Months before the pandemic disrupted many the patterns and practices of ministry and accelerated the shift to the digital realm, the people of Niagara had already discerned the need for a new kind of learning environment.
The diocesan Mission Action Plan (MAP) envisions the Niagara School for Missional Leadership as a space where lay and clergy leaders could gather to share and reflect upon their experience of ministry and receiving training to respond creatively and faithfully to God’s mission.
In February and March, the realization of this vision became much closer to reality as two online course were piloted, a crucial step to test out the model ahead of the planned launch of the school this fall.
Bishop Susan Bell offered a six-week course on missional preaching while Dr. John Bowen, professor emeritus of evangelism at Wycliffe College, offered an introductory course on mission.
“These were people who had been deep in the trenches of parish life for years,” observed Bowen whose course was titled Mission 101. “They were not looking for theoretical information to help them somewhere down the hypothetical road, they were hungry for help in real-life situations today.”
Bishop Bell’s missional preaching course began from a set of convictions: 1) in the digital age, preaching is more important than ever within the ministry of a Christian leader and 2) preaching needs to be shaped in our post-modern, post-secular, post-colonial context and 3) missional preaching evokes faithful living and contextual discipleship.
“If we accept that we are living in a genuinely post-Christendom era, then we have to remember that even for the most churched of Christians, our culture no longer necessarily supports nor promotes, nor shares their belief system anymore,” said Bishop Susan Bell. “So, discipleship has to constantly be nurtured and supported in words and deeds that connect the mission of God with peoples’ lives and preaching is an opportunity to do that.”
The pilot courses drew interest from nearby Huron diocese. Victor Kischak, rector of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Waterloo said one of the most enlightening aspects of the course was the challenge of writing three-minute sermons without using any church or theological jargon was particularly enlightening.
“As preachers, we commonly use terms like atonement expecting everyone to know what we mean,” he said. “However, this course reminded us that our language needs to be just as accessible and inclusive as Jesus was to everyone he met if we want visitors to our congregations to feel welcomed and included in the kingdom of God.”
Bishop Susan Bell encouraged her students to focus on the question of why in their sermons, why scripture matters to contemporary listeners. “We should not expect our sermons to inspire others and transform lives unless we can answer the question of why a particular passage of scripture is good news for us today in the context that we find ourselves in,” said Kischak.
As it is currently conceptualized, the Niagara School for Missional Leadership seeks to be rooted in missional praxis, with the basic learning tools for students being practical experience, mentoring, theological reflection, and prayer.
Bowen’s pilot course comprised twelve students, representing four different parishes, three in Niagara, one in Huron. It began with the question: Can the Church change? Each week was punctuated by videos and lively discussion. There were assignments too, which participants seemed eager to complete, whether it was reviewing the user-friendliness of their websites for unchurched people, or doing a prayer walk around their neighbourhoods.
“John Bowen emphasized the necessity of a wholistic ministry for the entire Church in which members of the congregation bring their varied gifts and talents to bear, working together with the clergy, and vice versa, as they travel forward going out beyond the walls of the church in new ways, with the support of the bishop and the diocese,” reflected Will Alakas, rector of St. Columba’s in St. Catharines, one of the parish teams who participated in the course. He said one of his takeaways from the course was to trust in the promises of Christ and to not be afraid of the challenges ahead when one puts out into the deep.
Alakas appreciated being able to hear the firsthand experience of other clergy and lay leaders from a variety of parishes and their understanding of the Gospel and how it relates to the life of their parish moving forward within the pandemic and beyond.
“Change in traditional congregations happens slowly and often breaks down,” observed Bowen. “As a result, I will be keeping in touch with the four parishes in the coming months, and we have tentative plans to meet again in the fall and work together on Mission 201.”
Along the way, there were learnings about the model which the leadership team will evaluate to inform the school’s model and approach going forward.
“I asked this first group to collaborate in making this exploration as effective as it could be,” said Bishop Bell. “So along with any learning that they were doing, I was also on a learning journey of my own and their feedback along the way was really helpful.”
With an encouraging first offering, the courses will be refined and offered again in the fall, alongside as many as six other courses, two of which are currently piloted in the spring. Bishop Bell expressed gratitude to the first participants of the courses, which she said affirmed the overall vision for the Niagara School of Missional Leadership.
“The goal of these courses and the school is to better equip our missional leaders to share the good news as effectively, winsomely and honestly, and deeply as we are able; to share — with joy and conviction that God’s mission of love in our world is to draw all people — all people — to God’s self and in so doing to unite heaven and earth through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Two More Courses Piloted This Spring
Introduction to a Missional New Monasticism, with Canon Ian Mobsby
This course is designed for those who are interested in New Monasticism
and new forms of Christian spiritual/religious ecclesial communities in the context of building new expressions of Church including the Fresh Expressions initiative.
The course is particularly geared towards people who either have no or little experience of such communities, or who want the space to explore them more practically and theologically.
“The Persistent Parish” — Pursuing Missional Movement in Cozy Congregations, with Leanne Friesen
This course is designed to explore the missional movement in the context of churches that may struggle to make space for mission in the midst of their longstanding practices. Some may refer to this as learning about how to “reboot or “revitalize” a congregation. Some may use the term “turn-around” church. The hope is that participants will see that the missional movement can include more than require creating a church plant or a coffee shop. The space for mission can be created in churches of any age, size, or history. The course seeks to uncover best practices rooted in experience and creates space for questions, wonderings, and mutual learning.