Church partnership “remarkable to see”

Usually when a smaller congregation closes to join a larger one, it’s because the former is in trouble. But that’s not why Gateway Christian Fellowship, the newest of St. Catharines’ six MB churches, celebrated their 10-year anniversary by becoming a campus of Southridge Community Church’s new multisite venture.

“We’d hit that 250 mark where a church is self-sustaining – and you could be happy with that,” says then-Gateway pastor Ed Willms. “But our leadership team believed God was calling us to take a risk and do something ‘outside the box,’ … toward intentional partnership.”

With more than 1,000 attending weekend services, Southridge had more momentum and more resources, and a vision to become “a multisite, multi-cause championing restorative movement for Christ.” The Gateway partnership and a campus in Welland, Ont., are the first steps in the Southridge plan to create more local congregations in the region in the coming years, each with a focused compassion initiative.

Practically, Southridge was also outgrowing its present space and wanted to expand in a way that “capitalized on the best of both worlds,” says Southridge lead pastor Jeff Lockyer, offering “the upside” of both a larger and a smaller congregation.

Through winter and early spring 2009, the Gateway leadership team worked together, and also with Lockyer, to present the congregation a united plan to implement the partnership.

When Gateway informed its members about the merger in May “there was some critique that it was the final decision without congregational involvement,” says Willms. But after Gateway leaders met with each small group, Southridge leaders shared their multisite vision from the pulpit, and every member had opportunity to give feedback, Gateway voted 87 percent in favour of the change.

“There has been pain and loss,” says Willms. Some members and adherents who did not embrace the multisite vision found other worshipping congregations. “But I know that no one has been lost to the kingdom.”

Local compassion initiatives

Southridge has long rallied around ministry to people who are homeless, running a 35-bed, co-ed homeless shelter year round. Rather than exporting their ministry to new campuses, they encourage new campuses to unite around a vision for compassion initiatives specific to the neighbourhood. The Gateway location, newly christened North End, determined that service to marginalized seniors was needed in their neighbourhood, and is exploring partnership with Tabor Manor, a nearby MB seniors housing ministry, to create church initiatives to respond to those needs.

The focused compassion initiative of the new Welland campus, launched Nov. 8, 2009, is ministry to single-parent families. Southridge members and adherents who commuted from the town some 23 kilometres south of St. Catharines, now meet at Centennial Secondary School, with an average attendance of 250.

The initiating congregation’s campus remains at the Glenridge site, where Fairview-Louth MB Church relocated in 2003 and renamed Southridge. North End now meets at Governor Simcoe Secondary School, with an auditorium capable of seating 600.

No “mothership” feel

Sunday service teaching is prerecorded for broadcast at two of the three Southridge campuses – a significantly more economical option than live streaming – and delivered live at the third. “Everyone shares the same experience,” says Lockyer, and because the speaker visits each congregation in rotation, “there’s no ‘mothership’ feel.”

But Southridge campuses do share leadership, budget, and some events. “We’ve tried to structure around oneness,” says Lockyer. Each campus is part of the whole, “not just vicarious church plants.”

“It’s been worth the challenge and the pain,” says Willms. “There’s been a lot of letting go, a lot of dying to self,” but since the official launch in February, “there’s excitement, joy, and refreshment to serve – in one area instead of three.”

“There’s momentum; new people are coming from the community,” says Willms. “We are reaping the benefits of trusting that God is in this – and it is very exciting.”

—Karla Braun

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