Can the United Church turn it around? We hear that 77% of 30-45 year olds in Canada would be interested in a church like the United Church (open to questioning, social justice oriented…), but our experience in the congregation is mainly decline. We understand that the shift to a post-modern culture requires significant change for ministry to be relevant, but if God is indeed renewing the church for a new day of vital mission and ministry we would see signs of it happening, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t there be examples of congregations who have adapted and are adapting to the new context and are thriving? Well, yes there would. And yes there are! “EDGY Ministries” is a column to highlight those ministries that have cut new trails to God’s new day for the church and are living it out. These are not templates to copy, but offer hope that renewal is not only possible but is happening.  It can happen for you too.

Hillhurst United Church, Calgary

Over the next 4 editions we will look at various aspects of the ministry at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary. About 6 years ago Hillhurst had 38 members who were deciding whether or not to close the congregation. Several weeks ago when I visited them on a Sunday morning the sanctuary was packed to overflowing with people (about 240) and energy. There were 12 infants in the nursery, many children and a large group of youth who went to their own programming but returned for communion. There was a palpable sense of ‘buzz’ and energy. I would call it ‘spirit’. The service saw people laughing and crying, hugging and praying out loud during the prayers of the people (without a script). The journey to that day was long and complex. But there are clear principles that the ministry upholds that are consistent with what many commentators say are appropriate to the new social context for ministry. Here are a few observations:

EPIC Worship:

When Leonard Sweet talks about EPIC worship he means Experiential, Participative, Image-rich and Community-forming. Post-moderns are not looking for a “message” about God so much they yearn for an encounter with God, and experience of God. At Hillhurst the worship is designed to create ‘moments’ or ‘experiences’ of meaning and depth for those present. One service, based on I Corinthians 13 began with a video of a man in the U.S. Army coming-out about his sexuality to his father live on YouTube. He could no longer live with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and needed to be honest about who he was. He began by saying, “Dad, I need to tell you something. It might be hard to hear. But before I start, I need to ask, do you love me?” The father responded, “Of course I love you. What is it?” He told his father he was gay and needed to be honest and open about that and then asked again, “Dad, do you love me.” There was a silent pause during which it seemed the entire congregation leaned forward in anxious anticipation of how the father would respond. Then we realized he was trying to speak past a lump in his throat as he said, “More than anything else, you are my son. I will always love you, no matter what.”  This was the first of many times in the service people began reaching for their Kleenex.

There was broad participation. Three members of the congregation shared something of their faith including a high school student who reflected on the passage as she walked with a friend through the experience of bullying. The prayers of the people were just that, people in the congregation taking the microphone as a minister walked through the aisles sharing what and who needed the prayers of the congregation that morning. There were prayers of thanks for support received from the congregation as well as prayers for those in need, personal, public and global in scope. The prayers culminated in the opportunity to come forward to knead our prayers into the dough that would become the loaf for communion the following week. Images accompanied and further interpreted each theme and part of the service as they were projected on a screen. The broad participation, sense of energy and an intentional ministry of some who watched the congregation carefully from the back and responded to need as they saw it, offering Kleenex here, or pointing to an available seat there, gave the sense of a community of compassion.

It cannot have been easy to achieve this culture of EPIC worship, but the outcome certainly seems like it was worth the effort.

Next issue we will explore how clarity of a missional vision is expressed at Hillhurst through Radical Hospitality, Social Justice and an open Spirituality.

Next issues: 

A Clear Vision: (Radical Hospitality, Social Justice and Spirituality)

Authentic and Empowering Leadership

Excellence in Implementation