Ontario convention 2009

“Seedlings,” policies, an upbeat spirit

Vidya Narimalla (centre), pastor of Kitchener MB Church and BFL Chair, with Rafiqua (left) and Vishal Mashil of Behta Darya Asian Church, Etobicoke, Ont.

The agenda was full – with reports, workshops, worship, and three sermons – and so it clipped along, with next to no discussion from the floor.

For all its efficiency, however, the 78th convention of the Ontario Conference of MB Churches, held at Port Rowan MB Church Feb. 20–21, 2009, had a strong spirit of interactive engagement about it. Calls of “Amen” and “That’s right” were occasionally heard from the delegation of 155 and, from the podium, the news this year seemed mostly good.
At last year’s convention, delegates wrestled over concerns rising out of a reduced budget and the resignation of their conference minister. This year,  an increased budget passed easily and a search for   a conference minister is underway.

Rick Cober Bauman of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, whose reporting slot fell near the end, summed it up well: “I’ve sensed an upbeat feeling here.”

Craziest venture ever

Ontario MBs are involved in a number of bold outreach initiatives, particularly in high-need, high-density parts of Toronto, but what they want to do next was introduced by church extension director Terry Wiseman as “our biggest, wildest, craziest venture ever.”

The Board of Church Extension (BOCE) hopes to establish “seedlings” in urban core areas of southern Ontario’s cities. Seedlings are not church plants but rather, teams of young people who work or attend university and live “incarnationally and missionally” in the community. A team of six currently lives in Lowertown, Ottawa, and another team has formed in Flemington Park, Toronto.

Some 20 Ontario urban core sites have been identified, said Wiseman. BOCE’s goal, in partnership with the 12:12 Network and InterVarsity, is to mobilize several hundred university students to choose to live in them. The hope is that some young people will become long-term missionaries in these communities, and that some of the seedlings will mature into church plants. “It’s very organic and very messy,” Wiseman said, asking for prayer.

He also asked for prayer for the parents of the youth involved in the seedlings. Parents “are not always excited about this,” he said. “We’re asking their kids to move into dangerous places.”

Two young men from the Lowertown team spoke to the convention. “It’s basic living with a purpose,” one explained. They have become involved in various community activities and distributed the Jesus film at Christmas but the main thing, he said, is prayer and making new friends.

“God is using us in sweet, sweet ways and it’s because of him,” said the other.

In conversation with this reporter later, the two men asked that their names and photographs not be published in the Herald, lest their presence be inadvertently misunderstood by people in Lowertown. Nor did they want attention on themselves. “It’s nothing special,” they insisted. “We’re regular Christians.”

The outreach work underway in Thorncliffe Park – a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of some 30,000 people in 35 apartment blocks – requires some sensitivity in published reporting as well. It can be said, however, that remarkable things are happening, “things,” in Wiseman’s words, “we could hardly have imagined at [the project’s] inception.”

Giving gold, and time

Delegates also heard from Vishal and Rafiqua Mashil of the Behta Darya Asian Church. Some 400 people are connected into its various ministries by now and the congregation is seeking to raise $2 million by 2010 for a building of their own. That people have “grasped the vision” is demonstrated by the significant sacrifices the women of the church have been making for the project. The gold jewelry Indian and Pakistani women own is given to them by their parents and in-laws, Rafiqua explained, and marks prestige and status. But a large majority of the women have been donating it all.

The Board of Faith and Life, chaired by Kitchener pastor Vidya Narimalla, reported on their work of credentialing pastors, responding to theological issues, and conflict resolution within churches; a “resurrected” pastors’ retreat that was a significant connecting event; and the search for a conference minister.

For the past 14 months, retired pastor Sandy Young, most recently of Port Rowan MB Church, has been volunteering as conference pastor. “We appreciate your shepherding heart and straight talk,” Narimalla told him.

Young said, “We have some very good pastors looking after our churches.” One of the 13 new pastors among Ontario’s 33 churches, Ingrid Reichard, told the convention about The Dwelling Place, a new congregation in an area of Kitchener where there is a high immigrant population. “I’m thrilled to be part of the MB family,” she said.

Policies and other business

The Leadership Council, an 11-person board led by moderator Frank Wiens, which oversees the conference between conventions, met 7 times the past year. The Council presented some new policy statements to the delegation, concerning matters such as conflict of interest, employment, and “growing” leaders. A leadership development plan, related to the Ministry Development Fund, will provide opportunities for individuals and churches to participate in various kinds of leadership programs. The council also did a study of Ontario MB giving patterns over the past 30 years, which painted a picture of “a lot of resources and people prepared to share.”

In other reports:

  • Eden High School, seniors’ homes (Tabor, Pleasant, Valleyview), and Bethesda Homes (for developmentally challenged individuals), all founded by Ontario MBs, are now largely government funded. A sense of ministry and conference ownership remains significant in each, however. At Eden, the conference is involved through the school’s Spiritual Life Department, comprised of 4 full-time staff.
  • Drew Unruh presented an updated version of the conference website; see www.onmb.org.
  • Camp Crossroads has added a new venture to its ongoing camping ministry: a day camp for the local community.
  • Two churches have closed. Community Bible church in St. Catharines had their last service Jan. 11. The closure was “amiable,” said Sandy Young; “they felt their mandate was over.” The case of New Harvest Fellowship was less clear, reported Vidya Narimalla; “we had limited success in connecting.”
  • The budget for next year is $471,000, with $221,000 to be raised through church pledges.

Connecting to Regenerate

Three speakers developed the convention theme, “‘Acts’ Revitalized,” chosen to tie into the national conference’s Regenerate 21-01 vision for renewal.

Tyndale University professor emeritus Erwin Penner led off on Friday evening on the matter of church health. We need to step back from the “spectacular things” and “large numbers” of the first church, he said, and look at “what’s really fundamental.” Examining Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, he showed that a healthy church is unashamedly centred around Jesus Christ, anchored in Scripture, and practices community.

Canadian conference executive director David Wiebe probed the character of the early church in terms of leadership development. We need to surrender to the Holy Spirit (though “surrender does not come easy”), he said, listen to God’s direction for new leaders, grapple with suffering, discern new territory (“corporate surrender is even harder”), and share resources.

Marv Funk, a member of Waterloo MB Church, who has led various mission trips, wrapped up the convention by addressing outreach. He spoke of the centrality of forgiveness and the need for a faith walk that goes beyond mere words or the label “Christian.”

—Dora Dueck

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