From the Inside OutAs evangelical churches participate in more and more city-wide ministry events, the people they are changing just might be themselves.
When church leaders from across Canada gathered for a brainstorming meeting a few years ago they asked themselves “How can we get the church more engaged with our communities?”
The predictable answer would have been to develop yet another evangelism conference. Instead, those leaders initiated Celebration, a national initiative mobilizing churches to spend one week in concerted effort to reach their communities through acts of loving service.
More than that, organizers said it was a chance to discover new resources, try new ideas, make new partnerships and strengthen existing networks – with the side benefit of potentially enriching the life of individual churches for years to come.
David Macfarlane is director of national initiatives for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFX), sponsor of the Celebration week. He remembers it was simply to be a week when churches “roll up their sleeves and do something,” ending with a city-wide celebration event.
Four years after that meeting events like Celebration have become an annual rallying point for local churches (www.celebration2008.ca). But more important, they’ve become a catalyst for changing individual congregation’s attitude about entry level evangelism.
Churches are discovering that the people they reach are sometimes themselves.
“It changes the DNA of the church,” says Macfarlane. “We wanted to take churches from looking inwards to start looking outwards.”
Celebration began in 2005 with churches across Canada taking part in a mixture of outreach ministries: a church in Toronto cleaned garbage from two area parks and ravine, a Langley church “cookie-bombed” the neighbourhood, another in Medicine Hat held a Timbits give away. The closing celebration of these random acts of kindness and service took place in Peterborough, Ontario, and was broadcast across the country on CTS-TV.
This year Celebration 2007 teamed up with the Global Day of Prayer, resulting in a slight change to its program. The outreach ministry took the form of GDOP’s 90 Days of Blessing, immediately after the day of prayer on Pentecost Sunday, May 27.
Although Celebration helped spread the idea, it was not the originator, or the only event of its kind. Love Your City is another national initiative to “love the people of our cities into a relationship with Jesus Christ” by way of acts of service, according to the website.
And predating both was Abbotsford’s Love Your City initiative. In 2000, ten churches and 500 people reached out with acts of kindness. The following year there were 30 churches and 1,500 people.
Love Abbotsford has plateaued at around 40 to 50 churches but its method has spread across the country. The www.loveyourcity.com website lists about 40 Love Your City communities from Vancouver Island to New Brunswick, including Yellowknife.
A bottle of cold cola
Entry level evangelism, the giving of a bottle of cold cola in the name of the Lord, has proven effective. On the Celebration website are reports from the 2005 and 2006 events that include entry upon entry like this:
“One resident was touched because the Timbits were given to her on a day when her father was in the hospital dying. She was deeply touched as she sensed that God cared for her and said she was going to take them up to show her dying father.”
As well as touching the outreached, these city-wide events also touch the outreaching.
Macfarlane tells the story of a Presbyterian church on the East Coast where members went door to door giving out geraniums.
“The people were terrified, the pastor told me,” says Macfarlane. “Many went out in fear and trepidation but found to their shock people were quite open to them. It had a major effect on the church.”
Kevin Boese, worship pastor at Abbotsford Vineyard and the man responsible for Love Your City, says “What I don’t hear is that it was a waste of time. What I do hear is that the Love Your City event was awesome and that they’d do it again.”
One of the initial aims of the city-wide events was to see an increase in church unity where, over the long haul, churches would consistently work together on outreach projects.
Organizers say that hasn’t happened on a grand scale – yet. Instead, the city-wide events have become a smaller-scale catalyst – with individual churches taking up the outreach torch or pockets of two or three churches joining together on short-term projects. Outreach Canada’s Alison Johnson, part of the team organizing Love Ottawa 2005 and 2006, confesses to some disappointment at the limited number of churches that have worked together. “Our goal was to try to get churches to work together,” says Johnson. “Just getting them out to do something was a stretch.”
But Boese says some of the churches in Love Abbotsford “have been spurred by what we’ve done,” mentioning a couple of projects: a school breakfast program where different churches take a day of the week to serve and a block party hosted by four churches in the same area, some on the same corner. “We see ourselves as a catalyst in getting churches to look outward,” says Boese.
The next step
Churches that have been motivated to make outreach evangelism part of their DNA are now asking themselves about the next step.
“The current challenge is to develop strategies that will take us far beyond the Celebration time frame and work throughout the year,” reads an e-mail from Glen Williams, head pastor at Toronto’s Evangel Temple.
Taking part in Celebration helped the church focus outward, develop a team approach to evangelism and involve all age groups, gifts and personality types.
Evangel “adopted” a subsidized housing project for Celebration 2005 – a start in the long-term direction. For four weekends church members painted, mowed lawns and helped with repairs at the project. And instead of holding its traditional cantata, Evangel’s choir went door to door, singing Christmas carols.
In Ottawa Christians held Love Ottawa for two years but decided not to hold an event in 2007. Instead the leadership team pointed to the outreach resources on the Love Your City website.
“Love Ottawa shouldn’t be about a once-a-year event,” says Johnson. “It should be part of what we are doing all the time.
“Most churches have caught the vision and continue to do these throughout the year. One large church has even hired a pastor of outreach – a position it never had before.”
Love Abbotsford is evaluating “who we are and what we want to put under our banner,” says Boese. “We’re talking about what we can do on a larger scale – some longer-lived programs.
Robert White of Guelph, Ontario, is a freelance journalist. He also edits the ChristianWeek Ontarionewspaper.
Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2007.
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