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Encouraging Outreach and Church Leadership

Fear is a factor for every Christian leader. I am no exception. I want to be the person Jesus calls me to be. I want to do what he calls me to do. I would do it if I did not feel so afraid or inadequate. I have had to learn to “Do it Afraid”.

Knowledge and training help. But they do not remove the fear instilled in many by Jesus’ words, “go and make disciples of all the nations…I will be with you…” Matthew 28:19-20

 

He provides strength “in the going”, not beforehand.

This is a series of stories and of lessons learned. May they encourage you to “do it afraid”.

 

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If you would like to comment or interact with Gord, please email him at gord.martin@vision-ministries.org

What if: Church leaders were, fearless?

  • They obviously were trying to do what Jesus did
  • They were obviously trying to do what the apostles did
  • They obviously were trying to turn their world upside down like they did

 

In 2020, during this era of Covid-19. What would Jesus do? What would the apostles do? In their era, who were they trying to influence or persuade about the kingdom of God?

Were they, like most church leaders today, spending almost all of our time within the four walls of our church buildings?

When we ask questions like these, conversations turn easily into directionless debates about our culture, the times in which we live, the gifts we have or don’t have, the need for training, the lack of resources, how busy we are etc.

These “what if” questions frighten me. They always have!

It seemed so simple and straightforward at the beginning.

Go everywhere, get people from every tribe and nation, to learn my ways and follow me, just as you have learned to do. I will be right there with you – always.

The good news is that every human being can connect with God through Jesus in a way that gives them direction, hope and strength for living, along with the certainty of life forever in the kingdom of God after dying.

Read the book of Acts and you’d have to say, the disciples got it. But when you read the letters of the apostles to the people everywhere, it seems it was hard to keep them on track. Read church history and you’ll know how difficult it has been for Christians to keep focused on the main things Jesus taught.

 

I have been in full-time Christian ministry for about 50 years. Old enough to have lots of experience and old enough to be irrelevant.  

I have often/mostly, “Done it Afraid”

  • The first time I sang in public with a quartet, my mouth went completely dry. That’s all I can remember!
  • Going from door to door as a 19 year old, inviting people to our Sunday evening drive-in church services. I prayed the people I knew would not be home. He answered my prayer!
  • Going from door to door in Medellin Colombia, with a handful of badly learned Spanish phrases, to give away Bible literature, selling Bibles and other Christian books
  • Speaking to people, mostly older than me about Jesus, how to know him and walk with them – helping them with their complicated life problems. Talk about inadequate!
  • Inviting people all week long in an Ontario town to a Christian movie night. Not one person came.
  • Going to visit a man who was hiding a drinking problem. Leaving his house feeling totally defeated. Arriving home to a phone call from him with a heartfelt apology.
  • Starting Oasis, a downtown community outreach in Kitchener, believing somehow, that if churches would commit to supporting 50% of our budget on the strength of our proposal, that God would provide the rest, if we actually launched it.
  • Confronting a group of senior church leaders with their unwarranted assumptions and judgemental actions
  • Starting Vison Ministries Canada, nobody was asking for it!
  • Last week….!

“Doing it afraid” has been a way of life for me.

I want to tell you my stories and I’d love to talk with you. If we were fearless, what difference would it make?

A Scary Little Church

It was May 4, 1960. I was 14 years old. I remember how startled my father was. Martin Bauman is dead?

Martin Bauman was a farmer who lived quite near to our own farm. His wife had been an invalid for years. As far as anyone knew, Martin was completely healthy. He and his wife and family were members of the Hawkesville Bible Chapel where my parents and family were also members. Suddenly at 63 years of age he was gone!

Everyone in our little church had exactly the same background. All the adults experienced a spiritual new birth in their mid to later 20’s. All of them had been raised as Old Order Mennonites. You will still see them today in our community, just north of Waterloo; horses, buggies, dark clothing and lots of rules concerning dress, lifestyle, language and business. Tragedy had marked my father’s family. Two of his older brothers died suddenly in accidents; one, when the horse and carriage on which he and his wife were riding was struck by a train. He was killed instantly. His wife who had been sitting beside him was unhurt. Another brother died when the truck he was driving lost its brakes and crashed into a tree. There were big questions about life and death in the family.

About that time my father’s younger brother John attended evangelistic meetings at a little log church in Wallenstein where a Pentecostal itinerant preacher was holding services. (photo of the actual building) He was dramatically converted! In those days, Old Order Mennonites did not believe it was possible for someone to know what would happen to them after they died. They hoped they would go to heaven but they had no real confidence. They believed in the Bible, were honest people and hard workers. But they felt that it would be boastful for anyone to say with confidence that they would go to heaven when they died. My uncle John began to explain to his brother and to the rest of the family what it meant to believe in Christ, to experience a spiritual new birth and that assurance of heaven was possible. My father and mother were married by now and had several young children. More to follow – 10 in all!

Little by little, more and more young couples began to search for this salvation. Is it possible to know that one had eternal life? How could they know? This was a question that was very much on my parent’s minds. They and others, gradually came to an understanding of what it meant to believe the Good News of Jesus Christ and receive the gift of salvation and the Holy Spirit. In 1934, fifteen of these young adults were baptized in the Conestoga River near Wallenstein Ontario. The whole idea of people being re-baptized as adults created a massive stir in the larger Mennonite community. About 1000 people spontaneously showed up to witness this startling and strange event!

These young families formed the core of what became the Hawkesville Bible Chapel and later the Wallenstein Bible Chapel – my home church.

In 1960 this congregation had been together for about 26 years. It wasn’t a large church, it would have been packed at 130 people, but it was spiritually dynamic. Since I was born in 1946 my first actual memories of the church are of the 1950s. I remember the Biblical preaching, the visiting missionaries, and most of all the participation of the men of the church in the weekly communion service. The practice in our church was that each Sunday there would be one hour dedicated to communion or the breaking of bread. At that service no one led the congregation. The intent was that the Holy Spirit would lead any of the men present to read Scripture, give out hymns, make comments and pray, prayers of worship as the Holy Spirit led them. At a given time during the service the bread and the wine would be passed and all those who were believers and in fellowship with the congregation would participate. I remember some long, seemingly endless prayers, great four-part harmony in the singing and a lot of heartfelt expression of devotion to Christ that proved to be an anchor for me in later years.

But now it was 1960. The year in which Martin Bauman died. I remember my dad saying, “What? Martin Bauman is dead?” Apart from the loss of a friend and a brother in Christ my father was gripped with a concern that they had been meeting now as a church for more than 25 years and had not accomplished what he imagined would be possible during that time.

What made this sudden death all the more startling was Martin’s dying request. He believed that he had not adequately shared the good news about Jesus with his neighbours. Would my father visit those neighbours and share the gospel with them? Over time he did visit them but the fear factor was powerfully at work. He knew those neighbours and knew that they would not welcome him with his message of good news.

I had no such concern at the time. I was interested in girls, driving, getting my drivers licence, sports and food!

But because my dad was an outgoing person he didn’t hide what he was thinking. He expressed openly and freely his joys and concerns. Although it was true that the church at Hawkesville was a lively and quite a vibrant congregation that visiting speakers love to preach to – what had we really accomplished? His concern was that we have a whole community around us who still don’t understand about the Good News! What are we doing about that?

Our church was a part of a network of churches called the Brethren assemblies[1]. They had no organized form of leadership in their churches in those days. The men would have a monthly meeting which they called a business meeting. At those meetings whatever decisions needed to be made were made by all the men who were members of the church. I don’t recall ever attending such a meeting since I wasn’t old enough at the time. My father was concerned that there needed to be more direction. There needed to be something intentionally done about reaching our community with the Gospel. There needed to be leadership in the church that took these matters seriously.

 

As I remember it, Dad began to reach out to his peers and brothers at the church. He talked with them, one by one. Over an extended period of time, a group of about six or seven of them began to believe that God was calling them to step forward to provide leadership as elders of the church. It was a foreign idea, something they had never done before. Neither were there other Brethren assemblies who had done anything like it.

I remember the morning an announcement was made at the end of the communion service. The man who normally made the announcements said that on Friday evening the following six or seven men who had been concerned for some time about the need for leadership and direction in the assembly were going to have a meeting at Mr. Onias Weber’s house. The announcement continued with this invitation. If others felt a similar calling they were welcomed to join the group on Friday evening. That’s how our church began to have leadership by elders.

One of the first things they did was to write a young couple who had previously been sent by the church to serve the Lord in Prince Edward Island as evangelists. They were invited to return and take up evangelistic ministry in our own community. Allen was not asked to be the pastor. He was not asked to have a particular role in the church. His role was to visit the community, introduce the Gospel to people and invite them to home Bible studies and to our church. He and his wife Joyce began their work in earnest. Alan was bold, persistent and not always discreet. Everybody in the whole community began to hear about what was going on. There was very little progress for the first several years. However after a few years there began to be a response, people were coming to Bible studies, people were getting baptized and they were crowding out our little church in Hawkesville. I remember that our youth group sat on the platform during the communion service because every seat, even the aisles were filled.

The church relocated to the village of Wallenstein in1968 to a new facility about four times the size of the one in Hawkesville. It was called the Wallenstein Bible Chapel. That congregation has gone on to plant five daughter churches of substantial sizes. They have sent missionaries all around the world – including me! They continue as a vibrant church today. In 2019, they again enlarged their facilities.

If your church is just maintaining the status quo, it is time for someone to ask – what have we accomplished? That can be a scary question!

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  • What have we accomplished in terms of winning our community to become followers of Jesus? Should this be a primary concern to us?
  • What difference can leadership make in answering this question?
  • How could their solution to that question guide our thinking?

 

[1]Brethren assemblies, sometimes called Brethren, Plymouth Brethren or Christian Brethren. “Plymouth Brethren. Though originating in Dublin, they were so named because their first congregation was formed in Plymouth (1831). The beginnings were essentially informal, with many showing a desire to return to the simplicity of apostolic days and worship; and to break down the walls that divided Christians. The movement was a protest against the prevailing conditions of spiritual deadness, formalism, and sectarianism marking the earlier years of the 19th century.” New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (I plan to write a future segment on my relationship with the Brethren movement)

Intimidated by Good Examples

As a teenager I sometimes wished my parents had been better hypocrites! It would have given me a good excuse to rebel. They weren’t!

I was the oldest of “the three little ones”. There was a gap of almost 5 years between me and my next older brother Rowly. [1] On Sunday evenings the three little ones would stay home while the others went to the evening church service. My mother read Bible stories to us and would then get us all down on our knees and would pray for us by name. My mother prayed for Gordon and for Janet and Elaine. It’s quite a powerful thing to have your parent praying for you by name! I felt very self conscious as she prayed. I wanted to receive Christ as my own saviour as a young boy. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. How does it work for him to come into my heart? How would I know if it happened? It took me quite a while to sort it all out.

Every day after breakfast our family read the Bible together. All of us kids would read one verse of the chapter we were reading and at the end, dad would have all of us kneel down and he prayed. We read every chapter as far as I know, even the parts that were embarrassing to read as kids, as well as the sections that were filled with name after name! I remember that on one occasion a neighbour came to talk with my dad while we were having our reading. Dad invited him into the house and told him that we are having our Bible reading, he was welcome to come in and to sit down and wait until we were finished. We completed the reading of the chapter and we got down on our knees to pray as was our custom. When family devotions were over, dad and our neighbour talked business.

As a young boy I loved the stories of the Old Testament. I was intrigued by the battles of Saul and David and with their generals Joab and Abner. I knew off by heart all the names of these interesting characters. Sometimes I would say to my dad, “ask me some hard questions about the Bible – from the Old Testament”. I wasn’t so in love with the Sermon on the Mount and turning the other cheek!

I started high school when I was only 12 years old. Not because I was particularly bright but because I didn’t get along at all with my teacher. Ours was a two room school. I had the same teacher for five of seven years. Gradually, I didn’t like her and she didn’t like me. She was quite happy on the day when she told me that I would be skipping grade 8 and would move on to grade 9 next year!

As a 12-year-old I was not ready emotionally or socially for high school. I tried desperately to fit in. We never had homework in elementary school and were never really taught to study. I wasn’t doing well. Even though I started off in the most academic section of grade 9, the following year I was moved into one of the least academic sections of grade 10.

When I was in grade 9 one of the teachers was filling out forms about all of the students. One of the questions to be answered in front of everybody was what denomination were we? How could I answer that? At the time our church was called the Hawkesville Gospel Hall. Even as a 12-year-old I knew that was a strange answer to give. I listened to the others say that they were Catholic, Lutheran, United etc. When he came to me I said that I was from the Hawkesville Gospel Hall. It seemed like the whole class was turning around looking at me and wondering, what is that?! I desperately wished I could’ve said I was Lutheran or anything else!

Gradually I was learning to fit in at school. I learned to swear very competently. At home I was still somewhat the same person but at school I was somebody very different. I was torn by loyalty to my family and church and to my school friends who were becoming more and more important to me every day.

Did I still believe? Not in any practical way. I attended youth camp at Joy Bible camp during those years for the last week of each summer. I continued to be torn. Towards the end of each week at camp I would feel compelled to recommit my life to Christ. Those commitments lasted perhaps half a day or one day. That was me, all the way through high school.

I had always been the youngest at everything. The youngest in my elementary school class, the youngest in my class at high school and the youngest person at my first job at McKee Brothers in Elmira. They built farm machinery. I was struggling. Were the things that I had been taught at church true? Was God really there? Was the Bible true? Were my parents right about being such faithful followers of Jesus? I found myself wrestling with these questions.  Should I forget everything that I was taught? Or were the things that my parents and church had taught me true? If the things that I had been taught were true, then I would have to live like my parents and the other Christian adults in my life! For me that was scary and I was a coward!

Around that time, a man by the name of Bob McLaren, a preacher who I had known since I was a young boy, came to our area to have a special series of services at a church in Waterloo. When I was young he stayed at our farm for a week or so. During that time I had the mumps or chickenpox and was sick. One day Bob brought home a Scotch Collie puppy for me. I was elated! His kindness and generosity was a memory that stayed with me.

When I heard that he was speaking at the nearby Bethel Chapel in Waterloo I went to hear him. I have no memory whatsoever of what he spoke about but I knew that I wanted to talk with him after the service. I told him my problem, that I was stuck. I don’t know how long he was with me that night, it seemed like a couple of hours. Maybe it was only half an hour! He was asking me to commit my life fully to Jesus. I remember sitting like a bump on a log. I didn’t know what to do, I was still torn inside. What should I do? After what seemed like a long time I prayed and committed my life to Christ, to him only, no matter what anyone else thought or said.

I remember driving home that night, all alone, singing at the top of my voice! Something had changed. Something had changed forever!

Not long after that I was baptized in the Conestoga River at Hawkesville. I began to be active in the church, teaching Sunday School, teaching kids that were only a few years younger than me. And I began to be involved in youth group and to my surprise was elected to be the president of the group! It was an exciting time! Now I had the freedom to invite speakers to our youth group who could answer all my questions.

And then it happened. Alan Weber who was the resident evangelist in the church asked me, would you come with me to go door to door inviting people to the Sunday night drive-in services? I can’t tell you how much I wanted to say no! He wanted me to do this in the very town where I’d gone to high school?! The same place I tried so hard to fit in? But how could I say no? I was the president of the youth group! I was teaching Sunday School! Alan was persistent.

And so, I said yes. I remember pleading with the Lord before going to the first door to let these people not be home! He heard my cry. The people that I hoped would not be home, were not home! Somehow we managed to get through passing out invitations to people on a number of streets.

I was beginning to share the Good News with people at work. I remember talking to one older man about the gospel and he said to me, “Young fella, I’d like to hear what you have to say five years from now”. Five years later I was living in Colombia and working as a missionary with International Teams and he was dead of alcohol poisoning.

This was a powerful turning-point in my life as an 18 year old.  Overcoming fear would be an important re-occurring challenge for the rest of my life since I was a natural coward. But a precedent had been set.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. How can we elevate the practice of family worship?
  2. How can children observe the spirituality of adults in our congregational life?
  3. How can we invite our youth to full commitment as followers of Jesus?

 

[1] My parents were Noah and Emma Martin. They had 10 children: Lanson, Mary, Lawrence, Clare, Joe, Joyce, Rowly, Gordon, Janet and Elaine.

Opinionated People: Work Together?

The Mennonite countryside looks very peaceful. The farms are neatly laid out, the gardens, managed by the women of the household are flourishing and horses are grazing in the fields. But my experience is that Mennonite farmers are also quietly competitive. Who had their seeding done first? Who got their harvest finished first? Who had the best harvest? Who has the best horses?

Although I have no memory of my family being Mennonites, we were completely surrounded by Mennonites of various kinds. Why am I saying this? Because all of the men who were now elders in our little church were from the same background. They were all independent-minded people who were used to running their own affairs. They were farmers, small businessmen and some were owners and managers of larger businesses. All of them were accustomed to calling the shots and doing things the way they wanted to do them. What would it be like for a group like this to become a collegial group of leaders for the church. Could they make challenging decisions together? Could they have direction and harmony?

It’s easy to have direction and harmony as a group when you are only making small decisions. But what if you are going to make large decisions? What if you’re going to buy land, build a building – all with money that you don’t actually have?

These were the questions that faced the elders at the Hawkesville Bible Chapel. Remember, I had no personal stake in any of this. I was a nineteen to twenty year old who had relatively little concern about their issues. But I had an extrovert father who talked openly about these things. I couldn’t help but be carried along by the kinds of concerns he was talking about as he and I did farm projects together.  I am the eighth of 10 children and the youngest of six sons in our family. As such I probably spent more time with my father than any of my brothers. I was the last one! Dad included me in what he was thinking regularly. Whether it was about the farm, buying cattle, rotating crops, adding to the barn – or matters of the church. He talked quite openly about all of those things. I felt included, almost as a peer. Of course he didn’t tell me confidential matters related to the church or its meetings. But I was learning about the tone of what was happening from him.

I particularly remember him talking about the building project at Wallenstein. It would seat about 400 people and the plans for it were consuming a lot of his time since he was chairing the building committee. There were debates about the size of rooms, about the lighting fixtures and about every detail!

There was a humorous little piece that I recall. The old order Mennonites were in the habit of erecting very plain buildings for their churches. Now, this group of former old order Mennonites was associated with the Plymouth Brethren who had their own reasons for erecting plain and simple buildings. There was a lot of unease and uncertainty about erecting a building that would look “too much like a church”. That may sound strange but it was a concern to them. They tended to be frugal, they wanted it to look plain and simple but on the other hand they were building something new. What should it look like?

During those years dad would often talk about the freedom that they were discovering together; they didn’t all have to agree on everything! They were learning that they could listen to each other, debate with each other and then conclude without having to be unanimous. I remember my father saying, “well, if that’s how the other brothers feel about this, then I can be satisfied with that.” Remember, that they were all independent thinkers. None of them were well educated, but all of them were accustomed to doing things their own way. Besides, they had the Bible to consider, Biblical values to consider and they all had unique opinions about what the Bible taught on these matters as well. What I remember, is the freedom that my dad felt with respecting the opinions of the majority of the group. “I don’t have to have it my way” he would say, even though he was as opinionated as anyone in the group!

During the building process there was a lot of discussion about how large one particular room should be. It was going to cost quite a bit extra to make it a truly valuable space. Some were arguing that they needed to save the money, we can’t afford it. Another finally said if it’s just a matter of the money, he would contribute that money himself. That’s how they ended up with a full-sized and useful room!

On another occasion, they had ordered lighting for the sanctuary. I don’t think they were aware of exactly what the fixtures were going to look like. When they arrived each of the fixtures had narrow slender crosses mounted on each side. The contractor had already installed them. One of the elders arrived and saw the crosses. He wasn’t happy. He said it looked too churchy. He was registering this complaint with my father who knew that this man had no particular inclination to climb up on a tall ladder and remove these crosses. Dad said to this brother, “if you want to climb up and take them off then feel free to do that”. The crosses stayed.

Why am I sharing these stories? Because I know how important it is to have strong people on our leadership teams. I also know how important it is for them to be able to work together well, how to make decisions when they are not unanimous, how to respect each other and how to find a way to experience freedom when not everything has gone the way we hoped it would.

It’s very easy to say that the Bible describes a form of team leadership. It’s quite another matter to become an effective, focused leadership team that can together make courageous decisions of faith.

I had nothing to do whatsoever with the leadership team back in those days. I was just listening to an extroverted father who openly talked about the things that he was excited and learning about! But as I look back I’m very thankful for what I saw happening in front of my own eyes. I saw a church that was dynamic in it’s own way but was limited by the absence of leadership. But they found a way, not only to come together as leaders but to take courageous steps by mobilizing a gifted evangelist to work in their community. When the Lord blessed them, they had the courage to sell their inadequate building and move to a different community and launch a ministry that was far larger than anything any of them had ever seen. That takes faith.

I had the privilege of seeing it happen! Even though I was inexperienced at the time, I saw what could happen when people work together with courage, humility and faith.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. What is the ideal leadership team? A strong leader with a group of compliant helpers? A group of compliant people who don’t ruffle feathers? A group of strong minded, highly committed people? Other?
  2. How can such a group maintain harmony and make important, hard decisions together?
  3. Who should be the leader? The pastor? The chairman of the board? The most gifted leader? Click here to read a VMC webpage specifically for church leaders.

Doubt: Is God Really There?

It’s a terrible thing to be teaching Sunday School and leading a youth group when you are having private doubts about whether God really exists.

I’d been having a great time teaching Sunday School. The students were only about three years younger than me. But I was working hard to prepare for the classes and was discovering the joy of teaching. The youth group which I had shunned during high school now was my favourite time of the week.

We had no adult sponsors. We had Saturday night youth meetings and often during the summer we’d meet to play baseball on Friday nights. Because we were a “singing church” we also frequently had special youth gatherings in homes after the Sunday evening services, just to sing! Since I had endless questions about almost everything, we invited speakers to come to speak to our group on subjects that were of particular interest to me. I discovered that some speakers ignored our request and spoke on whatever they felt like, a disappointment to me.

About that time, I was living with three other single, young men in an old farmhouse just outside of the city of Waterloo. Some were going to school and others were working. I was an apprentice tool and die maker[1]. One of my friends Brice Martin was attending the University and was studying philosophy. He would come home with the arguments of his philosophy professor saying that there was no evidence for the existence of God. We debated. He was the prof and I was the Christian trying to defend the faith. We debated all through that semester but inside something was happening. I began to wonder how can I be so sure that there is a God – after all?

I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t want to talk to my friend to let him know that I was in trouble because of his arguments. I couldn’t talk to my parents because they never appeared to have doubts. I didn’t think I could talk to anyone at our church because nobody there ever talked about having doubts. The preachers talked about having faith, not doubts.

I spent a lot of time alone, unsure of what to think or do. It was an empty feeling to be teaching Sunday school and leading the youth group and inside, not being sure.

In the spring of that year there was a visiting preacher who came to our church from the USA. He was speaking every night of the week and at the beginning of the week he said that he would have a question box. If anyone had a question they should put it in the question box and he would answer it on Friday night. I thought here’s my chance. I carefully wrote my question, not wanting to give myself away – “Do you ever doubt the existence of God?”

I was waiting for the end of the week to come. On Friday night, finally, my question was drawn out of the box. The preacher read my question aloud and then said, “I don’t know whether this question was written by a Christian or a non-Christian”. And he put my question aside, making no comment at all. How frustrating!

I decided that I would go to counsel at the boys camp that I had counselled at previously. I thought, perhaps something miraculous will happen during camp that will reassure me. The first week went by and now it was Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week. I was becoming desperate. Nothing had happened that I could call miraculous! I decided that I would speak to the director of the camp. I had never met him before and I thought it would be safe for me to try my question on him. I told him my problem. He probably said more, but this is what I remember. “Gord, I have been a Christian for 10 years and I’ve been in full time children’s ministry for five years, and sometimes I still have doubts”. I was so relieved!

Looking back on it, I sometimes wished it had been something more profound. But it was just such a relief for me to discover that at least one other person had doubts. I didn’t know at the time that there were a million books written on this subject! Later I would have lots of opportunity to turn to them.

I’ve never forgotten those days. Although I have preached many sermons about faith and the importance of having faith and having reasons for faith. I’ve always had a soft heart for people with doubts.

When we are preaching, we have no idea as to what is going on in the minds of those who sit in front of us. It’s important for us to remember that it’s not abnormal for people to have doubts. Most of the big names in the Bible were plagued with doubts and struggles at one time or another. Abraham the father of faith had doubts. Moses had doubts. David had doubts, Jeremiah had doubts, John the Baptist had doubts and Peter had doubts.

It’s important for us to speak and interact with people with the full knowledge that some of them will be struggling at any given time with the same issues that plagued the faith of our fathers – and me. After all, doubt is not something a follower of Jesus “gets over”. Painful and obvious questions continue to rise up and challenge us at every stage of life! A big part of Christian fellowship is talking over these challenges together.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. How can we “preach faith” and welcome doubters?
  2. How transparent should preachers, teachers and church leaders be about their own short-comings, struggles and doubts?

 

[1] Tool and die makers are a class of machinists in the manufacturing industries who make jigs, fixtures, dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges, and other tools used in manufacturing processes. I was building dies for the automotive industry.

Me? Us? Missionaries?

Missionaries were colourful characters! As a boy, I remember missionaries coming to visit our little church in Hawkesville. They were from faraway exotic places. I remember a missionary from Zambia by the name of Wallace Logan who came with his whole family – nine children if I’m not mistaken. Since there were 10 in our family, it was quite a group when we got together with them. I remember him putting a piece of balsa wood on the piano and then blowing a dart into it with a blowgun. Another time he had a 20-foot long snakeskin that he suddenly flung out from the platform – startling everybody!

During my growing up years, I never thought that missions or being a missionary was for me. However, when I was 19 or 20 Kevin Dyer started a new, Chicago-based organization called Literature Crusades, later called International Teams. He was visiting churches like ours all over North America and challenging young people to go to the great cities of the world, which were teeming with young people who needed to hear the good news. He talked about the percentages of these populations that were under 18; it seemed that everyone was a young person in these big cities of the world. I was fascinated with what he was saying.

I began to think, “what about me?” Should I go? Young people my own age were going to places like Tokyo, Mexico City, and India. What about me? There was an opportunity to go to Medellin, Colombia for two months in 1968. I applied to go, and was accepted. At that time I was working as an apprentice tool and die maker in Kitchener. I spoke to my boss and asked if I could have a leave of absence to go to Colombia for the summer. My boss talked to his boss and they got back to me and said that they would not be able to do that because it would be precedent setting. I thought about it and decided, “I want to go!” So I went back to my boss and told him that I was quitting at the end of June because I wanted to go on this summer mission to Colombia. A few days later, my boss came back to me and said they would provide the leave of absence for me after all. I was elated!

Literature Crusades had sent about 2 ½ pages of Spanish phrases for summer team members to learn and memorize. Since I had never been very diligent at homework, I ignored the assignment.

We flew from Toronto to Miami. The airport in Miami seemed enormous and endless. We got on an old prop plane that rattled, vibrated and droned from Miami to Bogota and on to Medellin. There was a piece of metal on one of the wings that was flapping and shaking violently while we were taking off. I was sure it would be gone somewhere over the Caribbean long before we arrived in Colombia. When we landed, it was still there!

The first weekend that we arrived in Medellin our team was given a tour of the city. We visited the market in Medellin. It was busy, crowded and smelled bad! Our group of 30 young people was divided into six groups. I was made a team leader of one of those groups. On Monday morning our group took a cab and drove up the side of one of the mountains of Medellin where we were to start going from door to door. At each house we gave Christian literature that included an offer for a free Bible correspondence course and we also offered Bibles and other books for sale. I suddenly realized that the homework that they had assigned to me was for real! I needed to know those phrases! Necessity provided the motivation!

I had decided before leaving on this trip that if I bombed out as badly in Spanish as I had in French and Latin in high school, then I would know that missions was not for me. However, I discovered that day by day I was fascinated with the people and with the language. I discovered that people were interested in the Bible and wanted to read it for themselves. Many people would take the Bible that we were offering for sale into their hands and hold it with reverence. Many had never held a Bible in their hands before! I remembered that at home we had a whole stack of Bibles, one for everybody in our family. Sometimes we even smacked each other over the head with those Bibles.

People signed up for the Bible correspondence courses by the thousands. They bought books and literature. We were sowing the good seed among the people in that great city of Medellin.

Some team members were very bold. I remember going downtown to sell Bibles and books on the main street corners. A few were shouting loudly, Holy Bible 20 pesos! They were saying that we should be willing to be fools for Christ like the apostle Paul. I wasn’t keen about that.

After two months in Colombia I returned home to Canada. I went back to my old job as an apprentice tool and die maker and I realized that something had changed. I didn’t understand what had happened. I thought, perhaps I need to switch to a different place or work for a different company. I didn’t know what was wrong. During that time, I met Heather McPherson, whom I had met five years before at Joy Bible Camp near Bancroft, Ontario. I was immediately impressed with her and we began dating. I couldn’t help but notice her way with people and her kindness with everyone she met. Throughout the fall, I was seeing her and talking to her about the possibility of joining a new team for two years in Ecuador the following fall. In February, we were engaged, and were married on July 5th at Shoreacres Bible Chapel in Burlington, her home church. In September, we headed off to Chicago for eight months of training in preparation for two years in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

I didn’t hear any voices telling me to go to Ecuador. I did have a growing and strong conviction that that if the Bible said we were to do something, we didn’t need to wait for further instructions. I didn’t hear a supernatural voice. I had heard and believed – that was enough.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. People in our churches need exposure to a variety of ministries and ministry opportunities. How can church leaders provide that?
  2. God is the God of the whole world – not just of our church. How can we help the people in our congregations grasp the breadth and depth of what God is doing in the world, today?
  3. What is “God’s call”? How can we explain it?

Lessons in Chicago & Guayaquil 

Preparing for Ecuador, there was a lot to do! Heather and I had been married for a total of two months and now we were in Chicago. We had been informed that we would not need a car there, so I sold my much-prized 1967 Mercury Cougar. Something I regretted later since we were quite isolated at the training centre. We had a bedroom, no private bathroom in the Literature Crusades dorm/dining room. Somebody had told us it might not be a good idea to go to Ecuador right after getting married but our thought was that, “If we don’t go now we might never go”.

Kevin Dyer, Claude Loney, Ab Bauman and Russ VanRyan, along with others, were the teachers of our classes. They were all quite young, probably just 10 years older than we were. But they taught us Bible study methods, how to live together as team members, and how to write letters to those who were supporting us. There was a photography course and of course we had to learn Spanish. Our Spanish teacher was Carl Lehman who was a wonderful example both as a linguist and as a model Christian and missionary.

We were preparing to go to Guayaquil for two years; do evangelism, start a church and leave. That was the plan. We didn’t stop to consider whether it was realistic or doable. We were preparing to do it. We carefully packed everything that we would need for two years: clothing, shoes – everything that we would need. All these items were placed into two barrels which were shipped to Guayaquil.

Guayaquil is right on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. It has two seasons, hot and dry and then hotter and rainy. Carl Lehman went with us to further our study of the Spanish. We were waiting for our barrels to arrive and after about six weeks we discovered that everything we had packed for two years had been lost in a plane crash in Miami. We still had everything that we had packed in our suitcases but that was all.

We made lists of everything we could remember that was packed in those barrels and people back home sent replacements after a couple of months. We discovered the importance of interdenominational cooperation. The missionaries from HCJB radio were very kind to us. Rueben Larson and his wife, veteran missionaries invited us for dinner. We borrowed supplies from the Christian and Missionary Alliance Seminary. Suddenly we were discovering the reality of a much larger Christian family then we’d previously known.

We had purchased thousands of Gospel tracts as well as the four Gospels, Matthew Mark Luke and John, printed as small booklets. We began to go from door to door, giving one of the Gospels, a tract and an offer for free Bible correspondence course at every door in Guayaquil. We had a summer team of 15 people come and join us for the first summer. Little by little we went to every single house and dwelling in the city of Guayaquil. Prostitution was legal in Ecuador, so there was a whole section of housing that was devoted entirely to prostitution. We went to every single one of those places and offered our Bibles and books, including Billy Graham’s booklet “Peace in the home”. That last little book was the one most of them bought!

We discovered that people were open and hungry for the word of God. Everyone we met had a Roman Catholic background but most had little or no idea about what was in the Bible. We began to have Bible study groups and after a while we combined our Bible study groups together into a Sunday church service. We began to have baptisms. And in fact, people were coming to faith just about every day for quite a stretch of time. Exciting days!

Of course there was adversity too. Our house was broken into; our teammate Dan had his watch stolen right off his wrist in broad daylight in a public market. Somebody reached from behind him and just ripped it off his arm and ran! I ended up in prison for a night and a day for reasons that were – my own fault! If you ask me, I’ll tell you the whole story, it started by parking illegally! Heather brought me food between pie plates which she passed through the bars so I had something to eat! I learned an important lesson. Be respectful of authorities!

We discovered there was a small number of wealthy people in Guayaquil, a larger middle-class and a very large lower class. As is always the case, the people who were in deep need were more open. It was true in the days of Jesus and it’s still true today. Thousands of people signed up for the Bible correspondence courses. We would have occasional special teaching events for the correspondence school students.

I will never forget the day that I met Alfredo. I met him going from door to door. He was operating a small kiosk or store. As I presented the books to him, he expressed interest and openness to what we were saying. Few people had any certainty about their salvation. What would happen to them when they died? Would they go to heaven or would they go to hell? Or was there a heaven and hell? As we talked about these issues, Alfredo opened his heart to God right there in his shop! It was the first time I had the opportunity to speak with an adult who opened his heart to Jesus right in front of me. I realized that I was watching Alfredo pass from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light right before my eyes!

Sometime later Alfredo had to go the hospital because of a health issue. He came to our Sunday service after his stay in the hospital, with a concern for a Christian brother that was in the bed next to him. He said that the brother, who had died, was very poor. There was nobody to claim the body and “if we don’t do something then his body will be taken to the University where it will be used as a cadaver for teaching university students”. He did not want that to happen. What should we do? I was 24 years old. We decided that we would put some money together and arrange a burial for this man that we had never met. We knew that he was a fellow Christian, a brother.

Alfredo, myself and another brother named Luis went to the morgue to claim the body. The people who worked there opened a long drawer, from which they removed the body and placed it in a very simple wooden box/coffin. We had paid for the coffin and for four men to carry the coffin through the streets and up the hill to bury him with the poorest in the Guayaquil Cemetery. Each of the four men grabbed a rock to pound the nail into each of the four corners of the lid of the coffin; they hoisted it up on their shoulders and walked through the streets towards the Cemetery. The three of us walked behind. We were the procession. When we got to the top of the steep hill, he was buried in a very shallow grave. A steel rod with a number on a metal plate was placed at the head of the grave. The three of us read a few scriptures and prayed together. We then returned to the hospital to gather his belongings from the hospital. Everything he owned was in a shoebox; there was a New Testament, a couple of buttons, a few coins and his ID card. I learned then and there, that whether we are rich or poor, it makes no difference when we die. This man who we had never known or met, taught me a big lesson.

So many more stories to tell, but; the church we started in downtown Guayaquil is continuing to this day, though it has moved several times.

Reading Bible commentaries became a way of life for me. Most days during siesta, I was reading. People were asking questions everyday. I needed answers!

As we neared the end of our two years in Ecuador, I was asked by the leaders of Literature Crusades to lead a new team in a place called Bucaramanga, Colombia. I had never heard of it but I knew immediately that I wanted to go. In those days, Heather hadn’t learned to say no. We prepared for Bucaramanga.

I learned in Guayaquil that obedient, inexperienced people with a clear focus can accomplish great things for God. Even if they are facing challenges every day for which they are totally inadequate! He was right there, with us.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. Would church leaders benefit from having a plan like this? “We were preparing to go to Guayaquil for two years; do evangelism, start a church and leave. That was the plan. We didn’t stop to consider whether it was realistic or doable. We were preparing to do it.” Go to the Facebook group and vote in the poll: yes, no, or maybe.

Bucaramanga: Great Joy and a Tough Decision

When you want to plant a church and have no people, it is very clear what you need to do! Though you may be “doing it afraid”! In Guayaquil our team had started the church, with our team of eight, plus one Ecuadorian. In Bucaramanga the church began with our team of 10, plus one Colombian couple.

I often look back to these experiences in Latin America and realize what formative times they were. When church leaders are responsible for 40, 75, 150, or 500 people they are often unclear about their primary purpose or purposes. When you have no people, it’s very clear! We needed to meet people, engage them and win them to Christ by presenting the good news to them in a persuasive way. That primary purpose should remain the “cutting-edge purpose” for every church.

In Bucaramanga, our team were worked with more experienced missionaries in John and Donna Duckhorn, Marcia VanderLaan, and Sandra Stirling.

It was John, a gifted Bible teacher from Milwaukee who inspired me to read and study. Because of his influence I began to buy and read books such on: theology, Greek and Hebrew word studies, and more Bible commentaries. Learning “just in time” became a way of life!.

Just as in Guayaquil, we set up an Emmaus[1] office in the heart of the city because we were going to be distributing thousands of offers for free Emmaus Bible correspondence courses. We went from door to door, meeting people, talking with people every day. We spent about three hours each morning going from door to door and another three hours in the afternoon. Collectively our team was meeting people from at least 500 households a day. We gave away literature at every door and also offered Bibles, New Testaments and other literature for sale – very inexpensively.

People responded! It was the right time and place for this kind of work. Many of those who were responsive were poor. We were in their homes, got to know them and came to realize that the masses of people we see living in slums on television are real people! They have families, children and have concerns for them just like anyone else.

One man we met was, Eliseo (Elisha). He and his family lived near a garbage dump, not a nice place. He had lost three fingers on his right hand when he was 15 due to an accident with a sugar mill. I remember him telling me that after the accident he was paid only half of what others were paid, because after all – he was only half a man. We worked hard to help him and his family establish themselves by helping him set up a kiosk for selling vegetables in his neighbourhood. One day he said to me, “what would it be like if you were rich and could eat chicken every day and didn’t know the Lord?” I thought to myself, hmmm, chicken every day, I’m not sure I would like that! We were learning a lot about wealth, poverty and people!

We started Bible studies and a church in Bucaramanga but that was not all. On the weekends, we visited villages and towns within a 100 km radius from Bucaramanga. We offered Bibles and books for sale and gave away free literature and offers for the correspondence courses. After some time, we noticed many requests coming from an area about four hours away from Bucaramanga. We decided that God was in this and began to make plans to visit that community. It was a long dusty and winding mountain road. We stopped at a halfway point, looked at each other and realized that our hair and eyebrows were completely covered with dust! (I had hair in those days!)

When we arrived at a town called Málaga, we began to offer Bibles and other books for sale in the market. We also visited an elderly woman named Socorro (means help) who had been doing the Bible correspondence courses. She and a number of others from that town met with us in her home. It was the beginning of a new church. Socorro was a very courageous woman, completely unafraid of anything. We visited that town every second weekend after our first visit. A woman and her four daughters were regular participants. The husband was not open to talking about a relationship with Christ at the time. But after our team left, he became a follower of Christ as well and has continued to provide leadership for the church to this day.

We learned so much during our time in Bucaramanga. We learned how to introduce people to a personal relationship with Christ, we learned how to teach them the basics and we learned how to gather them together not only in Bible study groups but also to form a new congregation.

It was in Bucaramanga where I became fascinated with “what makes people tick”? Why do they do what they do? How can we help them live life more successfully? It was there that I began to read about counselling. How can we help them, not only to know and walk with God, but how to live an honourable life, how to get along with people and how to acknowledge and manage their emotions? This curiosity led to a fruitful ministry later on.

We made mistakes. One of the people who responded early on was very keen and eager to be involved in every way. We made him and another man who was a professor at the University the signees on our bank account. We were very careful to make sure that it was set up in such a way that both would have to sign every check. We were outsmarted. The first man whose name was Elmer secretly kept all the money for himself. He fooled the University Professor and our whole team! Eventually we discovered that there was no bank account. It was make-believe. He paid everything out of his pocket in cash and recorded it very carefully in a little book so that we could see it. We were taken by hm. Everything we had saved for two years was gone. Is it better to be generous, and be taken advantage of occasionally, or be stingy and avoid all risks?

Our first son Tim was born in Bucaramanga. It was quite an experience. Heather and I were far away from home and knew nothing about having children. I recall the day when I took Heather to the doctor’s office and in the waiting room; it seemed that all the women were talking about abortions. Heather was terrified that she was in an abortion clinic! It turned out that the word for miscarriage and abortion are the same.

After Tim was born, the attending obstetrician brought his three children in to see this blonde blue-eyed baby that he had delivered. As he grew and we carried him through the streets of Bucaramanga, people would sometimes lean out the bus windows to see this little blonde boy! Sometimes they would say in Spanish, “Oh he’s so sweet, he looks just like the baby Jesus!”

When he was about 14 months old he became very sick with gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract which was deadly for many children. I was away in Malaga (4 hours away) the weekend that he became ill. Heather called me and told me that Tim was very sick and in the hospital. I drove home in record-breaking time over those dusty winding mountain roads. When I arrived in Bucaramanga and went to the hospital it was obvious that he was very sick. Heather and I didn’t talk about it at the time but she told me later that she had prayed and waited on God and came to a place where she was resolved that whether he lived or died that she would be okay. He recovered and today has his own three children!

As we entered the second year of our two two-year term in Bucaramanga, Heather and I began to talk about what we would do after our two-year term concluded. I was having the time of my life but it was different for her. She didn’t want to stay. The culture and language were difficult for her. She’s a very outgoing person so, not be able to speak freely was a real handicap for her. We began this conversation in September. We decided that we would pray and that if God wanted us to stay then we would have to be of one mind by the end of December. Privately I thought that surely, between my prayers and the God of heaven and earth we could change one 95 pound woman’s mind. By the end of December she still felt the same way about going home and I still felt the same way about staying. We concluded that it must be the will of God for us to return to Canada. At the time, I was in the middle of two emerging church plants and loving it. Now I had to find my way out of all this activity. In March we returned to Canada. I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t want to return to my old job. But it didn’t seem that there was anything for me to do in terms of Christian ministry in Canada.

In June of 1974, I gave a report of our work in Bucaramanga to a small church in Waterloo, Ontario called Lakeshore Bible Chapel. At the time they were meeting on Sundays in a school. After my report the two elders of the church approached me and asked if they could meet with me. They asked, “would you consider working with us, to do here what you were doing in Colombia?” I said yes. That became my primary ministry, doing outreach in a subdivision of Waterloo called Lakeshore. I also sold books for Everyday Publications, doing a sales tour to Christian bookstores in Ontario as well as in upper New York State and Michigan twice a year. In addition to that, I worked with my home church, Wallenstein Bible Chapel, to provide leadership for their youth group, which was flourishing. On one holiday weekend we took 118 young people camping on the Bruce Trail. But, reaching Lakeshore was to become my calling.

Our years in Ecuador and Colombia taught us so much! We were not experts. We were inexperienced and inadequate. But we were obedient to what we knew and were learning to trust God to provide strength and guidance along the way.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

During our five years in Chicago, Guayaquil and Bucaramanga, I was learning so much, every day, it was a lot of learning by doing, “Doing it Afraid”. I returned to Canada, a different person. What is good about this kind of training? Not so good?

 

[1] Emmaus Bible Correspondence Courses are  used worldwide to introduce the Bible to seekers and to teach them to understand the Bible and its primary teachings.

Team Life, Working Together is Worth It

Team life. While we were in training in Chicago, our instructors made it sound as if “team life” would be difficult. We as trainees were just listening. We didn’t know what we were getting into.

In Guayaquil there were six of us on our team, two married couples, one of which had two children, and two single men. We lived together, planned together, worked together and evaluated our work together. We prayed together and socialized together. There wasn’t a lot that we did that we did not do together!

When we arrived in Ecuador we had been married less than a year. We had two single men living with us and within a couple of months, a summer team of 15 people came to help us. Some of whom also lived with us in our house for two months. Having grown up in a large family, it felt somewhat familiar.

What I learned from “team life”

Everyone is different. Accepting that fully, as a God-given reality, matters.

We had different attitudes about a suitable pace of work. One of my team members said to me, “you know we’re not all Clydesdales”. He was trying to tell me that “not everybody is built like a workhorse – like you.”

We didn’t all pick up the Spanish language at the same pace. That made a huge difference in terms of what we were able to do as a group.

Team life, working together continuously was complicated:

  • One team member wished he had never come. He said “I had no idea this is what it was going to be like”
  • Another team member experienced serious depression
  • Some team members experienced culture shock
  • Sometimes there was jealousy about leadership
  • We had little or no money to spare. We shared our finances as a team and spent only what was absolutely necessary
  • We were facing the reality of spiritual warfare, with little or no experience

 

Our youthful inexperience meant that all of us were discovering our own spiritual gifts and abilities while we were living out our calling on this team. We all had to do the same ministry activities, mostly, whether we were gifted or suited for it or not. That is stressful. For me, it was mostly a joy because I adapt well and discovered that I more of a generalist than a specialist. I learned, that is not true for everyone.

There were great joys of team life. Working together as a team is such an important and valuable life experience. I was to discover later, how lonely it could be to work all by myself. In both Guayaquil and Bucaramanga we had the joy of planning together, praying together, doing the work together and evaluating it together. What a healthy, good thing to learn!

We had conflicts but were able to resolve most of them. We also learned from those conflicts that proved too difficult for us. In fact my most memorable lesson came from one of those.

There was a conflict when we lived in Guayaquil between myself and the wife of the team leader. It wasn’t exactly a conflict between us, she felt that I was competing for the role of team leader. Her husband, the team leader and I got along well. Nevertheless, this nagging feeling continued, bubbled over and contaminated relationships. This couple returned to North America earlier than they had planned for a number of reasons. It was a bitter disappointment for me to see them leave with this conflict still unresolved. About four or five years later I received a letter from this woman/sister in Christ. In her letter she said that she had tried to justify her actions many different ways over the years but had concluded that her attitudes and actions were sinful. Would I forgive her? Absolutely! We visited her and her husband very soon afterwards and she has sent us a Christmas card every year for more than 40 years. There are times when we are unable to resolve conflicts immediately, but time and perspective can change things.

I remember a foolish conflict I had with a team member in Guayaquil. We were working together, going from door to door with our Bibles and books. I suggested to him that we should split up and go opposite ways around the block so that we could be sure that we would meet each other on the other side of the block. Sometimes we would be invited into a  home and our team member wouldn’t know where we were. He felt that we should go in the same direction around the block, leapfrogging over each other so that we can stay closer together in case we needed help in some way. We disagreed. Here we were, having volunteered to come from Canada to Ecuador to bring the good news of how to be reconciled with God and other people and we were quarrelling about which way to go around the block! Very small things can get in the way of us working together effectively. We got over it!

When we were living in Bucaramanga 4 of our 10 team members were sent home early for various reasons. That was troubling and painful. In both Guayaquil and Bucaramanga I served as the leader of our team. In Guayaquil I was the team leader only for the second half of our term. But in both environments I discovered that I loved to think ahead about what we were doing, I loved to think of better ways to do things and I very much enjoyed bringing a team together to accomplish a task that we were all committed to. It was a great experience!

We didn’t call it church planting. We were simply doing evangelism and starting churches. The term church planting came later. Together, as a team, we had the joy of seeing three churches started which are continuing to this day.

I discovered that young people with little experience could do the seemingly impossible. Our goal was to go to a city for two years; do evangelism, teach those who responded, start a church and leave. In our case, it more or less worked out that way.

What can our churches in Canada and around the world learn from the Guayaquil and Bucaramanga “case studies”?

At the very least:

1) Having a leadership team that has a clear focus and works together to accomplish it by the grace of God makes all the difference in the world.

2) Overcoming the conflicts that arise along the way, must be considered a “way of life”, it is part of God’s curriculum.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

1) Does our church have a leadership team that clear focus, and are we working together to accomplish it? If not, how can we get there? Are we willing to get help?

2) Conflicts are a humbling part of God’s curriculum. What has helped you most during times of conflict?

The Second Hardest Years

All those roofs, about 2500 of them! Who lives there? What are they like? How will I connect with them? There aren’t many high places in Waterloo! I was looking at those roofs from the “great height” of a railroad bridge on Weber Street. It was my job to find out, who they were and to introduce them to the good news.

So, what exactly is the good news? It’s that every human being can connect with Jesus, the true expression of God, in a way that gives them release from the disease of sin, direction, hope and strength for living, along with the certainty of life forever in the kingdom of God after death.  I’d call that, good news!

In September of 1974 I began to knock on people’s doors, ready to talk to them about the good news. I’m not a “wow-master” at meeting people but I can be friendly, straightforward and – persistent. I found that people were not nearly as responsive in Waterloo as they had been in Ecuador and Colombia. Weather permitting, I was doing this for three hours in the mornings and three hours in the afternoons.

I was not the pastor of Lakeshore Bible Chapel. I was their community good news ambassador. Sometimes people from the church like Len Habermehl, Rob Heintz and a few others accompanied me in this work, but mostly I was doing it on my own. I calculated that one in seventeen conversations was a good and engaging conversation about the good news. Some said, they had their own church, some felt this was too personal a matter to discuss with a stranger at the door and some were simply not interested in talking with me – or in the good news.

People had questions. Where is your church?  What denomination is it? Are you the pastor? Our congregation didn’t have its own church building, we were meeting in the library of the Cedarbrae public school. Our denomination? That was a complicated question because we were affiliated with a stream of churches that didn’t believe in denominations or in having a denominational name. I discovered that its hard to explain in 90 seconds on someone’s front porch! Was I the pastor? No, Brethren churches, didn’t believe in having pastors. My capacity to communicate the good news was hindered in some respects by our identity as a “no name church” from “a no name denomination” that didn’t believe in having pastors.

I sometimes felt torn by the question, should I be more straightforward about the good news? Or should I behave more like a community chaplain?  If I were to do it again, I would engage the community more as a chaplain with a focus on pastoral care but ready to tell the good news when the opening presented itself.

There were responsive people. A number of families like Andy and Karla Nogy, the Seegmillers, the Atkinsons, Liz Hermus and Inge Butter responded and joined our fellowship.

As a church we made many efforts to take the good news to our community. We provided evangelistic training for the members of our congregation, participated in an “I found It Campaign”, in city wide efforts, we put on book displays at the local mall, distributed a church bulletin/written message 3-4 times a year to every home and bussed children to the Conestoga Bible Camp.

My first two years in Waterloo were difficult. The work was lonely and I was becoming frustrated. I couldn’t hide the lack of success by busying myself with internal church work.

One of the bright spots for me was teaching a weekly class of 30 young people (later teens and early 20’s) from the Wallenstein Bible chapel, a course from a book called, Major Bible Themes (basic theology). Each week I taught my course and Les Frey taught a course called the Institute in Basic Life Principles. Each week I studied and prepared. It became my own theological course. During the winter you would have found me in our unfinished basement, with my winter coat on, studying and preparing.  The foundation had a crack in it, sometimes there was a trickle of water running between my feet!

The first two years were difficult and lonely. The third and fourth years added conflict and confusion. Many who were responsive to my “good news” ministry were women. In those days, our church required women to wear head-coverings (usually a lace veil) in the church services and did not permit them to speak or pray in congregational gatherings. This was the seventies, a time when feminism was on the rise. Our church was not an easy fit for our community.

In the “fullness of time”, I was participating in our midweek Bible study. We were studying I Timothy 2 which, among other things says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must remain silent.” I had become convinced that our interpretation and application of this passage to the life of our church, was mistaken and was hindering us. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but the following week I was put on the spot and challenged before the whole group by our dominant elder who had heard of my error. I was very quiet in the meeting but was angry and lashed out at him privately afterwards. Although I later apologized for how I’d spoken, things were never the same.

I had no written job description. I had no role within the church. There was nobody to whom I was personally accountable. I served in the community for four years without ever meeting with the elders to discuss our ministries, in spite of my request for an opportunity to pray and converse with them. I was continuing to tell the good news in the community but was privately wishing I could be anywhere else – in the world! Heather said, “wherever we go, they’ve got to speak English.”

For me it was a combination of discouragement with the limited response from the community and an increasing awareness that the church leadership, in practice, was more committed to its form than to its function.

I explored other options for ministry but nothing suitable came my way. If I could have found a way to quit with honour, I would have done so! For two summers, I left Waterloo to do outreach in other communities with the help of some of the youth from the Wallenstein Bible Chapel. (We moved to Woodstock, 45 minutes away, with a team of six young people in 1977.)

An opportunity in a northern town began to open up for me when the two older elders from our church moved away, leaving behind a group of younger elders, just a few years older than me. They invited me to join with them to help with the leadership of the church. The following years led to a great break through – but that’s another story.

I often say that these four years became the seed plot for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t want to live them over again but I learned so many lessons during those lonely years! Most times when I tell this story, there are tears in my eyes before I finish. More than any other, this is the story that has given me a passion for other church planters and pastors. Those lonely years have helped me identify with many a disheartened pastor or church leader in need of encouragement.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

If you had met me then, what advice would you have given me?

Breakthrough!

The Psalmist says, “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Our morning was in the late seventies and early eighties! God began to bring people to us.

Soon after our little congregation of 85 men, women and children moved into a facility of its own, built for 200, it was full. Full of university students who were not helping to pay our mortgage! Members of our little church were on the executive of our local university intervarsity groups. I remember four young men who sat in the front row every Sunday, eagerly taking notes. Bruce and Marlene Toye devoted themselves tirelessly to caring for and ministering to the students. How much of the sudden growth was because of our new facility? It’s hard to say, but in our case it made a difference. I’ve heard it said that “it’s important for a church to have at least the appearance of permanence.” That’s something we didn’t have when we were meeting in the school. I am not saying that this is universal principle, only that in our time and place, the building made a difference.

God began to bring people to us. We had knocked on many doors, engaged in a succession of persistent outreach activities but now, God began to bring people to us “through the back door, the side door and through the windows”. An evangelist with questionable ethics, brought people to us who changed the complexion of our congregation completely.

Among those he brought, were the extended family of Pearl Whalen who had been touched by the hand of God. One of her daughters, Marlene was a hairdresser. Her hair was a different colour each week; she was outspoken and full of questions. To our surprise and dismay she met and married an unbelieving Cuban communist. Marlene stopped coming to church. But a number of months later she returned bringing Roman with her. She asked me one morning, “has Roman told you the good news?” I said “no”, and approached him to ask, “what is the good news?” I can still remember his words to this day, in his very distinctive Cuban accent he said, “I accep de Lor”. I doubted it. Nevertheless, I arranged to meet with him at his house the following Tuesday evening. He told me how he’d had a back injury and was unable to work. With lots of time on his hands, he watched television, flipping channels. He began to watch the 700 club. An American Marine was giving his testimony. Roman hated Americans! But that Marine pointed his finger right at Roman through the television that day and Roman’s heart was touched and broken.  Sometime later, I baptized Roman at the Lakeshore Bible Chapel. As I stood beside him, he gave his testimony. It was powerful! I still remember standing beside him in the baptismal tank; my skin was tingling, not from the cold water, but from the power of the Holy Spirit as he gave his testimony to our congregation that day!

There were others, lots of others, people like Lee and Marsha Phillips who were a great joy and inspiration to us. One of the people Roman introduced me to was Estelle Rochon. She had worked in our city as an executive assistant, now she was trying to drink herself to death. Roman with his typical boldness begged her key from the apartment superintendent. She was drunk and angry. She told him, “I know more about Jesus than you’ll ever know!” She had been raised in a religious family, attended religious school and knew all about Jesus but did not know him in a personal way. A few years later she began working with me as a part-time secretary.

All these new people had problems! They were not raised in stable Christian homes. They had relational struggles, they had bad habits, they didn’t know how to manage their money and they didn’t know how to acknowledge and manage their emotions. The curiosity that was born in me in Bucaramanga about what makes people tick, continued. I read books, I took courses at the University as well as Christian counselling courses. Helping people manage their lives and their relationship became an important part of my ministry. Every one of these new people with problems knew lots of other people who had problems! They introduced me to their needy troubled friends. Pastoral care and counselling became an important part of our outreach. I discovered that many people wanted to belong before they were ready to believe. New people would come, participate and join groups, gradually coming to faith among us.

Now our congregation was looking different. We had people of different races. We had people who had grown up in Christian families for several generations. But now we also had a growing group of people who had become fully alive to God and were eager to walk with him and to change the world. They were walking miracles. Church was exciting!

We began to talk about the fact that our building was too small. It was full and we still had a mortgage. What should we do? We talked to the contractor who had built the building but it wasn’t an easy building to expand. We began to talk about church planting. Not that we were terribly serious about it, we were just talking.

About that time there was a fire in a downtown hotel that housed street people and addicts. For me it was just a story in the local newspaper. But for Roman Delicart it was a tragedy that needed to be addressed! He had already called the local cable television station and had booked the TV studio for an hour-long telethon to ask people to bring clothing and furniture for the people who had lost everything. He called me and asked, “would I come on the program and did we have people that could do music?” We all joined in and became a part of the telethon which was extended for an additional hour or more. Roman and Marlene’s veranda and house were over-flowing with clothing and furniture for those who had lost all their belongings in the fire.

The fire in the hotel lit another fire. Roman, still with time on his hands started a downtown outreach called Operation Blessing. It was an outreach to marginalized people in the heart of downtown Kitchener. They gave away clothing, furniture and of course they prayed with and talked to people about Jesus – every day! There were astonishing answers to prayer! Somebody would come in for shoes and discover none were available in their size. Roman prayed and someone walked through the front door with a box of shoes, shoes that fit! Operation blessing became the Blessing Centre, the Blessing Centre became Oasis and Oasis became an important part of Ray of Hope ministries and continues to this day! That’s another story.

Back to the building being full. Yes, we were still talking about church planting, perhaps it would be a good idea. But Roman and Marlene were serious. They sensed that God was calling them to start a church in downtown Kitchener among those same marginalized people that they had come to know so well. Their ministry continues to this day.

This breakthrough came after hard and difficult years. Am I able to say that because we did such and such, this was a result? No. There is no equation when it comes to the working of God. Nevertheless, when I look back I believe that God added his blessing to our faithful and persistent obedience. The core families of our congregation contributed immensely to its stability and spiritual strength. Allan and Joan Poyntz, Len and Joan Habermehl, Larry and Betty Tierney, Bruce and Beth Fournier were active, faithful and consistent as elders, shepherds and servants to God’s people.

New people continued to come and were added to the church. Churches were planted. There is nothing like seeing the hand of God at work. If we haven’t seen it or experienced it, then it is all theory and mere talk.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

What’s the connection between faithful obedience and the blessing of God?

Pastoral Ministry – So Much to Learn!

We’d had a breakthrough! We were excited! The building was full of people. Full of people with longings, confusion, doubts, hurts, hang-ups, expectations of themselves and of the leaders of this church. We were doing the usual things. We were celebrating communion every week, we were preaching sermons every week, we were leading worship every week, we were facilitating Bible study groups, we were doing pastoral care – and more!

When you watch or listen to a pastor, you may think, that’s a cool job! I could never do that! Or you may think, I could do that! There’s more to it than meets the eye!

Preaching can be a strange experience. You are looking at your audience; they are looking at you. You are claiming to speak to them on God’s behalf from His revealed Word. But what is really happening? What is happening in the lives of the hearers? I couldn’t help but wonder, what is God seeing when he looks at our congregation? What is he seeing when he looks at each individual person gathered in our sanctuary?

As I began to do more of the preaching, I began to have more questions. Am I just taking my turn at preaching, doing a human activity. Or is God actually involved in this? What does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit and power? I didn’t want to be just going through the motions. I spent a lot of time, not only preparing sermons but pondering these questions. I read books on the Holy Spirit and searched through the Bible. I wanted to make sure that I had all that was available by way of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. I began to be more and more eager for his presence and increasingly dependent on him. I felt like Moses who said to God, we do not want to go forward alone. If you don’t go with us I don’t want to go. (Exodus 33:15-16) That’s exactly how I felt. Little by little I sensed an increased spiritual boldness and Holy Spirit power in my preaching, something others commented on as well.

In 1972 I attended a Shepherds Renewal seminar at the Hilltop Chapel in Toronto. Those who presented the sessions were from the Fairhaven Bible Chapel in California. I was impressed with them. They had the smell of smoke on them! They were not just talking and teaching the Bible, they were clearly practising it in ways that I could relate to. They were connecting with people from their community and neighbourhood just as we were. They were trying to teach them, disciple them and help them walk with Christ just as we were. In 1973 we arranged for them to come to Lakeshore. We invited elders from Brethren churches that we were familiar with. They came! We had a full two-day seminar for church leaders. The place was packed! We were learning!

We took a turn along with other nearby congregations like Wallenstein and Woodside at hosting an elders training seminar. We looked for people with experience and influence to provide the training. Dr. Bill McRae was a great help to us as were Dr. Gary Inrig, Paul Fletcher, David McClurkin, and others. I remember Bill McRae teaching a session on the meaning of being “Called by God”. He said there are objective and subjective callings. An objective calling is when God speaks with an audible voice like to the apostle Paul or when a priest pours oil on your head like King David. Something physical and tangible happens. He calls you in a way that is unmistakable. But there are also subjective callings. There are people in the Bible like Apollos, Timothy, Stefanas, and many others who never had that kind of experience. He said those kinds of callings require deep conviction along with affirmation and approval from others. Mine was a subjective calling.

But it wasn’t all about preaching and teaching or leading Bible study and fellowship groups. Pastoral care, visiting people in their home or in the hospital, it meant helping people in their times of uncertainty, confusion, conflict, pain, and adversity. I was strongly drawn to this ministry but there were heartbreaking incidents along the way.

In 1979 one of our long-time members, Ross Steinman, was killed tragically when he was struck by a train on a rail line that ran through his farm. He and Carol had four teenage daughters, the oldest of whom was about to be married. Ross was a physically strong man; he had been a volunteer fireman, normally he was very safety conscious. But on this occasion he took a shortcut riding on the railroad track on a motorbike, he didn’t hear the train coming up from behind. It was a stunning blow to all of us who stood, subdued together that night in their farmyard. I couldn’t comprehend it or make sense of it. I received some comfort from a verse in Romans 8 which spoke about the creation as a place that had been subjected to futility, frustration, or randomness. It was a truth I could relate to.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. Vs. 20-22 NASB

The Steinman family donated a communion table to the church in Ross’s memory. It’s still in use at Lincoln Road Chapel. If you look carefully, you will find on it a small plaque commemorating his death.

I remember visiting my sister’s father-in-law who was in the hospital, suffering from the final stages of colon cancer. As I entered the room, he was completely incoherent, talking gibberish, his eyes darting all around the room. But as I entered and walked by the foot of his bed, his bright blue eyes focused intensely on me and he said, “not discouraged are you Gord”? The truth was that I was going through a totally discouraging time. How could I say that to him? I lied! It’s a moment I will never forget.

On one occasion I visited a man who frequently participated publicly in our open style communion service. I learned from our local newspaper that he had been charged with drunk and disorderly conduct. I went to talk with him. When I explained to him that we did not want him to continue speaking publicly in the service until his problem with alcohol was under control, he was furious! There’s nothing like being dressed down with Bible verses! I was a Pharisee, a whited sepulchre full of dead men’s bones and then some! I went home feeling defeated and disheartened. As I enter the back door of our house, the phone was ringing. It was him, he said “I know, you’re right”. A big sigh of relief!

People brought problems with them, of all kinds. Problems because they were married, problems because they were not married, problems with money, problems with conflict, problems with work, problems with mental health, problems with loneliness, and problems over disagreement about Biblical interpretation or practice. One man that I had spent quite a bit of time with came into the church one day when I was all alone in the building. He was very angry and paranoid; he was certain we had set up a woman, one he had taken a private liking to, with another man in the church. He was a strong man who had previously worked as a bouncer. He was standing, I was sitting behind my desk. He said I don’t believe in hitting a man with glasses on. He reached over and removed my glasses and set them down on my desk. Just then one of our elders walked in the front door! The man turned on his heel and left. I saw him numerous times afterwards, once at our house. The incident was never mentioned. Some years later we read in our local newspaper that he had been arrested in another city because he’d had a dispute with a mail order company and walked into their office with dynamite strapped to his body and two sawed off shotguns. I was protected more often than I knew!

There was a woman in our church who was struggling with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She had been one of our best Sunday school teachers, was very knowledgeable of the Bible but she was struggling. She was hospitalized in the Homewood psychiatric clinic in Guelph. When I visited her there I met the chaplain who was a wonderful Christian. He invited me to be an intern with him for one year, along with two other men. Once a week we went to Homewood, visited patients, read assigned books, and were supervised by him on matters of mental health. We had the opportunity of going on rounds with the psychiatrists. It was a wonderful learning experience!

I took psychology courses at the local university, read books on Christian counselling, went to seminars – all of which were a great help. There is a proverb which says that “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” Proverbs 20:5 NIV

If you have a nose for trouble, love and help people in their times of great need they will love you back, whether they are believers or not yet believers. I discovered that my best form of outreach to those outside of the Christian faith was to love and help them in their times of great need. Once upon a time I read, a pastor should give his best attention to the leadership core of the church and to the people on the fringe of the church. It was good advice for me. The people on the fringe know many people just like themselves. If you love and help them, they will invite others!

Pastoral ministry is a great calling. There’s more to it than meets the eye!

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  • Pastoral care, should you take the initiative? Or wait for them to come to you?
  • Pastoral care was my most effective form of outreach and evangelism. When people are in trouble they are open, just like in Jesus’ day. How can you as a pastor or church leader imitate Him, where you are?

Learning to Lead – church that is!

Our church was bursting at the seams with lots of young people, many were eager to learn, relationships were good but there was something missing. We didn’t know how to lead.

Those of us involved in the leadership of the church were all in our early to mid 30s. Some days we thought, if only we had some older people! We had three volunteer elders; I was the full-time worker/community outreach person who was finding a new role.

We didn’t have what Christian Schwarz of Natural Church Development fame calls, “functional structures”. He says that “the most important criterion for forms and structures in the church is whether they fulfill their purpose or not. Church structures are never an end in themselves but always only a means to an end.”

Regarding leadership, our Brethren[1] heritage gave us the following:

  1. A strong commitment to imitating the structure of the first century church
  2. Interpretations of the first century church pattern:
    • Plurality of volunteer elders/leaders. No full time pastors
    • Weekly communion, with a particular style
    • A restrictive view of the role of women in the church
    • Avoidance of written leadership structures (constitution). The Bible is all that is needed
    • Denominations are contrary to the New Testament. Yet we had an informal “denomination like”, global network of churches
  3. In the absence of formal or organized leadership, the Brethren practiced lots of informal influencing by the more “assertive/controlling brothers”
  4. To deviate from the pattern was an invitation to controversy and division

How could we find a way forward with our traditional pattern, along with this influx of new and radically converted people?

I was part of the problem. I had been invited to join this congregation to help reach out to the community and bring new people into our young, traditional church. The primary and most prominent elder in our church had moved away. There was a vacuum of leadership.

We tried all kinds of things! We tried to be more democratic and involve the congregation in decision-making. We had no idea how to do it! There were controversies that needed to be addressed. What about the role of women in the church? What about divorce and remarriage? What about the role of this full-time person? Could we have a pastor? Could we call that person a pastor? Could we form small groups instead of our traditional midweek gathering? What about our communion service? Our new people weren’t “getting it”. It seemed that we had two congregations, our communion service for our more traditional people and our Family Bible Hour, twice the size, included people from every conceivable background. We had no structures to guide us in ways that were effective, understood and accepted by the congregation.

George Bullard suggests that churches need four primary human influences, like a car with 4 seats. Vision, behind the wheel, providing direction. Relationships, in the front passenger seat, providing navigation assistance to Vision. In the rear right seat, Programs, needed when people and relationships multiply and in the rear seat, behind the driver, Administration ensuring things are done legally, decently and in order with good processes and delegation.

We were doing well with relationships and programs. However, we didn’t know how to implement or communicate vision, or who to trust with it! We had limited the ministry of administration to legal and financial matters.

Our elders were struggling to lead as a group. Groups do very well at guiding and governing but not so well at leading. See, Groups Guide and Govern, Individuals Lead [2]

About this time I attended a conference in Chicago. I heard Kevin Dyer say, “we need to distinguish between the biblical office of eldership and the spiritual gift of leadership”. What he said caught my attention immediately! I realized that we had been bending over backwards to maintain the principle of plurality of leaders. But we were not making a place for the spiritual gift of leadership. Who has it? Or, does everyone have it? Does it mean that if someone had the spiritual gift of leadership that they would become the “boss of everything”? Later I developed a document called Three Kinds of Servant Leaders Every Church Needs[3] to capture what we were learning. It took time but we gradually learned to accept and trust the spiritual gift of leadership.

I had often gravitated toward leadership roles. But in our church, tradition downplayed or even denied the value of individual leadership. I kept focusing on the doing the main things: evangelism, visitation, discipling, preaching a couple of times each month and actively helping our elders’ team move forward.

As for administration, we had no governing document that described how our congregation was led, we had no policy to describe how elders were added or removed, we had no agreed-upon way of making decisions when we didn’t’ have agreement, in short, we had no constitution.

But God was with us! Our first daughter church plants were launched in 1985 and 1986, Oasis the downtown outreach started in 1988 and Vision Ministries Canada started in 1992. More about those in future segments.

In 1992 I asked permission of the elders to write a document that described how we were governing ourselves as a church. They approved my draft and together we took it to the congregation for review and approval. They approved the whole document in one meeting with two slight adjustments. They wanted us to have a little more authority in a couple of areas than we had ascribed to ourselves. It took 13 years of practice before we were able to establish a public, written document to guide us!

We were no longer just a group, we had become a team. I had accumulated credibility as a pastor/leader, not as a position but as a practitioner. Time and experience help! There is a difference between Doing It Afraid and healthy anticipation, mixed with some anxiety and lots of faith!

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  • Church leadership and governance is a hot topic today. The New Testament gives us examples and principles but not the details we might expect. Why to you think that is?
  • What are the critical guiding examples and principles?

 

[1]  Brethren assemblies, sometimes called Brethren, Plymouth Brethren or Christian Brethren. “Plymouth Brethren. Though originating in Dublin, they were so named because their first congregation was formed in Plymouth (1831). The beginnings were essentially informal, with many showing a desire to return to the simplicity of apostolic days and worship; and to break down the walls that divided Christians. The movement was a protest against the prevailing conditions of spiritual deadness, formalism, and sectarianism marking the earlier years of the 19th century.” New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (I plan to write a future segment on navigating my relationship with the Brethren movement)

[2] Groups Guide and Govern, Individuals Lead https://vision-ministries.org/resources/for-church-leaders/

[3] Three Kinds of Servant Leadership Every Church Needs https://vision-ministries.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Three-Categories-of-Servant-Leaders-Cultivating-Functioning-Planning-Oct29.14.pdf

Navigating Brethren Tradition

“The Brethren” are the people I know best. The communion table is the most emblematic expression of who the Brethren are. Anyone who has been part of a traditional Brethren church, remembers the thoughtful and rich form of worship that often was expressed at the Breaking of Bread service. The Brethren love the Lord, love His word and are deeply engaged in serving Him. But, who are they? What is unique about them? How do they fit into the larger Christian picture? How did 19th century, idealistic, freedom seeking, young clergymen, produce Brethren tradition?

They were mostly Church of Ireland/England ministers in their twenties. These young men were at the heart of what came to be known as the Brethren movement. They were deeply committed, theologically trained, idealistic young men with a deep devotion to Christ, evangelistic fervour and a highly principled manner of life. Their preaching, radical examples and writings spread across Ireland, England and around the world like wild fire! Today there are Brethren churches in almost every country.

Much of that same noble idealism remains. The Brethren:

  • Believed in the oneness of the true, universal church
  • Held to the priority of Scripture; studying it, understanding it and practicing it
  • Celebrate weekly communion; the focus on the person and work of Christ, not on us
  • Believe that the church is an organism, not an organization
  • Believe in the priesthood of all believers; no distinction between clergy and lay people
  • Expressed the life of Christ in: holy living, evangelism, missions & service to the needy
  • Pioneered and taught a dispensational view of Biblical prophecy which became the dominant view of many evangelical denominations

In addition to these ideals, most of the Brethren were and are, theologically moderate Calvinists, if there is such a thing!

The Brethren commitment to the one universal church led them to understand that they should not take on any name that would divide the one true church, the bride of Christ. They called themselves Christians, believers and brothers. But as they were drawn to one another in fellowship and conferences; outsiders called them, the Brethren, Christian Brethren or even Plymouth Brethren.

“They came to be known as Plymouth Brethren because one of their first congregations was formed in Plymouth, England (1831). The beginnings were essentially informal, with many showing a desire to return to the simplicity of apostolic days and worship; and to break down the walls that divided Christians. The movement was a protest against the prevailing conditions of spiritual deadness, formalism, and sectarianism marking the earlier years of the 19th century.” New International Dictionary of the Christian Church.

They believed intensely that the end of the age and the return of Christ was about to take place. In view of that conviction, they saw no need for formal church leadership or organization. The common thought was, we have Christ as our Head, the Holy Spirit as our guide and the Bible as our revelation from God, what more do we need?” With a burning zeal, they preached, taught, wrote, did works of service and evangelized around the world. It was a captivating movement.

I believe they made two naïve errors that produced confusion and traditionalism in subsequent Brethren generations, both have to do with leadership and organization.

  1. They believed the church (The Church of England with which most were affiliated) of their day “was in ruins” in terms of its leadership and conduct. They further believed that the church was approaching the end of a prophetic age which would conclude with the return of Christ in judgement. They believed there were no legitimate apostles in their days as there had been at the beginning. Since there were no apostles, there could be no elders, because in the New Testament it was the apostles who appointed elders. They believed therefore that the office of elder, formal leadership, had ceased. [1]

This fresh understanding opened doors to great freedom for ministry for these young men who had struggled with the inflexible bureaucracy of their thoroughly organized church. They moved from repressive structure to no structure. Their training, giftedness and passion carried the movement for a time.

  1. Their commitment to the church as an “organism and not an organization”, meant there were no written statements of faith, no agreed upon understanding of their identity and no agreed-upon ways of resolving conflicts, either within the churches or among the churches. Over time this led to ambiguity, division and loss of direction. In the absence of acknowledged and qualified leadership along with functional organization and structure, decisions were made by informal influencing, something which could be positive or negative.
  • Positively: deeply spiritual and qualified people could step forward and influence the congregation for good without hindrance or encumbrance of organizational structures.
  • Negatively: people with a less healthy and qualified capacity for leadership along with a more controlling nature could take over and dominate the congregation(s).

Brethren, rarely acknowledge that their practices have been shaped and influenced by the history I have described. They commonly insist that all of their practices are based only on the Bible.

Subjects surrounded by tradition in the 70’s and 80’s,[2] (there were more);

  • Membership: no formal membership
  • Elders: the appointment, duties and decision-making parameters of the elders
  • Pastors: no full-time pastors
  • Communion: how the communion/Breaking of Bread service should be practiced
  • Identity: our identity and relationships with other brethren churches and ministries
  • Finances: how we support missionaries or other full time ministry personnel
  • Women: head-coverings and the role of women in the church

As I look at this list, it’s very easy for me to see that many of our practices were shaped by the radical idealism about leadership and organization that shaped our movement.

There were three things the Brethren talked about incessantly in the 70’s and 80’s without resolution: women, leadership and worship – over and over. Our tradition had hemmed us in since we had no mechanism for resolving matters over which we did not have agreement. There were three other subjects we rarely acknowledged which complicated the first three issues!

  • We rarely, if ever, talked about our history. It was as if we believed church history had skipped all those centuries.  It was “us” and the New Testament!  We couldn’t admit that some of our practices were based on Brethren tradition, not on the Bible.
  • Were we independent or interdependent? If we were independent, why did it matter so much what people from other Brethren churches thought about how we did things? And if we were interdependent, why couldn’t we work together to advance major ministry projects like: Collaborative church planting? Formalized leadership training or ongoing evangelistic efforts?
  • Identity, why couldn’t we say who we were? Other than, we are kind of like Baptists, but not exactly.

When new people are added to a congregation in small numbers they can be accommodated and introduced to our way of doing things. But when there is a breakthrough and many new people are coming, its necessary to explain to all of them, how the church functions.  We needed communicable and consistent answers that made sense to people who knew nothing about our background and history.

Little by little, with persistence, patience and pain we found our way through this maze of idealism and tradition. Changes were motivated by necessity brought about by an influx of newly converted people, not only by a desire for innovation or change.

We “need to be as concerned about our purpose as our pattern” said Gene Getz in his book, Sharpening the Focus of the Church. I realized that in some ways, many of the Brethren had become, in practice, more concerned about their pattern than their purpose.

It’s essential that the main things remain the main things. Church leaders must be clear about their purpose, identity and leadership.

When I introduced myself to Carl George at a church planting conference in Philadelphia in 1984 he said, “oh, the Brethren have pretty well written the book on how to keep a church under 200 people”.

A few years ago I met a young woman from India in Toronto. As we talked, she freely and without hesitation expressed her observation that “you know, Brethren churches are always small”.  One of the reasons many are small, is because of their troubled traditions related to leadership and organization, inherited from those idealistic young Church of England/Ireland clergymen.

Where do Brethren churches that are independently finding their way through these traditions fit in the larger panorama of Christianity or Christian churches? Because of their history of independence and autonomy, most have anti-joining genes! They may not fit with more traditional Brethren churches but its hard for them to join anyone else.

What are their options?

  1. They can function as independent churches, engaging in fraternal fellowship with other churches in their community
  2. They can join the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada which provides an umbrella for association with other churches
  3. They can join another denomination with which they find common ground
  4. They can join with one another, and with other independent churches with similar values for the purpose of advancing initiatives that are not easily addressed by an individual congregation. This option is a big part of the Vision Ministries Canada story.
  5. They must choose how to establish themselves in response to various current controversies and debates;
    • Charismatic vs non charismatic practice
    • Reformed theology vs various strands of Arminian theology
    • Forms of church governance
    • Teaching churches vs. outreach-oriented churches

When it comes to theological controversies, I love the phrase from Ecclesiastes, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also do not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them. Ecclesiastes 7:18 NASB (The man who fears God will avoid all extremes NIV). I like to apply this to theology, avoid extremes, focus on the what we are called to do.

In Canada, Brethren churches began to establish formal leadership by elders in the 1950’s and 60’s. Some began to explore having full time pastors in the 1970’s. I was one of those early experiments! Many have resolved their issues related to communion, the role of women, leadership and organization. However, making changes does not automatically mean you will have success. I heard years ago that when you make a change, “you are trading one set of problems for another”.

I’ve had the opportunity to travel internationally and have become acquainted with Brethren background churches in the USA, UK, France, Spain, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda. Of course my earlier years in Ecuador and Colombia were formative to my whole ministry experience. The International Brethren Conferences on Mission (IBCM) has introduced me to Brethren from every part of the world.  In every country where Brethren churches exist, there are at least three streams of Brethren churches:

  1. Gospel Halls/sometimes by other names, are inflexible in their practices and have little fellowship with those outside of their circles (There are also exclusive Brethren but I have little knowledge of them)
  2. Conservative Bible Chapels, are very committed to the Brethren ways of doing things but are more flexible in their fellowship with others than the first group.
  3. Adaptive Bible Chapels and Community Churches, are open to changes in methodology, and are ready to make changes that will lead to greater effectiveness in reaching non-believers and incorporating them into their congregations.

My involvement has mostly been with the third group. They are the people I know and relate to best. This e-book is mostly addressed to them and to the leaders of other independent churches with similar values.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  • Is what I am saying a fair description of the Brethren?
  • How have you found your way through Brethren tradition?

 

[1] The Exclusive Brethren position on elders. The Grant group affirmed that with the church was in ruin, so were its offices. They no longer were available and could not be restored. Ridout maintained that these leftovers from Judaism were unnecessary as First Corinthians, “the book of Church order,” demonstrated. Spiritual gifts were what was needed and that was all. Grant, from the exclusive Brethren asserted: “It is evident and need scarcely be argued out, for those to whom I am addressing myself that the days of official eldership have long passed away.” Instead, “a body characterized not so much by gift as by grace, and from which no senior can be excluded, except as he is self-excluded,” was what was necessary to lead assemblies in these last days.

The Open Brethren came close to this position—almost to the point where they were saying the same thing. Oversight was necessary, they affirmed, but appointed or ordained elders had ceased with the days of the apostles, and the oversight of assemblies today was the responsibility of those who had the gifts of pastoring, which amounted to the same thing as elders and bishops in New Testament times. While the offices were gone, the ministries of guiding, feeding, and tending remained. See The Triple Tradition, the origin and development of the open Brethren in North America by Ross Howlett Mclaren (Available through Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa)

[2] By tradition I mean, inherited, unwritten, well-established practices or ways of doing things, that may not be questioned or deviated from without generating resistance and controversy.

Starting New Churches & Ministries

I had no idea my life would turn out this way! I began my career, wanting to be a good tool and die maker[1]. Instead, starting new churches, new ministries and new initiatives of all kinds has become a way of life. How did this happen? Is it a teachable skill? Do you have to be born with it? Perhaps you can tell me the answer to my questions after reading this segment.

Our time in Ecuador and Colombia was formative in so many ways! We were starting everything from scratch. We were inexperienced. We were inadequate for everything we were doing. We were learning every day! We were deeply dependent on God… AND He was with us.

When Heather and I came to Waterloo, the Lakeshore Bible Chapel had already been in existence for several years. So it wasn’t church planting. But engaging the community, reaching people and integrating them into our church was a major new and faith challenging activity.

Since then God has opened doors and blessed us in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I was heavily involved with starting daughter churches from Lakeshore Bible Chapel/Lincoln Road Chapel:

  • The Victorious Church, 1985
  • Highview Community Church, 1986
  • Cambridge Community Church, 1992
  • New Hope Community Church, 1996
  • Central Community Church, 2000
  • Mandarin congregation, 2002

(at least 1400 people in total were participating in these churches each Sunday)

  • LifeSpring Christian Fellowship, 2004
  • Radiant City Community Church, 2012

As well as with other major starts/initiatives:

  • Oasis – interdenominational outreach in Kitchener, 1989
  • Vision Ministries Canada, 1992 (which has been involved with 120 + church plants/initiatives to date)
  • Lakeshore purchased the YMCA, we relocated there, and changed our name to Lincoln Road Chapel in 2001

Of course, there is a major story behind each of these new starts! We made mistakes along the way and not all of these church plants have continued. However, a high percentage of the churches started by Vision Ministries Canada are continuing to this day.

There isn’t a cookie cutter approach to this kind of work. The book of Acts tells the story of the spread of the Christian gospel; there was preaching by the apostles, publicly and from house to house (Acts 5:42). There was persecution, chaos, opposition, confusion and forced migration to all parts of the Mediterranean; those who were scattered were telling the good news as they went (Acts 8:4) and the formation of new churches took place everywhere. Did these churches have problems? Oh yes! Did some of their lamps go out? Yes. But was the Spirit of God at work among them? By all means!

Apart from my early years of ministry, my church planting role has mostly been to see possibilities in very diverse people, help them clarify their dreams, coach them, resource them, encourage them and stick with them. Those were the very things I didn’t have when we came to Waterloo.

New churches and initiatives always include a person; with a vision, with initiative, someone who is able to make this new venture of faith believable to others. Even when new churches appear to be started by a group, “that person” is present; even if they don’t acknowledge their unique role. It’s like a dream come true if this kind of leader has a supporting cast made up of the following:

  • Community engager, gets to know people in the community
  • Evangelist
  • Preacher/teacher
  • Administrator/organizer
  • Pastoral care person
  • Worship leader
  • Children’s ministry person

Sometimes church planters start too soon. The don’t have people to fulfill the above vital roles.

As a team they must:

  • Develop a plan/strategy (written, if possible) that the whole team agrees to follow
  • Focus relentlessly on making disciples of non-disciples, don’t give up!
  • Teach those new followers all things, just as Jesus said
  • Understand that funds and good management follow vision and action – not the other way around
  • Believe that God makes a way for those who trust and obey

After Roman and Marlene Delicart and their group left us at Lakeshore to start the Victorious Church, our building was still full. Some said, some people should leave and start a new group. But they didn’t want to go! I heard about a church planting conference taking place in Philadelphia with Peter Wagner and Carl George. Rob Heintz, one of our elders went with me. Unknown to me, Rob caught the church planting bug at the conference. When we came back we had somebody who was saying I am ready to go! Others joined in and the Highview Community Church was born in Kitchener in 1985.

I told you previously about the Blessing Centre that Roman Delicart had started in Kitchener. When his health improved he returned to his former employment. The Blessing Centre was struggling for lack of leadership. Estelle Rochon who was working for me as a part-time secretary said, “those people downtown need us, we have to do something!” I really didn’t want to get involved with it. But I couldn’t say no. We did some research about what was being done for marginalized people in downtown Kitchener. It seemed to us that there were churches parachuting into the downtown core to do Gospel preaching and there were other ministries providing care and housing. My sense was that something new was needed. Something that wasn’t reluctant about evangelism but was also committed to discipling and teaching people the basics in an interdenominational environment. We put together a written proposal and presented it to the Kitchener Waterloo ministerial. I had previously chaired the ministerial for a couple of years so I knew the churches and pastors in the area quite well. We invited them all to a breakfast and presented our proposal. I told our emerging committee/board that “if the churches will commit to half of the needed budget on the strength of a proposal, then I believe that God will provide the rest when we actually launch”. That’s what happened! Oasis began as a drop-in centre for the homeless and troubled in the heart of the city. It is continuing today as a flourishing ministry under the auspices of Ray of Hope.

I learned a lot through the formation and development of Oasis. I learned about working interdenominationally, I learned about fundraising and I learned about coaching someone else to provide front-line leadership. Those lessons were very valuable to me later on in the ministry of Vision Ministries Canada.

The Church at Lakeshore was still full. Some were saying, we wish there was a church like this in Cambridge which was 20 to 25 km away. I invited 15 Cambridge families to a meeting to discuss the possibility of a new church there. Ten couples came.  We discussed the possibility and shape of a new church in Cambridge, we prayed together and did a Bible study on our statement of faith. After a year or so, the group had a question. “Are we going to continue to do Bible study or are we going to start a church?” They wanted to start a church. It was difficult. They were all volunteers, there was nobody to initiate the kind of work that needed to be done in the community. A few years later Rob Heintz left the Highview Community Church to join them and help them reach their community. The congregation is continuing today although Rob has moved on to a chaplaincy role with the local hospital and community centre.

The Lord was with us. It seemed that our church at Lakeshore was like the widow with her oil in Elisha’s day! She only had one jar of oil, but she kept pouring it out and miraculously was able to fill many jars and sell the oil to pay off her debtors and sustain herself! (II Kings 4)

The Sunday after New Hope Community Church started our building still seemed full even though we had sent 25 families away to begin a new congregation just 3 km away. I thought to myself that same Sunday, “we could do this again!”

What were we “doing right”, from a human perspective?

  • We were very welcoming and hospitable to new people
  • We made every possible attempt to help them practically, emotionally and spiritually
  • I believe that our teaching and preaching were good
  • Our worship was sincere

During the 80’s when the breakthrough took place, our congregational cohesion was still not ideal and we had a lot to learn about governance and leadership. God is gracious!!

In the next segment I will tell you the story about Vision Ministries Canada; how it got started and what has been happening since.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  • Is starting a new church or ministry; a gift, a teachable skill or a calling?
  • Is there somebody you know that you could encourage in the direction of starting something new?

 

[1] Tool and die makers are a class of machinists in the manufacturing industries who make jigs, fixtures, dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges, and other tools used in manufacturing processes. I was building dies for the automotive industry.

Vision Ministries Canada: Why and How?

In 1990, Vision 2000 Canada (a task force of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada) hosted the National Consultation on Evangelism in Ottawa. I was interested! Although our church in Waterloo was thriving, I couldn’t help but wonder, what is happening in our country? When we were living in Ecuador and in Colombia, there were times when missionaries would get together and talk about what was happening in the whole country. Were we making progress? What could we do collectively to contribute more effectively to the advancement of the work of God in our country? I had not been part of such a conversation in Canada – here was my opportunity!

I was startled to learn that in 1990 only 4-5% of Canadians were associated with any kind of Evangelical Church. I thought to myself, so it’s not a miracle after all? I had often experienced meeting individuals at interdenominational conferences or events and after a bit of conversation discovered that this new person knew someone that I knew. Now I realized it wasn’t such a Divine coincidence after all! There weren’t very many of us!

At this event I had the opportunity of meeting Christians from east to west instead of from north to south. I’d had more exposure to churches in the US and Latin America than with those from Eastern or Western Canada. I was interested to meet evangelicals from all across our country with whom I had a great deal in common. I remember walking and talking with Dr. Andrew MacRae of Acadia University as we walked one of the main streets of Ottawa for the Jesus March. I realized that the body of Christ had a breadth that I was only now discovering. 

As I drove home alone, about six hours, I had time to think. The thought kept coming back to me, more of the same cannot be the answer. It occurred to me that the churches I knew best could and should find a way to work together in an organized way to assist with the advance of the Gospel in our country.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of us emerging pastors – Paul Fletcher, Dave Booker and Dave McClurkin, all from Brethren background churches, had been meeting together from time to time to discuss the joys and challenges of ministry. Together we had organized leadership training events at Lakeshore with Dr. Bill McRae and with Dr. Gary Inrig. When I got back from Ottawa I called them and said – we need to talk. I told him about what had happened in Ottawa and that I believed that we needed to start some kind of home missions organization to further the cause of the Gospel in Ontario[1] in a more deliberate way.

Together we planned and organized an event on November 30th 1990, to be held at the Don Valley Bible Chapel in Toronto called, Vision Ontario: An Evening to Focus on the Need for Evangelism and Church Planting in Ontario. We invited the elders of all the Open Brethren churches in Ontario to this one evening event.

The agenda was:

  • Information: the state of the church in Canada
  • Motivation: what has been done, what is being done and what must be done
  • Direction: the need for a Home Missions Focus, the Road from Vision to Reality

The place was packed. The convenors were: Paul Fletcher, John Mackie, Brian Siems, Geoff Tunnicliffe and myself. The speakers (all spoke briefly) that evening were: Don Moore, Bill Coffey, John Martin, Geoff Tunnicliffe, Dr. Jim Rennie, Dr. William McRae and Paul Fletcher. Five people also gave short testimonies of how God was at work in their personal ministry environments.

We invited a tangible response from the participants that evening. We asked them to affirm:

  • I strongly endorse the Vision expressed here tonight
  • I am prepared to support these matters in prayer
  • I am willing to be considered as an active Vision Ontario planning member. This person ____________ would be an excellent planning member
  • I am personally interested in being involved in an evangelistic church planting effort
  • I would support this Vision financially

We had a strong idea, lots of enthusiasm and good response but we had no one ready to initiate it! As it turned out, Bruce McNicol, Executive Director of Interest Ministries[2] in Chicago was present at our Toronto meeting. A few weeks after the event Bruce gave me a call. He told me that Interest Ministries had been considering doing something like this in southern Ontario. He asked me, “would you be willing to start it with us?” I immediately thought of several others who would be better candidates. I needed time to think. Over the course of the winter I was asking myself, could it be that my diverse experiences have prepared me for something like this? If I didn’t do it, who would?

I spoke with Claude Loney of the Missionary Service Committee (MSC) about the possibility of them taking on this responsibility but they decided against it since their primary commitment was to overseas missionaries.

I talked it over with the elders at the Lakeshore Bible Chapel. The church was flourishing. I was busy. Would they release me to start Vision Ontario while continuing half-time as the pastor at Lakeshore Bible Chapel? In the late winter of 92, they said yes. I also asked if our secretary Henrietta Koenig could be released to work half-time with me? Again they said yes – and she said yes! Henrietta and I have worked together from the beginning of July 1992 till this day. She has been an incredibly faithful and valuable partner in ministry.

Interest Ministries gave us their Canadian charitable organization, their Canadian mailing list, funds from the Grimsby Bible Chapel which had closed down as a church and gave the proceeds to Interest Ministries to invest in future church planting. They also provided ongoing coaching for me for the first couple of years. Their help was invaluable!

Our first brochure declared the following as our purpose. Christian influence in our province has been in sharp decline. We are committed to making a difference in Ontario through a cooperative effort of evangelism and church planting. We intend to give leadership to this new effort through Vision Ontario, a division of Interest Ministries. Our primary activities will be to: communicate vision, assist existing assemblies, plant new churches and encourage leaders. Our brochure listed the following as endorsing this ministry: Bill Coffey, Dave McClurkin, Doug Robinson, Dr. Rod Wilson, Arthur Dixon, Paul Fletcher, Dr. Wm McRae, Geoff Tunnicfliffe, Don Hill, Hugh Rodger and Dr. Jim Rennie.

Dr. Nelson Annan moved from Florida to Toronto to assist with the launching of this new venture. However, after one or two years in Toronto, the Lord called him to pastor the Bayview Glen Alliance Church.

My first initiative was a telephone survey of 130 Open Brethren churches in Ontario. I asked: did you receive our mailings? Are you willing to distribute those materials in your congregation? Do you have anyone who might be interested in church planting?  I assumed there would be other people like me who would be eager to start new churches if they had support and encouragement.  I asked, do you have anyone who is exceptionally gifted in evangelism?  Do you have people who might be interested in full time ministry some way?  I also asked a few questions about the congregation – their size, when they got started, who was involved in starting it and whether they had full time staff or not?  It was important for me to get an understanding of what was happening in these congregations before we began to initiate too many new things. About half of the churches I called were receptive to this new venture…others, not so much.

We had an Advisory Council from 1992 to 1995. The first board members of Vision Ontario were:

  • Alan Veale
  • David Booker
  • Bruce Fournier
  • Doug Loveday
  • Paul Fletcher

Tom Williams who joined our board a little later said at one of our meetings, “wouldn’t it be nice if we could come to be known for what we do rather than for where we came from?” It proved to be a prophetic word that I couldn’t forget!

That fall I recruited people for a church planting class. There were 30 who responded and participated in this once a month Saturday morning class. We worked through Bob Logan’s material called The Church Planter’s Tool Kit.

As we interacted I became aware that the participants needed to discern: Was it God’s call or only Gord’s call? A sense of direction from God is vital for every church planter. Of course not all 30 had that calling. But it was a beginning.

We put on one-day leadership training events for leadership oriented people from churches that were responsive to the Vision Ontario initiative: elders, pastors, women with leadership interests and emerging leaders. We invited well known pastors and church leaders from various Bible Schools, Seminaries and Mission Agencies to speak to our elders and pastors and others. Some of the events we convened are listed below:

  • Communicating Hope in our Congregations & Cities: Dr. Nelson Annan, Dr. Rod Wilson
  • Leadership That Makes a Difference: Dr. Wm McRae
  • Radical Obedience for Emerging Leaders: George Verwer
  • Getting our Church’s Act Together in Evangelism: TV Thomas
  • Toward Meaningful Ministry for Emerging Leaders: Ron Johnson, Gerald Griffiths and Dr. Nelson Annan
  • The Nuts and Bolts…What Will it Take to Reach Ontario: George Verwer
  • Interactive Workshop on Church Planting: Brian McLaren
  • Leading Lovingly: Steve Breedlove

We began a to produce a quarterly Vision Ontario Newsletter in the fall of 1992 and also provided a regular column in the monthly Interest magazine called the Canadian Arena (it had a readership in Canada and the U.S.).

Church plants began to emerge in: Cambridge, Arkona, Mississauga, Waterloo, Ethel, Barrie, Bancroft and Belleville. Some bore fruit for only a few years while others are flourishing strongly to this day.

So far I haven’t said a word about Vision Ministries Canada. It’s because that name wasn’t used until Jay Gurnett joined us in 1997. When he joined us we changed our name to Vision Ministries Canada because of his strong connections in Quebec and western Canada. In the fall of 1997, we launched our first edition of Thinking Ahead.

 

Questions for Thought and Discussion:

  1. What should we have done differently?
  2. What did we do right?

 

[1] For those living outside of Canada, Ontario is the largest Province in Canada, larger than France and Spain combined. Southern Ontario where I live is the most heavily populated part of Canada.

[2] Interest Ministries was a service agency in Chicago that provided administrative and leadership support for Brethren churches in North America. They published a monthly magazine called Interest which provided news and encouragement for leaders. In the mid-eighties they put new energy into church planting and church revitalization.

More Vision!

Two jobs! Sooner or later, it will catch up with you! I had been serving as the pastor at Lakeshore and getting Vision Ontario off the ground at the same time (four years).

In the goodness of God, Jay Gurnett came to Waterloo for one year in 1995 to get his MBA degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. He had previously been providing leadership for Mount Carmel Bible School in Edmonton. One day he and his wife Margie were at our house for a meal, and as we talked about life and ministry he said to me, “you know, I wonder whether the real reason we are here in Waterloo is to meet you?” I didn’t know what to say at the time, but it stayed in my mind.

I needed help. Jay and Margie had returned to Edmonton. In an elders’ meeting, Bruce Fournier, one of our elders said, “what about that tall fellow who just left us to go back to Edmonton? Is there any chance that he would come back and work with us here in Waterloo?” We invited him to come to work with Vision Ontario half time and with Lakeshore Bible Chapel half time. After a number of months, he decided that he would do exactly that. When he came back to Waterloo in 1997, we changed the name of our organization from Vision Ontario to Vision Ministries Canada (VMC) because Jay’s experiences were mostly in western Canada but also some in Ontario and Quebec. He taught occasional courses at Wilfrid Laurier, worked with the Lakeshore Bible Chapel, and with VMC. Both of us are incurable multitaskers!

The lead article of our first, all-new VMC Thinking Ahead newsletter was entitled, ‘More Vision!’. Jay has been a great partner to me! We have the same heart and vision, enjoy people and have worked together very well till this day.

New churches continued to be planted – about 3 to 4 per year: in Bancroft, Belleville, Brantford, Orillia, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and many more.

We continued to do leadership development events in key cities all across Canada. These are some of the events we convened between 1997 and 2006, the years when I was still part-time with Lakeshore/Lincoln and Vision Ministries Canada:

  • The Ministry of the Church to Hurting Generation with Dr. Rod Wilson
  • Empowering Leaders and Passionate Spirituality with Kevin Dyer
  • Worship that Connects with God with Paul Fletcher
  • Vision that Unifies and Perseveres with Tom Cowan
  • The Supernatural Side of Ministry with Dr. Roy Matheson
  • Growing the Leaders our Church Needs with Dr. Rod Wilson
  • Communication: Key to Church Life with Ken Taylor

From the earliest days of Vision Ministries Canada, we said that our purpose was to help new churches get started, help the leaders of existing churches lead more effectively and to cultivate a network of churches that would be supportive of our mission. It’s that last phrase, cultivate a network of churches, that has proved to be the most challenging. Why? Well, in part, it’s because churches with Brethren background have what I call, anti-joining genes!

In the latter half of the 20th century it was very common for these churches to develop a kind of church handbook which typically included something like this. “We are an independent, autonomous congregation…” Just Google those few words and you will find a flood of Brethren related articles! I don’t know who the first person was who thought up the words, we are an independent and autonomous congregation not subject to any denomination or organizational body. But whoever that person was, they must’ve been dearly loved because those same words have been copied over and over! How can you develop a collaborative network of churches who have such a fiercely independent ideology? We have been learning the answer, slowly.

It helps to be a highly relational person. It pays to be friendly, to make the effort to get to know people and to serve them persistently – even when they don’t think they need what you are offering! It also helps if you’re committed to evangelism which everyone is committed to, at least in theory. Because evangelism is like motherhood and apple pie to anybody who grew up Brethren. It’s just that in the last half of the last century it was more talk than walk. It’s also important not to stick your nose into unnecessary but tempting theological controversies. And, if you have something helpful to say about effective team leadership, people will listen. Jay and I learned were learning to serve our way the table in order to have a hearing among the leaders of these congregations.

This has been the story of Jay’s and my life for the last 23 years. In the early days of Vision Ontario, I was trying to tell someone what we wanted to do. He said, so are you trying to start a new denomination? I knew that to say yes would be a terrible answer! You know denomination and abomination rhyme!? So, I said oh no, we are just trying to get churches to cooperate and work together on important things like evangelistic church planting and encouraging leaders. Hmm, ok, maybe.

What was the basis of this hyper independent ideology? We would need 70 forensic, Brethren historians to be sure of the answer. Probably they wouldn’t fully agree, even then! So, I am going to take a pass on that question. But I do know this, many elders and leaders of Brethren background churches have rarely thought about why independence is so important to them. Even the most broad- minded Brethren background people could do almost anything else more readily than formally agree to work together with other Brethren background churches.

But let me ask you this. Were the churches of the New Testament autonomous and independent? That would be a hard case to make. As you read the book of Acts and the letters written by the apostles it’s very obvious that there was leadership in the churches and among the churches. It’s impossible to read the book of Acts and not be aware of the prominent role of the apostles in the life of the church. For us to say, we no longer have apostles as they did at the beginning is an inadequate answer. The church still needs and benefits from leaders within and among the churches. Leaders among the churches were the primary evangelists, the primary teachers, the ones to be persecuted and definitely the trouble-shooters and guides as problems arose in the churches.

This is a role that is very much needed among churches everywhere. We don’t need people who are looking for a lofty position. But we do need people who will imitate the work of the apostles. It matters little what we call them. But it matters a great deal that we have people who are willing to do this work in a sacrificial, humble and persistent way.

We would like to see churches be both autonomous in a good way and inter-connected in a good way. That’s not something that is easy to explain organizationally. But it’s just as easy as trying to describe the Trinity, the nature of Jesus, fully God and fully man and how the Bible is both the very word of God and written by people.

When we look at the New Testament metaphors for the church: a body, a bride, a family, a race of priests, a building and a household – those are very different pictures! Each of these metaphors provides an accurate and partial glimpse of the people of God on planet earth. The church should not be an organism or an organization. It must have elements of both. The New Testament doesn’t give us a detailed organizational plan or structure for a church. But it does give us principles to guide us. It gives us examples to inspire us. And it gives us warnings to alert us.

I believe that churches should be autonomous in respect to their leadership, strategy and ministries. But that doesn’t mean they would not benefit from the help of leaders among the churches. As we have been serving churches over the past 28 years we have discovered that church leaders welcome the involvement of experienced outsiders. They don’t want people from outside to take control or boss them around. But help? That’s totally different! Being a part of a network of churches that has supporting leaders among the churches; that is huge blessing! It’s not about control; it’s about help, encouragement and a shared vision to change our communities and our world.

What can an organization like Vision Ministries Canada provide for a church that is difficult or even impossible for an independent church to do on its own?

  • A practical Gospel vision for our city, province and country.
  • Leadership development. Helping leaders work it out in practice.
  • Church planting. It happens when there are people among the churches who have a vision for it.
  • There are times when a church forgets its calling and loses its way. There are times of crisis and there are times when there is no one who knows how to lead.
  • Large-scale projects of any kind. Sometimes there is a desperate need among the churches for a particular service. For example, how to reach out to and help refugees?

I believe that people who have been unusually effective in providing leadership within a church should be the ones to provide leadership among the churches. Leaders among the churches should not be primarily concerned with; managing pension plans and providing administrative support for pastors and churches. They should be people of vision who are imitating the apostles. In this way they are examples of what Jesus was talking about when he said to Peter, I will make you fishers of men, and to all of the disciples, you will do greater things than I have done because I go to the Father.

Yes, pride and the desire for control can be a danger within a church or among churches. We are always in danger. In danger from inside, in danger from outside, in danger from Satan, in danger because we lay hands on people too quickly and in danger because we will never give up our position, no matter what our age or limitations.

But we are called to be obedient disciples of Jesus the Son of God. We need faithful leaders in our churches and among our churches.

Working together should be our model:

  • As individual congregations: Congregations flourish when they have harmony and direction.
  • As churches within our communities: Congregations have additional strength when they learn to serve together with like-minded churches in their neighbourhoods.
  • As part of a network of churches: The church of the New Testament had leaders in and among the churches. Large ventures of faith require deep levels of collaboration.
  • As cooperating networks or associations of churches: Networks, associations or denominations of churches should respect and cooperate with one another. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada facilitates this process in our country.
  • As followers of Jesus, together with all who follow Him, we are the body of Christ in our nation.

Together, we can make a difference for the glory of God in our country.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. What do you think the role of leaders within and among churches should be?
  2. What are your thoughts on the best way for churches to work together?

New Canadians and New Churches

“So, how did this happen?” I had just entered a large conference room at the Queensway Cathedral in Toronto with three or four friends, all from different ethnic backgrounds. We seated ourselves at a table with two West Indian women, introduced ourselves and continued our conversation. After a few minutes one of the women asked me, “so how did this happen?” I said, “what do you mean?” She said, “well how did it happen that you are here with people from all different backgrounds?” I hadn’t thought about it in that way but I told her that, “when I was 18 my oldest sister married a Jamaican man, a widower with three children, perhaps that had something to do with it.” She said, “ah, there’s always a reason.”

I’ve never forgotten her question. Does there have to be a reason, of that kind? It seems to me that the best reason is the one that I used to hear in the Breaking of Bread/Communion service at the church I grew up in. Many times I heard this verse read with reverence and wonder, “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10

Isn’t that reason enough? God redeems people for himself from every tribe and language and people and nation. He makes them into a kingdom and priests to serve our God. Working together harmoniously with people from every tribe and nation, is not optional.

Before my sister married, her Jamaican fiancé asked me, “so what do you think about your sister marrying a Black man?” I have no recollection of this question or my answer, but he insists that it happened! Apparently I said to him, “I don’t know many black people, I had a Black gym teacher in high school, and I didn’t really like him, not because he was Black but for other reasons.” He reminded me of this years later, he thought to himself, “this kid will tell it like it is. That’s good.” Bevis became a much loved member of the family.

But, in addition to what the Bible says, and more than my teenage experience with my Jamaican brother-in-law, the church I grew up in had a huge interest in missions. Missionaries would come and report on the work they were doing in far away countries. Although I could see that the people they were working with were different than us, it didn’t occur to me to think that we were different in the sense of kind. My experience with a summer missions team in Colombia further expanded my horizons about peoples and nations. When we were in training in Chicago, Heather and I were sent to show an International Teams video at a Black church on the south side of the city. We were the only White people in the service that night. We have visited quite a number of Black churches in the U.S and have been very well received by them. God called us to serve the peoples of the world, not only the ones that look like us and have cultures similar to ours. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by making friends with people of every tribe and nation, particularly with the people of God.

There are barriers to cross. Barriers of language, food, dress, culture and national loyalties. But being a part of the family of God, surely transcends all those barriers! We used to sing, “Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe, Only His great eternal love Made my Saviour go. We are called to love as he loved; sacrificially, genuinely and gladly.

Some of the very special people that God brought into my life were Mingpeng Gong and his wife Tian Mei from mainland China. Mingpeng was close to graduating with a PhD in pure math from the University of Waterloo when he came to faith in the mid-nineties. They first visited an English Bible study for international students. I remember him telling me that on the very first night they attended, the Bible reading was from Genesis chapter 1. He said, “I knew right away that there was a big problem. “Although these people are very nice they are surely mistaken, either they are wrong, or everything I’ve ever been taught in China was wrong.” Shortly after his conversion, he was compelled by the Spirit to return to his home province in China to tell his family the good news about Jesus Christ. I remember interviewing him when he returned to Waterloo. He told us that about 40 people from his family and relatives and neighbours had accepted Christ on that visit. He went to seminary and today is providing leadership for a church in Toronto that has seven different congregations meeting each weekend. They have had the privilege of baptizing, teaching and equipping many! He continues to have a profound ministry in China as well. They are all a part of that great throng of every people, from every tribe and nation.

Another special couple are Yonatan and Betty Hiruy from Eritrea. I first heard about Yonatan via a phone call from Jay Gurnett in 2002. He said that a friend of his from Edmonton told him that there was an Eritrean man who had just come from Sweden to Toronto to help a struggling, emerging congregation there. Jay gave me his phone number. So I called him to find out who he was and what was happening. He didn’t tell me at the time, but later he told me that for the first number of nights that he was in Toronto he slept in stairwells so as not to create an obligation for the people he had come to serve. He had fled violence in Eritrea, escaped to Sudan, found his way to Sweden and was later commissioned by an Eritrean church there to assist this emerging group in Toronto. We have had the privilege of coming alongside them. There have been many ups and downs. Today we are connecting with more than 20 Eritrean and Ethiopian congregations across Canada. Many of these dear brothers and sisters know what it is to suffer oppression and violence. And, they know how to pray!

In 2007, I met Siamak Shafti-Keramat and his wife Mina for the first time in Toronto. He had started a tiny Persian church and was looking for help and support. He wrote someone in Texas asking for assistance. That person referred him to Vision Ministries Canada. To this day I have no idea who that was! I called Siamak and talked with him on the phone and arranged to visit him and his wife in Toronto. I heard their story and listened to his heart and to his desire to reach out to Persian people with the good news of Jesus. He invited me to speak to their congregation which was meeting in a Lutheran church at that time. I was the only non-Persian person in the sanctuary. As we sang, I noticed that on the overhead slide for the Christmas carols they were singing, in the bottom right-hand corner it said, blasphemy.com. I found it very funny but there was nobody to laugh with! I’ve continued to speak to that congregation every two months or so since then. For many years it was small, 30 people, 40 people and 60 people. But they were full of joy! Joy because of their deliverance from the oppressive world of Islam. I have participated in their retreats, baptisms and special events. I’ve been present for baptisms of up to 80 people on one day! More people from Iran have come to Christ in the last 20 years than in the previous 2000! God is at work among them. Yes, they have all kinds of problems. They come with confused and diverse motivation. But it’s a delightful congregation to visit and know. Has my life been enriched by getting to know them? Absolutely! Today we are connecting with 20 to 40 Iranian/Persian church leaders from around the world on Zoom calls twice a month. We’re trying to connect them for encouragement and leadership development. There are all kinds of struggles. There is a huge sense of distrust among them because of the heritage they all share. But they are eager to advance the kingdom of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In 2008, I had a phone call from Tim Nielsen of Winnipeg. He told me about a string of 10 or more Chin churches that were getting established in Canada. He told me that they were a tribe with a long Christian, Baptist heritage from Burma/Myanmar who had come to Canada as refugees. He told me about the challenges they were facing and also explained that he thought these churches would be a good fit for Vision Ministries Canada. I met with Indy Cungcin and a number of other Chin church leaders to explore the possibility of working together. Since then we have helped them plan: their annual leadership training, their annual national conference and have provided ongoing coaching and support for Indy as he provides visionary leadership for Chin people in Canada and around the world. In March of this year I accompanied him for a two-week visit to Burma. It was an eye-opening experience for me to:

  • Grasp fully the extent of the exceptional leadership he provides among his people
  • See and experience firsthand how severely Christian people are oppressed in that country
  • See for the first time people bowing down and prostrating themselves before enormous Buddhist images

Has my life been enriched by being with them? Oh yes! About 10 years ago I was in Winnipeg to participate in a Chin conference. I was staying with Indy and his wife Cheri. Indy had said to his seven-year-old daughter Julian, “Gord Martin is coming and is going to be staying overnight with us so you will have to sleep in your brother’s room tonight.” Indy has an accent. When he says my name Gord, it sounds a lot like God! So his daughter heard him saying that God Martin is staying at our house tonight. She was astonished and asked him, “What?! God has a last name too?!”

These are only four of the groups that God has brought our way. We are also working with: Filipinos, former Sikhs and others from India, Nigerians, East Africans, with Arabic people and more.

We have something to offer them. We can introduce them to our culture; we have Christian heritage and strength which they don’t have. We have a history of working through issues related to church leadership, we have resources and we know people who know people. We can help them by lending our relational connections to them. We can help them find places to meet for their worshiping communities.

But they also have something to offer us. Many of them have fled violence and persecution. They know what it means to trust and believe God in harsh and severe circumstances. Most of them are first generation Christians; full of “first love” for Christ. They believe in prayer in a way that is beyond what I have experienced. Many think nothing of having all night prayer meetings, spending a week in prayer, or a week in prayer and fasting or a whole month dedicated to special prayer. Do we have something to learn from them? Oh yes!

Of the approximately 200 churches in our VMC network, almost 40 are immigrant churches that are worshiping, teaching and evangelizing in their own languages. They are facing the challenges with their second generation. Will they continue in the path of their parents? We are beginning to help them to establish new multiethnic churches for their youth and their friends.

God has blessed us by bringing people to us from every part of the globe. We have the opportunity of being a blessing to them. There is so much more to say!

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. Is it worth the effort to get to know and support new immigrants who have come to our country? Can anyone do it? Could you do it?
  2. As the host culture we have a great deal to offer them. Will we freely give? How?

Helping a Church Find Its Way Forward

I remember thinking, “why couldn’t we have that kind of help?” It was in the early 80’s, we were trying to find our way forward as a church. I was reading the book of Titus, Paul says to his younger protégé; appoint elders in every church, straighten out what was left unfinished, teach the older men, the younger men, the older women, the younger women and remind them…. Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos…and see that they have everything they need. As a younger church leader I was wishing that someone would come along and help us straighten things out what was left unfinished. Somebody more experienced, someone who would be truly helpful, for our good, not just someone to teach us how to lead, from a distance.

At Vision Ministries Canada, we have been learning how to provide that kind of help, not only for new church plants but also for more established churches. As you can imagine, not all churches are the same and don’t need the same kind of help. But all want to find a way forward, they want to be all that God called them to be in their particular time and place. I would love for every church to be like the one in Thessalonica of whom it is said, you have become an example to all the believers in Greece — throughout both Macedonia and Achaia. And now the word of the Lord is ringing out from you to people everywhere, even beyond Macedonia and Achaia, for wherever we go we find people telling us about your faith in God. We don’t need to tell them about it, for they keep talking about the wonderful welcome you gave us and how you turned away from idols to serve the living and true God. I Thes 1:7-9

Churches call us for all kinds of reasons:

  • Do you know where we can find…?
  • Do you know of someone who can help us with…?
  • Do you have written or policy documents we could use for…?
  • Could we talk about…?
  • We have a problem; could we talk? Could you come?
  • We are not in crisis but we are not moving ahead…

Just as churches described in the New Testament were not equally healthy or fruitful, so it is today. Although only God can evaluate a church with the divine perspective, the apostle Paul did not hesitate to provide correction, instruction and direction for the churches of his day.

With significant help from George Bullard, we have come to categorize churches as:

  • Flourishing Congregations
    1. Engaging in quality, fruitful and sustainable ministry, future oriented, thinking ahead.
    2. Their leaders want to learn from peers who are doing ministry that is similar to theirs.
  • Effective Congregations
    1. Engaging in good ministry and striving for great ministry, they are mostly future oriented.
    2. Their key leaders value coaching about specific spheres of ministry.
  • Good but Not Growing
    1. Engaging in acceptable ministry and preparing for better ministry, their focus tends to be on recent past to the present.
    2. They need assessment and intervention, they benefit from outside help to get re-oriented, this could take from 6 months to a year of hard work.
  • Declining Congregations
    1. Engaging in maintenance, yet faithful ministry. They are not likely to seek a more meaningful or effective ministry. Key concepts are providing and satisfied.
    2. They need to learn how to do effective ministry, workshops, encourage whatever ministry fire is burning, it may take one to three years to see progress.
  • Surviving Congregations
    1. Engaging in traditional congregational practices, they are unwilling to consider ministry that is more meaningful or effective. They glorify the past.
    2. They need care, encouragement, and they may need help to learn how to transfer their assets to those starting new ministries – when they are ready to hear and bear it.

Of all the churches, the “good but not growing” churches are in the greatest danger. There is too much good for them to be dissatisfied or deeply concerned. They are stable, people are satisfied, they have good worship, teaching and fellowship. But if the spiritual nursery is empty, they have a big problem. If they are not reaching and incorporating young and older adults into the life of the congregation, and if there is no holy discontent about this failing, then its just a matter of time.

There are many of these churches. They tend to be overly optimistic about their relative health and capacity. One leader may be unrealistically positive about their current ministry, another may be discouraged and doubtful, while two or three others are faithfully pressing on without giving much thought to whether they are fulfilling their full God-given calling or not. Good things are happening in their church but it could not be described as effective or flourishing. Its hard for them to agree on their purpose or even about their present condition. The kind of help this church requires is substantially more and different from what is needed for an effective or a flourishing congregation. But often, they think they just need a little help or positive input.

At present we are seeing 10 to 12 new church planting initiatives launched per year. We are also involved with at least that many established churches per year, providing coaching, assessment and intervention or transitional support. Its easy to tell positive stories about church planting because something new is being launched from scratch. They are stories of adventurous faith. Its like something from nothing!

Assisting established churches is different. There are issues of confidentiality. There may be interpersonal challenges. Progress is slower. They don’t realize how far they have slipped. By the time the church begins to bear fruit – its hard to remember all that contributed to the turn around!

A few years ago I was called by the elders of a church that was in crisis. It had become known to them that their pastor who had been with them for quite a number of years had engaged in serious and illegal misconduct. As always, some want to show grace and others want to be stricter. The whole congregation was torn and deeply disappointed. It was important to assess the situation carefully. To what degree should the congregation be made aware of the details? In Canada we have to be careful about what we say. Everyone has their legal rights. What should our next steps be? It was painful but, today the church is doing very well!

A pastor called because one of their most prominent elders was trying to influence the church to go in a direction that would bring destruction and division. What should they do?

Other churches call because they are in slow decline and are concerned about their future. What should they do? Do they just want a little support? A quick fix? Or are they prepared for all that it will take?

In every one of these situations it means so much if the leaders of the church are able to turn to someone they trust, someone they have reason to believe can help them. In a previous segment of this e-book I spoke about the need for leaders in the church and among the churches, a meaningfully collaborative network of churches and leaders, just like in the New Testament. Having someone to call who will gladly come to help is a huge blessing!

Ten common challenges for churches:

  • Division over secondary values: Each of us have unarticulated, sub-consciously, and emotionally held preferences or priorities that are revealed when ignored or violated
  • Divided loyalties: Favourite preachers, authors, ministries, denominations
  • Governance: Leadership, management and decision making
  • Right people in the right places
  • Church ministry model: What is the purpose of our Sunday service? Primarily teaching? Primarily reaching? Combination? Other? How will other priorities relate to that service, extend it, broaden it, deepen it? How is it all intended to work together? Or do we have a collection of “ministry islands”?
  • Us and Them: Who are we trying to reach with the Good News? How much are we willing to sacrifice to reach them and integrate them into our church?
  • Spiritual Direction/Warfare: What is the will of God for us? How is the enemy confusing or troubling us?
  • If we have significant confusion or tension over the above issues, its difficult to move forward with the following major steps. What is our:
    1. Vision: A clear word picture of the future we pray and work together toward.
    2. Mission: The main things we do to accomplish our vision.
    3. Strategies: How we do the main things.

How did I get into this kind of ministry? Obedient practice, humbling experience and learning from others. When God breaths life into something, people notice. Yet He does His work in such a way that we can never take credit for apparent successes. The more honest we are, the more humbling the experiences, the more aware we are that successes are His blessings not our achievements.

Churches can be helped to move forward if their leaders have a deep and holy dissatisfaction with a good but unacceptable status quo.

In order to provide significant help for a church, those in primary leadership roles must be in agreement that they need help and who they will ask for help. Together, with an experienced guide, they should establish the terms on how assistance will be provided and move forward together in faith. If they are doing it afraid? That’s ok!

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. Does your church need help?
  2. Which category of church best describes your situation?
  3. Having read this article, what are the primary challenges your church faces?

Discovering Unity Among Denominations

When I was young, I thought of denominations only in negative terms. In our church we were given to understand that denominations were wrong, they divided Christians, and of course, none of them were as Biblically correct as we were.

As a young missionary in Ecuador I discovered the necessity of working together with other missions and missionaries. You may remember that when we landed in Ecuador, the plane that was carrying all the supplies we had packed for two years crashed in Miami. All we had was what we carried in our suitcases. We needed help! We turned to other mission agencies and to several denominational leaders. They pitched in and helped us! All of us together as evangelicals, were a small minority among the predominantly Roman Catholic population. We had much more in common than I realized. We were not all on “the same team” but we were all working towards the same objective. We all wanted to see people’s lives transformed through the Gospel of Jesus. We wanted to see the kingdom of God advance and flourishing in Ecuador.

Besides, we all know that Jesus had prayed fervently that his followers would be one. He said, this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Unity is a high priority!

When Heather and I returned to Canada, I began to connect with the evangelical pastors in Kitchener and Waterloo through their emerging ministerial. Of course, I was masquerading as a pastor at those meetings because I was a “full time worker” at Lakeshore Bible Chapel, not a pastor! But because of the relationships born there, I was later able to enlist their help when we wanted to start the downtown ministry of Oasis.

When the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada began to step forward in the late 80s, I was glad to connect with them. Yes, there were differences among us, but the most important elements of our faith were priorities for all of us. I benefited by associating with them.

I remember reading a section of Buswell’s Systematic Theology many years ago. He was discussing the question of whether human beings were made up of two parts or three parts. Are we body, soul and spirit? Or are soul and the spirit the same thing? As he reviewed what the Bible said, he noted that sometimes the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably and sometimes they are used with a slight distinction of meaning. He said some scholars are impressed with the differences and others with the similarities! Wow! That’s a possible explanation?! When it comes to working with people of different denominations, some of us are impressed with the similarities and others by the differences. I confess to being aware of the differences but impressed by the similarities.

Although the country of Canada was established in the 1800’s by European Christians, predominantly Anglican and Roman Catholic, it became a multi-cultural, religiously neutral country in the mid 1970’s.  The PEW Research Centre said in 2018 that “Our most recent survey in Canada, conducted in 2018, found that a slim majority of Canadian adults (55%) say they are Christian, including 29% who are Catholic and 18% who are Protestant. About three-in-ten Canadians say they are either atheist (8%), agnostic (5%) or “nothing in particular” (16%)”.

About 20% of Canadians attend some kind of Christian church regularly; roughly one third are Roman Catholic, one third are traditional Protestants and one third are evangelicals.

In view of this, it’s never been more important for Christians to learn how to work together. I mentioned in segment 17 of this e-book that working together harmoniously should be a high priority for us:

  1. Within each individual congregation
  2. With like-minded churches in our communities
  3. With the network of churches, we are associated with
  4. Denominations and networks of churches should work together for high level priorities

As followers of Jesus, from all around the world, together, we are the body of Christ.

In the Handbook of the History of Christianity there is a series of graphics that portray the spread of the Gospel and the Church in the first three centuries. Each graphic shows the Mediterranean Sea surrounded by land masses. Each church is represented by a dot on the map. In the first century there were about 40 dots. But in the second and third centuries the dots spread quickly and thickly all around the Mediterranean basin.

The church has continued to spread down through the centuries; all around the world to almost every tribe, nation and language. The Gospel and Gospel-bearing churches have spread dynamically. Not because of one overall organization or even through a series of organizationally related leaders. It spread dynamically, organically by every day people and by inspirational leaders. As the gospel spread; there were misunderstandings and differences of opinion about almost everything! There have been fresh starts, divisions, new churches, controversies, new networks of churches, splits, renewals and revivals. Again and again efforts are made to recover the original powerful dynamic church of the New Testament.

Recently I’ve become aware of a large evangelical denomination in Nigeria that emerged from the ministry of SIM, called Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA). There are about 8000 congregations associated with it. I didn’t even know about it until recently!

How can we find our way, let alone unify among such variety and diversity?! We might compare the church to the night sky which has multitudes of galaxies, each having its own energy centre which holds its stars together. Some may become rogue or false galaxies over time. When that central energy begins to fade, stars drift and may be drawn to another galaxy. This sounds a bit like denominations. When we look at the whole panorama of the church we see differences, even competition. They were formed and shaped by gifted leaders with unique gifts, callings and ideology. Their energy and leadership holds churches together. If or when that central leadership drifts or fails in some way, people or even whole congregations drift way and join other churches or networks.

In the first century there was just one network of churches with its leaders serving in and among the churches. Such networks have multiplied over the centuries and around the globe.

The church requires diverse galaxies/denominations because of the diverse demands of geography, national boundaries, races, languages, cultures and personalities. Relationships of trust required by leaders among the churches have natural limitations. Can we imagine the apostle Paul having the kind of ministry he had on a global scale? Multiple galaxies of churches each have leaders within and among them as at the beginning. Its important for them to know each other and to learn how to work cooperatively with each other like collaborating mission agencies.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) helps us do that in Canada. It is the national association of evangelical Christians in Canada, existing to unite Evangelicals to bless Canada in the name of Jesus. The EFC has five priorities: Church and Mission, Care for the Vulnerable, Sanctity of Life, Faith and Community and Religious Freedom.

EFC provides national conferences and once a year brings together the leaders of all of its affiliate denominations, ministry agencies and church networks. Twice a year denominational leaders gather, once under the guidance of EFC leaders and once a year these leaders gather on their own without the participation of EFC. I participated in these gatherings for at least 10 years. Often there would be 25 or 30 people in the room, each representing their own denomination or church network. In settings of this kind everyone wants to know who you are? What is your background? They were very interested to know that a network like Vision Ministries Canada had emerged from a Brethren heritage.

I was impressed with the respect and desire for collaboration that was evident in those gatherings. We shared what was happening in our circle of churches; what were our joys? Our challenges? We prayed together and shared ministry resources with each other. I sometimes wished the members of our churches could peek in the window and see the leaders of their denominations or networks talking and praying together. In some respects, unity has been easier for the leaders of denominations and church networks than for regional and local church leaders.

Positive relationships with denominational leaders has helped make it possible for us to plant churches in collaboration with other denominations. Usually the new church has a primary accountability relationship with one.

In 1999, I attended an EFC “Trends and Opportunities” conference in Calgary. George Bullard the primary speaker, stated that the leaders of denominations or networks of churches exist to help the churches of their network succeed. Not the other way around. The churches do not exist to help the denomination succeed. He said that if a denomination does the following four things they will not only continue, but will continue to replicate themselves. A denomination should:

  • Help new churches get started, this is the life-blood and missional frontier of the church
  • Help the 20% of their churches that are already the most flourishing, flourish more, because the remaining 80% will follow them at about the same distance, no matter what they are doing
  • Provide resources for their churches, which they can’t find better, somewhere else
  • Help churches in crisis. But be careful, don’t do this with more than 3% of your total number of churches per year, because its very time consuming and, only about one in 10 will turn it around

His simple four-point agenda stuck and was perfect for VMC! We already were placing a high priority on church planting but needed to hear his voice on the other three items.

I have been privileged to serve at all levels of leadership, both within and among our churches. I know how illusive unity can be! But is it worth it? Oh yes! Striving for unity at every level as we obey our Saviour and Lord, is of the utmost value.

 

Questions for thought and discussion:

  1. How have you seen unity expressed among denominations?
  2. What do you consider to be the greatest barrier to interdenominational unity?
  3. Is there something you could do, to advance the cause of interdenominational unity?

How VMC Became International

Culture shock works both ways. As I walked from door to door through the slums of Guayaquil, Ecuador and saw the overwhelming, grinding, daily poverty I thought to myself, if I were not a Christian, I could be a very angry and dangerous man!

After returning to Canada with four years of life in Ecuador and Colombia behind me, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw and heard. At our church’s Christmas banquet a smorgasbord dinner was provided. I saw people coming back from the food tables with incredible piles of food on their plates. Heather and I heard people talking on and on about home décor and bigger and better homes. It was shocking and disturbing.

Who had changed? It’s impossible to live in a country where massive poverty is an everyday reality and not be deeply and fundamentally changed. You can never; should never forget!

But of course it’s not just about material things. As members of the family of God and of the church, the body of Christ, our concern is also for all who don’t know or have not embraced the Good News. We want everyone to know Him! We want them to know the joy and the benefits of walking with Him from day to day. We want them to know they can connect with God through Jesus in a way that gives direction, hope and strength for living, along with the certainty of life forever in the kingdom of God. The normal secular Canadian way of thinking about life is, so shallow! To quote an ancient philosopher, “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!”

One of the basic principles that Jesus taught was that “to whom much is given, much is required”. I have been blessed! I have been blessed with: health, a strong family and church heritage, a good wife, children and grandchildren. I have been given plenty in terms of material things, plus I have the life of Christ living in me and have had the unspeakable privilege of serving the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords for my whole life! I have been and am blessed.

But, how did VMC come to be engaged internationally? Of course it began with our time in Ecuador and Colombia. People in other countries are just as real as we are. We came to love them. Although I had grown up in a sheltered way, being concerned only with myself and my immediate surroundings, that was no longer my world. I had been given much. Other people matter. People in other countries matter.

When God fed the Israelites in the wilderness, he did it in such a way that there would be equality. There was no possibility of hoarding. There were no rich and no poor. This is the story that the apostle Paul quotes in II Corinthians 8 when he is urging the Christians of Greece and Macedonia to take up a collection for the Christians in Judea who were suffering because of a severe famine. He said, I’m not asking you to do this so that you will be poor and they will be rich, but that there might be equality. When we returned to Canada after four years away it was so obvious that there was no equality between here and there! We were unspeakably and ignorantly rich. It didn’t matter to us if we had brothers and sisters in other countries who had little or nothing. We are busy and, that’s just the way it is. I have not been able to think and live like that with a clear conscience.

When I began to see and experience the real benefits of leadership within and among the churches and the rich benefits of being part of an actively collaborative network of churches, I began to wish that benefit for others internationally.

If you are going to take on major projects like church planting and leadership training, you have to be committed to raising and sharing funds. You have to find a way to get organized and work out a strategy together. You can’t do that with just anyone, or with everyone! Although I had become quite connected interdenominationally, the people I knew best were those with Brethren background. Of course I knew I didn’t have common ground with all of them, either in Canada or abroad. Nevertheless, I believed there might be others like me in other countries; who wanted to become more effective in their churches, wanted to make a difference in their country and wanted to make a difference around the world.

Our first experience internationally was with Spain. In 2000, I was listening to my cousin Les Frey talk about his missionary work in that country. I was listening carefully as he talked about the church he was working with, as well as with other Brethren related churches in Spain. I began to wonder, “would it make a difference if they had (financial) resources?” We had met people in Canada who wanted to help by providing financial resources. God has blessed some of His children with significant wealth. We became involved in providing resources so that they would be able to: plant a couple of new churches, establish a national newsletter, conduct campaigns and assist with essential administration. It was a five-year project. We were learning.

In 2003, Heather and I attended an IBCM conference in Romania. IBCM stands for International Brethren Conference on Mission. It was the first time we had met such a diverse collection of Brethren people from all around the world. I began to meet people who had similar interests to mine. I was looking for people who were either leading an organized network of churches or were interested in developing such a network in their country. This was not an idea that was promoted at the conference.

In 2007, we attended the same conference again, this time in Germany. We met some of the same people we’d met in Romania. Conversations went a little further.

In 2011, we again attended this conference, this time in France. Again we met some of the same people. But now a few were saying, okay enough talking, what are we going to do? Those conversations led Brian Larmour of Winnipeg and myself to make a trip to Burundi and Kenya. In Burundi there was a substantial network of churches already in place, including children, the average size of the churches was about 400 each. And yes, they have a lot of children! The average age in Burundi is about 17 years of age! They had a national organized network of churches. For three years in a row we went to Burundi to provide leadership training and encouragement to our brothers and sisters there.

At the same time, we visited Kenya where Ishmael Ochieng introduced us to a small group of leaders from churches that he was connected with in Nairobi. They didn’t have the number of churches or the national leadership strength that was evident in Burundi. But they were eager for help.

At that time, I had the opportunity to meet with Oscar Muriu, the pastor of Nairobi Chapel. He is a powerful preacher and an outstanding leader. I asked for his advice since we were just beginning to consider work in Africa. This is what he said:

  1. When you give, you must trust. Don’t try to hold tightly to the reigns of accountability afterwards; to do so will be interpreted as distrust.
  2. What ever you give, must be given on a reducing basis over time, they must contribute something.
  3. Turn your giving into strategic investments – leadership development and buildings can be strategic. Beware of long term commitments to school fees and salaries, they are never ending.
  4. There must be reciprocity, you bless them, they bless you, so that there may be equality because they have alternative wealth:
  • If you provide finances, don’t provide 100% of the needed amount, use a matching formula like 5 to 1 or 10 to 1 – but they must contribute something!
  • Expect sweat equity – they must be putting their backs into joint projects
  • They have faith, they are gifted and talented; they know how to pray and how to make the most out of little
  • Work with people who have: a good track record; they should already be doing what you hope to see them doing even more effectively, a believable vision, a workable plan.

Due to strife among the key leaders in Burundi we were not able to continue there. But we have continued in Kenya ever since 2012, providing assistance to support church planting, leadership development, help with administration and coaching of their national leaders. Quite a number of pastors from the Vision Ministries Canada network have participated in the conferences in both Burundi and Kenya. Doug Loveday from London has been a part of our ministry in Africa every year since we have been going there.

Material inequality brings a complicated burden. People from a materially wealth country must ask themselves: when are we helping, in a good way? And when are we enabling, creating an unhealthy dependency? These are painful and difficult questions to answer! As we continued to hold conferences in Nairobi, people from surrounding nations came to participate in these events. Each one said, “could you come to our country? We need this too.” The help we were providing was, and is, never enough. We didn’t have the human or the financial resources to go to each country that was asking us to come.

Since I was connecting with denominational leaders in Canada, I had the opportunity of exploring my concerns and interests with them. Bill Morrow who was the president of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada at that time, told me that when they went into a country they followed a strategy of the five P’s:

  • Pioneer: pioneering the gospel, evangelism, Bible translation, discipleship.
  • Planting: not only churches, but also districts, and national organizations.
  • Preparing: Bible colleges and training for leaders for churches districts and the national organization.
  • Partnering: a national organization of one country partnering with a national organization in another.
  • Participation: churches participating in ministry from everywhere to everywhere.

As I spoke with him I realized that Brethren missionaries skipped the organizing part required in church districts and national organizations of churches. Because of their anti-organizing genes, they did not train people for specific, organized leadership roles in the local, district and national levels. They were teaching and training everyone with the intent that leaders would rise the surface and “find their place”. This was the same ambiguity about leadership and organization that I had experienced in Canada.

An idea came to me. Perhaps this burden of helping emerging leadership networks among the churches, shouldn’t belong only to us in Canada! I began to wonder, are there others who are leading Brethren background church networks in other countries around the world? Or are there some who would like to do that? What if we brought them together to hear and learn from each other? And what if those networks from wealthier countries began to take an interest in a network from a country that was less privileged materially, as we were doing in Kenya?

In 2016, I invited four men to a meeting in London, England to discuss the idea. They were Brian Killins of Colombia, Ishmael Ochieng from Kenya, Kap Thang from Myanmar/Burma and Sam Gibson from Ireland. I had met all of them at IBCM conferences. We decided to move ahead with something that came to be called, Sharing the Vision.

In 2018, 27 people from 17 countries met together, just outside of Paris for a three-day consultation. One person from each country presented a report on what they were doing as leaders among their churches. We asked them to tell us what they were doing in terms of church planting, leadership development, how they were functioning as an organized national network of churches in their country and how they were funded.

People heard each other. Relationships were stimulated. We did not start a new organization. Rather we decided that we would connect by phone or Zoom and meet again within four years. The global pandemic has affected everybody. But we have continued to meet in groups of three or four on video calls or by personal phone calls. Little by little relationships are getting stronger. All of us are increasingly aware of what the others are going through. We are learning from each other. Where will this take us? Only God knows!

At VMC we say that our mission is: to plant and invigorate churches by nurturing, inspiring and collaborating with leaders, cultivating a partnering network of churches, primarily in Canada. We’ve struggled with that last little phrase, primarily in Canada. Should we be saying something different? We are trusting God to lead us.

 

Questions for thought and discussion: 

  1. As you read this, are we still “doing it afraid”?
  2. How do they need us? How do we need them?

About me: My Adult Life – So Far!

I have been married to Heather for almost 51 years. We had three sons and now have five grandchildren. Our middle son died suddenly and tragically in 2015. Heather has actively supported me in all of our ministry endeavours, through thick and thin.

Heather and I served as missionaries in Ecuador and Colombia for four years doing evangelism and church planting.

Ministry in Canada:

  • Community evangelist and ambassador for Lake shore Bible Chapel
  • Pastor of Lakeshore Bible Chapel/Lincoln Road Chapel for many years
  • Initiator of Oasis, a downtown interdenominational outreach centre
  • Initiator of Vision Ministries Canada
  • Initiator of Vision Ministries Kenya
  • Initiator of Sharing the Vision, an informal global network of Church Network Leaders
  • Coach and mentor of immigrant churches and church planters, mostly in Ontario

There is nothing that brings me more joy than serving the King of Kings and Lord of Lords with whatever capacity he gives me.