Go West, young conference…

Standing Stones. Thanks to Margaret Marschall, Editor of the Edmonton/Athabasca paper, The Messenger

This morning I was part of a monthly gathering of church planters in Edmonton.  We gather to support and encourage one another, and we take it in turns to discuss issues that are concerning us in our ministries.  At the end of that meeting, I was asked how I thought the recent 2010 Vital Church Planting West Conference went.

Now for those of you who might not know, the Vital Church Planting (VCP) conference began some four years ago in partnership between the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism, and the Diocese of Toronto.  Since its inception, the conference has been a clarion for Fresh Expressions of Church, and refreshing approaches to mission and ministry.  Last year, John Bowen extended an invitation to the Diocese of Edmonton to put on a second conference, uniquely focused on mission and ministry in Canada’s West.  And we said yes.  Thus, this past May, the first annual Vital Church Planting West Conference was held in Edmonton at Taylor Seminary, a seminary for the North American Baptist Church.

Now back to my conversation from this morning.  In the course of our discussion about the conference, it was shared with me by a faculty member of the Seminary, who is a part of our church planters’ group, that the office staff of the seminary spent a week following the conference talking about how overwhelmed they were by the “Christian spirit” exhibited by our conference delegates.  The staff felt that every challenge was presented with grace, every problem was handled with a smile, and that all the people they encountered were generous and giving in their words and actions.

It is this spirit of grace, gentleness, compassion, understanding and service that shapes my own thoughts about this past VCP West.  We had two key note speakers.  Phil Potter, who was one of the keynoters for VCP 2009 in Toronto, addressed the conference three times.  Phil leads pioneer ministry for the Diocese of Liverpool, and has over 20 years of church planting experience in the Fresh Expressions vein.  Phil’s approach to teaching mission was so gentle and grace filled, that one almost missed the depth and profundity of his message calling for a change in the church that both enlivens our inheritance, and freshens our mission.

Our second key note speaker was Harold Roscher, who presented the second of our four  key notes. Harold is the only ordained aboriginal pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada.  His ministry is to the aboriginal community in Edmonton, and he has built a worshipping and faithful community of believers who express their Christian faith through traditional aboriginal culture and symbol.  Again, in Harold, we were presented with a face of gentleness and grace.  While acknowledging the harm caused by the sins of the past (naming the residential schools in particular), Harold presented to us a way of healing and encouragement in ministry to aboriginal peoples in Canada.  Harold’s call was to build a Church of equals, each pursuing Christ through the spiritual language and symbols of our own cultures, but unified by the Holy Spirit in our love for Jesus; a Church that honours all, loves all, and serves all, and creates space for Christ’s transforming power in all cultures and cultural expressions.

In our workshops, we ensured that we had a strong rural ministry component, along with teaching for urban and suburban contexts.  A highlight of the conference was the workshop offered by Cam Harder of Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, and the Centre for Rural Community Leadership and Ministry (CiRCLe M).  Consistent with our theme of gracious and gentle presentations, Cam offered to delegates resources for and approaches to rural ministry that will help to equip and strengthen churches in shrinking or struggling communities.

And the whole conference was ably and (continuing with our theme) graciously emceed by John Bowen, of the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism.

What of the delegates? you might ask.  What did they say?  Who were they?  Fear not, for answers are coming.  The majority of our delegates were not ordained, yet felt that they were active in mission in their home communities (though most felt that they would be more active if they had more resources or support).  They came from across Canada’s two western ecclesiastical provinces: from Vancouver Island BC to Kenora ON, and to Whitehorse YK.  Their response to the conference was overwhelmingly positive.  With praise for the speakers and presenters, the facility and the conference organizing team, the delegates flew, drove, and walked home tired, but excited for the work the Spirit was doing in the Church.

We return again to grace, gentleness, compassion, understanding and service.  These words not only characterize the spirit of the conference, but also the spirit necessary to plant vital churches, and to refresh the churches of our inheritance.  If we are able to continue to carry this spirit out into all our ministries and the world, then the future of mission in the Church is both bright and blessed.

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