July/August 2009 Issue
A Church You Should Know
Willow Park Church, Kelowna, B.C.
By Charlene de Haan
R unaways. We’re all runaways,” says Mark Burch, lead pastor at Willow Park Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Kelowna, B.C.“The DNA of every human is a runaway. Some are just closer on their way back home.” In response to this key idea, Burch and his church make it their job to put out the welcome mat for a homecoming party.
Walking, Talking Billboards
Burch admits the mental shifts the congregation members need to make to develop an outward focus are ongoing but he reports that already about 75 per cent can articulate their mission: learning to love people, follow Jesus and serve the world. The goal is that every follower will be speaking into other people’s lives, sometimes without words – moving congregants beyond simply “doing church” to “being church.”
Many have caught the vision of being “walking, talking, living community billboards” for the kingdom – attracting some newcomers by offering a genuine welcome into a network of relationships and drawing others, especially people dissatisfied with popular secular lifestyles and beliefs, by demonstrating an appealing alternative.
Many weeks there are roses on the altar to celebrate people coming to faith. Recently four roses celebrated Alpha members choosing to follow Jesus. Celebrating such life changes is indeed a sort of homecoming party.
God’s Values in Our City?
Burch looks forward to the day when the entire Kelowna area is deeply impacted by the values of God’s kingdom reign. Four campuses (different worship sites) already seek to make God’s values more tangible in the community. Burch and his leadership team stress that God is already ruling and reigning; God’s reign is not merely a future event to wait for. So they dream of their city without hunger or abuse. They want to help ensure adequate jobs and available housing. They imagine a city void of drugs and the sex trade – because no one is buying!
Their key question is, “How can our 62-year-old church influence our city for good” The central campus stands in the heart of Rutland, an area with 30,000 people in 10,000 homes. This campus is known for children’s programs and youth ministries. Families come because of their children. The midweek ministry attracts about 750 youth, including 50 per cent with no church background.
The Metro Community campus, organized two years ago, serves the working poor and homeless. Some could be described as dysfunctional, exhibiting striking disabilities or addictions; others are sex workers. Excitement rises in his voice when Burch shares a cool story about Christ’s transforming power in people like Rick, the “giant teddy bear.” Rick sports a prosthesis – his arm was shot off in a drug deal gone bad. Living on the street in his addiction, Rick became involved in a recovery program before being baptized and training to be a truck driver. Recently he landed a job in Alberta. Metro celebrated when Rick reconciled with his two children after more than eight years without contact.
A year ago, the Metro Community formed a night patrol that distributes sandwiches and hot chocolate. They talk and pray with people living on the edge of oblivion. It’s changing the lives of churchgoers willing to look deeply into the eyes of homeless and desperate people.
The youth adopt-a-block ministry asks neighbours “How can we help?” One person was about to be evicted if the junk in his yard was not cleaned up. When the youth hauled it all away, the elated homeowner wrote a letter thanking the church for saving his home. Neat intergenerational relationships are being formed in the community and there is a noticeable heart-shift in the youth – to service – so the name of Christ is lifted high.
A handful of people were involved with NeighbourLink, a collaborative ministry with several churches in town. People phoned in needs and were matched with skilled practitioners. Some fixed leaky roofs while others did housecleaning. In January 2006 they amalgamated with Church Serve, a partnership with the Home and Community Care program of the regional health authority. Reaching out to people with health or disability limitations is another way of extending Jesus’ hands of service in practical ways.
In Every Neighbourhood
With a voice empty of competition or pride, Burch states: “We dream of the day when there is a congregation of Willow Park Church in every neighbourhood in our city. Instead of expecting everyone to come to us at one large central facility, we are taking the church to them through a network of congregations that share the same DNA but are unique in location, target audience, style and demographic.” The foundation is being laid through four locations with eight service times.
The original Highway 33 campus, comfortably seating 500, was jammed to capacity with 1,400 people in four services. Not anxious to build, 150 people were sent off six years ago to grow a new site. Within four months they doubled in size through a combination of 30 per cent Willow Park, 30 per cent other church people and 30 per cent new community contacts. “There are no fireworks,” says Burch. “We’re really a meat and potatoes type church. It’s the power of God’s Word.”
Willow Park Lake Country launched two years ago in a separate village of 10,000 people north of Kelowna. A dozen or so families from Willow Park already lived there; others relocated to join the new launch. Now 150 people attend!
Breaking Single-Cell Mindset
Thinking about God’s kingdom, Burch drove around the southern interior – a two-hour radius surrounding the original campus, a region of 400,000 people. He found discouraged pastors in small, struggling churches. He found rock-hard soil. When asked to describe the life of the local evangelical community, a Christian bookstore owner replied: “Welcome to the desert! The numbers don’t change; they just keep shifting like the sand.”
“Once you break a single-cell mindset into several services then multi-site is not a stretch,” declares Burch. Operating under one board with one budget (www.willowparkchurch.com), they dream of a dozen neighbourhood congregations. Jesus is still building His church. Community outreach is a forever vision. Even in this postmodern era, people are still hungry. A fifth campus launches in fall 2009.
A multi-site strategy must balance both strengths and weaknesses. The challenge is to see “one church” beyond the four sites, when some people experience only one campus. Multiple expressions of ministry make each location unique with hands joined around a common vision to love people, follow Jesus and serve the world.
Burch arrived at Willow Park 12 years ago. He came during the church’s 50th anniversary to pastor 600 people. The congregation now numbers 1,900. His personal vision jumps off the pages of Jesus’ conversation with the disciples after talking with the woman at the well. “Lift up your eyes. . . . I’ve sent you to reap” (John 4:35-38). Welcome to the homecoming!
Charlene de Haan is a freelance writer in Toronto. She also serves as project manager, educational services for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Willow Park is an EFC affiliate congregation. Read all the profiles in this ongoing series at www.faithtoday.ca.