The Epistle of Q — Chapter 169

Back in the PULPIT again – just what does that mean?

This spring/summer has had more than a few surprises but perhaps the most amazing has been that I have been back in the pulpit. Yeah, in May and July I was asked to preach at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Innisfail Alberta (a former congregation of my father’s & the town wherein I was born) and also last month University Hill United (Vancouver) invited me to preach a sermon during one of their ZOOM services (a kind of tribute time, as many years early my good friend, the late Dr. Owen Anderson & I shared the pulpit on one memorable summer Sunday morning)…

As I drove back to the Okanagan from my gig at Concordia University of Edmonton, I began to reflect again on the state of Christianity in Canada. I managed to leave Edmonton before the Pope made his historic journey to meet with Aboriginals but even that journey bears some study, and then yesterday a long time good friend who not only is bright but also is committed to the social good called me to talk about his church, so I have amalgamated much of it into this conversation today! Now, in crafting my sermons, I pondered the issue of the underutilized church building. Now you don’t have to have any significant interest in the church as a place of worship to perhaps be part of the solution for all these buildings that dot our landscape, because before we tear them all down, it is worthy to consider what all they might be useful for in our ever more secular society…

For some time now I have been contemplating a driving tour across the prairies to visit the sites of all the congregations/churches that I preached at from the sixties when I was a student theolog to more recently as simply a lay preacher. Such a voyage of discovery would include those sites where I was an interim lay minister, and in part to sense what all may have happened since my time in each pastoral charge. I had thought of doing the same thing in Ontario from my year at UofT as a student theolog but I would need a navigator to help me find some of those places as I can hardly remember the names of many of the communities, let alone what the Presbyterian churches were called.

But I am not sure such a tour would be anything more than a journey of reminiscences because many of those congregations do not exist any more – even those that when I left were in reasonably good condition. So let me comment further on the churches I referred to at the outset to this conversation. St. Andrew’s is celebrating 140 years in the Innisfail area. There were perhaps two dozen attendees in the pews (when I had preached there in 1964 the church was full – and very active). There are rumours that the Presbytery of Red Deer wishes to close the congregation as it is deemed too small to financially carry on. The fathers of the church obviously view it in the same way the Presbytery of Kamloops saw St. Paul’s Presbyterian in Prince Rupert – not worth continuing – and so that church now is empty, unused & unsold). U-Hill seems more dynamic, in part because of the presence of young leadership which also has established/maintained a Sunday School program. That it is a United Church cannot be the explanation for its continuance because yesterday’s conversation was about a United Church in Toronto no less, that is experiencing membership decline.

But why worry about attendance at the Sunday services? Why not envisage a more expansive role for the church? It was in this vein that our conversation focused on: what are the alternatives when a church no longer is full or perhaps even down to less than 10% of capacity? Is it time for church-going folk to re-direct their thinking to how their building can be utilized to serve the community? That is what my friend really inspired me to reflect upon about again. My recent sermons at St. Andrew’s and U-Hill addressed in different ways the question of why should we be so upset about getting smaller.
Firstly, if one is a person of faith, this should inform us that it is not our house, but God’s house – let him worry about filling it on Sunday mornings, if that is the prime challenge.
Secondly, we have been told in Scriptures that where two or three gather, that is sufficient. So again, worry not about numbers…

But that may not resolve the long-term congregational survival challenge. So let’s move in a different direction. By and large, in recent decades many often haven’t looked at the building as part of the community, as a vehicle itself that might be utilized for a new realm of outreach or community service. Of course there are some church-type things that I believe some congregations are doing and others should think about. Let me quickly list a few of them:
• Midweek evening and/or midday services that are relatively short, may occasionally include communion, and definitely should feature music (and again, some serious variation: celtic, folk, rock, jazz, experimental)!
• Monthly meetings for selected/targeted groups such as males (for mental health discussions), youth (for Q&A gatherings with community experts), singles/young adults (just for a night out to talk about things other than dating, but with interesting characters from business, government & community)

However some of these might be dubious if there is no minister or even part-time leader available to help organize. So let’s consider the area that my friend ignited some serious reflection about:
• Since churches are usually built with good acoustics, why not establish a working arrangement with a musical society for them to practice, perform regular concerts and related presentations such as music master and/or introductory classes (when I was a kid, many churches were the site of local piano lessons conducted by the music director/organist/pianist).
• Similarly, a relationship could be developed with a dramatic arts group which would allow them to practice, mount plays that might not normally be profitable at a regular theatre venue, and like the music group(s) hold training workshops for people interested in any aspect of community theatre.
• Some churches would be ideal locations for art exhibitions, again for those without a viable/affordable outlet to show off their works.
• Often educational systems tend to un-prioritize the arts considering it a non-essential aspect of learning (even though research has long shown that music stimulates both sides of the brain simultaneously and art promotes creativity) – churches could help reverse this dangerous trend by partnering with local music and drama teachers to provide extra performing & practicing space along with volunteers to help in the staging of student recitals, concerts, productions, and other artistic performances.
• Many churches now provide space for daycare operations and often this includes after school care – think of the possibilities if such were to expand to include partnerships with various and numerous artistic groups: the downstairs for the “care” operations, upstairs for participating in a variety of artistic endeavours – e.g. Monday art, Tuesdays & Thursdays music, Wednesdays drama, Fridays presentations/productions.
• If a group of neighbouring churches were to cooperate, they could perhaps specialize and include tweens and teenagers so that peer group counselling and mentoring could be incorporated into the mix. There might even be sufficient pooled funds to hire a coordinator who would help invite, organize and schedule various experts to add to the scenarios.
• Another idea that should be included would be the alternate movie house where films are shown to different target audiences on different occasions: e.g. Dark Waters & Erin Brockovich to young people (without a raving environmentalist or capitalist as guest, but rather a good moderator from public health to facilitate a conversation afterwards – hold the session after school and include a pizza meal for the post-viewing conversation) OR art films to anyone (but again with a thoughtful moderator to host a wine & cheese afterwards), or an autumn rainy Saturday binge-watch of some series to give people a place to go and just be mellow…and if the idea really catches on, partner with the local theatre(s) so that films they can get but really don’t think are commercially viable (or are only planned to be short-runs) can then be shown with appropriate thanks at the church…

So how does this really become a topic of fruitful conversation: without necessarily being connected with any church but if you are concerned about the arts or about underutilized public spaces, establish an ad hoc planning group and invite people from the artistic communities of your town to come and talk – have some questions based on the above (&/or other thoughts you may have) to get the discussions happening, and then truly listen to what might be possible and how it might be implemented. Make sure sufficient numbers of influencers and naysayers from the congregation(s) are at the meeting so that they too can see and hear what could be a new mission for their little band of the faithful.

Churches are buildings that are already built and most often fully paid for. They are usually located in accessible parts of the community. Getting them vibrant again, and having the lights on every evening, might just have another sidebar benefit – strangers may occasionally show up at the wrong time and attend a service or some other church function, find it helpful and stick around… In any event, the church would be reaching out and most claim that is their mission anyway…


In very early October (2nd) I will preach at St. Andrew’s Tweed which was part of my father’s pastoral charge when we lived in Madoc – I have never been in that pulpit. The following Sunday (9th) I will be the guest preacher at St. Peter’s in Madoc. An interesting piece of trivia: what will be the only pastoral charge of my father’s 58 year ministry that I have not preached in? Bassano/Gem in Alberta!

I’m going to leave my thoughts on the Pope’s visit for another chapter!