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Record turnout at church planting conference

By Stuart Mann

One of the most anticipated annual events on the church calendar—the Vital Church Planting Conference—drew a record 213 people this year, the highest attendance ever. Since it began in 2007, the conference has attracted more than 1,000 people to learn about fresh expressions of church and how to share the Gospel in new ways.

The sold-out conference, held Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at St. Paul, Bloor Street, drew Anglicans from the dioceses of Algoma, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Niagara, Huron, Toronto and even Barbados. There were people from five different denominations and a number of theological students. Many were there for the first time.

The keynote speaker, Bishop Graham Cray of the Church of England, and the workshop leaders focussed on making disciples of Jesus Christ. Participants also heard from clergy who were trying new forms of ministry. The combination of learning, informal discussions and networking was a hit with many.

“It’s a place to come and find like-minded people who are trying new ways of engaging and bringing the Gospel to the world,” said the Rev. Christine Williams of the Diocese of Ontario, who was attending for the fourth time. “Standing up in the pulpit is one thing, but to go beyond our walls and into the world is something that’s very important to me, and here’s a place to learn how to do that.”

The Rev. Warren Leibovitch, the incumbent of St. Paul, Lindsay, was attending for the first time. “What was exciting for me was hearing the stories and experiences,” he said. “The idea of disciple-making is so central to what we should be doing as a church, but it has been left to the sidelines. We focus on worship and pastoral care, which we do very well, but the whole idea of raising up people in the faith and teaching and equipping them to be leaders in the church and to go out and bring others to Christ—that’s an area where we have fallen short. This conference is highlighting that area, so it has been great.”

John Bowen, chair of the conference’s planning committee, said the annual gathering of clergy and laity has created a community of Christians across Canada who share a common language. “Now when people across the country say ‘fresh expressions of church’ or ‘missional discernment’ we know what we’re talking about,” he said.

The conference has been so successful that it has spawned a similar conference in Edmonton, and the Diocese of Fredericton has expressed an interest in starting one.

Mr. Bowen said participants regularly go back to their churches to put into practice some of the things they learned at the conference. “I didn’t have a lot of faith that conferences actually change the way that people behave, but this one, for various reasons, has empowered people to go back and do different stuff.”

The conference was sponsored by the Diocese of Toronto, Fresh Expressions Canada and Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism.

See photos from the conference on the Diocese’s Facebook page and check out hashtag #VCP2013 for live tweets from the conference. An interview with Bishop Graham Cray will be published in the April issue of The Anglican.