I was asked to write a short reflection paper discusssing the topic, "Why a D.Min. at Luther Seminary?" I've also been asked to share it with my parish "conversation group" for this first course and invite your comments on how you might see this course as a benefit to SJE.
A number of experiences bring me to study Congregational Mission and Leadership in this D.Min. programme at Luther Seminary. The first and most important has to do with the dramatic changes and challenges faced by the church at the beginning of the second millennium. These changes and challenges can be described in a number of ways and are related to the end of Christendom and the collapse of the project known as modernity. These great changes have left the church confused and disoriented, unsure whether to attempt to reassert its former place in the culture or how to adapt to the new realities. Declining church attendance, church closings and moral confusion point to a crisis in the life of the church. And yet in this time of confusion the Spirit of God seems to be stirring the church to a renewed sense of itself as a missional enterprise participating in the mission of God.
As a leader in today’s church I feel called to help lead change towards a more missional church. It does not have to do with the institutional survival of the inherited church, although I love its liturgies and forms. It does have more to do with whether a present generation of Christians will follow God into the world, where God is already working, to become the church with people who are not yet the church. It has to do with whether the present generation will be faithful in announcing and showing forth the Kingdom of God.
I see these stirrings of the Spirit in the parish that I serve, in the diocese of which it is a part and in the wider church. I am the Rector and parish priest in the Church of St John the Evangelist in Hamilton, Ontario which is part of the Anglican Diocese of Niagara and the Anglican Church of Canada. Hamilton is the see of our diocese and our parish is located not far from our diocesan cathedral and synod offices. The parish was established more than 100 years ago as a high church, working class parish. St John’s has always been very much a neighbourhood parish with most people walking to church even to this day. Over its history the neighbourhood has changed.
Beginning as a working-class neighbourhood, the area became more impoverished and transient neighbourhood in the 1980’s and 1990’s as many of the original inhabitants moved to the suburbs. The neighbourhood is now becoming gentrified with families moving back into the neighbourhood, drawn to the area by a desire for community.
Increasingly we find that people who move into our urban context are no longer enamoured by the attractions of suburbia. They are not as interested in the big box stores as they are in the local businesses on our streets. Likewise, the big box churches of the suburbs have lost some of their lustre. As people flock to our neighbourhood to experience community in the restaurants and coffee shops, the veneer of community that can be found there does not in the end satisfy and this is where our parish has something to offer if we can do so in a Christ-like way.
The parish has resources to meet this challenge. Historically, the parish has always had a strong sense of mission. After the Second World War the parish saw the needs of urban children with working parents and started a summer camp. After a fire burned down the parish hall in the 1980’s, the parish decided that it could better serve the community by building non-profit housing on the site. That impulse to serve is still part of the character of the parish.
The people of the parish are also open to talking about their faith. This is worth mentioning because comfort with talking about one’s faith is not necessarily typical of Canadians in general or Anglicans in particular. This comfort is perhaps the result of the long tradition of “witness talks” that are occasionally part of worship life of the parish as well as the occasional series of meetings where people discuss how their faith intersects with their work life. For example, a young emergency room doctor will speak next week in a small group about his faith and work.
But being a missional church is probably more about listening than it is about talking and we have been learning to listen as a parish as well. The parish recently participated with other neighbourhood churches of different denominations in conducting a “neighbourhood scan.” The scan consisted in a mixture of hard and soft research into the demographics and needs of the neighbourhood. Statistics were collected from government sources; interviews were conducted with community leaders, business people as well as people on the street. The scan provided us with insight into the needs of our changing neighbourhood.
It was noted that there was an increase of young families in the neighbourhood. We heard that people in the neighbourhood do not feel that they know each other as they once did. We heard that despite the proliferation of coffee shops and restaurants, there was a need for third space where “community” can happen.
But more than study the needs of our neighbourhood (as if we could love our neighbours by studying them with scientific objectivity) we are working at building relationship with our neighbours in new ways. Groups which have in the past have simply used church space, such as our scouting groups, now find themselves engaged in a conversation where we are getting to know one another. We are trying to find ways to get to know our neighbours one family at a time, engaging our entire parish in this work.
And so St John’s is open to doing new things, to experimentation and to risk. In the fall we will be planting a new worship service in the model of “Messy Church”, designed for families to worship together. Messy Church congregations typically meet once a month for a focused two hours of worship that may include art, crafts, drama, story-telling and a meal. We also plan to experiment again with a model of church that will meet in a local café.
At the same time as we seek to reach out we also work hard at maintaining the health of the inherited forms of church and are dedicated to their nurture and growth. Many of the resources that support our inherited forms of church, whether physical plant or discipleship programme are also available to support fresh expressions of church.
Our bishop has been clear with us in the Diocese of Niagara in telling us that “the status quo is no longer an option.” Part of what he has meant by this has been a challenge for each parish to understand its mission in its neighbourhood in a fresh and engaging way. We can no longer hide behind our church walls with happy thoughts of mother England and assume that other people of good taste will eventually realise that they need to come to worship with us.
The missional stirrings of the Spirit on the parish and diocesan levels have been supported by some excellent work and a partnership between the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto and the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Dr. John Bowen is a parishioner at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Hamilton, and is the director of the Institute and a dear friend. The partnership between the Institute and the Diocese of Toronto has led to a number of annual conferences having to do with, of all things, church planting. At a time when dioceses across Canada are closing parish churches, few were thinking of planting churches and all of this seemed quite counter-intuitive. However, what we were learning was that new fresh expressions of church were reaching all sorts of people even while inherited forms of church were declining. The Vital Church Planting Conferences, as these were known, brought us learning and inspiration from the church in England and the exciting things in mission happening there following the hugely influential Mission-Shaped Church report from the Church of England’s Archbishop’s Council on Mission and Public Affairs.
During 2011-2012 academic year I participated in a year-long course called “Mission-Shaped Ministry” at Wycliffe College that was originally designed in England in response to Mission-Shaped Church and the Fresh Expressions movement. This course was modified for Canadian use but still administered under the auspices of Fresh Expressions in the UK. I attended this course with a small team from the parish and I am delighted to report that around that small team there is a larger group in the parish who are excited about doing ministry in a new way. In the parish we have been studying the first part of Luke 10, where Jesus sends out the 70 to all the places where he himself intended to go. We’ve been learning together about what it means for us to be people sent by Jesus.
All of this has brought me to a point where I now feel passionate about the mission of the church. And I am even more aware of the responsibility that I have as a leader both in parish ministry and among my diocesan colleagues to help lead the change that is required in this new time.
I was attracted to this program because I hope that it will help me to grow as such a leader. Over the past 10 years I have done a number of things in terms of continuing education, but I have missed the challenge and collegiality that I enjoyed during my seminary days. By enrolling in this D.Min. programme I am hoping to bring some order and discipline to my continuing education and to enjoy again something of that seminary experience. I enjoyed both the academic and relational aspects of my M.Div. work and that is part of the attraction for me in this program.
I attended a preaching conference at Luther last fall and was immediately impressed by this institution. I considered whether I might undertake the D.Min. in Biblical Preaching, but experienced my heart’s call to this programme.
Posted on June 10, 2012
by David Anderson