It was the third time presbytery had tried to shut down Brentwood Presbyterian in Burnaby, B.C. Yet again, the small core of dedicated disciples from the congregation showed up at the meeting and convinced the court, especially the ruling elders, they deserved another opportunity. A new interim moderator (Jim Smith from Central, Vancouver) and a new quarter-time minister (Don Hill, then a critical care chaplain at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver) were appointed. Toward the end of Hill’s term as interim minister, they called me in to do some visioning and planning to refocus, retool and rebuild the congregation for flourishing mission in its neighbourhood.
That was over five years ago. After the vision and planning sessions, they invited me to minister with them on a half-time basis. I agreed the fourth time they asked, and it was one of the best decisions of my life.
As I look back on our journey together, there are nine kinds of conversations that have helped us co-create the congregation with Jesus Christ, one conversation after another. Here are the types of conversations we had:
1. Affirmative conversations about being loved and valuable.
Jim Smith and Don Hill had loved this congregation into a renewed sense of being loved by God and valuable in God’s mission. No longer did they see themselves as small and dying, but as strong and ready to grow.
2. Curious conversations about what they valued most in the church.
This was where I started my visioning and planning work with them. Their answers were profound. They valued worship, learning, fellowship and service—their words, not mine. Those are the five marks of the New Testament church (with “learning” including the message and the teaching).
3. Focusing conversations on how to articulate this value.
After playing with a lot of words and possibilities, we arrived at “Nourishing souls to flourish in the grace of Jesus Christ through worship, learning, fellowship and service.”
4. Analytical conversations about the resources we had to live this value.
This was a hard – nosed look at facilities, sources of revenue and expenses, but all within the positive framework of what we might do with the resources God has given to us to serve the values we held dear in Jesus Christ.
5. Dreaming conversations about what might be possible.
We knew we were marginally viable at best, with limited resources and few people. But the focus was on viability. That was our aspiration and desire. That framed the tone and substance of the conversations.
6. Practical conversations about what possibilities to choose as an initial step.
In the end, after a broad range of possibilities were explored, including the possibility of closing, we decided to focus on the quality of the opportunities we provided for Jesus Christ to encounter people on Sunday morning through worship, music and a potluck lunch. The lunch is crucial. They had been doing this for years. It provided a stimulating space for conversations about the future to be co- created, one conversation after another, now that those conversations had a focus they had co-created and believed in.
7. Realistic conversations about the barriers we faced to grow in faithful mission.
Remember, this is a five – year process, so far. We decided what the most important barrier was to deal with and moved on it, one barrier at a time. It meant buying a new grand piano, hiring a new music director, fine – tuning the worship experience, offering a weekly Jazz Evensong service on Wednesday nights, and getting known within the musical and arts community as a space with amazing acoustics. Barriers were opportunities rather than obstacles.
8. Enthusiastic conversations about what was happening and what could happen.
The vision was crucial in guiding these conversations. It helped us stay focused on what would work best to nourish souls to flourish in the grace of Jesus Christ. That focus gave the Holy Spirit a clearer path for the flow of her vitalizing energy.
9. Grateful conversations about contributions to the mission.
A lot of people, both within the church and the broader community, have contributed to the conversation-by-conversation growth of Brentwood over these past five years. Our regular attendance at worship has more than doubled, our givings have doubled, and we have invested over $60,000 into making our sanctuary available to the nieghbourhood as a community arts venue. Thanks to God and to those involved must be continual.
Jazz impresario and good friend Cory Weeds once told me that leaders in jazz make space for others to flourish and perform, then join them. That’s been my mantra in working with this amazing congregation. We trust that Jesus Christ will lead us on into even greater depths of flourishing as his friends, one conversation after another.