This is the first in what I hope will become an on-going series telling the stories of Church’s doing things right; especially in the area of peace and reconciliation.
We all have stories of the church gone bad and stories of war and evil in society. What we need are stories of everyday churches doing the work of Christ.
If you know of a church that has a story to tell, please let me know. I’d love to profile them.
What is the biggest stumbling block to people coming to faith in Jesus Christ? There are many possible answers to this question, but certainly at the top of that list must be the church’s long history of horrible actions done in the name of Jesus. From the Crusades to the Spanish inquisition to promoting biblical support for slavery to the unloving treatment of the LGBTQ community, Christianity doesn’t have a great reputation.
These obstructions keep many from being able or even willing to investigate the true face of Christ. Globally many churches are waking up to this fact and are starting to try to find ways to break down these obstructed views.
One such church is Heise Hill Church just north of Toronto. Heise Hill is a small anabaptist congregation in the Brethren in Christ denomination. The lead pastor for the past 3.5-4 years has been Steve Authier. Steve worked for steel giant Dofasco for 30 years before he made the switch to pastoral ministry. Before coming to Heise Hill he was the lead pastor for the Parry Sound site of The Meeting House.
Some time ago Heise Hill hosted a evening intended to be a safe haven for people to come and ask whatever they wanted to ask about Jesus and the Christian faith. From that evening they discerned one important thing: many people can’t get past the horrible things from the church’s past; they are an obstruction. Christians have become the stumbling block to their Lord. A truly terrible thing. Out of that came the “Obstructed view” or “We’re sorry” campaign.
Campaign is really too strong a word, for it implies intention and organization. Steve is very much a man of action; he is someone who embodies the anabaptist focus on the need to live as a disciple and not just a believer. In fact, to listen to Steve talk, his passion is so clear and vibrant one might wonder if he remembers to rest once in a while. Steve is very clear that this obstructed view issue needs to be addressed by the church.
He changed the church sign one day to read: We’re Sorry. He posted a photo of it on the churches Facebook page as well as their Twitter account. It went viral; at least viral for a picture of a church sign. Steve started charitably engaging with commentators from all over the world.
He received 50 emails through various channels mostly thanking them for the statement and saying that in general the thought of going to church makes them sick. Now, 50 may not seem like a lot, but consider that this is essentially a small rural church with perhaps 135 congregants on paper and you see that 50 emails is significant.
Running off the momentum from that Steve preached a sermon titled “Obstructed View” where he showed a video he had made illustrating his point. In the video you see a bunch of weeds and as we walk through the weeds we slowly start to see a swan emerge. Steve tells me he didn’t know if he’d see the swans, sometime they are there and other times not. The concept is simple. If we put up too many weeds, we may miss the beauty and grace that is waiting for us just beyond.
Not to miss an opportunity, the local Strawberry Festival was coming up and Heise Hill registered a table. They have had a presence there for the last couple years and would again; though they weren’t sure what they would do there. Previously they had handed out water but now they were being told they couldn’t give something away that someone else was selling.
This is a situation where the Lord closes one door and opens another. Heise Hill decided to split their booth in half: one half would be an area for prayer and the other an area for the church to once again say it’s sorry.
Recounting the days events Steve says it was quite successful. They didn’t have people queued up for hours to talk or be prayed with but he saw minds moving which is often a precursor to a movement of the heart. He created a simple poster that outlined key tragic events in the history of the church as well as copies of an article he had written for the local paper.
In general he said they had very positive reactions ranging from silent reading to people thanking them for saying they’re sorry, to others affirming their decision to apologize (yes, you should apologize). They had several people, non-Christians, ask for prayer, which is pretty amazing. Out of the thousands of people that milled around the festival, the Heise Hill booth received about 30 people. Still, others were clearly having discussion from afar – both agreeing and disagreeing with what the poster said.
This is good, it is engagement. And as Steve says you never know what conversation that might engender down the line, whether it’s with his church or not. Even if one person is able to turn their heart to Christ, it will be worth it.
So, what’s next? The campaign is essentially over, but the heart of it continues. Steve recently updated the church sign to bear two messages on either side:
“We choose hope” and “We want to live it not just say it! Come Help Us”
And with those messages, Steve is reaching out to the community to help the church come alive again. It’s an invitation to partner with them in the work of peace and reconciliation.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. There is a wonderful opportunity for Heise Hill and it’s neighbouring churches to witness the installation of a plaque on Main St. recognizing the historic peace churches in the area and Jesus’ message of peace: what an opportunity to spread the Gospel. The plaque will be a permanent fixture testifying to the peace teaching of Jesus Christ. This opportunity came about only after area peace churches made deputations to city council requesting that the city recognize the contributions of area peace churches even as it honours the military for the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812.
Alongside that the churches are planning on hosting a peace festival to commemorate the plaques installation. I think it will be a wonderful day and I hope to write about it when it happens.
The biggest challenge going forward is that while some of the congregation are engaged in the mission of the church, many are not. That is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to all churches, an apathetic congregation. A congregation that has been trained to be believers for too long and not disciples. Disciple making takes time and is an arduous process at times, but the church keeps moving forward in its mission, hoping others will soon join it.
There are many lessons we can pull from Heise Hill’s experience. Here are some of them:
- Repentance is required of us as a church not just as individuals. Even if we don’t see ourselves as directly involved in the atrocities of the past (either individually or denominationally), once you title yourself as a Christian or as related to that Jesus guy, people will instantly label you with every negative thing they have ever heard or been taught about the kind of person you are. Repentance is the beginning of love and we are all one big family of God.
- Action requires vision: This all started because Steve listened to feedback he was receiving and decided rather than make the apologetic argument the first line of defence, they would attack it head on. Steve very much takes the position that if he is going to challenge others to live like disciples and take the requisite risks, than he has to lead by example. Going to the strawberry festival wasn’t comfortable, either for him or the parishioners who came with him. They went anyway, because God invites (requires?) us to go into the scary places and serve Him.
- Smaller churches can and must take action. We can’t just leave it up to the larger churches to engage in these kinds of activities. Indeed, small churches can often have greater impact as stealth units, sneaking in under the radar and attracting people’s attention in an unthreatening manner.
- The church really can make a difference everywhere. Strawberry Festival’s sound quaint and not very sexy or exciting places to do ministry. But, it is where people go and where the people go, the church should be. Maybe 50 emails and 30 conversations doesn’t sound like a lot, but if our goal is win every heart possible for Christ and bring more disciples into His kingdom, than even small churches can play a big role.
- Social media tools can have a significant impact no matter the size of your church.
- Opportunities are everywhere if you look for them. So, look for them.
- Pastors can’t do everything; they need the support of their congregations if things are really to move forward.