• Chris Smith

a call to prayer

What a ride it’s been.

Five years ago, The Bridge Church was in crisis. The consequences of years of aspirational budgeting coupled with a multi-year downturn in revenue caught up to us and when the roof came off (yes, it was that year as well) we came to see that it was more than just the building that needed re-engineering. In response to that crisis we called you, the church, to fast and to pray for 30 days—to seek the Lord for his will for The Bridge Church and to join together in a process of discernment that would determine what we needed to do next.

And you responded!

We asked you the question: “What is God wanting to do with The Bridge Church at this juncture in her history?” And you responded not only with thoughtful and considered prayer and reflection, but by coming together for a night of corporate discernment in the middle of the summer, in numbers far beyond my wildest expectations. That night 55 of us gathered together on a Tuesday evening in July to hear from Jesus and direct the board and pastors to follow what we heard, and after another month of processing and planning based off of your feedback we launched what we called (in retrospect, perhaps somewhat pretentiously) Bridge 2.0.

We talked about the change being a “relaunch” of the church, in the same location with the same people, but under a new ministry philosophy. We changed the physical layout, the structure of the service, the direction of several key ministries, and we reorganized everything under five core values that guided and informed every significant decision we made.

• Trinitarian Worship

• Indiscriminate Hospitality

• Cross-Generational Community

• Discernment through prayer

• Discipleship through transparency

We also received some very specific action steps through the discernment process that the board took as key outcomes to be pursued. They were:

A. Keep the building and the immediate parcel of land that it exists on but subdivide and sell the excess (approx.) 10 acres that are unused.

B. Find ways to make better use of our facility. Specifically, interest was expressed by multiple groups to partner with a child-care centre to address the pressing need in our community.

C. Reduce staffing expenses by cutting back hours and finding efficiencies.

Outcome C. was achieved by cutting back support staff hours, and by not replacing positions that were vacated due to retirement and resignation. From 2015 to today we have reduced our total staffing budget by almost 40%. Outcome B. was pursued through lengthy processes with two separate institutions over the course of several years. Both opportunities eventually fell through due to our building failing to meet regulatory requirements by Manitoba Early Learning and Child Care, and the prohibitive cost of upgrading. And Outcome A. has been in process for almost 5 full years now, with the first sale falling through and the second sale dragging on through multiple extensions for city approval.

When I left to begin my Sabbatical at the end of December it had been on my personal agenda to think and pray through where the past five years have taken us and to prepare a process to take the board, and eventually the congregation, through another similar discernment process to see what the next five year plan might look like by asking the same timely question again: “What is God wanting to do with The Bridge Church at this juncture in her history?

I had already begun work on the framework of what the process would look like when both my sabbatical and my assumptions were unexpectedly undone by this global pandemic and the massive changes that it has brought with it for both gospel ministry and congregational life. It is not overstating the facts to say that no onesaw this sort of change coming this fast. It’s true that there have been voices in the wilderness talking about how this shift was coming on the horizon, but it has always been in a generational timeframe, and the prevailing dialogue has been how to manage that change in a way that builds resiliency into the important structures that we do not want to lose; keeping what makes us unique while holding loosely the things that we like and may be familiar, but which ultimately are temporary and fleeting. Discerning the difference between those two categories has been a great point of lively debate among pastors, theologians, and church developers for a while now—but never as intensely as it has been during the last 3 months. Change has been forced upon us by circumstance, and the type of change that has been brought will neither be short-lived nor fully reversible. As one pastor said to me, “the genie is out of the bottle, and there is no forcing him back in.

What we have experienced in our own context has been both anecdotally (as I speak to other pastors) and statistically (as one reviews the latest and ongoing sociological data that is being rapidly published during this pandemic) demonstrated to be widely true within the Canadian church context. People who were (for many diverse reasons) resistant to online ministry offerings and programs have found them to be easier to access than they had previously believed, more substantive than they had previously suspected, and more convenient than they had been willing to admit. Pastors and church leaders on the other hand have been scrambling to learn a whole host of new skills for which they have no training for, and often no frame of reference for what good online ministry should look like, and yet in better and worse ways, we are starting to find our footing and adapt to the new normal. There is a level of innovation and creativity going on in local church ministry right now that hasn’t been seen this widely in a long time. Churches are learning and iterating on their efforts rapidly with many congregations already having taken massive leaps in both organizational structure and production quality in three short months. Just go back and watch our first online worship service from March 22 and compare it to one of our latest offerings—the difference is night and day. And yet, for the first three months of this pandemic most pastors I’ve spoken with would have been of the same mindset as I have been: That this experience is going to be a temporary blip on the radar of the long story of the Western Church and that in short order things will return to normal and we will move back into our comfortable patterns of church life and worship. As time has marched on, I no longer believe this to be true.

On June 21st, three months after we first suspended our in-person worship gatherings, we opened up the building and welcomed a small group of you back for our live Watch Party + Communion event. I cannot speak for everyone in attendance, but for me it was a very emotional experience. Not only emotions of gratitude for the opportunity to fellowship with the 33 other people who came together that morning, and emotions of elation at being able to once again share the Lord’s Supper with my flock (contrary to what some people believe, the Pastor doesn’t have access to communion whenever he wants—if it’s not the church celebrating, no one gets to celebrate. I’ve been as hungry as you have been), but an unexpected emotion of sadness at the many empty seats and missing faces. What should have been a triumphant accomplishment on the road to institutional recovery, further highlighted how different things are going to be going forward.

There were many of you who weren’t there. Some of you weren’t there because you are immuno-compromised or at high-risk of infection and gathering with a group of up-to 50 people, no matter how carefully done, is just not a wise thing to do right now. Some of you weren’t there because under our current restrictions we cannot offer any sort of managed kids ministry to you and your family. And the challenge of keeping young kids engaged, occupied, and following the community health rules in a gathering of that sort seems daunting if not impossible. Some of you weren’t there because current distancing restrictions would mean that you would effectively be sitting alone in a crowd, and that rather than enjoying the fellowship of God’s people, you are anxious about being made to feel even more isolated than you do while worshipping in your own home. Some of you are just generally scared. Some of you don’t think the effort of coming together is worth it without the historic practices and benefits of gathering together, and some of you really like the convenience and format of online church and would be quite happy to continue this way indefinitely.

I list these things not to shame or stigmatize any of you, but to name the simple reality that these restrictions, and this virus, are not going away anytime soon. I think that by now we all have come to realize this. It is still unknown at this point as to whether we will get the predicted “second wave” in the fall which will force our re-opening plans backward again for a time, or whether we will simply tarry in this state for an extended period, but what is clear is that the longer we live and worship in this context, the harder it will be to go back to something resembling what we did before. I think that it’s high time we came to terms with that. It’s past time that I came to terms with that. We cannot pretend that when this crisis abates and the new normal comes, that our community will resemble what it looked like before the pandemic. Online church is not going away. Restrictions on the way we gather may change, but they aren’t fully going away either. And what we do with both the challenge and opportunity ahead of us at this juncture of history will either revitalize and recontextualize our witness to a changing world, or it will be the thing that denominational historians identify as the time that Manitoba’s first, and oldest Alliance Church finally reached the end of her long and storied life.

To this point in the pandemic we have been reacting. We have been dealing with each previously unknown development as it has come. And to be fair, we have shown ourselves to be nimble and adaptive as a congregation. When some other local churches were completely shut down, we were finding ways to MacGyver together an online service using just what we had laying around. When other congregations were struggling to find ways to reach all their people and see if they were safe, we were reaping the benefits of years of investment in our distributed model of pastoral care—our flock elders made sure that everyone knew what was happening. When many churches have seen a sharp downturn in giving, things at The Bridge have been historically steady (not great, but no worse than usual). And even today when many churches are still wrapping their heads around how they are going to finally welcome people back into their buildings, we have already had our first Sunday morning event. You, as a congregation, have shown yourselves to be resilient and flexible and I will be ever grateful for the people that God has called me to lead.

But there comes a time when we need to stop being reactive, and start being proactive. We need to capture this moment and take hold of it for Jesus and the mission that he would call us to in it, and out of it. If I am right, and there is no way back to church as it was in the before times, then we need to start asking ourselves once again what church in the after times should look like. How might the act of coming together as the local expression of the body of Christ be different in the world after COVID? How might ministry to our community look different in the world after COVID? How might belonging, and serving, and leading, and following look different in the world after COVID? I believe that like before, there is a way forward out of this crisis in which The Bridge Church is born again into a renewed calling and mission. I believe that if we are willing, and if we are committed, that what lies on the other side of this season might be even better than what we’ve left behind. I believe that Jesus has placed in our fellowship everything and everyone we need to fulfil the calling that he has placed before us, we need only to hear his voice, count the cost, and take up our crosses to follow him.

So once again, I along with your elders, am inviting you to lean into our core values and join us in 30 days of prayer and discernment about the future of The Bridge Church. I am asking you to open your hearts to what God might be asking us to let go of. To open your minds to the possibilities of what God might be asking us to do. And to open your Bibles to hear the way that God might speak these things to us through the scriptures. Take notes, send in comments, write down dreams. Share your feelings, talk about your anxieties, lay out your hopes. And then bring all of these things to Jesus with open hands and ask him to help you—and to help us­ sort through them and see what he might have us use.

Beginning today there will be resources posted on the church website to help you journal and record the things you hear from Jesus.

· There will be a special form that you can bookmark on your phone or computer that will allow you to quickly jot down something in a moment of inspiration and send it directly to our leadership team.

· Members of our leadership team (mostly myself, but occasionally others) will be leading us in daily devotionals focused on listening to Jesus (Mondays through Fridays) on Instagram and Facebook Live.

· Every week on Wednesday evenings from 7:00-8:00 we will gather together over zoom for an online prayer meeting to discern together what might be happening.

And then on Wednesday, August 5—one month from today—we will invite everyone to join us again over Zoom from 6:30-8:30 for a special discernment meeting. During that meeting we will divide all the participants into smaller rooms where people meeting online can have conversations and discussions similar to what we have done in the past, or if you feel safe doing so, we would encourage you to gather together with a small group of people in someone’s home and form your own “virtual” discernment table and participate in the forum that way. Whichever way you choose to participate, we hope that by the end of the evening we will have a good sense of what God is leading us toward.

After that meeting, the staff and elders will once again set about the task of collecting and organizing what you have discerned and then we will follow up with an email survey to all participants asking you to verify that what we heard from you reflects what you experienced. And then, with all of that information at hand, we will set about charting a course that aligns with what we have collectively received from Jesus.

I have no idea what God might be specifically calling us toward through this process. That is what makes it both completely terrifying, and ultimately exciting. We do not know what God might ask us to lay down, or what he might ask us to start up. We don’t know if the end result will be something that looks like a refreshed version of what we already knew ourselves to be, or whether we will be unrecognizable. But we do know, that if we hear from Jesus and follow his will, we will end up on the right path either way.

So, this is your invitation. Join us. Pray with us. Listen with us. And then get ready for the ride of a lifetime as we walk out what Jesus says for us to do… together.

Here’s to the journey.

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