change in the church – free to experiment

Presbyterian Record cover June 1964An article printed in this month’s Presbyterian Record, based on a blog post from a year ago. [The image to the right is of the cover of The Presbyterian Record from 50 years ago!!]


Change has been in the air at Kensington, Montreal, over the past six years as the congregation has adopted global and contemporary songs in Sunday worship. While we still sing many traditional hymns, there are new melodies, harmonies and rhythms rising into the air from sounding board, vocal cords and even the djembe.

Change has also been in the walls and in the ground and in the pews and in the programs and in the financial outlook. So here’s just a sampling of changes made in our congregation’s life over these past years, beyond the embrace of new musical expressions. Changes made in a spirit, I would say, of faithful common sense.

We have moved our worship from a traditional worship space (a beautiful sanctuary that seated 700) to a bright and simple church hall that will easily and comfortably accommodate our 65 – 70 Sunday worshippers. That traditional sanctuary is up for sale.

We are incorporating audio/visual elements within Sunday worship—images and visual liturgy that are appropriate to the aesthetic sensibilities of the congregation (and wider community) and also true to our faith in the God who has created and reconciled the world in Christ.

The congregational name has been abbreviated/changed. For several decades the church was known as Knox Crescent Kensington and First Presbyterian Church (a name that reflected a history of amalgamations, a name for insiders, really), but now we are simply Kensington Presbyterian Church.

We have experimented with programs that reflect the missional nature of the church—including a meal outreach to new arrivals in Canada/Montreal, a program that was imagined and presented in conjunction with other community organizations.

Kensington has also faced up to financial pressures by reducing annual expenditures by some $40,000; thus keeping the long – term viability and mission of the church foremost in mind.

Finally, at the time of writing, we have transitioned to a monthly (rather than quarterly) celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and will also begin serving wine at communion, alongside the “traditional” grape juice.

When it comes to the introduction and implementation of change within the church, there is no end of books offering advice, and no end of consultants lined up to demonstrate how change can be managed. For these change gurus, the church is very often conceived as a generic system, within which processes and people can be managed in order to achieve any range of outcomes. Processes are managed. Change is managed.

Conflict is managed. All of which reflects the managerial spirit of modern culture, within which a premium is placed on control, and in which the particular identity of the church as a Spirit – led community of Jesus’ disciples is largely forgotten.

The story of change at Kensington began rather abruptly, with the Presbytery of Montreal firing the proverbial “shot across the bow” of the congregation, advising its leadership that stasis and significant budgetary deficits were no longer acceptable. As you can imagine, this presbytery intervention was not well received at the time.

The story of change also involves a loving, bull – in – the – china – shop, two – year interim ministry by Rev. Allen Aicken. And it involves the supportive ministry of interim moderators (Revs. Kate Jordan and Glynis Williams) over a three – year period. On the clergy side there were others, including student ministers and ordained pulpit supply who offered their advice, leadership and prayers prior to my ministry here.

In my own almost six years at Kensington, I have worked with a session and congregation that are realistic, willing to experiment, and hopeful about the future into which Christ is leading us. We are realistic about the challenges facing the institutional church today, and realistic about the possibility that even a renewed institution may not survive in our transformed cultural context. We are willing to experiment because we have come to realize that, without denying everything we have been and known, there are fresh and imaginative expressions of ministry in which Christ may be meaningfully served.

And we are hopeful about the future because the future is in Christ’s hands, not ours. Our calling is simply to offer our gifts, to offer faithful common sense in service to the risen Jesus, and to seek the leading of his Spirit. Following this way does not provide any guarantee of the longevity of a congregation. But for me this outlook on the church’s life and future has meant that the past five years have been years of freedom and joy in service. We aren’t in control and don’t have to be in control. Thank God for that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run. We’re about to dedicate our new elevator.


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