By Martha Holmen
“Things happen around the table that change people’s lives,” said David Fitch during his first keynote address at the Vital Church Planting Conference.
Mr. Fitch, an academic, pastor and church planter from the Chicago area, was the plenary speaker at this year’s conference, which took place Jan. 28-30 at St. Paul, Bloor Street. Jointly sponsored by the Diocese of Toronto and the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism, the conference attracted about 120 participants from various Christian denominations.
During the first two days of the conference, Mr. Fitch identified three circles of Christian community: the Eucharistic table, where Jesus is the host; the dining room table, where the Christian disciple is the host; and tables in the public square, where Christians interact with the neighbourhood.
“Proclaiming the Gospel doesn’t stay in the closed circle. It’s in our neighbourhoods and our homes,” he said. “There’s a table everywhere. The question isn’t whether Jesus is there, but whether he will be recognized.”
The notion of sharing the Gospel through hospitality emerged with several other speakers over the course of the conference. Attendees heard the stories of a variety of missional ministries, including a drop-in in East York where youth can be known and heard, and a new congregation in Vancouver that invites people of any age, race or lifestyle to gather around the altar.
At Church of the Transfiguration, Toronto, gathering around a table has become an essential element of The Water’s Edge, a new Sunday evening worshipping community. After a dressed-down liturgy, held without processions or vestments, the community gathers for a meal in the church basement.
“After worship we all head downstairs, where the kitchen becomes an important part of the community,” said the Rev. David Giffen, incumbent, in his workshop.
Members of the congregation prepare a meal each week, and everyone helps to set up tables and chairs, serve the food and clean up. The meal is seen as a vital part of the gathering that begins upstairs in the sanctuary.
“We weren’t talking about a meal after the service, but a meal as church,” said Nathan Wall, pastor of discipleship at Transfiguration and a member of the planning team for The Water’s Edge.
The team has found that the activities of cooking, setting up and cleaning together help to create deeper connections than they first expected.
“It gives people a space, a time and an activity in which they can rub shoulders with one another, and ease into the kinds of conversations that we don’t often allow ourselves time for,” said Mr. Wall.
In Parkdale, the idea of hospitality is tied to the very existence of The Dale Ministries, a community organization and church that operates with no building or fixed address.
“We became a church without our own walls,” said Erinn Oxford, director of the ministry.
The Dale, formerly called Parkdale Community Church, relies on businesses and organizations scattered throughout the neighbourhood to host its programs. Epiphany and St. Mark, Parkdale, a coffee shop, a Presbyterian church, a Salvation Army thrift store and other local centres all welcome The Dale into their spaces throughout the week.
“By spilling into the streets, we more fully inhabit our neighbourhood. We have built strong partnerships with a variety of organizations,” said Ms. Oxford. “We have the opportunity to be shown hospitality at the same time as giving it, and to me that’s beautiful.”
The conference culminated in a Team Day on Saturday, when Clayton Rowe and Hugh Brewster of World Vision Canadian Programs helped participants develop tools to connect with their neighbourhoods.
To hear recordings from this year’s conference, visit www.vitalchurchplanting.com.