Becoming the Presence of Christ in a Community
[Calgary Community Reformed Church has opened its basement to a CrossFit gym. Photo by Sherry Vrielink.]
By Paul Heidebrecht
When my wife and I arrived at Calgary Community Reformed Church in 2012, I was taken with the missional church movement. But I knew I had to stop reading books and attending conferences, and instead just get out and do it.
Thankfully, the members of Calgary Community wanted to become a community-based church instead of another aging congregation.
From the start, I had an eagerness to walk the streets of the neighborhood, Marda Loop, to get to know its residents and ethos. I believed that behind the scenes, the Holy Spirit would be working, and I could trust Christ to accomplish his mission.
The hurdles to becoming missional were great. Our congregation was a commuter church like most others nearby. Our members did not know and love Marda Loop, and the neighbors hardly knew we existed. We had a 100-year-old building with no parking lot and a congregation of folks mostly over 60.
But the congregation supported my wife and me in our vision to spend as much time caring for the community as we did caring for the church. Even before I came, several members were meeting twice a week to pray for the church and the city, a practice they continue today. And the congregation recognized that we were right in the middle of a vibrant, revitalizing neighborhood—and we had a building with underutilized spaces. They were prepared to share that space with community groups.
It started when the owner of a CrossFit gym showed up looking for a basement large enough for the gym. Ours was perfect. Next, the community business association needed office space. Then a preschool approached us and ended up renovating space in our building to use for their programs. The effect of all this on our church budget was quite evident in the smiling faces of our deacons.
But I soon realized that rental income was not the goal. Relationships were. I joined the CrossFit group and began working out with young adults half my age. Some church members participated in business association events and started to interact with the local arts community. We hosted a Stations of the Cross exhibit painted by a Woodland Cree artist and reached out to a huge arts cooperative under construction next door.
One neighbor said to me how amazed he was to see me supporting the community’s efforts, since he assumed churches were only interested in themselves. But we were too small to conduct programs of any kind, so what little resources we had I preferred to offer to the community.
Our missional mindset also extended to other congregations in our area. Unchurched people don’t often perceive the differences among churches, and tend to form their impression of Christian faith on the behavior of churches collectively. So congregations have to think “we” and cultivate a corporate witness. To do that, I developed relationships with the other pastors in Marda Loop.
Out of that ecumenical engagement came an even greater blessing. A Mennonite church plant needed a home base and so we welcomed them into our building. Together with a Korean congregation already there, we now have three congregations sharing the sanctuary and occasionally worshiping together.
To encourage missional thinking and education, I invited local “urban missionaries” to share about their kingdom work. We heard from a Christian youth worker in the public high schools, the director of a home for battered women, a social worker in a low-income housing complex, and a university chaplain. We suddenly saw God working in all kinds of places.
The Calgary Community congregation is still learning to think and act missionally. The journey never really ends. But we’re all trying to be the presence of Christ in a community.
Paul Heidebrecht retired as minister of Calgary Community Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, in October 2015. He and his wife, Priscilla, now live in the Chicago, Illinois, area.