How a Saskatoon congregation is living out its vision to send
It’s a gorgeous late Sunday afternoon in autumn and in a small packed church in Saskatoon where a floor-to-ceiling cross dominates the stage, the praises are rising. Enthusiastically, the mostly under-40s crowd sings “O Lord, you’re beautiful.”
They offer spoken praises too – for a healthy baby, for surviving a recent hurricane on Grand Cayman Island, that a friend has become a Christian.
Pastor Dwayne Harms comes up to preach. Living Hope Church’s fall theme is “ultimate makeover” and the message today is on Nicodemus, a man Jesus challenged to be born again.
Speaking of birth, this vibrant congregation of some 160 people who meet Sundays at 5:00 in the northeast part of the city has its own fascinating birth story.
But for that story, we have to begin with the mother.
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West Portal Mennonite Brethren Church began as an MB city mission work in Saskatoon in the 1950s and has grown steadily to an attendance of about 650. Now the sprawling, predominantly blue-collar church on the west side of Saskatoon has a very intentional mission: to be a church planting church.
Four years ago, it conceived and brought to birth the Living Hope Church. A second church is currently being readied for birth in the same womb.
Senior pastor Dwayne Barkman, who recently marked 15 years at West Portal, thinks visually, he says. The picture he uses to describe the church planting process he is championing a second time over is of a dam with a huge volume of water behind it.
If you build the dam higher to keep the water in, he says, it gets stale. But if you open a device at the bottom to allow for a continuous stream flowing out, the water remains fresh. Similarly in a church, he says, “you can horde or you can send.”
In West Portal, Barkman says, “we’re always talking sending.”
Barkman himself worked as a church planter before he came to Saskatoon, at Sunrise Community Church in Edmonton, with Marvin Schmidt of Lendrum MB Church as his coach. Now he exercises his passion for church planting within a well-established, “older” congregation.
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The “churches planting churches” process at West Portal has four phases. The first is reproduction. Here the idea is conceived and people gain ownership of the idea. The church planter is chosen, assessed and commissioned to lead a church out of the mother church.
Phase two is conception, where details are hammered out. The church planter, all the while working within the mother church, prepares a ministry proposal – a first draft, a second draft, a final draft.
Dwayne Harms, or DH as he is also known (to distinguish him from the other Dwaynes and Harmses in this story), was called by West Portal church as their church planting pastor and commissioned in July 2000.
In writing his plan, DH recalls, he had to bring together four dynamics – “the West Portal culture, who I am, the biblical mandate, and community demographics.” The plan that emerged was a church that would target not a specific geographic community but a socio-economic community, a strata of people likely to be younger, dual income and very busy, with high values of interaction and involvement in worship.
Working out the plan was “a tremendous amount of work,” DH says, but, blessed with a “go-getter” personality and knowledge that it was his purpose, he also found it exciting. His eagerness was soon shared by people within West Portal who signed on to the new plant.
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Barkman theorizes that 10 percent of any congregation is “restless” and likely to go on a church plant.
Moira Willems, who is secretary for Living Hope Church, says her family became part of West Portal through the support they received after the death of a child. But they had always wanted to be involved in something like a church plant.
“We were eager,” she recalls, “and it seemed to us it was taking forever. It was a slow process.”
Those leading the process needed the time, however. If the church planter and the group leaving had to be prepared, so did the mother congregation that was letting them go.
Creating an environment of change for church planting is crucial, Wayne Harms, West Portal moderator, who “gave up” several of his grown children to the church plant, says. Both he and Barkman acknowledge that in the first church plant they moved too quickly from “seeing the need for a church plant” to “doing it.”
Confronted by any change, some people will be eager, but probably an equal number will be resistant, Harms says. The majority will wait to see what happens. An important tool at every stage of the birth process is forums, where people can hear information, ask questions and engage in discussion.
The change West Portal faced also involved a significant financial commitment, as the model calls for the church plant to be subsidized (on a decreasing scale) in its beginning years. (The Saskatchewan MB Conference has also provided assistance.)
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The third stage in the “churches planting churches” model is the prenatal stage. The group preparing to leave begins to hold evening services within the comfortable confines of the mother church. A location is secured, the church is given a name, and key ministries and systems for the new church are in place. These “systems” must include what Barkman calls the biblical DNA of a church: worship, care, discipleship, ministry and evangelism.
Phase four is the birth, or public launch of the new church. Living Hope officially moved out of West Portal in March 2001. The second church’s launch date may be spring of 2005 or it may be fall. It’s important not to go public too soon, Barkman says.
The second church plant is definitely easier, says West Portal church secretary Lois Epp. “It’s like having a second child. You know the pains.”
Also, says Barkman, people are more open to the idea because they’ve seen God work once [in the planting process]. But the second, no less than the first, requires “serious trust in the senior pastor and moderator, serious trust in the church planter, and a core group and good ministry plan.”
There are always fears to overcome. Barkman faces them too. If the church planter fears finding enough people to join the new initiative or leading them to independence, financially and otherwise, Barkman’s fears are that the church planter will “be better” than him, or take half the mother congregation with him.
“I’m very vulnerable with my congregation,” he says. It’s important to “become secure” in oneself; Barkman goes on regular retreats where he “prays these things through.” A strong relationship with the church moderator is also vital. Leadership, he says, has to model the sending mindset it longs to see in the congregation.
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It was hard for West Portal after the first church plant was gone, moderator Harms says. “We were tired.”
Amazingly, however, the money and people “lost” to West Portal through the departure of Living Hope Church were quickly replaced. It soon became necessary to consider adding another service to accommodate the growth. Fresh energy emerged to birth a second church instead.
On this same gorgeous fall Sunday evening, in fact, not long after Living Hope’s weekly gathering ends, there’s another meeting underway, at West Portal: a forum in the conception stage of the second church plant.
The anticipated new church, not yet named on this evening, is under the leadership of Andrew Fehr, who joined the West Portal staff as evangelism pastor after more than 10 years with the MB Church in Carrot River, Sask. Fehr was loving his new job, he says, and certainly never intended to be their church planting pastor # 2.
But he was also interim chair of the Board of Church Extension in Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan representative on the national MB Board of Evangelism. “Something started to happen in my head,” he says, “then my heart.” He and others at West Portal came to the realization that he was the one to do the next church plant.
The new church that is developing within West Portal under his leadership, says Fehr, will look much like the mother church. While Living Hope targeted the emerging generation, this church is calling itself an intergenerational church. Fehr hopes to intentionally draw at least 75 people from West Portal and 75 from other churches in the city (“every church needs to be involved in sending somehow,” he says) for a strong launch group of 150.
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“The wisest decision [West Portal] made was to choose this birthing method,” says Moira Willems. Growing one church within another meant that people were already excited, that the core people were already involved and knew their leader, and that they were leaving, not because of problems, but because “West Portal was a very healthy church.”
The “churches planting churches” method is one the congregations in this birth story would recommend to others. It allowed DH, as he says, “to shamelessly steal every good idea” of an established church and to forge his own vision while being supported and mentored. It gave a mother church a “captivating vision” and outlet for evangelism to keep it from going stale.
And it will produce another church in the city of Saskatoon that has “sending” in its congregational bones.