Heartland Regional Newsletter January 2020

Sam Breakey was the former CBWC guru on Church Health, and I had the privilege of working alongside Sam as he walked through some feedback with each congregation. I was always impressed with various aspects about this process; first, the church was willing to have a discussion about the future and put some work into it, and second, Sam’s love for Christ’s church and the work he put into his consultations. Sam has retired and is now the chair of the CBWC board.

Of course, some of the discussions around church health are somewhat difficult because churches usually end up looking at the life-cycle of institutions as they do their own introspective work. Churches go through various aspects of life, and sometimes this includes bringing the ministry of a local congregation to a close. We’ve had that happen in one of our churches in the Heartland recently, as the congregation at Roseau River voted to close in September of 2019. I am always amazed to look back on the history of churches at times such as these and am grateful to God for the ministry of the congregation and the commitment of its volunteers. 

But the life cycle of a congregation doesn’t always have to end, at least not at this point in history. I visit lots of churches, lots of smaller churches, churches that have been around for a long time and continue to minister in their context in spite of changing demographics. They have experienced different aspects of the life cycle of institutions. Recently I was at a church that held a Christmas children’s program, something that hadn’t been experienced there for various years because no children were part of the congregation. As I watched the program, I was grateful to God for a new season in the life of that particular congregation.

We find ourselves at the beginning of a new year, a new decade, one which sounds kind of futuristic. Often times at the beginning of the year we examine our lives and talk about things we want to do differently this year. I do this for my work each year, thinking about goals to achieve and activities to emphasize. I do this with our family, as we talk about weddings to attend in the summer, and how to spend our holidays for the year. I do this personally too, thinking about what sorts of books I should be reading, what sort of exercise to participate in, and what kind of conversations I need to have to help me grow in my spiritual maturity. All this introspection got me wondering if we think the same thing about our experiences in our congregations. Is it high time we take some time to evaluate where we are, and where we hope to go, paying attention to where God is already working in our midst?

In my estimation, the world needs the church to be the church, participating in the mission of God, perhaps now more than ever. This, I think, includes two broad categories. First, if the New Testament is our guide, we need to be loving those in our congregations with depth and sincerity. We need to be the kind of people Christ calls us to be. I have in mind here passages like Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4. Second, are we responding to those around us? Matthew 25 comes to mind here. How are we responding to people’s needs in our towns, our cities, our provinces, our nation? This is far too simplistic and non-contextual, but my hope is that we embrace this evaluative time of year and take “church” seriously enough that we evaluate what we’re doing and make necessary adjustments to live more fully into what God has for our communities of faith. This is not a “one size fits all” exercise, but an encouragement to keep being the church where God has established you. My prayer for your church as we begin 2020 is that you would flourish where you’re planted.

All the best in 2020, and God bless you.

Mark Doerksen

Finding What You Weren’t Looking For

How the seemingly random can shape your journey. By Mat Lortie, lead pastor at Willowlake Baptist Church.

I remember sitting in orientation at Regent College when John Stackhouse said, tongue in cheek, that his time in Winnipeg was living outside the will of God, or something like that. I have no idea why I remember that, as I lived just outside of Vancouver and had no desire to move to Winnipeg. Yet a dozen years later, my wife, Alyssa, and I made the eastward trek to Manitoba in the middle of winter to offer pastoral leadership at Willowlake Baptist Church. Looking back on journeys can be interesting, as we ask ourselves: How did we get here? What stops did we make along the way? How did this journey even come together? So how did we end up at Willowlake? It all starts with a detour.

I have long found it fascinating that Paul wrote to the church in Rome in hopes that they would help get him to Spain. His desire to continue in the mission of God shaped his writing. It is doubtful that he ever made it there, yet because of this desire and hope we have the book of Romans. This seems to make sense of our lives—my life at least. We see good, often better by-products from other goals. The occasional, the seemingly random, shaping our lives for the better. For me, I enrolled in a Th.M. program, found a new job to help pay for it and ended up in a new city. I never ended up taking a single course towards that degree but met my wife and had a door open for me for vocational ministry with a full-year internship.

I wish I could say that the journey from that point to Willowlake was straight forward, but sadly that was not the case. After the internship, I took a solo pastorate at a smaller, aged church in the lower mainland. It was a gruelling and painful experience as the church was unhealthy and dying, even with some wonderful people. After 16 months of no traction and dwindling funds, we made an agreement with another church to sell them our building. Two months following the sale, the stress and burden of the years became too much for the church to bear and the decision was made to let the church end. It was a sad day- a frustrating day- but also a good day. Somehow in the midst of what I was experiencing on the west coast, God was at work in the prairies.

You see, at that moment my brother was about to transition from a pastoral role to an academic one at Providence. As he reached out to his regional minister, Mark Doerksen, to chat about the landscape in Manitoba, Mark informed him that his own church, Willowlake, was looking for a new pastor. He didn’t need a second job, but I was suddenly available and an introduction was made. Suddenly there was hope, at this point just glimmer but it was enough. And all of this happened before my wife returned home from work that day. A phone call, an application, some patience, a conversation, some more patience, another conversation, accidentally offending a search committee member’s favourite song, some more patience and then Alyssa and I were arriving in Winnipeg for a candidating weekend—then not even two months later, for good. 

I marvel at how this journey unfolded, how we connected and ended up here. It is amazing how much God was doing on that fateful August day. To be honest though, there were many painful experiences and the scars to go with them in the months that followed as that little church came to an end. There is a time for those stories, but this is not it. This is about God’s covenant faithfulness in the midst of this journey we call life. Few would be bold enough to claim that what God was up to in the by-products of their life will have as much impact as Romans, and I certainly am not.  However, God is just as much at work in Winnipeg, at Willowlake, as in Rome almost 2000 years ago.

Matthew Lortie

Lead Pastor, Willowlake Baptist Church 

This regional newsletter is published quarterly within the CBWC’s monthly newsletter, Making Connections. Have a story idea? Want to tell us how great we’re doing? Or how terribly? Email our senior writer, Jenna Hanger: jhanger@cbwc.ca