A Presbyterian and a lapsed-Presbyterian, born-again through the Church of England, sit in a Methodist church building and talk about church planting. The building was a United Church for nearly a century, till it was purchased recently by a non-denominational megachurch in Guelph, Ont.
These distinctions matter because in tracking the changes there is a full history of the Church in Canada over the past century. The once grand building served fewer and fewer people in the last century, rich in history and legacy, so by the early 2010s its greatest value was as real estate.
A non-denominational congregation, which itself grew out of the Brethren Church into a Willow Creek-style megachurch, bought the near empty building for a million dollars and handed it to Rev. Graham Singh, a son of Guelph, raised in Presbyterian churches, who encountered God afresh in England at the famous Holy Trinity Brompton, London.
Singh trained at HTB in church planting; and that is what he did in Guelph at the renamed Lakeside Downtown, planting a new congregation inside an old shell. He has since moved to Montreal where he is doing the same thing, this time at an Anglican church.
Rev. Alex MacLeod, minister at Kortright, Guelph, met him in the church for an extended conversation about church planting. This is the complete transcript of their conversation. —Andrew Faiz, senior editor.
ALEX MACLEOD: I know that you grew up Graham, in Guelph, in a Presbyterian church. Tell us about how you ended up back in Guelph after years in London.
GRAHAM SINGH: Having grown up and had that wonderful experience in Kortright, Westminster-St. Paul’s Presbyterian here, and at Western in London, Ont., it was in the U.K. where I saw the church coming alive in a way that I’ve never experienced before. I saw churches full of young people, I saw many—not just one or two—young ministers getting involved; and I just caught the bug. I don’t know whether the Lord found me or I found Him as an adult but it was a real moment of experiencing faith through the Alpha Course, and being excited seeing new churches reopened.
ALEX MACLEOD: Alpha for some of us is familiar, for others it might be something new. Tell us about Alpha.
GRAHAM SINGH: Alpha started in the Church of England—the Anglican Church in the U.K.—as a tool to re-explain the basics [of faith] to people who have grown up with Christianity, as well as to present the gospel afresh. It started in one church called Holy Trinity Brompton. They used it to reach to people in their area.
They found the formula—ten weeks, involving a meal and a weekend away, trying to think in particular about the Holy Spirit, opportunities to ask questions, to be taught rather than preached to—seemed to catch on. As it caught on, a number of churches said, “We would be interested in this if we could get involved with it.” From the early days, Alpha become open-sourced where Catholic churches, some Protestant churches, some Russian Orthodox churches, they all began to play a part in forming what Alpha became.
As a result, I think it’s about 20 million people around the world, something like three and a half thousand churches in Canada, have been using this as a tool. Not only for evangelism but also for the whole Church discipleship. At Brompton, there was something like two thousand people every couple of months coming on the course. There is real exciting buzz in the large Church.
ALEX MACLEOD: We’re talking about the Church of England, which in Canada is the Anglican Church, and most understand that there are some similarities between Presbyterian and Anglican churches, we’re talking mainline Protestantism, where the word evangelism doesn’t go down easily among people. Is Alpha evangelism?
GRAHAM SINGH: I like to think of Alpha in terms of a leadership pipeline—the idea of moving from a point of leading yourself, to leading others, to leading leaders, to leading teams, churches, networks. Within Alpha, we in particular see this idea of leading yourself, making a decision of self-leadership towards Christ, but then fairly quickly giving people the opportunity to get involved in how it’s run.
The idea of a group helper is somebody who may not have made a decision about Christianity or faith but says, “Hey, I wanna hang around here.” The idea of belonging first, then having space to believe, then watching behaviours in the church change. Contrasting against some of the traditions we have in those churches you mentioned where we sometimes suggest people ought to behave certain way before they belong and then when we tell them they belong, then they can really believe. It’s turning some of those things on their heads.
ALEX MACLEOD: One of the things that I’ve heard about the Church of England—and I’m not sure if this is where Alpha came from; I do know that Alpha specifically was developed by Holy Trinity Brompton—the Church of England has been in crisis with congregations closing like crazy. Alpha was developed in part as a response to that, would you say?
GRAHAM SINGH: I’d say that it certainly was developed in response to kind of hitting the bottom for the Church. The time when we were thinking—this is 25 years ago—we were thinking, golly, it seems that most of our churches are full of grannies, we don’t even have any great dads left, and soon these churches are gonna be gone. We kept talking about that, wringing our hands about what to do, and then they really were gone.
Those dozen or so great grannies became zero and we closed in the Church of England 2,000 churches, and across the U.K. another five or six thousand. Many of those were little Methodist chapels, many of those were rural churches. But the idea that if you were to try to re-open a church, what would you do? Alpha really became key tool.
ALEX MACLEOD: One of the things that Holy Trinity Brompton is also known for is church planting; that’s a more recent development, right? Alpha has been around for 25 years. The track record that Holy Trinity B has developed of—is that the right term to use? ‘Church planting?’
GRAHAM SINGH: Yeah, we did begin to use the term ‘church planting’ in many different cases. In some cases, these were brand new communities and brand new settings. So, green field sites where we would see new churches grow. In the same way as many Presbyterian churches in Canada were formed around new populations, certainly around Victorian buildings or around buildings with Victorian-based architecture like we are here.
But what we began to see were churches that needed to be reopened: Churches that were located in excellent areas, in central urban areas, but we had no models to get them actually going again. So, the connection between Alpha and church planting grew.
We found that people were travelling from quite far around cities to come to the large city centres like HTB. So eventually, we said, “Why don’t you stop travelling for an hour to get to church? There are 50 of you coming to this church and there is an empty building in your neighbourhood. So, why don’t we begin to train new clergy and send them out with you and we’ll reopen that building in the same kind of style?”
In total, over the past 15 years or so, we’ve seen about 45 churches like that reopened in the London area.
ALEX MACLEOD: Is there a ripple effect throughout the U.K.? What would the numbers be for the whole U.K.?
GRAHAM SINGH: There is now a working group of 20 city bishops in the U.K. who’re trying to look at creating city-centre resource churches for each of their dioceses. So, we’re beginning to see it throughout the U.K.
Part of the reason why we are back in Canada is to see that model explored and experimented with. Here in Guelph, my hometown where you and I live, we found there was an empty United Church building; it was just beginning to reach the final stages of closure. Fantastic decisions were made by some very godly people in the existing congregation. The building was sold for a million dollars to Lakeside Church, which is a non-denominational church. Now you find this kind of mixing of the waters.
We have a non-denominational Willow Creek-style church bringing a team into a Methodist architecture building run by the United Church. We’re really experimenting with that in the U.K. and now we’re experimenting with it here too. And I suppose that’s part of our conversation. It’s to say, “How far is it worth taking that experiment in the future?”
ALEX MACLEOD: The Presbyterian Church in Canada is catching up with where the Church of England was at 20 years ago. An article was published recently in Maclean’s that said, ‘heaven help the poor Presbyterians,’ because we’ve seen with immigration a lot of Catholics arrive in Canada. We’ve also seen Protestants but Presbyterians, this article suggested, will rely more on their Scottish brethren and there isn’t a lot of Scottish immigration going on. With church planting, you don’t need to rely on the group of people that, in theory, are ‘your’ group of people. So, tell me, how it works; how does a church plant help a congregation or denomination reach out beyond its normal catchment area?
GRAHAM SINGH: You and I have enjoyed speaking about this before: the idea of social structure and the idea that a church of any denomination, when based in a local community, actually begins to set down roots, almost like a system of plumbing or electrical wires or roads.
A denomination that has been present in a community is known as a ‘Christian presence’ more than any particular denomination. I think that gives us an exciting opportunity. If we’re just to say the Presbyterian Church of Canada is an extension of a Scottish type of worship into the Canadian nation, I don’t think anybody would be convinced about the future of that. The idea of saying the Presbyterian Church of Canada has an important presence of gospel in all kinds of communities, and we need to look—here’s a phrase I can lend you from the Church of England—to proclaim gospel afresh in every generation.
I think many mainline churches are looking at those same traditions. There is a Roman liturgical tradition, English, Lutheran, German, Mennonites, none of those are trying to say, “We’re trying to bring European culture afresh to Canada” or European church culture, which is totally unproven. If you look at Europe now, those are not what churches in the founding roots are continuing to do now.
If we look and say, “What could be done now with the assets of community trust we have?” I think that’s absolutely huge. The idea of putting out a banner saying, “Come to our church, come and hear the story who Jesus is.” The trust we have, the opportunities we have, we’re facing green field opportunities.
ALEX MACLEOD: What we have seen in the Presbyterian Church in Canada more recently is not Scottish church development so much but we have definitely seen immigrant groups who’ve come to Canada. I can think of a couple of very vibrant Ghanaian churches, the Korean churches in our denomination are huge, Chinese churches, Nigerian, and on the list goes.
We came to think more of what in the ’60s was called “new church development” where a new suburb would open up and you’d send in a Presbyterian minister and you’d assume that there would be Presbyterians who would move there. Now, we’ve come to rely more on new cultural and ethnic groups starting congregations, and we kind of get on board with what’s happening already whether they come from a Presbyterian background or not. But this is something different, isn’t it? This church planting idea.
To give you an idea, we have a Presbyterian Church plant here in Guelph but it’s not one congregation sending a group out. It’s a visionary church leader minister in our denomination, Glen Soderholm, who is planting a church. Tell me how the two models might differ? Many of us have heard about a visionary leader or a group of leaders who begin something on their own.
GRAHAM SINGH: It’s often said of migrant groups in Canada, “They’re more British than the British” or “more Indian than the Indian.” Because when diasporas move to Canada they really try to hold on to more of their tradition than seen in their homeland.
In my own family and the connection you and I share, my own family from Scottish roots, my name is Graham Anderson. The church plant even in recent memory for many of the British background churches was to share that particular liturgical style. But even between those communities there was a mix. Some were in there for that reason, others to reach out with a new gospel expression.
What I love about what Glen Soderholm is doing in downtown Guelph is that he’s really aiming specifically at the downtown people group and trying to look completely afresh at how to share gospel in that group. For us in downtown Guelph, we work alongside with Glen and other ministers. I think we’re changing from the idea of one type of liturgical style to realizing we’re in partnership to reach every man, woman and child with a kind of gospel saturation in the cities.
If we try to get that gospel saturation, there is a question: Are we gonna do it with only one kind of church or are we gonna need lots of different types of churches and get around this idea that one type of church is better than the other? We need lots of different kinds. And even within large denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Canada (my own background is Anglican), I think it’s a challenge to say, “How many different types of churches do we really have or could be broadened out from what we currently have?”
ALEX MACLEOD: It’s interesting. I had a lunch with the Embroiderers; a group that meets every week at my congregation, Kortright Church. I sat next to a woman who is a member of a Presbyterian church in Etobicoke, Graceview. She was saying that her congregation is a product of at least two recent amalgamations. So, three congregations have amalgamated and now are one. She said it’s mostly older people in spite of pooling their strength.
In a way what you’re suggesting HTB has done, we’re seeing this in Canada now, a little bit anyway, is the opposite. It’s what a congregation might think of as counterintuitive because you’re sharing from your strength. As opposed to brining people in, you’re sending people out. How do you convince people to do that?
GRAHAM SINGH: I think aiming at young people who’re at the stages of exploring life. They’re doing so in a way they want to change the world, they want to see the world become a better place not only for themselves and their families but for many others who are less fortunate. When we create church culture it often gives a sense, “Hey, we’re not sure we’re winning here.”
I think that a lot of young people are asking the question of faith as well as asking the question, “Could we possibly win in a culture, in a community?” And the converse is also true. If we give a sense that we’re winning, and maybe celebrate the things, even the small things, and say, “Look at all these children, look at all these ideas.” Even if they all bomb and don’t work the way we thought they would, just to believe that we actually could make a difference, I think, attracts in lot more younger people.
Why should we think that way when we even haven’t gotten the church started? I think it’s in that desire to give away that many younger people are actually attracted in. I think it also helps us to get around the church disagreements and debates that are important but they’re not as important as seeing vibrant churches started. I think there’re some arguments we can move around and focus on things like Alpha to say, “What are the basics, what’s the point of doing church in any case?”
ALEX MACLEOD: I’ve heard it said that when a team goes out from one congregation, again as HTB has done in London, into a church that’s struggling—And my favourite example of this is in Toronto where Little Trinity Anglican Church sent a group, I think, of 50 leaders along with their associate minister, to the Church of Resurrection, which was dying, and they saw this renewal take place. I think it’s been 15 years now and it’s a vital church of 300 people.
Does something happen with that group that goes out where they’re empowered? And the gap they leave behind, which the church might worry about—we’re giving away some of our best and brightest, our most committed people. I gather that often the gap is filled by people—people step into the empty places. How does it work? What’s the dynamic?
GRAHAM SINGH: I’ll give you an example of a friend I sent to a church that accepted dogs. Our church at that time didn’t accept dogs and I thought it would be wonderful for her to go to a church that did accept dogs. She went, sat down in the church and somebody tagged her on her shoulder shortly after arriving. She said, “Hello, you’re in my seat.”
I think of our leadership. We haven’t created enough spaces for people, not just a seat to sit down but a seat to lead, a seat to lead out. By giving away people and creating those spaces, we now all of a sudden have to scurry around and say, “Hey, could you lead the children’s church? Could you get the worship going? Could you help to run an Alpha course?”
I don’t mean to be overly simplistic. There are many churches really struggling just to do the most basic things. And by no means am I suggesting that every church can become at this point a church-planting church. But certainly what you’re saying, that with the churches that got some help, for example the Rez (The Church of the Ressurection) in Toronto, not only the sending team gets fired up but those left behind have to step back in.
I’ll give you a typical conversation. If we’re talking about including everybody as a church planter, we’re saying, “Hey, guys, we’re here as a new team, which means we’ve all got to find something to do. So, if you’re here, you’re gonna get a job, and that’s what’s gonna make you a church planter. If you don’t wanna have a job here, this might be not the best time for you to be a part of the church plant.” And do you know how many people I find leaving after that speech? Kind of none because everybody does want to get involved. When somehow things get a bit staid for whatever reason, you get the 80:20 rule: 20% of the people doing the 80 per cent of the work. Church planting hopefully can refresh that.
ALEX MACLEOD: The term “missional” has been around for about 20 years now; it’s nothing new and yet there are still people in the mainline Protestant circle that are hearing it for the first time. It’s the idea that for ages we have expected people to come to us. In attractional churches and congregations we try to grow our church by doing music better, doing programs, whatever it is that is our strength, we flex our muscles. Missional, on the other hand, is sending people out to meet those in the cities, their community, the neighbourhood they’re at as opposed to expecting them to come to us.
When we talked about Glen Soderholm’s church plant here in Two Rivers, it strikes me that he doesn’t have a building; he’s got a community that meets at his home currently. I think they’ve grown now and they’d need to meet in a couple of homes, but the HTB church-planting model is pretty building-centric. You go into a building. Doesn’t that hold it back? It doesn’t seem cutting-edge like some of the home churches and some different models we’ve talked about.
GRAHAM SINGH: There is probably one significant thing we’ve discovered missionally about church in large cities, particularly church amongst young people. We found that they were asking deeper questions than older people. Even when you reach your 30s, 40s, start having children, the level of questioning decreases dramatically.
People in their early 20s, ‘in the stand up, sit down, here is the way we behave in this church’ approach, they may want to come back to having a sense of religion, a sense of discipline in their lives, but before they get there they’ve got a lot of questions.
The idea of creating a large environment for lots of questions and making it almost more important than the Sunday celebration was a big missional decision that still became quite attractional. So, we could run Alpha courses at homes. That actually happens all around the world. But eventually when it grows, you start saying, “Well, wouldn’t it easier to just do it in a larger setting?”
But keeping that missional impulse, the idea of going out where people are at—in that case I’m talking about people asking questions.
In other places or situations, it’s almost impossible to share the gospel where people have literally no food, no clothing, no heating in their homes. There is a very good missional reason to go out and help with those aspects, as well as have an opportunity to share the gospel. I don’t think that the missional movement in any way writes off what we could see as the more attractional church. Bringing more missionally-minded people back into the church, really listening to them, has a good opportunity.
I’ll give you an example from my previous work in advertising. When we’re working in the commercial sector segmenting customer markets, say, for a telephone company, we would take examples of real people and make life-sized cardboard cut-outs of them and put them in the room where we’re talking about what we’re gonna do.
In case of church, sometimes, I think, we put people who look like us, talk like us, who know church like us, and those are the people for whom we make all our decisions. The idea of bringing missional into an attractional model is being very open to the people who live in our neighbourhood and completely re-think church around them first, over and above some of the traditions we came with.
ALEX MACLEOD: The experience you had here in downtown Guelph, with Lakeside Downtown, is in part possible because of what—by Canadian standards—would be considered a megachurch. Tell me about that decision by Lakeside to spend a million dollars and buy an old church property in downtown Guelph. Was that part of the vision, of the same kind of HTB vision, to plant a church we’ve been discussing? How does it work?
GRAHAM SINGH: Lakeside has the benefit and the challenge of being a 25-year-old church. It was originally from the Brethren Chapel Bible background. Over the 25 years, we found people coming from all kinds of denominational backgrounds. Out of around 2,500 people we estimate around 800 are from a Catholic background and it goes from there.
ALEX MACLEOD: Roman Catholic is your biggest group? The numbers go down from there?
GRAHAM SINGH: If you took all Protestants together, they’d be the biggest group, and of those, probably a lot come from a range of evangelical backgrounds. But RC is a big part of the community. What Lakeside did is, they said, “Look, we’re in Guelph. Let’s not have a model where we try to reinvent everything ourselves. Rather let’s look around the global Church and take the best openly from any denominational background.” The Willow Creek style of church leadership—very simple liturgy, very efficient (hopefully) running church management, simple teachings based around subjects, which lead to key scriptures rather than a lectionary approach, modern style of worship and a sense of the idea, “We can make an impact.” Building something bigger and hoping that it would work.
The other thing Lakeside took in, which I’d say was probably the most important aspect of its thriving, is focus on its recovering ministries. There are probably some 400 people in recovering ministries here in Lakeside. Many of them are recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts. There are all kinds of different ways in which people have found Christ in their recovery.
When somebody finds Christ through recovery like that, they become strong believers rather than somebody saying, “I was born into whatever.” It’s a stronger decision in that sense and we find them more committed. We were talking earlier about money. The quality or calibre of somebody’s decision for Christ, their sense of being a part of his mission, his supernatural mission in changing lives would be in direct proportion to the way in which they would handle their money.
ALEX MACLEOD: One thing that we’ve seen happen in the Presbyterian Church in Canada is that we sell off a lot of buildings. So, property becomes an issue.
In our presbytery in Waterloo-Wellington, we’ve dissolved a congregation, Waterloo North, and we’ve sold out our interest in it to the Anglicans; we shared a campus with them. We have this chunk of cash. Not every presbytery in the country has property that’s valuable; some have property that’s more valuable. But as we close churches, we’re gonna have cash and what we’ll do with it is a question that we ask ourselves.
The Anglican Church has some money. Have they chosen to deploy those resources to come alongside places like HTB to revive churches, to send teams to churches? Is there any wisdom you can share with us Presbyterians from your experience in the U.K.?
GRAHAM SINGH: I think in general, the use of finances in the HTB’s church planting has been in two ways. Let’s call it capital as opposed to financial resources only.
The dioceses have generally given the buildings; the buildings don’t sell between one church in one denomination to another. In terms of operating finances, in terms of the capital outlay in bringing the building back up to a standard building code, most of the money comes from the new planting teams. It doesn’t come from denominational coffers.
In the Church of England there are wonderful things happening but let’s not pretend that there are not financial holes to plug, pension funds to restock. Very often with a sale of buildings, the proceeds from that, often the money kind of disappears.
And I know that’s the case in Canada as well. I’m so excited by what you guys are doing in the presbytery here, looking at that money missionally.
When we look at the issue broadly of closing churches in Canada, the first thing to know is that many buildings will sell because many buildings are in rural areas. When some of these buildings were built 100-200 years ago, as much as half of the population was living in the rural areas in the Western world generally. Now, we’re looking something like two per cent. So, a large number of rural churches will close.
In some cases, there is an overly high density of churches. Even in places like Guelph, you find that Presbyterians and other denominations that disagreed with each other sometimes will plant churches across the road. We had kind of an oversupply of churches. In some little towns, you find on one street corner Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Catholic.
So, there is some rolling back to adjust to the population. In many cases in urban centres I believe we should not be selling these church buildings. I love the Presbyterian Book of Forms, I’m somewhat familiar with it from my childhood, but more recently, looking at the rules within the Presbyterian Church for selling buildings, I can say as a leader of the project you know about called the Canadian Church Building Conversation, I think that the PCC has the best set of rules on how we divest of those church building assets.
ALEX MACLEOD: Let me guess, because we don’t do it particularly quickly? Is there a safeguard in place?
GRAHAM SINGH: There are good safeguards in place, listening to the presbyteries, listening to other churches nearby. That is the rule in the Book of Forms—that one must listen. One may listen and still decide to sell and others who see that need to accept that. But the quality of the listening is something the wider community is looking at. What does this church care about? They care about us. Would they be interested in something which may not fit their model that would serve us as people? And when the wider community hears—they hear church listening to them—I believe the missional door opens.
ALEX MACLEOD: I think there is a role there. And it sounds like this network, this conversation you’re beginning and those who are part of it, church buildings may step in to a void, may fill a need.
Because I know that we as a presbytery looking at Waterloo North and our share in that jointly shared property with the Anglicans, it didn’t seem like there were a lot of resources we could draw on to understand what are the implications of divesting from that neighbourhood giving up our stake here. Even though the history of that congregation was troubled, we all recognized the seriousness of pulling out because it’s much easier to pull out than to go in. Waterloo isn’t downtown Toronto but it’s expensive land nonetheless.
So, I wanna encourage you in that. I’d love to hear more about that. Not least your expertise and love of the Book of Forms.
Now, take a typical presbytery. This is the kind of thing a presbytery should be strategizing about. An individual congregation may identify an opportunity. For example in Kortright’s history, we planted a church out of Kortright long before I came on the scene, (about 20 years ago) in a neighbourhood here in Guelph.
It lasted for about three years and then stopped. And that is the way these church plants often go. I’ve heard stats that about one in 10 actually work.
From the presbytery point of view, we have rural parts where the population has declined. It wouldn’t be strategically prudent to send a team to a church like that. Is that a kind of thing you’ve seen happen in the U.K. when you’ve been part of the HTB planting movement? Maybe Lakeside did something similar in Guelph, where you identify a particular neighbourhood, area, and say, that’s where it’s growing, we see a potential here but the other [area] is not. How do you do that?
GRAHAM SINGH: I would say that we have some great people leading in the dioceses, presbyteries, and denominations in Canada. You don’t go through sacrifice at that level unless you’re really passionate about the gospel. Those are hard jobs. It’s pretty amazing in the case of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, to see guys like Ian Ross-McDonald, Dale Woods in Montreal, Herb Gale. These guys are really investing in doing the thinking with the presbyteries.
Hearing from the presbyteries in the United Church, the Anglican Church, even hearing how the Catholic dioceses are working, the connections between, let’s call them mainline denominations, are particularly helpful learning environments.
Within my role as a national networks catalyst for Church Planting Canada, I’ve been trying to encourage this national conversation. In smaller subgroups as well as more widely, bringing in newer networks and denominations who maybe have completely different ways of thinking, alongside mission-minded people from the established Church.
I love being excited about it but there is no point pretending we’re further ahead than we actually are. At this stage, the idea of listening, hearing what models are working, having conversations like we’re doing now, adapting them and trying them: this is the real stage we’re at now. I love the idea of pilot projects. When you look at the fund available in this presbytery, it’s a great opportunity to try something out.
In many of the traditional denominations, speaking as an Anglican, we’d like to build policies rather than pilot projects. It’s impossible to develop a policy for church planting when we’ve seen so little of it in the mainline denominations in Canada. What we can realistically see are some more pilots, some attempts where we might say, “This might not work.” But as I always say in church planting, the only thing that we cannot screw up is child safety. Everything else we can screw up. We should probably try screwing up some more and just see what happens.
I love (when having our first church planting) calling it Test Sunday. I say to people, “Welcome. This is our First Test Sunday and if you’re here, you’re part of the test and we’d love to hear from you. See what you think about how this Sunday has gone.” The more I do that, the more I think, “Why don’t we do that every Sunday in every church?” It’s a great way to help people feel part of what we’re doing. I think with the experiment of church planting, there are huge opportunities.
ALEX MACLEOD: It’s interesting to me that you’re at Lakeside because it’s an independent church. Evangelical, as you said. Your background is Presbyterian but more recently Anglican. A church like Lakeside has freedom to act quickly. It’s a church—as I understand it—that isn’t a part of a network like a presbytery or a wider denomination; there is an entrepreneurial freedom there.
In the Presbyterian Church in Canada, as you know, we’re divided into presbyteries and hence my reference to what we’ve been envisioning for our presbytery. There are also theological differences, different models for presbytery and congregations.
I remember being in a conversation with a group a couple of years ago. I was explaining what church planting was and I remember real resistance to the idea of church planting. Why would you plant a church? Evangelism didn’t seem appropriate to the people I was engaging in conversation.
With your background in the Church of England, where obviously there are the same divisions and diversity of perspectives, what would your advice be to the Presbyterian Church in Canada as we’re trying to work through the gaps in this kind of commitment? Where there are some people who aren’t convinced that we do need to plant churches or do evangelism? There are others who think it’s critically important; this is part of the visioning that we’re doing.
GRAHAM SINGH: I’ll bring up the idea of the tallest poppy syndrome. This is the idea that if you stick your head above the ground, you immediately get cut off. That’s something that affects all denominations. It’s a part of human nature but it’s particularly difficult as we try to bring change in the Church. The idea of saying, “Let’s all be miserable! When we all get together, let’s not talk much about our successes for fear of being prideful.”
I think that, seeing some experimentation with church planting, we’re gonna have to allow certain congregations try new things. They may at first appear radically different. The amazing thing you guys are doing at Kortright Presbyterian—you guys are standing out and doing wonderful experimental things.
But it’s sometimes hard, those critical voices at times. It’s something the rest of us can help with. To make sure that as we experiment, we’re really supportive of experiments we may not understand. Presbyteries, bishops, in the Episcopal churches, they can be of help giving permission for experimentation. If permission can help limit criticism, when help can be more constructive, I think it’s something we should try for more.
ALEX MACLEOD: In the HTB experience, did any of that church planting come out of the colleges? Did it come out of where bishops live? Out of the circle of bishops? Out of Canterbury? Because I know that in our colleges, in the PCC, it’s something new that they’re beginning to hone in on. When I was a student, I didn’t hear anything about church planting, evangelism, entrepreneurial ministry spirit; it wasn’t on the curriculum.
GRAHAM SINGH: The question of training is what our vision is for what we try to create. When we train a minister, we’re really talking about a minister who can, under God, create a certain picture of church. So, until we adapt the picture of what kind of church we’re hoping those people will see happen, it’s very difficult to change the training.
In the U.K., we really struggled with what kinds of churches we really wanna create in the first place. But once we found this idea of churches aimed at younger people, focused on relational evangelism, a more modern style of worship, we began to look at training and formation in a completely different way. In general, that moved the training from the colleges into the cities, into large churches in conjunction with the colleges.
Wycliffe College at Oxford University moved into London to create a new university founded by the Bishop of London called St. Mellitus College. St. Mellitus was the first Bishop of London. The idea was to train all ministers partially in a college and partially, in equal measure of emphasis, in the local church. These are people particularly trained in church planting and I had the privilege of being in the pilot year. St. Mellitus College is now the largest church planting training in the whole Church of England, training 160 full-time ordinance trainees every year.
I’m excited to hear what’s happening here in Canada, at the Presbyterian College with Dale Woods, at Wycliffe with John Bowen and those guys. There are some amazing educators across Canada who’re looking actively around different models. From the presbyteries, from the local churches, we need to increase the demand. We need to ask them, “Guys, we need a different type of leader.” And we need to look ahead at those models and encourage new training models.
ALEX MACLEOD: How could this happen in the PCC whether it’s here, in Waterloo-Wellington, in a big city setting, or rural setting? What did you see out there? You’ve travelled a lot…
GRAHAM SINGH: I start from the belief that there are some amazing people out in the presbyteries, out in the structures of the Church in Canada. I’ve had the great privilege meeting them across the country since moving back from England over the past two years.
I remember seeing a group leading a small group and I looked at them and these guys were awesome, they could do so many neat things. But for them, they just couldn’t see it. They couldn’t see that what they had in the group was everything they needed already. As they began to try to convince me that they didn’t have what they needed, one guy in the back stuck up his hand and said, “Actually, I can lead worship if you want.” Somebody else said, “I can do the emails.” In that small group, the resources were there but we haven’t asked in the right way. I don’t have the answer but I wonder, in the presbyteries around Canada, there are people perhaps sitting in the back, who if given a chance and opportunity to innovate, to experiment…
Actually, if the question was: “Guys, who in our presbytery would be willing to take some risks? Who’d support you if you do? Who’s got a vision for something new?” I have a belief there would be quite a few hands being put up. And if the rest of the presbytery said, “Look, this is completely different, we don’t understand how this could fit in, but we see the bravery of this person and we realize that we’re struggling and this experiment is worth doing.” I think that kind of bravery could lead to openness for God to do new things in this generation.
ALEX MACLEOD: That’s encouraging to hear. You mentioned that you serve as a catalyst, in one of your roles. I think we’re waiting for those people who are called by God to serve as catalysts. And I agree with you that they’re out there. This has been inspiring, thank you Graham.
GRAHAM SINGH: Thank you for inviting me.