Rev. Rafael Vallejo walks me along his patch of Queen Street East in Toronto. First we go to the South Riverdale Community Health Centre to meet Wanda. She runs the Good Food Box program which is supported by Vallejo’s church; then we see Raffi, a drug-addicted worker at South Riverdale’s harm reduction centre. A little further down the street there’s the Mustard Seed, where a small group of nuns offer their time and space for everything from English language practice and adult drop-ins to computer training and crafts. Later in the day he introduces me to a teenager who has recently sought asylum from Swaziland.
Vallejo is minister at Queen Street East Presbyterian. A once thriving congregation, it has struggled in recent years to keep its doors open. The neighbourhood around the church has changed; working poor and new immigrants form the core of an inner city demographic. The old church building shows its age. It struggles to find its identity. Vallejo’s way of doing church goes beyond preaching on a Sunday morning; he takes the church to the street, engaging with those who visit the health centre, sharing coffee at the Leslieville Pumps restaurant, communicating through his Facebook page and walking through his community.
Of the approximately quarter million people who immigrate to Canada each year, about a third move to Toronto. (Vancouver and Montreal are the other two major centres.) The eastern part of the old city of Toronto has changed radically over the past few decades. Southern and Eastern Asians represent nearly half the population of that part of Toronto. Eastern Europeans add another 10 per cent. English is spoken by only three quarters of that demographic. The average income is slightly below the city average. Parts of the neighbourhood are gentrifying with condos and new developments; parts are still among the most depressed areas of the megacity. There is a clash between the rich and the poor living side by side. But one thing is certain, neither of those categories, nor many of the new immigrants, are active churchgoers.
“We’ve gone beyond the day where we build a building and people will come,” observes Rev. Dr. Rick Fee, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church’s Life and Mission Agency. “Increasingly I find congregations are saying it’s when we go out of the building that we are church. You only have to go to a patio for lunch in Toronto to recognize there’s a whole new world out there in an urban setting in Canada. Go to a sports arena Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, that’s where people are. Things have changed radically in our society and most congregations recognize that.”
He continues, “We come together and we’re strengthened within the institution; we are the church more appropriately when we head out and do things in the community. There is a minister here in Toronto who tried a Friday evening in a pub and called it Theology on Tap. The local pub owner offered an upstairs room and the minister invited anyone to come and bring their friends. They’d sit around and have a glass of beer but they also had topics they’d talk about. To me that is definitely where we start in today’s urban society. That’s where people are. You can have a little structure to start a discussion which also includes further conversations on social or personal issues.
“Some of those people might come into the institutional church on a Sunday morning, and maybe they won’t, but it’s our witness to our message out in society that we are primarily about. To make people think theologically. Jesus met people in the temple and the synagogue on a few occasions, but most of the time he taught on hillsides or at weddings, out in society. So I think that’s a challenge to us today.”
In my journey around Toronto I found some churches rallied to address the needs of the city and were primed to take advantage of the potential this new reality offers, yet others seemed unable or unwilling to face the urban landscape. With some suggesting the church will be closing another 300 congregations within the next 10 years, city congregations are being forced to examine what church really means.
Paul MacLean is executive director of Potentials, a sort of think tank on ministry and congregational development. He has been looking at the changing landscape of urban churches for a long time. “The Protestant majority is now in a minority. It’s moving from a church which was at the centre of the neighbourhood, something you didn’t question, it just seemed natural. You needed to have a church for Presbyterians to come to and for Scouts and Brownies and Cubs and Guides and for other neighbourhood organizations to use your space. You’d be connected and you’d have good relationships with similar churches near you. And suddenly, you’ve gone from a little enclave, and you’re now in the minority and aging as a congregation. All these other things are happening as your resources are going down. Sunday schools which once had 80 now have six kids. Many churches have zero kids and you can see what that does to your identity.”
The most immediate call for the urban church is to reconnect with the community in which it’s situated: from Out of the Cold programs which respond to the immediate needs of the homeless and the hungry to long-term ministries or partnerships with social justice and community needs at their core. Yet it can be difficult for congregations to find the energy and desire when they feel isolated from a community that is so unlike themselves and has no interest in what goes on inside their walls.Resources
- Creative Ministry with Children and Youth Fund—Helps fund new one-time or ongoing creative ministry projects.
- Bursary for Lay Training—Provides financial assistance for lay people who receive short-term training or instruction for Christian service.
- Avondbloem Experimental Fund—Offers grants to individuals or groups within the church (or to projects recommended by them) to support experimental projects which help spread the Good News and further the kingdom of God.
- Renewing Ministries Capital Grant—Provides grants for congregational ministries that are involved in a significant, intentional change that will result in something new.
- Teacher/Leader Courses—Provide workshops on a wide variety of subjects (such as Christian education, church management or evangelism) and address the theological and practical concerns of congregations.
- Equipping For…—Christian education, congregational development, eldership, evangelism and outreach, and worship are a few themes Canadian Ministries tackles in these articles. Read them online at equippingfor.ca
- NEW CHURCH DEVELOPMENT CONFERENCE—For those establishing new congregations or interested in learning about new church development. Participants focus on leadership, discuss challenges, and share experiences and resources. Dates to be announced.
More can be found online at presbyterian.ca or by contacting Ian McDonald in Canadian Ministries.]
Since 2009, Hope United Church has been looking for ways to collaborate with groups in its neighbourhood. The congregation finally settled on the idea of transforming the empty basement into a community hub. But it wasn’t to be.
“Basically, the board at Hope choked,” explains Rev. Douglas duCharme. “It was too much; it felt like they were losing control of their building and it didn’t look like church to them. They said, we don’t get it, we don’t understand; it’s beyond us and it scares us. They didn’t see that God is in the work that these community programs are doing.”
According to duCharme, “the math of one building and one minister and one congregation equaling church has us in a straitjacket. We seem better able to deal with closing churches [than breaking with the traditional idea of church].”
Gateway Community Church in Toronto was a traditional congregation in many ways, facing the same demographic challenges as all urban churches. Rev. Dr. Bob Faris worked with Gateway through some of those years (as he did later with Queen Street East). “The congregation was putting all its energy into making sure there was a service on a Sunday and somebody to be a representative at presbytery and enough people to make up a session. If that’s all the church is, then it’s not a church anymore,” he says. He is now associate minister at St. Andrew’s King Street.
From the ashes of Gateway an idea was born. In 2008, Rev. Paulette Brown was hired to run an after-school program with a mission to serve the working poor and working class immigrants in the neighbourhood of Flemingdon Park.
“I think the congregation felt they wanted the mission because they thought it could prolong the life of the church itself. It didn’t work,” she says. “It required skills you could hardly find in any one person to build this thing from scratch and nurture a congregation that knew it wasn’t doing well.”
Four years later, while the congregation didn’t survive, the Flemingdon Gateway Mission continues to do life-changing work in its community. Through a successful homework club, a summer camp, leadership training and volunteer opportunities, Brown notes, “there has emerged a community of young people who are really involved in community work and interested in being role models for the younger ones; they are the ones who have tasted leadership and are craving it.” Brown admits the future of the mission could be in jeopardy at any moment due to changes in government funding, but she remains adamant that even if the mission dies, the resurrection seeds have been planted in these young peoples’ lives.
Many congregations do not have the resources, financial or congregational, to embark upon a ministry like the Flemingdon Gateway Mission. At the centre of the urban church, however, continues a need to explore a new way of doing church and living out a life faithful to God’s calling.
Paul MacLean recognizes in this an older pattern. “I’ve been amazed by the number of social services started by downtown churches in the 1920s and ‘30s. You get a charismatic minister and he goes about persuading rich business people from his congregation that something needs to be done. The reason it’s important now is the question of resources; it’s very expensive running a congregation the way we do it in the historic Protestant denominations—staff costs are enormous, upkeep of aging buildings—it’s a very expensive proposition.”
Rick Fee echoes the same message: “Success may not be in increased numbers of people or even in increased revenue; and that’s the challenge because we’ve always thought a church has been successful if it balances the books at the end of the year. But now people are looking and saying, as Christians we should be
taking our own resources and using them in society.
“Jesus never asked us to balance the books or to come up with the final annual report that says what great things have been done. The call to be faithful, I think, is very important. And if we judge ourselves to have been faithful in doing what we see as Christian ministry then I think it goes a long way to declaring the success of a Christian endeavour and a Christian community.”
Rev. Glen Soderholm has been working as a Christian musician for many years but recently he felt called to lead a congregation. He is pastor at Two Rivers Church, a church plant in Guelph, Ont. Community is much on his mind.
“Some churches are really great at social justice but it’s often a handout: here’s food or money but we’re not integrating those people into the community. People go church shopping; they go to the places they think will meet their needs, like with a great nursery or lots of parking. But that creates abstract communities. What connects those people together? What I want to know is what it would be like to be part of a church that people walk to, that people are connected to because of a desire for human flourishing in their neighbourhood. It’s not rocket science; it’s not a new thing; but it feels like we’ve lost our way and forgotten about the people who live around us.”
Here, it seems, is the crux of the urban church; with society yearning for authentic community, we need to connect the church back to the city. Douglas duCharme notes: “We’ve got to realize that God’s not waiting for us; God is busily at work in the community around us planting seeds of His life, wholeness and reconciliation that the church has nothing to do with because we’re so busy dealing with our own problems. This is not about converting people, it is getting the church involved in what God is doing in the world already that we have no clue about and nothing to do with.”
While our default may pull us back to a comfy and inclusive Sunday services, the urban church is about doing God’s work beyond four walls, and it seems God is the one demanding we redefine what we mean by church. These new ways of being church might simply be providing a meal for the homeless, setting up a community garden, offering space within your church or partnering with a community project. Regardless, the aim is not to increase the numbers in the pews or the church’s revenue.
Paulette Brown’s philosophy is based on the story of the Good Samaritan: “Being a neighbour in that story does not limit me to the Christian community. It is about what is required to get this person up and going again so they can carve their way and negotiate life.”
To this, Rick Fee adds: “It’s going to be a challenge for us in the future. Many ministers are saying to us that they would like to have a ministry without walls, a minister in the community, even house churches. Flemingdon is a great example of a strong ministery—it’s Christian, it’s with the whole community, and it’s different. Increasingly, we may see this is what we want to be doing with our resources and as a witness out there in our society.”