I started work at St. Albert Alliance church with a clear sense that my major task in helping the church engage with mission was helping everyone discover they had a unique calling.
As we began focussing on releasing vocation in some of the ways I mentioned in the previous reflection, it quickly became clear that moving a church into mission involved more.
I had lived so long with the truth that the church had missed the core understanding that mission is tightly connected to vocation that I was in danger of doing exactly what I criticized others for doing: over-simplifying what it truly means for a church to engage with mission.
There were three dominant perspectives on what mission is that were shaping the Western church as I started work, and while it was easy to pick holes in them, it was wrong to ignore them.
The first major paradigm of mission that has shaped the church is that it is what missionaries do overseas. Mission was always international and cross cultural. While this paradigm served well in the early part of the 20th century when it was possible to talk about “Christian countries” and we thought the main job was to reach all the different nationalities, it started to break down as we realized our own countries were mission fields and that we all, not just the missionaries, are called to mission.
The second major paradigm of mission that has shaped the church more recently has been the talk about “missional church.” The missional church crew talk a lot about neighbourhood and culture, and most expressions of missional church end up looking quite homogenous and staying fairly small and insular.
The third major paradigm of mission that has been shaping the church has been a renewed emphasis on church planting, with the purpose of mission being to produce more churches. This has been a natural progression of the thinking of Donald McGavran, and has worked in some places, but again leaves ordinary people on the fringes as the preachers and worship leaders become the stars.
While these three paradigms of mission are, in my view, missing key parts of what God’s heart for mission truly is, there are elements of truth in each of them that I needed to engage with and help our church engage with.
The idea that mission is always cross-cultural is overly simplistic, however as I engaged with our church as someone from a different culture (albeit still a Western culture), it didn’t take long to realise that there was a real need for people from St. Albert to make friends with people who didn’t look or sound like them.
St. Albert is a majority white community with relatively high incomes, and I could see how easy it is to start thinking this way of life was “normal”. I could also see that if there is racism in Canada, then a signficant percentage of it is directed towards First Nations people.
It became clear that moving our church into mission meant helping our people engage across cultures. So far we have been working towards this in four main ways.
The first strategy emerged after I met with a couple of families who had been to Mexico in the previous year to build a house. I quickly saw that this experience was both comparatively affordable and also possibly quite significant for those who would go, so we threw open the invitation for as many people as possible to join us for a week of house building in Mexico. 56 people came the first time and we built three houses. The numbers have been slightly less each year, but the Mexico trip has become a reference point for our church, and for those who go there is clearly a lasting impact.
While research shows that short term missions have minimal short term impact, we will continue to encourage and organise them. There is something about standing in Mexico that helps you see Canada much more clearly. While the emotional impact might diminish, the perspective you gain stays with you. As a strategy to help people engage cross-culturally, short term missions have a lot of value.
The second strategy was fairly obvious. It was to tell the story of those people who were connecting cross culturally already. Our church is unusual in the Alliance network because we sent out two missionaries 16 years ago to Mexico who are not serving with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Rod and Cheryl are working with the same organization we build houses for, YUGO, and as their home church it is our task to support them in the field.
Also Bill and Fay Cunningham had been travelling to Cuba a couple of times a year for over a decade and were playing a significant part in supporting local churches and ministries there. In addition to that, our church had been financially supporting training for Pastors in Cuba for a number of years, a fact that not many in the congregation had fully comprehended. I travelled with Bill and Fay to Cuba and was able to communicate back to the church both the important work they were doing and also how important our support for the Cuban church was.
Another way we have been regularly telling the story of cross cultural connection has been through the initiative of one of our church members. Chris came to me and suggested that we collect “bottles for mission.” For the last two years Chris has faithfully been putting his trailer out the front of the church on the first Sunday of the month and carting the bottles to the recycling depot. So far he has raised almost $10,000.
Interestingly enough, we are having more people from our church sense a call to working overseas. It might be that soon we will be regularly telling many more people’s stories and trying to work out what it means to support them.
The third strategy emerged as I chatted to my friend Greg Musselman from Voice of the Martyrs and a few others who were raising the question of whether our church could sponsor a Syrian Refugee family. As our church adopted the Zarminan family and waited for their arrival, lots of people volunteered all kinds of help. We are still caring for Sako and his family who have only been in the country for a month now and I know this journey will change us as a church.
The fourth strategy has been how we preach and teach. A regular phrase we use is “The church is meant to be old and young, rich and poor, black and white; held together by a miracle of the Holy Spirit.” We are building expectation of difference. I have also produced a course called “Change the World,” which is a one day introduction to culture, God’s heart for the world and the practical implications of cross-cultural communication.
It has been interesting that as we have started to talk about welcoming cultural diversity in the church that God seems to have brought more and more people from different backgrounds. That hasn’t been anything we have done, but it seems that God has seen what we are trying to do and is encouraging us down this path.
As I reflect on our efforts to engage cross culturally, it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do. I wouldn’t yet say that our culture has changed measurably. We are on a right track, but we have yet to productively engage with the First Nations meaningfully and we are still working out how to organise ourselves to support people who are called overseas in a more sustainable way.
In my next reflection I will explore how we have been working at equipping our people to engage in their neighbourhood.