eather and I love walking the Mimico footpath on the shores of Lake Ontario. Like ducks on the water, our conversations skim over highlights of our day, our children, the cadence of changing sunlight, our retirement, funny stories about our relatives (only hers, of course) and one of our favourite questions: What has been our very best time in ministry – ever? With all due respect to my esteemed CBM colleagues and our current local church, we always say that it was when we were church planting in downtown Paris in the 1990s.
We were younger and more energetic, for sure. We had vision and a sense of élan or momentum in our action. We were also very naive about urban poverty, missional ecclesiology and church leadership. None of our formal theological education had equipped us to face this daunting challenge. Back then, in Francophone Europe, we couldn’t find any textbooks about church planting or gurus on the subject. But we had a few sharp arrows in our quiver: (1) a solid team of close friends who formed together a spiritual community of radical discipleship (2) a handful of local church-planting models – some good and a few bad (3) a well-honed knowledge of our neighbourhood, and (4) an unwavering belief that God’s design for mission took on the shape of small, local churches where his people could live out their calling through faithful presence and witness.
For nearly eight years, we shared our faith, love, family and home with a small handful of brothers and sisters and that local church took shape. And it grew, just as we all did. All that time – while we believed that we were building the church – the truth is that God was building us through the church. Building the church was not our calling, but God’s. It took us a while to learn that the church wasn’t the goal of mission as much a God’s means to accomplish his mission in our community. I like how Tim Dearborn says it in Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission: “It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world.” The church’s involvement in mission is its privileged participation in the actions of the triune God.
Our little church in Paris never grew big, but it did grow deep. And its impact for God’s kingdom grew wider and wider. It forged an identity in the community that helped make it a very special place within our urban landscape.
More than 50 years ago, A.W. Tozer noted, “It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God.” So many of our Western models of church planting and church growth have centred on creating attractional spaces for seekers, slick programs for kids and youth, multigenerational models of worship, expensive latte machines and the niftiest preaching around. But there is often a vacuum for divine mystery. Is God in this place? When it comes to building the Church, Jesus told his disciples that this was his job: “… I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
In this issue of Mosaic, you will walk with Jonathan Wilson once again as he exposits the local church. You will learn how a practical theological program is training lay leaders for the church in Latin America. You will hear how a local church in Halifax is coming to grips with its past and its very name. And you will meet a very insightful younger leader, Julia Rhyno, who asks our churches to rethink their priorities if they really care about reaching millennials.
So, let me turn the opening question back to you. What has been your very best time in ministry? And if you are like Heather and me, I’d venture to say that it was when God showed up through his people and he built his church. Sometimes, through us. Oftentimes, with us. Occasionally, in spite of us.