What is the Mission of the Church?

I guess this posts is part of my ‘church crawl’ series as well as my ‘unanswered questions’ one.  It’ll be short, because the question doesn’t really need to be fleshed out.  It’s very simple.

What is the mission of the church?

Maybe you can help me answer this.  Some other ways of looking at this question might be:

  • Why does your church exist?
  • What is it trying to achieve?
  • How do you measure ‘success’?
  • How does your church choose what activities to prioritise?
  • What are common goals that your church is working towards with other churches in your city?
  • What are common goals that your denomination is working towards with others?
  • If someone was wondering whether they should be part of a church at all, what would you say to them?  Do you think it’s important?  Why?
  • Is the church making progress in her mission?  What impediments exist? What tools are helping?

Maybe this is a question I should be asking as I visit churches in Barrie.  For now, I’d love to hear people’s opinions and suggestions.  Is there a common mission that applies to all the churches in the city?  What are your thoughts?

Church 8 – Barrie Covenant Christian Reformed

Some churches let you slip in and out anonymously when you attend.  They avoid the threat of social interactions by studiously ignoring newcomers and by making sure there are no impediments  such as coffee or biscuits to you making a swift exit once the service is done.

Not so Barrie Covenant church.  I was intercepted three times before I even made it to the coffee hatch.  I was greeted, welcomed, and by the time I’d finished my coffee I’d been treated to a high level overview of the church, its denomination, its background, its history, its theological roots and its beliefs.

My initial impression was of a conservative, reserved, overwhelmingly white and predominantly older congregation.  But I soon realized that there was more to this church than that.  While this is probably one of the more traditional examples of this denomination, there is clearly a lot of thought going in to what this church is and where it is going.

Those I spoke to were interested in my journey and my questions, and able to give cohesive answers.  I always ask who are you?  I want to know the strengths of each church in the city, what makes them special, why they exist, and how they contribute to the spiritual life of the whole city.  This church, I was told, has its roots in the Dutch reformed movement.  It’s largely composed of second and third generation Dutch immigrants.  It’s theology is strongly influenced by the works of Calvin, and is formally grounded in the Apostles and Nicene Creed, and in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.  I’ve rarely been in a church where the ‘man in the pew’ can so succinctly and comprehensively review the doctrine and theology of his congregation.

As to what God is doing in the city, several things were mentioned when I asked.  Barrie Christian Council, Barrie Christian Hockey League, Life 100 radio station, and Unity Christian High School.  Interestingly, these are all examples of inter-church initiatives.   I got the strong impression that although the CRC denomination may have been somewhat insular in the past, it is trying very hard now to figure out how it plays a healthy and complementary role alongside other churches.

I wish them all the best as they continue to figure out their mission.

Church 7 – Barrie Free Methodist

This is the biggest church I’ve attended so far on my ‘church crawl.’  I’d guess that there were at least 250 people at the service on Sunday, and apparently this was a smaller than usual crowd due to it being Thanksgiving.

I wasn’t familiar with the denominational history of the ‘Free’ Methodist movement, and despite getting two different (and somewhat contradictory) accounts of its history at coffee time before the service I still don’t feel I can provide an accurate portrayal of its distinctives, or how it differs from any other Methodist church.

According to one of the members that I met, the Free Methodist church has an emphasis on Arminian theology, and would see itself as being similar to a Wesleyan or Nazarene church.  That said, I didn’t really observe anything in the service that would be out of place in any other Canadian evangelical or baptist church.

The service itself was a very polished affair.  We were led in several songs by a very tight band – any of its members could easily be a session musician.  Unlike several churches I’ve been at the congregation joined in enthusiastically, and even if the music felt like a performance sometimes, space was also left for our voices as well.

Pastor John-Mark gave the sermon, taking about half an hour to talk about worship.  His delivery was engaging and precise, and although he didn’t have anything particularly earth-shattering to say, when I got to talk to him after the service I got the feeling that he’s someone who is thinking hard about the mission of the church in general and this congregation in particular, and who wants to work out practical ways of calling Christians to discipleship.

I left Barrie Free Methodist with a couple of impressions.  Firstly, I suspect that if you are an established member, this is a very warm, friendly and supportive community that takes its mission seriously.  However, if you’re an outsider, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took quite a long time to be fully accepted into the family.

Finally, I left with the realisation that I’m still struggling to understand exactly what the mission of the Church is.  What is Church for?  Why do we go every week?  What is the Church trying to achieve, and how will we know that we’re achieving it?  I’ll investigate this further in a subsequent post.

Division or Diversification?

So, having visited the first seven churches of my church crawl, maybe now is a good time to take stock.  What have I noticed so far?

Well, the first, and most obvious thing is this: there are a lot of different churches in Barrie.

Ok, not a blindingly original insight.  But it does lead to some interesting questions.  Many of the churches I have visited have been keen to tell me about their history, their ‘distinctives’, and how they are different from other churches.  Sometimes, I’m sure out of genuine concern for my spiritual health, I’ve been warned against attending certain other churches as I continue this journey.

So, why so much variety?  Does Barrie need a United church, a Free Presbyterian one, or a Free Methodist or Catholic or Pentecostal church?

I’m currently reading Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity.”   In his chapter on the church, he says this about the plurality of church forms that exist today:

“Some see this as a division to be remedied, but there’s another way to see it: as diversification to be celebrated.  What if the Christian faith is supposed to exist in a variety of forms?”

I think that’s a good question.  What do you think?  Does the church in Barrie benefit from having so many different forms and traditions?  Or is it a sad division that needs to be healed?  Is there ‘one true way’ of doing church, or am I witnessing some of the broad range of valid approaches?

Is this even the right question?   Are there more important issues that go deeper than external appearances and behaviours?  Should I be exploring how the different expressions of church in Barrie challenge or complement one another?

Let me know what you think!  Maybe you attend one of the churches I’ve visited, or will be visiting.  Maybe you can help me understand better the strengths of your particular approach, or maybe you can tell me how I should feel about the wide range of church styles I’ve seen so far.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Looking for a Role Model?

Quick question.  Have you heard of a man called Tiger Woods?

Of course you have.  He’s very famous for his ability to walk around a leafy green environment and hit little white balls into holes.  He’s won a number of the competitions that he’s entered.  He’s also earned millions in prize money and sponsorship deals.

Another question.  Have you heard of Chrissie Wellington?

Maybe not.  Chrissie is also an athlete.  On Saturday she got up very early in the morning, swam 4 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean, biked 180 kilometers over the  lava plains of Hawai, and then finished up with a 42 kilometer marathon run.

Chrissie races Ironman.

And while Tiger Woods has won a lot of competitions, no one has ever beaten Chrissie.

Think about that.  She has entered 13 iron-distance races, perhaps the most gruelling 1-day event in sport.  And she has won every single time.  On Saturday she won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii for the fourth time, nearly beating the course record that she set two years ago.
Oh, and before she started this career she worked to bring water and sanitation to countries affected by conflict.

So, if you want an athlete to be inspired by, you could do a lot worse than Wellington.  The first thing she said after crossing the finish line on Saturday was to dedicate her win to her nearest competitor, Mirinda Carfrae, in honour of how hard she had pushed the pace in the baking Hawaii heat.

Now that is serious class.

Church 6 – Barrie Free Presbyterian

Barrie Free Presbyterian Church meets on Crawford Street at 11.00.  And I’ll let you in on a little secret.  If you attend on the first Sunday of the month, they serve one of the best potluck meals I’ve ever been privileged to taste!

Although this was our first visit, my family and I were warmly welcomed and invited to join the congregation in eating after the service.  This is something that we can all learn from.  Eating together is one of the most important things that any group can do, I think.  Next weekend many of us will be getting together with the scattered branches of our families to celebrate Thanksgiving, no doubt through the ritual of a shared meal.  Yesterday my company celebrated a successful quarter by having breakfast together at Cora’s.  And I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that one of the central sacraments of the Christian faith is a shared meal.

So I’m glad that this congregation is in the habit of eating together, and welcoming strangers to the table to sit and eat, and in my case ask lots of questions.

I’ve not attended a ‘Free Presbyterian’ church before.  Apparently this is a denomination that broke away from the Presbyterian church in Ireland in the 1950s. Indeed, the idea of ‘separation’ seems to be a significant emphasis for this congregation. “Fundamental, Separated, Evangelical” appears on the signboard outside the church. “Separated unto the Gospel” is the title of the booklet I was given after the service. And in speaking to members of the congregation, I understood that the church sees itself as having a dual role; both preaching the truth of the Bible but also opposing what it sees as apostasy.

The other major focus of this church might be ‘sin’. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” is the verse printed on the front wall of the building, and the word ‘sin’ was easily mentioned 100 times during the sermon.

The sermon itself was based on Luke 7 and was delivered very competently by a guest speaker.  Apart from the emphasis on the importance of awareness of sin, it was mostly a re-iteration of core points of this church’s theology.  I’m sure that this was re-treading very familiar ground for most of the attendees.   I suspect that in this church this has an almost sacramental value, the telling and retelling of the fundamental points of the denomination’s doctrine.

Once again, I had difficulty getting a clear answer to my question ‘what is God doing in the city?‘ Once again, mention was made of various humanitarian initiatives such as the Barrie Food Bank, and mention was also made of people converting to Christianity.

I’m getting a little concerned by this.  The church is supposed to be made up of followers of Christ.  Surely it’s reasonable to ask people who are following Christ where He is going?  Otherwise, how can we be following?

I’m hoping to hear more than just ‘this is the ministries that this particular congregation is involved in.’  I want to hear ‘this is what God is doing, and this is how we’re aligning ourselves with His mission.’   I have this strange hope that one day I’ll be able to ask this question of the churches in Barrie and receive answers that, if not in unison, are at least in harmony.

Church 4 – Holy Spirit Parish

This morning I attended the largest service so far; more than 80 people attended Holy Spirit parish for their 8:30 mass.  I expect even more attend at 10:30.

I have to admit to having left mass with a feeling of ambiguity.   There were several things I appreciated about the service, and one that leaves me with a deep sadness.

First, the good things.  As I said, there was a healthy attendance first thing in the morning, with both an ethnic and generational mix of people.  This is also a congregation that understands that liturgy is something we do together, rather than observe.  Led by a competent but unobtrusive music team, the whole church participated verbally, musically and physically.

As an outsider, this can feel a little overwhelming, as I was given few cues as to what was expected.  It wasn’t always clear what books I was supposed to have, when I was supposed to stand or what I was supposed to say.

But on the other hand, I think I was witnessing a congregation that assumes that when it turns up on a sunday morning, it’s going to do worship, rather than just observe it. And so everyone from children to grandparents make sure that they know the creed, they know the Kyrie Eleison, they know the structure and the meaning of the liturgy.

On a side note, one benefit of using a hymnal as opposed to a projector for congregational singing is that it means that even if a song is unfamiliar, you are provided with the music as well as the lyrics.  I suspect this allows a church to have a broader collection of music; you can easily join in with songs that are sung rarely if you have the music line in front of you as well as the words.

So structurally this service was not that different to what I’ve experienced in Lutheran or Anglican churches.  All the elements of normal Christian worship were there: congregational singing, readings from the Old and New Testament and the Gospels, the creed, confession and intercession, and communion.

But that last element brings me to my biggest challenge.  As an outsider, as a non-Catholic, I know that I’m expected not to participate in this sacrament.

I believe that communion should be a meal wherein we celebrate not only our reconciliation to God, but also our reconciliation to one another.  And it is deeply painful to be reminded forcefully that we as Christians and as denominations are not reconciled to one another.  A meal that should be a celebration of Christian unity is rather, to me, a stark reminder of our fractured and broken relationships.

I mourn the fact that 500 years after the religious turmoil of the Reformation, and 1000 years after the Great Schism, it is still, at least officially, impossible for me to share one of the central sacraments of the faith with my brothers and sisters.

I do wonder what would happen if instead of working so hard to maintain the walls that divide us, instead of labouring to pass on our divisions and our distinctions to our children, we instead worked towards healing the wounds of the past, towards genuine reconciliation.

Personally, I expect that if this is to happen, it will be a bottom-up rather than top-down process.  Whatever the official teachings of our various denominations may be, throughout my life I have been blessed by fellow believers from nearly all streams of Christianity.

I have worked alongside Lutherans, prayed with Catholics, shared communion with Pentecostals, lived with Evangelicals, learned from Brethren.  Each encounter has left me richer.

Perhaps there is hope.  Just this week, Pope Benedict met with representatives of the German evangelical church in Erfurt, and addressed specifically the fractures that still linger from the Reformation:

“It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground and that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our undying foundation.

 Pope Benedict, Sept 23 2011

But I also expect that the burden of reconciliation will rest on each individual believer, as he or she chooses whether to build up walls or to tear them down.  My sincere hope is that this project I’ve started will result in us having less walls, not more, between us.

Church 5 – Big Church

So, if this morning’s church was the biggest so far, then this evenings was without a doubt the loudest.  Big Church currently meets on Sunday evenings in the Barrie Free Methodist building on Cundles Road.  The service is energetic, lively, and long, clocking in at around 2 hours.

This evening I also took another undercover agent with me, as my daughter volunteered to scope out the children’s program while I attended the service.  Her biggest complaint in other churches has been that they don’t take her questions seriously enough, but apparently Big Church scores well in this regard; she reported that she’d participated in a lively discussion of Revelations, Elisha and faith.

After my experience this morning, I was glad to be at a service that included communion with no restrictions.  I tend to think that a church service isn’t really a church service if it doesn’t include communion.  I may not understand it completely, but there is something very important in our shared remembrance of Christ and his love for us.

Afterwards I got to chat with various members of the church, and ask my usual questions.  Who are you?  Why are you here?  What is God doing in the city?   For the first time in this journey, I actually got a cohesive answer to that last question.

“God is breaking down walls between churches, calling them to complete one another rather than compete with one another.  Just as the members of the Trinity are distinct and yet work together in perfect union, so should the churches of Barrie complement each other in living out God’s love for the city.”

That’s an answer I’m thrilled to hear.  I shall keep asking this question as I continue my journey.



Question 4 – Is it the Purpose of Justice to Redress Past Wrongs?

The title of today’s question may be a bit of a mouthful, perhaps that reflects my lack of answers on this one.

The lead headline on BBC news today was Mahmoud Abbas presenting Palestine’s bid for statehood to the U.N.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestine conflict is obviously one of the defining long term geo-political issues of this age.  In an attempt to understand today’s U.N. address, I spent some time reading up on the last few decades of the history of Palestine.  If we are to understand today Abbas’ call to recognize a state with pre-1967 borders, we need to understand the Six Day War of 1967.  To understand the events that led to war we need to understand the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and so on.

I can’t claim that I’ve even begun to understand the complexities of the religious, ethnic and political tensions in the area, but I do realize one thing.  Many people feel that they or their ancestors have been wronged, and that justice requires redress for these past wrongs.  In this particular case, the PLO wants the return of territory lost during the Six Day War.

If we accepted as a principal that territory seized by one country from another should be returned, then how universally could we apply this?  And for how long?  Should Karelia be returned to Finland from Russia?  Should Libya be returned to Turkey?  Or possibly to Italy?  Should Quebec be returned to France?  Should Ontario be returned to the Iroquois?  Or maybe to the Algonquin?

Ultimately, when faced with such questions we realise that huge swathes of the Earth have been fought over, won, lost, occupied, colonialised, and traded.  And there are probably few people groups that cannot lay claim to some past injustice.

So should we try to redress these past wrongs?  Or should we abandon all striving for justice?  Or is there another way, perhaps that acknowledges what has happened in the past and at the same time works hopefully towards a better future for all?



Church 3 – Loving Saviour Lutheran Church

This is the first church I’ve visited for this series that has it’s own dedicated building, and also I think the first Lutheran service I’ve been too.

We can learn a lot about a movement from its architecture.  This build is light, airy, and every sight line draws the eye to the central dais, on which a table holds a book and a large offering plate.

The Lutheran liturgy feels both familiar and different to me.  In terms of its basic structure it is virtually identical to an Anglican or Catholic liturgy: we have prayers of confession, Old and New Testament readings, a Gospel reading, the Creed, intercessions, the Lord’s prayer and a sermon, although in most cases the actual phraseology and cadences are quite different to what I’m used too.

As ever, I used the after-church coffee time to ask my questions.

Why are you here?

What is God doing in the city? 

Apparently, these are not easy questions to answer.  One person told me that this church exists to share the ‘word of God.’  The pastor explained that it exists to teach a ‘theology of the cross, not a theology of glory.’  Another congregant suggested that it exists partly to serve the local community through it’s very well equipped and well regarded day-care facilities.

Some answers were couched in complex theological language.  But I think the most significant answer I heard was from the lady who served me my coffee.

“I’m here because this was the first place I that I ever heard that Jesus loves me.”

A church could do much worse.