Willingdon celebrates 50 years
Some talk about it as one of a handful of B.C. megachurches (defined as a church whose weekly attendance exceeds 2,000). Some admire the church’s choir, a relative rarity these days. Some applaud the regular invitations to newcomers to accept Christ as Saviour. Some celebrate how the church has adapted and shifted in sync with the spectacular growth of Burnaby/Vancouver, meeting the needs of both the new and established ethnic communities of a cosmopolitan city.
All those things are true. It’s also true that Willingdon Church is one of the largest Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada, with close to 5,000 attending weekly, worshipping in multiple languages. That’s quite a change from the first congregational meeting, 50 years ago, of 116 German-speakers.
Pastor John Neufeld told Willingdon’s 50th anniversary gathering that the church’s growth has been continuous. “There was no spike of two or three years,” he said. “There was no golden era. It has been slow, steady growth under the guiding hand of God, regardless of who the elders, or pastors, or leaders were.”
He added, “This is God’s doing. None of the original group of 116 imagined this.”
A crowd of more than 8,000 people assembled at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum for the June 12 celebration service. Although the audience consisted mainly of regular attenders and many former Willingdon members, congregants had been urged to bring family and friends who do not profess to be Christians. Neufeld’s anniversary message included a strong invitation to those guests to accept Christ at the service. Special tables were set with free Bibles and other literature for new believers, and prayer counsellors were standing by. It’s part of Willingdon’s practice to maintain that evangelical emphasis.
Willingdon started in 1961, with key lay leadership from George Letkeman and his wife Susan. Ten years later, the church called Herb Neufeld (and wife Adeline) as senior pastor. It was Herb Neufeld who envisioned the foundation of a larger church to serve the broader community. He also shifted Willingdon to home Bible study groups (there were 60 by the end of his time there), and instituted the elder model of governance.
Both initiatives caused more than a ripple at the time, but both were adopted widely by other MB churches in B.C. Willingdon grew, and Herb Neufeld launched the church on a financial program to provide an adequate building to allow for growth. (See “How a house fire sparked a million dollar ministry,” October.)
Later in Herb Neufeld’s 15-year tenure, Carlin Weinhauer came on staff as associate pastor, and in turn, Weinhauer (with wife Marcia) became senior pastor in 1986. Willingdon continued to grow, ultimately constructing another new building to house a growing list of activities, serving increasingly diverse community groups.
Weinhauer brought John Neufeld (and wife Kathy) onto Willingdon’s staff as assistant senior pastor, a preaching pastoral position, later shifting him to senior pastor in 2003 when Weinhauer became the church’s first full-time missions pastor. Weinhauer retired after 20 years’ service
John Neufeld quips, “This church has not had a search committee for a lead pastor since 1971.”
Willingdon’s message is the cross of Christ, preaching is rooted in the Word, and the effort to reach out to unbelievers is constant and visible. With its evangelical heart, pastoral staff of 15 plus four interns, and broad service base, it’s no surprise Willingdon Church enlarged its physical space earlier this year. It was a $9-million addition, built debt-free to provide more room for more ministry. Again.
There are many one-of-a-kind congregations among Canada’s Mennonite Brethren. Many MB churches minister in typical ways; others vary widely: by size, in how they gather and where, how they worship, and how they live out the gospel. B.C.’s Willingdon Church is unique:
• Just under 5,000 attend weekly services
• Sermons simultaneously interpreted into 10 languages
• 7 services (2 in overflow areas) at 5 time slots each weekend
• 140-voice worship choir
• Orchestra plays 1 Sunday/month
• About 45 percent of membership is (multi-ethnic) Asian
• More than 100 midweek, home-based Bible study groups
• Planter of 2 churches, significant supporter of other plants, overseer of an ambitious overseas mission program
• 500-seat cafeteria and 2 staff cooks feed weekly attenders, as well as visiting delegates to conferences
• 18 college-level courses for adults at School of the Bible