Church 17 – Essa Road Presbyterian Church

Once again I find myself leaving a church with slightly mixed feelings.

This morning I attended Essa Road Presbyterian Church.  This is a friendly congregation, with around 70 people in attendance.  The demographics are weighted towards the older end of the spectrum, but there were several kids and young families there too.

The structure of the service was very much like any other evangelical church: opening music, announcements, some hymn singing and a ‘talky bit’.

However today was also the ‘induction’ of several new elders, which gave me an interesting snapshot into the functioning of a Presbyterian church.

As I’ve noticed before, some churches find it important to be very precise in their understanding of church structure, and that is definitely the case here.  Clearly Presbyterians find church government a topic of high importance.  A significant amount of the service was given over to reviewing the structure of the Presbyterian church, the role of elders, and the way that the congregation is expected to treat them.

To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable by some of this.  It was clearly stated that “God has ordained these elders” and that “Failure to submit to them is to rebel against God.” A distinction was made between congregants that are ‘teachable’ and submissive, and those that question authority.

I found myself wondering what an outsider would think of all this.   Would all this talk of authority and submission sound reassuring, or threatening?  A lot of the language used  deftly tied God’s authority with the Church’s authority.  I do find this a bit ironic coming from a Reformed church, which by definition rejects the authority that the Catholic church claims to derive from God.

One day I really hope that I have the opportunity to sit down with a catholic theologian, a reformed theologian, and possibly an umpire, and ask them both to explain to me why the structure and authority of their particular church is God given.

Having said all that, I had a very pleasant time after the service, meeting and chatting with folks from the church.  This is a welcoming congregation, and talking with the pastor afterwards I found a lot of support for the idea that the churches in Barrie should be complementing one another, rather than competing with each other.

One of the challenges that we will have to face as we work towards greater collaboration in the Church in Barrie will be addressing how we reconcile our deep convictions about ‘correct’ church structure and governance with our desire to bless and learn from our brothers and sisters in other denominations.



Why Bother with Reconciliation?

Some people have asked me why I’m bothering to undertake this church crawl.  The further I go into this journey, the more I realize that reconciliation, especially between Christian churches, is absolutely essential.

Because if we don’t reconcile, the result will look like this:

Watch that video.   When Christ was born, the angels proclaimed “peace on earth”. But today, at the birthplace of Christ, those who are supposed to be his representatives are hitting each other with brooms because they can’t agree on who should sweep a patch of floor.  Seriously.

If we can’t resolve an issue of housekeeping in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites, how will we present ourselves as agents of reconciliation in a broken world?  If we are still divided by arguments that date back a thousand years or more, how can we claim to be being transformed into the image of Christ?

Reconciliation is not something that can be ‘put off’ until later while the we get on with the mission of the church.  Reconciliation is the mission of the church.


Church 16 – House Church

I wasn’t quite sure what to call this post, as the group I had the privilege of visiting this past Sunday doesn’t really have a formal name, structure, or building.

But they certainly do have very comfortable sofas, and plenty of time for discussion, worship, prayer and eating together in a relaxed family environment.

A couple of things really stood out to me.  The first was the inclusive nature of the meeting.  In one church I was in recently I was carefully guided to a back pew and reminded of my ‘observer’ status.  But at the house church I was invited into the family living room, and actively encouraged to join in the discussion.  Everybody’s input was expected and welcomed.  This was a pleasant change to passively listening to an hour-long lecture!

The other thing that caught my attention was the focus on discipleship.  This might be a small gathering, but there is actually a reason behind that.  We talked for a while about the fact that it’s humanly impossible to disciple, pastor, or coach large numbers of people simultaneously.  Even Jesus focused much of his attention on a small group of 12 followers.   Perhaps four or five individuals is the most that it’s reasonable to expect one person to be able to effectively disciple.

And so rather than adopt the common pattern of having many people gather together once a week to hear a teacher speak from the front, this church has deliberately chosen a model that allows intense, personal interactions between the leadership and members.  I think this is an idea that’s definitely worth exploring.  I’m convinced that the purpose of the church is the transformation of people towards the model of Christ.  But I’m not at all sure that all of our church models are very good at achieving this.  So I’m very interested in any approach that tries to create better environments for this transformation to occur.

This was also by far the longest ‘service’ I’ve been to.  I arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon and didn’t leave until 10:00 that evening.  But while I can’t imagine sitting in a pew for 6 straight hours, this felt far more like hanging out with good friends, and I was in no hurry to leave.

I’m glad I found this little group.  They may have no official title or building, but they showed me that there are some good things happening under the radar in Barrie.


Church 15 – Salvation Army

Having run the Santa Shuffle yesterday in aid of the Salvation Army, it seemed fitting to visit Barrie’s Salvation Army church this morning.

A couple of impressions hit you as soon as you walk in the door of a Salvation Army church.  The first, and most obvious, is the very heavy use of military style dress and terminology.  Easily half of the attendees this morning were dressed in a formal uniform.  The church is known as a ‘Corp’ or ‘Citadel’.  The leader is referred to as ‘Major’.  And the music is lead by a brass band.

I have mixed reactions to this.  Having spent time reading and thinking about the Anabaptist position, with its strong emphasis on peace and non-violence, it seemed weird to be in a church that was so keenly embracing a military style.  But on reflection, I suspect that the Salvation Army is trying not so much to adopt militaristic imagery as redeem it.  This army does not exist for the purpose of extended political power through the means of lethal force.  Rather it quite clearly exists, in their own words, to ‘be a positive transforming influence in the world’.

In fact the I came away with the impression of a church that has a very clear sense of purpose, and a very disciplined approach to achieving their goals.  The Salvation Army is well known in the city for its work among the poor and homeless downtown through the Bayside Mission.  And unlike some of the more isolationist groups that I’ve visited, these programs are run in collaboration and cooperation with several other city churches.

I also got to talk after the service with a member who’s involved in the church’s justice and prison chaplaincy ministry.  He made a very interesting point about the ‘other victims’ of crime – that is, the family and dependants of prisoners.  This is something that Rupert Ross talks about a lot in ‘Returning to the Teachings.’  The effects of any crime spread outwards through a community like ripples on a pond.  As well as the immediate perpetrator and victim, there are many others who feel the consequences.  Not least those who may lose a breadwinner if the perpetrator is incarcerated.

I’m very glad that the Salvation Army exists and is taking practical steps to address these kinds of issues.  I don’t think I’ve yet visited a church that has so clearly integrated its understanding of the gospel with a robust, outwardly focused ministry.


Church 14 – Barrie Gospel Hall

Some of the churches that I’ve visited on my ‘church crawl’ have given a lot of thought to the new visitor’s experience.  Redwood Park creates a cafe style environment in the foyer.  Connexus uses the familiar environment of a movie theatre to make newcomers feel at home.  Barrie Free Methodist has a welcome centre to introduce you to the church and explain what to expect on a Sunday morning.

At others, like Barrie Gospel Hall, it’s assumed that you know what you’re doing. As I said in my previous post, I’ve had some experience of the various expressions of the Brethren movement, so I had some idea what to expect.  A complete newcomer might find the experience a little confusing, however.

The first thing that strikes a visitor to Barrie Gospel Hall is the clear separation between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ sit in a square around the communion table, and ‘outsiders’ are gently guided to a secondary row of chairs at the back of the room.  It’s very important to folks in this church to draw a distinction between participants and observers of the service.

This is a small congregation, with 17 or so adults present this morning.  The first half of the service was a set of five-minute meditations given by various members of the congregation.  These were delivered in the form of prayers, and mostly couched in what sounded like 17th century English.  Interspersed with these meditations were several a capella hymns sung very well, if a little slowly.

Although the language was sometimes hard to follow, it was clear that all the meditations and hymns focused on Christ’s passion and crucifixion, and this focus culminated in the celebration of communion.  The bread and wine were passed around the ‘insider’ group, carefully avoiding  those of us in the ‘outsiders’ row.

The service wound up after a short sermon and announcements.

Fortunately, in common with all other churches in the city, Barrie Gospel Hall believes in sharing coffee and Timbits after the service.  I got to meet and chat with a few members of the church, and once more ask my favourite questions about what God is doing in the city and what the mission of this particular church is.

Once again, these turned out to be hard questions to answer.  The mission of this church is, apparently, to witness to the gospel and make disciples.  I feel that they may have some hard questions to ask themselves if after 70 years of following this mission they have a mere 14 members.

I was also left with a strong impression of ‘exclusivity’.  I was told very clearly that there is ‘One True Way’ of doing church, that Barrie Gospel Hall is getting it right, and that all the other churches in the city, by implication, are not.

It saddens me to hear this.  I’ve been thrilled to get to see over the past few months some of the different expressions of Christianity in the city, and the diverse ways in which people are encountering Christ and celebrating their faith together.  To be told that all the people I’ve met so far are misguided is not something that sits well with me.

My sincere hope is that the churches in Barrie can transcend their boundaries.  As Greg Neuman at Big Church said when I visited, “God is calling the churches of Barrie to compliment, not compete with each other.”


Church 13 – Northside Bible Chapel

I came to Northside Bible Chapel perhaps a little more prepared than for some other denominations that I’ve visited so far.  Churches with the phrase ‘Bible Chapel’ in their name tend to be part of a lose knit denomination known as the Brethren.  My family has strong Brethren ties, I spent several years attending a Brethren church in Mississauga, and my wife and I were married in a Brethren church in Oakville.

There are several elements of Brethren practice and theology that I appreciate.  Perhaps foremost is the idea of the “Priesthood of Believers“.  This, quite simply, is the idea that a follower of Christ is meant to be more than just a consumer of religious goods and services.  They are all meant to be active ministers in whatever capacity God has gifted them.  In the Brethren church this is seen partly through the absence of a formal clergy.  Services are conducted by the laity, and in some services the floor is open for any participant to contribute a thought, a song or a prayer.

The other element of Brethrenism that I’ve always liked is the centrality of the shared meal.  They tend to celebrate communion every week, and much of their community life is built around eating together, potlucks, fellowship lunches, breakfasts and so on.

This focus on community was evident at Northside this morning.  Many people welcomed us when we arrived, and most of the announcements were devoted to various community events: Bible studies, men’s breakfasts, birthdays and celebrations.

If I was a complete outsider, a couple of impressions would have struck me.  Firstly, this is clearly a very conservative denomination.  The majority of the women present wore head-coverings during the service.  Nearly everyone had a bible open on their lap during the sermon, with the pages rustling every time the preacher mentioned a new verse, and the sermon contained strong warnings against associating with the ‘wrong’ type of person.

The second thing you would notice is that this church really, really cares about soteriology. the doctrine of salvation.  A strongly Calvinist view of sin, repentance and heaven was repeated probably 10 or 15 times in various ways during the service.  As it says on their website, doctrine is important to the congregation of Northside Bible Chapel. I get the feeling that they see their purpose as deducing correct doctrine and then propagating it to those around them.

In every church I’ve visited I’ve asked the question ‘What is God doing in this city?’  I’m afraid I came away disappointed by Northside on this front.  Although they clearly have a warm internal community and are well connected to other Bible Chapels in Ontario, they were the first church who couldn’t comment on any external connection to the broader church in Barrie or the broader city in general.  This lack of connection unintentionally weakens both Northside and the rest of the Church in the city.


Where are the Anabaptists Hiding?

As I slowly make my way around the churches of Barrie, I’ve encountered a number of streams of Christianity.  I’ve met Pentecostals, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans.

But I haven’t yet found an Anabaptist church.

This seems to me to be a glaring omission.  Are there really no Anabaptists in Barrie?  While this has never been a huge movement globally (I understand that there are only two Anabaptist churches in all of England),  I know that they are strongly represented in Southern Ontario, especially in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.  And in Oakville we have what I suspect is the only Anabaptist ‘mega’ church in the world. But none apparently in this city.

I have a huge level of respect for this tradition.  During the Reformation Anabaptists were persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics for their approach to Christianity, and to the present day they have been seen as very ‘fringe’.  Yet they bring some very important emphases to the theological table, and I think that we would be poorer without their contributions.

Anabaptists are known for a number of distinctives, including a focus on Jesus’ teachings as summarised in the Sermon on the Mount, a history of building close-knit communities, and a practical ethic of serving basic human needs through such organisations as the Mennonite Central Committee.

But to me perhaps the most attractive facet of this stream of Christianity has been their centuries-long tradition of peace and restorative justice. Anabaptists are known for choosing non-violent approaches to resolving conflict, for sending peacemaker teams to conflict zones, and for working towards the restoration of broken relationships.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, and I know of no other denomination that has made this ideal such a central part of their theology and praxis.

So, where are the Anabaptists in Barrie?  Have I just not found them yet?  Are they hiding somewhere?  I hope so, because their voice needs to be heard in the conversation.


Church 12 – Hi-Way Pentecostal Church

One of the neat things about living in a city like Barrie is that it gives you the opportunity to witness so many different streams of Christianity.  So far I’ve seen bits of the sacramental stream, the liturgical stream and the evangelical stream.  On Sunday I was expecting to see some of the charismatic stream, when I attended Hi-Way Pentecostal Church on Anne Street.

As it happened, it turns out that Hi-Way is a lot less Pentecostal than I was expecting, but a lot more focused on social justice.  In fact, I’d say that of the churches I’ve visited so far none have been so connected to the needs of the community and involved in so many community programs.  Hi-Way very much has a focus on seeing and meeting the needs of those it encounters.

While I was their on Sunday I met people involved in the Out of the Cold Program, the Coats for Kids program,  the Angel Tree program (which seeks to meet the needs of the families of prison inmates), Samaritan’s Purse, Campus Alpha and Christian Business Ministries.

During the service we heard about the work of a missionary family in Costa Rica that is helping people out of drug addiction and prostitution.  We also took time to remember the persecuted church around the world, and to pray for both them and their persecutors.

I suspect that Hi-Way is one of the key connecting churches in the city.  If you want to know what’s happening in the city, where the needs are, and how they are being met, you could do a lot worse than to wonder down to Anne St. on a Sunday and start asking questions.




Church 11 – Connexus Community Church

Once again I come away from a church visit with some conflicting impressions to figure out.  Connexus Community Church meets on Sundays at Galaxy Cinemas in Barrie’s south end.  As a newcomer, the location is obviously the first thing that strikes you.  While I’m not much of a movie-goer myself, for many people this will be a very familiar environment.  The church takes over most of the building on Sunday mornings, with one theatre being used for the main service, another for overflow, another for Sunday school and so on.

I like to assign a superlative to each church I visit; so Connexus is definitely the most ‘hi-tech’ church in Barrie.  Video is streamed in from another church in Georgia, and streamed out to a satellite campus in Orillia.  Sound and light are run from stacks of expensive audiovisual equipment, and we are treated to what amounts to a short indie-rock concert to start the service.

I have often said that architecture shapes theology.  Just looking at the building a church meets in, (or indeed any communally used building) tells us something about the thinking of those who meet in it.  The grandeur and floor-plan of a medieval cathedral makes some specific statements about the nature of man and God, with the entire building drawing your attention to the central altar, where Christ’s sacrifice is remembered.  The layout of a Quaker meeting house conveys a different message about God, and theology, and ecclesiology; the circular layout reminds us that ministry is a shared, communal activity.

I’m not sure yet what subliminal theology we absorb from meeting in a movie theatre, but it is a question that needs to be asked.  Connexus is just the epitome of a pattern that I’ve seen in many churches; a large audience watching a small group of professionals on a stage, and this is something I still feel very uncomfortable with.

Having stated my discomfort with consumer-church and piped-in video streams, I now have to admit that I actually found the sermon profound and insightful.  Andy Stanley gave a fascinating look at the book of Ecclesiastes that was very timely for me. King Solomon’s search for meaning in science, wealth, relationships and philosophy was expertly outlined.

I hugely appreciated his specific call at the end of the message to various groups.  He urged singles to focus on finding purpose in life, rather than the right ‘person’ or ‘thing’.  He urged married individuals to cherish their wives and families and not to trade the integrity of their relationships to chase after possessions or positions that will one day belong to someone else anyway.  And he urged empty nesters to not simply retreat to the golf course or the resort, but to share their wisdom and life experience with younger members of the community.  And he gave specific ways that his church enables that type of connection to happen.

Connexus has a very clear vision of being a church that the unchurched will love, and a mission to lead people into a growing relationship with Christ.  I heard this articulated from pretty much everyone I spoke to.  They also spoke positively of the other churches in the city and the downtown homeless ministries.

One person I met this morning likened their church model to a house, with a foyer, a living room and a kitchen.  The Sunday program is the foyer, where people can be invited in to an nonthreatening environment; and as they get to know the community better they can progress to the living room and kitchen.

I am aware that a Sunday morning visit only gives you a narrow snapshot of the life of a community, and maybe I need to start finding ways of connecting with churches outside their Sunday programs.  What would that look like?  Any suggestions would be welcome!





Connexus Redux

I forgot to say this in my previous post, but it really deserves a post of it’s own.

“We want the church in Barrie to be the type of church that the city would miss it if it vanished.”

– Carey Nieuwhof, Connexus Community Church