In the beginning, Doug Steiner spoke. He gave a talk to this congregation about eight years ago, before I arrived.
Doug said something like, “Whoa. LPCC is getting older, fast. LPCC is shrinking for other reasons, too. If we don’t make changes, this church will die in fifteen or twenty years. Just like lots of other United Church congregations are dying.”
And then, nothing much happened. We were distracted. We had a new building to enjoy. We said good-bye to long-time minister Ken Gallinger. I arrived and spent three years getting to know you.
But slowly on, our attention—and certainly mine—was pulled back to that talk Doug gave. As council and congregation, we engaged in a year-long Strategic Initiative exercise.
In the end, the report says, more or less, “Look. If ever we shut down Presbytery is going to get all our property assets—perhaps something in excess of 15 million dollars. Presbytery will, in turn, give those assets to churches that are trying the new things that we should have tried when we still had the chance. So instead of giving our assets away in the future, let’s tap into them now, ourselves. Let’s mortgage the building or spend down our small endowment—whatever it takes. The worst that can happen is that we try, fail, and end up giving Presbytery a property that nets them 14 million instead of 15 million dollars.
So that’s the bottom business line I’ve been singing for about two years now. But I was partly mistaken—at least about telling the story. I realized this when, at an LPCC staff retreat, I was asked to give a one-minute elevator talk for the Strategic Initiative.
I started by discussing falling numbers and long-term trends and realized that this focus—the business problem of putting bums in seats, is not going to inspire anyone to come to church. I started my elevator talk with the business problem because I’ve been focused on it for two years now. I wrote a business plan, ten-year budget projections, applied for, and landed, hundreds of thousands of dollars in Presbytery funding. We’ve hired new staff, talked marketing and research and capital expenses and written reports to funders . . .
But in doing so, I took my eye off the ball—off the key thing that ought to be motivating us to come up with a business plan or strategic plan in the first place. You see, it has to be our vision for why it matters that we stay alive.
Hold that thought about our vision. Let me tell you a little story.
The church I grew up in, the Brampton II Christian Reformed Church, was a conservative church full of good people. It was also an immigrant church full of people trying to make it. And the unique thing about my immigrant congregation was that, because of our unique Dutch-Calvinist theology, we were constantly reminded that we should make Canada an even better place than it already was.
And so, even though we were mosly very poor, our congregation tithed to support a resource center for immigrants, in Toronto, the Lighthouse. We sponsored refugees. We founded the Center for Political Justice, the CPJ. It worked on First Nation rights and poverty issues. Both the CRC and the United Church are still strong supporters of the CPJ. We founded a Christian grad school for philosophy affiliated with the Toronto School of Theology at UofT because we believed ideas matter, and that one key to a great society was great conversations about important things. Our immigrant congregation got involved in and paid for parochial primary and secondary education, labor relations, in world development, in famine relief, in farm policy. The CRC wasn’t always on the right side of these discussions, at least from my perspective now, in my sixties. But making Canada a better place by living out Jesus’ values was the vision and I caught it.
I was so taken by the vision, the activism, that when I was 19 I took out nomination papers for a provincial election. I was going to take on my MPP, Bill Davis, whose policies struck me as not progressive enough, too conservative. It was quite a ride, for a very short time, as the press and people in my circles tried to figure out what in the world I was doing.
My notion that I might get involved in politics lasted all the way through my years as an editor in Grand Rapids, MI. I ran a balloon up a pole to gauge whether there might be support for me to run as a Democrat for Congress. Alas, it was not to be.
But you get the picture, I think. Whatever theological differences I have with the church I grew up in, and they are many, it also turned me on to being a good citizen, to values of empathy, justice, and peace that still burn in me as a social gospel United Church minister.
Anyway, I told you that I was asked to give an elevator speech at the staff retreat. And put on the spot like that, I realized that a speech about all the pragmatic things we’re doing to avoid the grave didn’t cut it. Our elevator speech has to be about everything we’re going to do, because, right now, we have the vision!
We hammered that vision out as a congregation, and as a council, over the past two years. It isn’t exactly the same vision I grew up with as a kid. But there is a lot of overlap. And it lives in me.
Our vision starts off by saying, “Lawrence Park Community Church will be recognized as a vital hub for our city, a welcoming community of diverse believers and doubters.”
Unlike the church I grew up in, unlike many churches, everyone is welcome here, even if they don’t have the same beliefs we have. We are not going to worship or pray or sing in such a way as to exclude people. We are not going to demand that anyone signs on some dotted line, creed-wise. We want to be home for everyone who cares about their neighbor, regardless of creed, sexual orientation, color, wealth or lack of it.
So that, our vision statement says, we will be a vital hub for our city. We are going to be an incubator for ideas about how to be the caring, just, kind, inclusive city that we believe Jesus would have wanted to see in Jerusalem; we are going to be an incubator for people who strive to make this city both safe and great. We are going to incubate dreams for Toronto and Canada and the world the same way the MARS complex downtown is an incubator for science and engineering.
How do we become that vital hub? By living our values, the ones you chose as most important. We value thinking without fear of judgment, social justice, engaging all sorts, ages and comers, trying to follow the model of Jesus, great music, good stewards of our finances and the world’s ecology. As a community where we take time for each other.
And as I stand here, sharing your own vision and values with you again, a little voice is whispering in my ear: Boring. Boring. Boring. I’m in danger of preaching so long that I risk putting you to sleep and having you fall out of the window. I mean if the Apostle Paul, the founder of the Christian church, its greatest preacher—if Paul could put people to sleep just years after Jesus’ death, what chance do I have of engaging you?
But as I thought about it, I have to risk it anyway. I have to get this off my chest. We have to be a vital hub for whatever is going down in Toronto. Our morning service, which is great and speaks to a certain demographic, is a foundation, a precious foundation that we’re going to enhance. We’re going to build it up. Even if it costs. We’re going to do a way better job of getting the news out, too—with marketing, social media, film, and by make waves.
And a Sunday evening service is going to be as free-flowing as the service we read about in scripture this morning—the first liturgy. We’ll have food—it is mentioned twice in our brief passage, and several times more in the early books of the Bible, as what early followers of the Way did when they got together. They ate.
We’re going to have great talks about everything related to our values and how they relate to following Jesus at this time, in this place. As in the early church, and on the TEDx model, our speakers will be from many walks of life, will speak about what turns them on, and what is urgent for us to know. We’ll have some good contemporary music, lots of time to socialize. It will be a service that is just fine for older folks, but also one that grabs younger people: authentic, free flowing, diverse, fun. We’ll have a new minister to help me and you with both services.
I am motivated by what LPCC has to offer, and what it can be now. I am deeply motivated by the fact that this city needs thoughtful engaged citizens to raise the bar when it comes to dialogue; this country needs citizens motivated not just by personal gain, but the good of everyone in this country; this world needs citizens who are not wearing blinders of wealth and luck on their heads that prevent them from seeing how we all depend on each other to build shalom.
And this church will be living in and around, up and down, here and there all about through all these themes and hopes and dreams. Mind you, this whole strategic plan scares me. My anxiety level is high. There are financial risks.
But over the next two or three years, there is little risk, at least, that we might fall asleep. So, strap on your helmets. Do up your seatbelts. Because this is going to be an adventure.