The Rev. Dr. Jay Koyle speaks at the Vital Church Maritimes 2015 Conference in Halifax, N.S. Photo by Paul Sherwood

Congregational development: ‘To be a witness to the kingdom’

The following is part of an ongoing monthly series on congregational development, which features reflections from Anglicans on how they are responding to the challenges facing churches today.

Whether at the local level or higher, the notion that the church faces a crisis today is a commonly held belief across many Christian denominations.

As congregational development officer for the Anglican Diocese of Algoma, the Rev. Dr. Jay Koyle is inclined to agree—but he does not believe that crisis has anything to do with the numbers of people in pews, with contentious issues such as same-sex marriage, or with a lack of young people in the church.

“The real crisis may have implications for all of those, but I think the crisis is the same one that the church has always named,” Koyle says. “And that’s that the kingdom of God has come near”—the Good News proclaimed and embodied by Christ himself.

For Koyle, the description of the church by influential theologian Bishop Lesslie Newbigin as “a sign, a foretaste, and instrument of the kingdom” is central to his approach towards congregational development in the Diocese of Algoma.

“The church, in any age and in any context, needs to somehow say, ‘How do we serve as a sign? How do we serve as a place where people can get a taste of what the kingdom is about? How can we serve the kingdom in this context and in this place? In my understanding, nurturing vital congregations is how we do that.”

“It’s not an end in itself,” he adds. “Rather, the end is ultimately to be a witness to the kingdom.”

By putting the missional focus of churches in terms of serving God’s kingdom, Koyle—in his 22 years of ordained ministry as a parish pastor and in his current position—has found that congregations are able to adopt a fresh approach to ministry and see it in a larger context.

When parishes provided meals for the hungry on Christmas, Koyle says, “they weren’t just doing a good thing they should do as a church, or in the hopes that maybe this would get some people to come out to church.”

“It was instead [that] in the kingdom of God, people are fed. God sets a rich banquet, we live that way, so this is what it looks like in our context … It gave people a new sense of excitement and vitality.”

In helping congregations in his diocese change their cultures to adopt a stronger missional focus where they are constantly discerning mission and acting upon it, Koyle invites parishes to follow three core steps:

  1. Examining Scripture and asking questions about who God is, what God promises, what the kingdom looks like, etc.;
  2. Identifying the passions, gifts, and assets of the congregation, and how those can be shaped for mission and discipleship; and
  3. Taking part in exercises to look at their neighbourhoods for things they may have missed.

Conversation about mission today often emphasizes going out in the community, but Koyle stresses that worship and community inside the church is equally important to being a disciple.

Within the Diocese of Algoma, a notable example of a congregation that embraced a new missional focus is St. John the Evangelist Church in Thunder Bay. Inspired by the biblical phrase “freely sharing the bread of life” from the Gospel of John, the congregation organized fundraising and social gatherings to set up a food bank and host weekly breakfasts for the community.

Underscoring the concept of “serving the kingdom,” Koyle recalls a conversation he experienced among parish members who had noticed many children coming through the food bank, in which a parishioner mused that perhaps some of the youth might also attend Sunday school.

In response, Koyle describes, “One person said, ‘Hang on a minute. They’re more than welcome and we can even invite them [to Sunday school], but we can’t do it for that reason. We only do this because they’re hungry and we are offering to feed them. We’re St. John the Evangelist Church freely sharing the bread of life.’

“That’s where I thought, ‘They get it.’”

Another example of churches finding a new mission together occurred in Sault Ste. Marie, when St. John the Evangelist and St. Matthew’s merged to form Emmaus Anglican Church—named after the biblical story in which Jesus appears after his death and resurrection to two of his disciples who are walking to the town of Emmaus and eventually breaks bread with them.

Recognizing themselves in the disciples who were initially unsure of where they were going, Koyle describes the two churches as also “recognizing themselves almost in the role of Jesus. They’re called to walk with people and listen to their stories, to share the story of the gospel, and to somehow in their life and work be in a sense the bread through which the risen Christ is recognized.”

By considering other viewpoints, congregations can find further avenues for development in their respective missions.

“If we ask different questions, or get a fresh perspective on either our situation or the situation around us, I think we see lots of opportunities where we can live vibrant lives in the gospel and make a difference in the communities around us.”

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