congregational aesthetics: a LIVING faith (2/3)

In this short blog series I’m exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

Every congregation has an aesthetic profile, a profile that emerges out of the architecture, memorials, artwork, and liturgical accoutrements that make up the worship space or community space of a particular church. This aesthetic profile says something about who we are and about the nature of our faith.

In the first blog post of this series (here) I reflected on the weight of history – the question of how we might respond to the aesthetic tradition that has been handed down to us in our particular congregations. In this post I want to move beyond the historical, to the contemporary.

memorialOne realization I have made is that in many congregations – including the one I serve – most of the aesthetic elements are at least two or three generations old. Memorials or paintings or photographs give expression to the lives, faith, culture, and aesthetics of earlier generations. Which is to say that, very often, there are no contemporary aesthetic expressions of faith within our buildings or worship spaces. Which is also to say that in many congregations there are very few (or none at all!) ways in which we express our living and contemporary faith in Jesus Christ through paint or woodworking or weaving – through our creative capacities as women and men and kids. Continue reading


congregational aesthetics: the weight of history (1/3)

What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

When you think about the artwork or memorials or liturgical accoutrements of your congregation, what kind of profile emerges? More importantly, perhaps, what does this aesthetic profile say about the identity of your congregation. It’s an interesting and compelling question (and a multi-faceted one) when we stop to ask it.

For many congregations the question of aesthetics is one that hangs only vaguely in the background of church life. In such cases, a congregation receives its building with furnishings and artwork from a previous generation and accept that these have defined, and shall define (!), the aesthetic space within which worship and Christian friendship shall be expressed.

Of course there are some congregations that are profoundly aware of the aesthetic dimension of their congregational life. These aesthetically aware congregations could perhaps be subdivided into two categories: (i) those preoccupied with how nice things look, where niceness is defined by a sense of tidiness and welcome, and (ii) those pushing to think about how our faith is expressed or shaped by the aesthetic spaces we inhabit as congregations.

214The congregation I serve has had such questions thrust upon it. This is because we are in the process of subdividing our property/buildings, and selling our beautiful 700-seat sanctuary. Not only this, but for various reasons our large sanctuary had become home to a number of significant items of historical and ecclesial significance: including those from historic St. Gabriel Street Church, the first Presbyterian congregation in Montreal. Continue reading

6 reasons pastors shouldn’t focus on church growth

Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Community Church in Barrie, has written a blog post on 8 reasons most churches never break the 200 attendance mark. I thought I’d offer a reply, though in truth I’m not really interested in how congregations might break that apparently important threshold – or why they don’t. I’m more interested in the preoccupation itself – the preoccupation with breaking the 200 threshold.

Nieuwhof is by no means the first writer/blogger to focus on that magic number. I’ve come across it elsewhere, in passing. And one can only presume that there is a wealth of religious and sociological literature out there that explains and defends the importance of the all-important 200 attendance mark.

Before getting to my 8 reasons (actually, I only have 6) for this preoccupation with the 200 threshold, it is important to know that this is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Otherwise put, this focus on achieving and surpassing a numeric level finds its home in modernism – philosophically and culturally speaking. There is nothing timeless or essential about it. For 2000 years the church has not lived its intention to ‘reach people for Christ ‘ in such terms – only in the modern period has such thinking and acting become possible.

I’m not saying that the church has never talked about numbers (just read Acts and you’ll see otherwise), but the church for the vast majority of its history did not talk about numbers in this way. Continue reading

honest engagement and the reality of risk #beingmissional

It goes without saying that we like to be in control – we as individuals want to be in control – and we as the church want to be in control. But being faithful to Christ will often mean relinquishing control. After all, the Spirit blows where it will, and the Lord we serve bears the marks of the nails in his palms today. The cross doesn’t correlate well with control.

If we are engaged meaningfully with the wider community, and are to enter into meaningful partnerships with the wider community, we do so because we trust that the Spirit is at work there, and that the reign of Christ may come to expression there.

But such partnership will mean not being able to control the other’s perceptions of the partnership, their actions in the partnership, or  the language they use to describe the partnership. That is always the case in meaningful relationships where we remain in some sense vulnerable – we engage honestly and faithfully with others where we perceive mutuality and respect, without presuming to tell the other who they are or how they must act/perceive/speak. In fact, there may be times we don’t like what is said or done by partners. (Discernment, of course, also means learning when a partnership can’t be a partnership anymore.)

There are those within the church who approach such engagement with the wider community under essentially unitarian assumptions – “God” is at work (whoever “God” is) in the culture and in the church, and we have nothing decisive to hold on to or offer in this context. We are all just stumbling in the dark trying to make the world a more beautiful place. And “God” is there helping, working. Continue reading

on starting to say something interesting – and then totally missing the thread – #oldhabitsdiehard

UnknownIn this Huffington Post Religion blog post (click the image), Henry Brinton (don’t know him at all) starts to say something quite profound – and then drives into a cul-de-sac

Here’s the money quote: “Congregations need to establish hospitable ‘threshold places’ that link the church with the world around it…” It’s very well put. And the specific architectural example he gives leading up to the point is an insightful one – a church building that is both indoor and outdoor.

But then he drives into that cul-de-sac – he gets into full attractional church mode: parking lots, landscaping, greeters, etc… Please, no.

The image of ‘threshold places’ could be explored to great profit. To my mind, such threshold places would be contexts in which the church is drawn into meaningful encounter and work and conversation with the world around – and very often it will be a territory in which the church is guest or partner. Thinking missionally, it will necessarily be a territory in which the church is not ‘in control’ and is not  ‘host’, but in which it may nevertheless live graciously and confidently in Christ, serving his kingdom.

The one example I think of is Paul and Lydia outside of Philippi. Lydia was free to listen, or not. In that public place she was free to stay or to walk away. Paul simply spoke of his faith in Christ and, in that ‘threshold place’ (a place of open and honest and transparent encounter), let her freely respond. In her case the response was one of faith, and insistent hospitality.

a cardboard cathedral (imagine!)

Sermon from my Gospel and the Gazette series…


Have you ever built yourself a house out of cardboard boxes? I’m sure that many of us have – even if it was some years ago, now. If you have never built yourself a cardboard house, perhaps you have memories of your children or nieces or nephews doing it. In many ways this seems like such a fundamental part of childhood is North America – cutting out windows, colouring the walls, hanging out and maybe eating your snack in the little cardboard house.

I suspect that it was probably somewhere around the 1950’s that the cardboard playhouse became a staple of childhood. It was around the 40’s and 50’s that large home appliances became commonplace in North America. And by that time, cardboard boxes were also widely in use. What better than a great big fridge box or  a stove box to build a play fort with. Those boxes can be a source of hours and days worth of fun.

Now, it’s fair to say that cardboard has come a long way. Cardboard was first used in Great Britain back in the 1870’s – it was used in tall hats for Victorian gentlemen. Today, cardboard is everywhere –especially in cardboard boxes. The advantage of cardboard is that it is at the same time light and strong. And of course it is recyclable, which is also a huge plus. Continue reading

Reuse, Recycle

Was reading in the Telegraph today and came across this piece about the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new medieval and resnaissance galleries. What really drew my attention was the first phograph attached to the story, which is of stained glass from Sainte-Chapelle, France (1243-8). As you can see from the picture, the windows have been mounted (it’s hard to tell how, exactly) in such a way that they appear not as windows but almost as sulptures mounted together – against a white backdrop.

In the congregation I serve, we are in the midst of an attempt to sell a portion of our property. While we are not talking about demolition of the church sanctuary, the question has sometimes arisen as to how aspects of the traditional structure might be preserved in a new context. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s presentation of these medieval windows offers a striking example, it seems to me, of how traditional pieces could be incorporated into a more modern worship space and structure. If not in the case of the congregation I serve, perhaps in other contexts where similar questions arise.


The concept of imagination is catching my imagination these days. Not that I’m a particularly imaginative person – for me it takes hard work to be creative, and even then there’s not much originality in what I do.

At the same time, I’m inclined to think that creative expression is almost always hard work, even for those supposedly gifted souls – you know, the artists and poets.

I’m on an imagination kick because I’m trying to be imaginative about ministry, and about the way the church (and the congregation I serve) might articulate the gospel in our time and place. Imagination builds out of the resources of the past, anticipating the new and different while in a profound sense remaining faithful to the heart of the gospel (the Spirit improvises on the gospel, and we become creative actors in that improvisation – thanks Jeremy Begbie). But to be an imaginative person is thus necessarily to live in a tension – between what is and what might be. Continue reading