This past spring, Mennonite Church Alberta held its first in-person annual delegate sessions in four years. Representatives from across the province were in attendance. Who hosted this grand gathering? One of the smallest churches in the province: Springridge Mennonite.
There are about 25 people in the pews at Springridge on a typical Sunday morning and the majority of them are retirees, according to Tany Warkentin, pastoral leader at the southern Alberta church. The church is located in the country, 20 minutes down a gravel road from Pincher Creek.
“You’d have to be specifically looking for the church to find us,” Warkentin says, laughing.
Warkentin grew up in the church and remembers a time when Sunday School rooms were filled with children. Like many rural churches, the number of attendees slowly decreased and new faces in the sanctuary were few and far between.
On paper, Springridge is a church in decline. The life of the church tells a very different story, though—a story about a committed community, rich intergenerational relationships and a thriving adult education ministry. While its rural location is a hindrance to walk-up traffic on Sunday mornings, it’s also the fabric that holds the congregation together. Rural churches are unique, says Warkentin.
“I think rural churches just naturally have more diversity,” she says. “It’s really the gift of limited options. If someone gets upset or has a conflict, there are no natural options that people would go to. And that’s really a gift for a deep community. We’re a group of characters—you’ve got who you’ve got, and you work with it.”
“There’s a flexibility that is unique to Springridge,” Warkentin adds, “which is born out of not having options: ‘Nobody wants to do that thing? Oh, okay, let’s drop that.’ We focus on what we do have.”
Like many churches at the onset of COVID-19, Springridge attendees wrestled with different opinions about how to manage pandemic restrictions.
At one especially difficult meeting, Warkentin feared that people would leave over the decision that was made. Then someone stood up and said that, although they disagreed with the decision the church was looking at making, they would go along with it in order to keep being a church together.
The life of the community at Springridge is more important than rules or personal preferences, explains Warkentin.
Ministering and sharing gifts
In her quarter-time role as pastoral leader, Warkentin facilitates worship and planning.
Most of the sermons at Springridge are pre-recorded messages downloaded from online sources, and the church brings in one or two in-person speakers per month. Decisions are made together as a congregation. A lay leader facilitates adult education every Sunday. Otherwise, there isn’t much in the way of formal programming.
Church members minister to one another and share their gifts in a variety of ways, Warkentin says.
“My 15-year-old went fishing last week with his 70-year-old friend from church,” she says. “Another kid in our church started playing the organ when they were 10, and everyone was so encouraging. This intergenerational stuff is a real gift, though I know not everyone would see it that way.”
What is Springridge’s 10-year plan? The answer, quite simply, is that church members don’t know—and they’re fine with that.
“We don’t need a plan,” Warkentin says. “When it comes, we’ll process it. It brings people more into the present moment.”
A few years ago, the church cancelled its fire insurance coverage. The insurance was expensive and, if the church were to burn down, members agreed they wouldn’t rebuild. This year, however, the church reinstated its fire insurance. Warkentin takes it as a sign that the church has hope for the future.
Ultimately, Springridge’s hope for the future rests with God, who knows both the beginning and the end.
“A lesson I’ve learned from my fellow Springridgers,” Warkentin muses, “is that we’ve gone through enough ‘deaths’ to trust that there’s resurrection on the other side. That helps to decrease the worry about the next step and allows us to be in the present. God is a resurrection God, and there’s life on the other side.”