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Dear Friends in Valhalla Parish—

What is the purpose and work of a congregation? This is a question at the heart of who we are and what we are on about in the world. As the world opens up, and as we gather with more frequency—to worship, to serve, to learn, and to connnect—this question has become more top of mind for me. 

What is the purpose and work of a congregation? There are many ways of articulating this, of course, but here is one way that I like to talk about it: 

The unique purpose and work of a congregation is to Gather those called by God into Christ's body, the church—a community of Transformation of mind, heart, body, and action—and to Send these same people into the world both to be and to act as God's loving and transforming presence.

This week I want to focus on the first part of this formula: Gather.

For a number of years, I taught in the Diocese of New Westminster's School for Parish Development. There we taught parish members and leaders about ways in which they might help deepen ministry in their community. One of the first things we looked at was the ways in which we gather. Sometimes we assume that people simply come together—on a Sunday morning, at a potluck, a work party, and so on. But gathering involves more than these activities themselves. In the model we taught at the Diocesan school, we drew the process in this way:

Invite —> Greet —> Orient —> Incorporate

Even before we greet someone new at the door, some sort of invitation needs to take place. Perhaps it's a road sign or a website. Perhaps it's a facebook post shared or a personal invitation. These days, it's more important than ever for people to know that they are invited to come to this community of transformation we call the church. To come to church, people need to know that this is a place to which they are invited. This is more than saying "all are welcome," because it first asks us to demonstrate that this is true through an open (and sometimes vulnerable) invitation. 

Imagine someone comes to the church door for the first time. What do they find there? Is the door open? Is there somone there to welcome them? What kind of greeting do they receive when they enter? Is it warm or indifferent? Does the person extending the welcome show interest in the person arriving, offering their own name before asking the name of the person who is new?

There is a difference, I think, between saying "all are welcome," and living a reality in which "all are welcomed." As someone who has visited many churches over the years, I know that the relative quality of the welcome tells me something about what and who a congregation values. Is this a place that is open to newcomers, or one that focuses exclusively on those who are already here? 

Once somebody new arrives and is greeted, how are they oriented to what's happening here? Of course, some of the basic instructions are fundamental—where's the bathroom, where do I sit, do I need to wear a mask (the answer to this remains yes!). 

And yet for those who are new to the Anglican church and our style of worship, orientation requires more. As we juggle our green books of Alternative Services and blue books of Common Praise. As we flip back and forth with a certain muscle memory (even if it's been a few years since we've used them), this isn't necessarily the case for a newcomer.

In orienting people who come to worship, there is some work to be done in making sure that people know where they are in the service, that they're not made to feel disoriented by the complexity of the book due to our errors of omission or commission.

Some of it may seem over the top, especially if we're used to seeing the same familiar faces around the room. And yet, there are practices we can all take on to help newcomers and long-timers alike find their way through. I have a role in that, and so does every member of our congregation. When we see people struggling, we seek to respond in love and care. It really is that simple. 

In my early 20s I found myself attending a church in downtown Toronto. I had heard about it from a friend. On my first time, I was greeted at the door by someone who was friendly enough, but didn't provide a lot of details. I went in, found a seat, and joined in the worship, sort of catching the vibe as we went along. I went a number of times, feeling good about some aspects, but also feeling distant—as though I didn't yet belong. There were people who had been there for years. They all had their groups, and talked with one another. It didn't seem as though there was room for me there, and so I stayed on the margins. 

One of the things I learned in my last congregation was the importance of making space for people who are new to get involved as they are interested and as they are able. In some churches, all of the jobs are divided amongst the people who've been here the longest. Sometimes we're not sure how to make space for folks who are new. Certainly, there are some people who come who are not yet ready to take on new responsibilities. Perhaps they're easing their way back into church after significant time away. The decision is up to them—but the open invitation is up to us. 

Where are the places in our church life we can help people meaningfully connect? What are the ways in which our parish can offer opportunities for people to take next steps in their journey with Jesus, and with this community? Perhaps it's a book study. Perhaps it's an invitation to coffee or a walk in the park. Perhaps it's an invitation to be a reader during Sunday services, or to help build a garden box for the parish garden. As we get to know people who are new, as we hear about their gifts and passions, we have an opportunity to ask if there are ways they'd like to connect more deeply with the life of the church. No worry. No pressure. Just an open invitation. 

Welcome to Transformation

And that's just it, isn't it? God, through Jesus, has extended a wide open invitation to us to be members of this body. In the garden after the resurrection, Jesus greets Mary by name. He orients her to a new reality, and calls her—once again—to renew her life of discipleship.

In this time and place, Jesus calls us, too. Jesus is calling you, and me, and people we haven't yet met, to himself.

As a church, we have the opportunity to gather as members of Christ's body so that we might be transformed in our encounters with God and one another. We gather so that we might be refreshed and renewed, as we are sent out into the world to do God's work. And we are sent out—each and every week—to live and bear witness to the one who continues to act in our midst, the one who loves us, and who calls each one beloved. 

In the days ahead, we will have any number of opportunities to gather. As we do so, may we open ourselves to the ways in which God is calling to create space for all who are being called into Christ's church, and to ensure that all are welcomed with open arms, the very same way God has welcomed us into Christ's very body. 

Every Blessing, 

Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Valhalla Parish Missioner