The last chair was stacked, the tables folded and put away, and the final few guests lingered by the door. Volunteers hung up their aprons and turned out the lights in the Fellowship Hall. The community meal had come to a close for the last time. After almost ten years, the church would take a break from its weekly ritual as it could no longer sustain the work required to run this outreach ministry.
Many churches in Cascadia are experiencing shifts in their communities that mean they no longer have the resources to do what they’ve always done. For some, aging congregations and dwindling numbers also no longer reflect the diversity that’s arrived on their doorsteps and across their backyards. They’re at a crossroads, wondering how to move forward, unsure how to continue being good neighbors in an ever-changing context. And they feel alone. If their church disappeared, would anyone in the neighborhood even notice?
Over the last two years, ten congregations in Cascadia have joined Regent Exchange on a journey of discernment. Regent Exchange: Churches for the Common Good is a grant-funded research and church partnership initiative at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. We focus on questions of vocation and calling, helping churches explore their corporate calling and design ministry projects that contribute to the common good. Walking together in cohorts, these churches spend a year or more exploring new ways God may be calling them to engage with their communities in the midst of societal and cultural change within the fragmented and isolating landscape of urban Cascadia. The following provides a glimpse of our journey with these churches and what we have learned walking together.
Discerning Vocation: Walking Together
When Regent Exchange formed our first church cohort over two years ago, we, as an institution, were new to walking alongside churches. Our church team members were gracious and gave helpful feedback in those initial months. We soon learned that they were not looking only for more content, conceptual frameworks, or practical advice for ministry. They also wanted to journey together—to not feel alone in the hard work of discerning their calling and loving their neighbors.
While we responded with various ways of facilitating the large cohort gatherings, eventually we recognized that church teams were most energized by hearing from one another and problem-solving their ministry challenges together.
One church in the Greater Vancouver area opened its doors to host a cohort gathering with the Regent Exchange staff and members of the other cohort churches. Experiencing their hospitality; being in the place where they live, work, and minister; driving by the houses and small businesses this church prays for all served to deepen relationships within the cohort, cementing the idea that we are all on this journey together.
Now we are learning to cultivate “communities of practice” as a way of walking even more closely with our church teams. In the context of Regent Exchange, we believe that discerning our vocation and calling is best done in the company of others. These communities of practice, or peer groups, allow small groups of people from different churches to listen and learn together. Through regular interaction, they help each other discern and incarnate their vocations and callings in their respective contexts.
Cohort participants appreciate the process of both sharing with and receiving feedback from another team. According to one participant, hearing back what others heard “helped refocus from the details to the big picture and more important longings and hopes.” Out of these intimate conversations where two or three members from each church team share with two or three other teams, Regent Exchange can walk more closely with these churches—celebrating progress and discerning the way forward.
Discerning Vocation: Listening and Waiting
Discerning vocation is a process of listening, making sense of what we hear, waiting, and responding creatively in faith and action. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 stopped many church teams in their tracks just as they were preparing to design their projects. Pivoting online, along with all the upheaval caused by those early months of pandemic lockdowns, required slowing down and gave church teams space to pause.
As the world was figuring out how to shelter in place, church teams learned the importance of discernment and prayer. They learned to listen deeply to one another, to God, and to their communities. And as they listened to their neighbors, these teams recognized the loneliness of those around them.
The fruit of this listening was evident—some of these churches caught a vision for how they might move forward in their project designs and others decided to change direction based on what they heard. One church in northern Washington found itself pausing its project ideas as awareness of racial injustice was reignited in the spring of 2020. Church team members took time to reflect and consider how God might be calling them to respond.
Discerning Vocation: Learning Together
As they listened to one another’s stories, sharing ideas and insights over Zoom squares, church team members learned to hear more deeply the hopes and longings of one another, their congregations, and their neighbors. Discernment practices such as appreciative inquiry (a practice of strategic listening to see where God’s spirit is already at work) played a key role in facilitating this learning within their teams. Cohort members who were once strangers across the city began to feel invested in each other’s sense of call—eagerly encouraging one another to contribute to the common good in innovative ways and care for neighbors in their respective contexts.
For another church in Washington, Regent Exchange catalyzed an interest in social justice initiatives such as racial reconciliation and creation care. Other congregations have been encouraged to try new things in their neighborhoods. Another church project in Vancouver, BC engaged a group of artists in the congregation who would otherwise not be involved to develop an Artisan Neighborhood Market. Several churches in urban areas have discovered the importance of utilizing their physical property by constructing connecting places such as picnic tables, benches, or community gardens. These facilitate relationships and friendships within the community, which is especially important amidst rising loneliness in the urban landscape.
The Journey Continues
At the core of all we do at Regent Exchange is God’s story of salvation. And that story is always concerned with the particular place and time in which God’s people are living. Such particularity demands the type of vocational journey that we have been on with our churches: a journey of listening, of waiting, and of doing so in community for the sake of the common good. And so, the listening, discerning, and learning continues—as seasons and conditions change.
A new park bench stands by the sidewalk at the edge of the church grounds, inviting passersby to enjoy a brief respite or chat with a friend. A neighbor who walks by every morning with her dog stops at the Little Library to drop off some books. She glances over at the new noticeboard and a poster for a Tai-Chi class held on the lawn of the church catches her eye. She didn’t know that churches held Tai-Chi classes and is intrigued. This church is learning to engage its neighbors with its presence in the community, and the neighbors are starting to take notice.
This article was written by the Regent Exchange staff with Rhonda McEwen: https://www.regent-college.edu/exchange
Cover photo credit: Eric X