her back to her desk and the window; during our chat, her phone keeps ringing for her next meeting regarding the children’s summer program. Behind her is a simple desk, with a computer, and on either side behind the monitor, at her eye line are a colourful cross to the left and a poster to the right declaring: “The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy.”
That’s pretty much the message Smith shares with me: “God has richly blessed us through nothing that we have done.”
Smith is minister at Centennial, which is in Pineridge, in the northeast quadrant of Calgary. In a fast growing, increasingly wealthy city, the northeast is what real estate agents might call the most affordable area. Close to half of Calgary’s adult population was first or second generation according to a 2008 census report; it is the fourth national destination of choice for new immigrants.
Smith’s congregation is two – thirds visible minorities, with an average of 100 people in the pews on Sunday mornings. Plus the children. Lots of children. She tells me this “new influx of people has given us a shot in the arm.” These new members are byproducts of 19th – century missionary efforts, coming from Africa and the Caribbean, bringing with them strange new traditions and habits. These new members are also challenged in their new home, sometimes holding down two jobs, while improving their English skills, while being parents. They bring these anxieties, along with their hopefulness and their very physical faith into Centennial.
Amongst the other one – third on Sunday morning are the founding members of Centennial from 35 years ago. They’ve seen their city change, and their church. They may want to pass the baton on to the next generation, but it’s not there any longer. Centennial’s is in many ways the story of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, where the traditional succeeding generation has dissipated into the secular culture at large, to be replaced by a new group who have little or no grounding in Canadian culture or tradition and certainly do not have the financial wherewithal to maintain a neighbourhood church at the levels it has become accustomed.
“The new immigrants don’t have a lot of money, but they are very faithful. They’re here every Sunday, and if they’re not, you know something is wrong,” says Smith.
“We’ve had to make a few adjustments. We dance up the offering every fifth Sunday. A new baby has to be presented within the first month. We don’t have a liturgy for that, I don’t want it to replace baptism, but I bring the baby up front and have prayer.”
One of the best things the congregation did, Smith tells me, and they did quite by accident for a one – off event but have continued ever since, was to remove all the chairs and tables during coffee hour, forcing people to mingle amongst themselves. This is a small tweak towards relationship building. Other small but significant efforts include visiting a newborn, taking along a small gift like a prayer shawl, calling people, asking about their health and welfare.
One long – term member was frustrated that the new congregants did not help with lawn care. A little hand – holding, a little mentoring, and managing small details like showing the new members where the shed was, where the key was, how to use the equipment, helped matters.
For Smith, Centennial’s learning curve is all about developing relationships. It is something she believes the congregation can teach the denomination: “We can all get along. Jesus is the head—not some race or ethnic group. You have to work at it. I look out every Sunday and I think: ‘This is the kingdom of God.’ The richness is there because of the diversity.
“This is not my church. This is our church.”
Rev. Kobus Genis is a new immigrant. Born, raised and ordained in South Africa, he came to a rural two – point charge in Alberta in 2003. He became senior minister at Westminster, Calgary, four years ago. The church is financially stable, with 150 on average worshipping on a Sunday morning, though the congregation skews to seniors.
The northwest quadrant of the city, where Westminster is located, might as well be in a different country from the northeast. It’s wealthier, more established, with amazing vistas of the mountains and the shiny towers of the downtown. The challenges here are different; seniors are stalwart supporters but they also tend to travel a lot, not wanting to spend the same amount of time at church as they once did. The younger people don’t see volunteering for a church in the same way their parents once might have. Here, too, Westminster tells the story of the PCC—of a shift in attitudes towards the church over the years. Genis says: “The young don’t think [the church] has ‘it,’ but they can’t tell you what ‘it’ is.”
This frustration is familiar to many ministers and church administrators. It’s particularly acute coming from Genis, who grew up in a culture where church mattered. The local school held an assembly to say goodbye to him and his wife and their children when they left South Africa. “I’m used to 600 people in the pews; [but here in Canada] one of my two – point charges had 20. People create the vibe; last week we had 20 more people on Sunday and that changed the vibe of the service.”
Genis came to a congregation in pain; issues surrounding the previous minister had gone to presbytery, a known dynamic for many congregations. Genis came to Canada with a simple mandate: “Meet the people where they are and take them where they want to go.” But along the way he has had to learn about Canada himself, to understand where the people are at, and has had to reground himself theologically.
“In South Africa there is no sports on Sunday, we don’t go shopping on Sunday, we go to church twice; it’s not about right or wrong, that’s just the way it is. I come to Canada, two kids in hockey Sunday mornings. Now you need to rethink your theology; understand that Sunday is not an extension of the Sabbath. I just say to the coaches that Sunday is difficult for us. But Christianity is not about rules and regulations; it’s about relationships. It’s not about Sunday; it’s about every day. It’s not about you reading your Bible only; it’s about you loving God and loving people. For me it opens up everything.
“I think I’m more Christian in Canada than in my own country. I think I understand Christ better in Canada, because you’re forced to think. You are now exposed. It’s wrestling all the time. I’m in a good place; but I’m not in a comfort zone.”
One might say the same about Varsity Acres, though its minister, Rev. Bob Smith (husband to Helen) would certainly add a few qualifications. Also in the northwest quadrant, it isn’t in as well heeled a neighbourhood. The building has been through two expansions, with a strong hand on the financial tiller over the church’s near half – century. The congregation is older and there is money in the bank. The building is in constant use by AA, Gambler’s Anonymous, ESL, local condo associations, various public meetings. And that pot of extra cash has gone to a variety of missional projects, from Kairos Calgary to small credit loans. “It is really neat to be invited to dream,” says Smith. Varsity Acres helped support a presbytery initiated healing and reconciliation conference. It sent its Vacation Bible School program on the road, stopping in at Centennial. (That was the meeting Helen Smith was headed to after me; the phone calls she was receiving.) It is in many ways like the PCC—aging, mostly financially healthy and active in the world.
But … and here again is a story familiar within our denomination. As Bob Smith puts it: “I think the biggest challenge facing Varsity is building its sense of how we minister right in the immediate community. We have people come from as far away as Bragg Creek, Airdrie; they pass two or three churches. But grabbing people who are right here; getting the word out is a challenge.
“We need to reach out. We have to be ready to tell our story. Our big story, of Jesus Christ. But if we say you’re struggling in your marriage, struggling with the balance between life and play, and our church can help you with that, that’s a harder speech for our people.”
You can hear the myriad variations on “church” in these statements; but perhaps in the end there is only one that matters: “We are people of grace; God is good. The church when it functions, functions as a supportive community. So, we have to change the way we tell our story. It’s all grace.”
The story of Valleyview Community is in many ways the story of Calgary. The church was a plant and became self – supporting in 1981. The building came up in ’92, on top of Springbank Hill in the southwest quadrant, overlooking fields and new housing developments. The current name was established two years ago. Along the way there was tension, perhaps over decline, perhaps other anxieties, in the congregation.
Rev. Grant Gunnink grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and somehow gravitated to the PCC. He’s young, with silver hair and a goatee and looks more like a snowboarder than a self described “rabid neo – Calvinist.” (He actually is an avid snowboarder.) He came to a congregation in transition.
A retired minister told Gunnink when he first arrived that he’d have to shake things up at Valleyview. A year later the same minister told him he had done too much too quickly. Gunnink came to a church with about four – dozen members. He began his ministry by visiting all the members and asked them: “Why is Jesus important to you?”
Gunnink has little history in the PCC, so, he isn’t shackled to its culture. He talks about “the culture of church vs. connecting to Jesus.” He is self confident enough to stick with his approach; young and energetic to weather the criticisms (and there have been some from within the presbytery and former Valleyview members). The congregation now has about six – dozen families, many new Canadians. The choir is gone; there is now a praise band. The sanctuary has been cleared; chairs are placed as needed. There is no lectern, just a low riser filled with band and sound equipment. It doesn’t look like a traditional Presbyterian church, and that’s the point.
“All things belong to God,” Gunnink tells me. “That means we are always evaluating our religious life. Nothing is exempt from that. How faithful is our understanding of the gospels?”
Through circumstance and through design, Valleyview has been stripped, renamed and rebuilt. It has more adherents (127) than members (35), which suggests a different model of church. Still, its numbers in last year’s Acts and Proceedings don’t speak of either raging success or failure, but then numbers don’t always tell interesting stories. It is a church on a hill, surrounded by bourgeoning subdivisions, but like every other church I have ever visited, it is dependent on the Holy Spirit and always filled with potential.
There is a vision map on Rev. Victor Kim’s wall that extends to years ahead, filled with goals and deadlines. To call it ambitious would be to understate the fact, though it does reflect, in many ways, Kim’s own thinking on what church can be and should be in the world today. Kim, as his name suggests, is of Korean descent and senior minister at Grace, another church in the southwest quadrant, and the one closest to the downtown core.
On uncommongrace.ca, its website devoted to human trafficking advocacy, Kim writes, “At Grace, we believe that our present culture cares deeply about many issues that touch the lives of all people, but that the conversations about these issues now take place on a level which is at least once removed from what might be called primary source material. In this country, faith communities were sites of discussion, debate and deliberate action around human issues guided by the writings of sacred texts. For most people in the west, that tradition has been Judeo – Christian, and the sacred text has been the Bible.”
Kim believes church has a responsibility to return public debate to “primary source material.” Last month Grace culminated a year of public events about human trafficking with an appearance by Nicholas Kristof, the popular and secular New York Times columnist. For Kim these public events, the public advocacy, is an important part of being church, of representing and re – presenting “the idea of a loving and generous God.”
If Calgary is a snapshot of the PCC, or of the North American mainstream church at large, then from my brief visit a few points stand out: We are comfortable but not in a comfort zone. We are called to a public voice and are blessed through nothing we have done ourselves. We are invited to dream and all the things we imagine belong to and come from God.
It looks simple on a page but it is messy out there in the works. The Spirit moves, God blesses, Jesus reconciles and it is up to us to constantly renew our relationships, because, in the end, Church is an organic thing—it grows and dies, it has seasonal shifts, and yet, it is always alive and breathing. It can be overwhelming, but we have a lot of help in prayer if we want it, and the ride is a lot of fun.