50 years of change

The Church Here and There

September 28, 2022 | Opinion | Volume 26 Issue 20
Arli Klassen | Columnist
(Photo by Chris Lawton/Unsplash)

I was in Ottawa recently for the anniversary of the church that my parents started 50 years ago. In 1972, we were five families eager to start a new—and different—church in the east end of Ottawa. I was the oldest child among the five families, sometimes the babysitter for the others, and sometimes with the adults in creating a new church.

My father says: “Those first years linger in my memory as very exciting, as new ways of living our faith emerged and our roles in making them developed. Key decisions were: no permanent building for Sunday worship, regular gatherings in small groups in homes, and intentionality in helping anyone with a need. There was joy and unity in the group, and it grew rapidly.”

The pastor’s anniversary sermon used the same Isaiah 43 text that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada has been using for its visioning process, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing,” while basing the sermon on the purpose statement from 50 years ago. His point was that God’s purpose doesn’t change, but how we gather as church must change, often, and in a big way at least every decade. That 50-year-old purpose statement sounded a lot like the Great Commandment to love God (worship God), and to love your neighbour as oneself. Those things don’t change.

But other things do change. This particular church now looked and sounded nothing like what I was part of as a teenager 50 years ago. It meets in a permanent building. Worship was in Arabic and English. The song leader led a Christian hip-hop song with his 12-year-old daughter, which thrilled the young adults sitting in front of us. The service was broadcast to faraway participants, a ministry that began well before COVID-19. The services were full with racially mixed young families. Even the pastor said that his theology is not the same as it was 10 years ago! I came away impressed with what this church has become 50 years later.

Church and change. God’s purposes do not change, but how we look and what we do must keep changing. That is not easy. Change is always both loss and opportunity.

COVID-19 has brought many changes to church, some of which we experience as loss and some of which are new opportunities. Our numbers are fewer. Sunday school is a program of the past for some churches. Many of us are learning what it means to be settlers on this Indigenous land, and about racism today. We are learning about fluidity in gender and sexuality. We are learning to sing new songs. Many of us are not interested in returning to a “programmatic” church, with activities for each age group, but are looking for ways to strengthen intergenerational relationships. Lots of change.

One of my pastors ended the service recently with a benediction from French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Trust in the slow work of God. . . . Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Given that during de Chardin’s lifetime, the Catholic Church issued a warning against his teachings, he knew what it meant to trust in God for change.

Change must come. COVID-19 has brought change about more quickly than we wanted or anticipated. There is so much change that we are tired, but with big change come big opportunities. Let us notice those opportunities, and be intentional about continuing to change in ways that make the church evermore relevant to society around us.

Arli Klassen is now a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont., long after being nurtured and shaped by Greenbelt Baptist Church in Ottawa.

Read more The Church Here and There columns:
Can we see it?
These are our people
What holds us together?
A difficulty for all of us

(Photo by Chris Lawton/Unsplash)

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