By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
So far in this column, I have been sharing a little of the theology and my personal research in the areas of congregational growth and evangelism.
This month I would like to start putting theory into practice by sharing one example of how a single congregation explored changing up their routines and habits for the purpose of seeking new relationships beyond the doors of their church building.
My home parish of St. George’s, The Blue Mountains, is a congregation that has been benefitting from population growth over the last decade with residents of the Toronto area retiring to Georgian Bay but at a commutable distance to keep one foot in the big city. Each year we see a surge of new families moving to our community resulting in our school doubling in size and the construction of thousands of new homes scheduled for the years ahead.
It has taken some time for my own congregation to realize the potential of new relationships that are just beyond our doorstep. Sometimes there are even tensions between life-long residents of Clarksburg and Thornbury and the flood of Torontonians that are quickly changing the small town feel of our community.
One question that I have been having my congregation reflect on is this: how well do we know our neighbours? The truth is, we are blessed to have new neighbours (not all communities do!) and this places the onus on us to reach out to them and share what we, as Christians and Anglicans, are all about!
With the intention of seeking out new relationships, I give credit to my congregation for taking a risk in attempting something new. The experiment: how might we reinvent a declining annual Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner (which the men of the parish had been hosting in the same routine for years) into an event that allowed for us to share our St. George’s identity with newcomers to the community. Our tagline: “Caring for others because God cares for us all!”
You’ve likely heard the saying before: be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it!
With this thought in mind, our Parish Council made the decision to try a new venue for Shrove Tuesday. Instead of inviting guests to our church, we decided that we would leave the building and instead host the event in a community venue – The Blue Mountains Recreational Centre. The added advantage was that this new venue could accommodate hundreds more than our parish hall, but there was a risk – what if no one showed up?
Instead of going it alone, which was the St. George’s tradition up until last year, we tried something new and invited the Town of The Blue Mountains Fire Department to join us. With this partnership we picked a mutual cause to demonstrate how both of our organizations cared for others: we decided that all donations raised would go towards responding to the catastrophic bushfires that have left their mark on the Australian people, wildlife and landscape.
Then we invited all of our community service groups. We invited all the local churches. We asked our local grocery store, Thornbury Foodland, to support us. We organized our volunteers, we prepared pancakes and sausages for hundreds. But would it all work out?
It took roughly sixty volunteers to pull off the event, but the positive energy of trying something new was contagious. St. George’s volunteers worked and laughed beside local fire firefighters. New relationships were kindled, directly resulting in one new family joining our congregation! The result: 550+ guests between the 4:30 p.m. opening and the 7:00 p.m. close. Through the generosity of our Blue Mountains community our fire fighter’s boots were filled with donations.
Was it worth it to take a risk? It was possible that the event could have flopped!
I would argue, and I think my congregation would now join me in saying: if Christian hospitality and the desire to form new relationships is at the heart of your cause, the event will always be worth it!
We also quickly discovered that there was a second benefit to reinventing an old practice of ministry: when we hosted our ministry beyond the doors of our church more local residents were inclined to join us and the resulting generosity produced a total revenue in excess of $7,400. This, in turn, was donated through the PWRDF in support of the Australian bush fire relief efforts.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
This experience has taught us that sometimes it is helpful to take a new look at old ways of doing ministry. What might be the benefits of changing up some old routines in hopes of engaging our new neighbours around us?
The defining success of this initiative was not necessarily in raising money for a good cause, but rather that we reached out to make some new relationships and raised the profile of our congregation as a caring/serving community in the eyes of many in The Blue Mountains!
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo: Shrove Tuesday at the Blue Mountain)