What is the Church again? – Pastor Thoughts

“What is the Church?”

The most recent article of the Canada Lutheran splashed this question across its cover. It sounds like an open-ended question with a myriad of possible answers. If you asked 5 different people sitting in the pews or watching online on Sunday mornings, you will get 5 different answers. Asking 5 different pastors might even yield 5 different answers. 

And yet, here we are, all participating and engaging in this thing called “church.” Somehow we figured out how to do something in common and we seem to carry with us some kind of agreement about what the body we all belong to is and what it is about. 

In our post-modern world, defining what the church is feels like it is something that we each get to do, that we can form and shape the church in whatever way suits us. One version of the church is all about fancy music and fancy liturgy. Another version is all about serving the local community through outreach, food banks, social programs, community meals. And still another has all the programs that someone of any age could need to feel a part of the group: children’s ministry, youth, young adults, families, men’s groups, women’s groups, seniors groups and so on… Still another is all about connections and fellowship and relationships –  a big happy family. 

If you visit enough churches, you will find versions of these and more across the Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada, across North America, and the denominational spectrum. 

Post-modern Christianity can really be a choose-your-own-adventure reality. 

However as Lutherans, the answer to the question “What is the church?” might not be as open-ended as we sometimes act like. In fact, Martin Luther and the Reformers had a very specific and clear answer to this question. 

The church in the Reformers day was shaped by the Pope acting like an emperor, Bishops acting like princes and clergy who exploited the people. So the Reformers looked to have an answer that stripped away all human power and preference. They sought to articulate what the church was at its most essential.

What they came up with is written in the Augsburg Confession Article 7. “The Church is the assembly of believers where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.” Or in other words, the church is:

  • People of faith gathered together
  • The Gospel proclaimed 
  • People receiving baptism and communion

The next part might be surprising, even difficult, to hear: Everything beyond Word and Sacraments is secondary. Everything we do beyond gathering around the Word and Sacraments flows from that central foundation. 

That means that the way we worship, the programs we run, the committees that meet, the buildings that we build, the fellowship gatherings we host, the causes we undertake and so on, are things we do that are because of, or in support of, gathering around Word and Sacrament. 

The music and liturgy that we use in worship are meant to be an expression of our unity of the body. 

The outreach we do to feed the hungry are because God first feeds us in communion and transforms us into the Body of Christ – bread for the world. 

The programs we run: small groups, bible studies, youth, children’s ministry etc… are places to help us grow in faith by hearing the Gospel in new and different ways. 

The building, the fellowship events, the committees, the kind of coffee we drink, the pews we sit in, the lights and heat, the screens and bulletins, the bathrooms and couches, the eNews and volunteer teams etc… are pieces that exist in order to facilitate our gathering around Word and Sacrament. 

Even though so many of those things I listed above feel like they are essential to being church, they are actually secondary. Important, but secondary. When they serve the essential purpose of being a community around Word and Sacrament, they are worthwhile. But all too often the secondary things supplant the essential things. Suddenly Word and Sacrament takes a back seat to all the variety of versions of being church that each of us hold in our own minds and preference. More significantly, in times of change and transition – such as during the past 3 years – those secondary things that once served our gathering so well might begin to fail us or they might stop working all together. 

This is hard. Hard to understand how things that we thought were about what it meant to be church seem to be crumbling before us. Hard to let go of things that we thought were such an important part of being church. 

This is why we need to be reminded of the foundation, the core things that make us the church. “The church is the assembly of believers where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” And even when so much about being church is changing and different, this core remains. God transforms us into the One of Christ by gathering us around the good news of the Word that gives us life: Baptism that makes children of God, and Communion that makes us food for the world. 

What the church can learn from extra curricular activities – Pastor Thoughts

With a second week of school nearly complete, many extra-curriculars are starting up. I had the privilege of sitting around a table in the atrium at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) with some other dance parents for a couple hours. 

Dance parents are like hockey parents, many spend hours sitting outside of dance studios like hockey parents sit in cold arenas. 

I couldn’t help but wonder what was so compelling about dance that these families would bring their kids one to seven (SEVEN!!!) days a week for dance classes for 10 months of the year. Few kids will become professional dancers, maybe some will become dance teachers, but most will dance for as long as they can and eventually move on with life.  

The next morning as I met with clergy colleagues over zoom, the discussion landed on declining volunteer capacity in congregations. Many were lamenting that most churches cannot find committee members, folks for worship roles, coffee makers, and so on.

As my colleagues talked about church, I couldn’t help but wonder what kept people coming back to the RWB week after week (day after day!) and what the church could learn from it. To be clear, the RWB recreational division has suffered a massive decline in enrolment during the pandemic and they have been very open about that. The other dance parents remarked that none of their kids’ classes were full, which was a rare occurrence pre-pandemic. It isn’t just churches that are seeing fewer folks being involved, it is allcommunity institutions: sports, arts, service clubs, etc.…

On top of that Canadians are getting older. 50% of us are over the age of 50. That means that for every family of four like mine, there are two empty-nest couples out there. 

But still, I couldn’t help but wonder what kept folks coming back to dance. I don’t know the answer (if I did, I would get rich selling books!). 

I do have thoughts though:

  • Is it the relative ease in ascertaining the benefit of dance and hockey and piano? Sure; but most kids won’t dance on Broadway, play in the NHL or perform at Carnegie.
  • Is it that there is a value associated with these activities? Should churches have annual fees? (Just kidding of course!)
  • Is it that church has no aging-out process and that adults participate as much as the kids? Most dance, hockey and piano parents don’t actually do the thing they are dragging their kids to. Or did all the kids who attended Sunday School over the past decades “age out” of church, like they did sports, music, dance and scouts?
  • Could it be that Christians have behaved badly lately: cozying up to power, condemning more than offering love, cutting people off more than reaching out? Almost certainly this is a big piece.
  • But also could it be that the free gift of God’s grace, the regular pondering of meaning and purpose in life, and the radical welcome given to imperfect sinners is a little deeper than most folks want to go on a regular basis? I also think this is something significant.
  • Lastly, might it be that churches and church leaders have for a long time assumed that people inherently understood why being part of a church is a good thing? Dance, hockey and all the other extra curriculars regularly “evangelize,” promote and recruit, while citing the benefits of participating. Have we forgotten how to do that? I suspect this might be the biggest piece. 

No doubt, when people aren’t working and taking care of families and households, how people spend their precious leisure time has dramatically changed what people are willing to participate in. And we have not even begun to sort out this pandemic world and its realities. 

Still, in the days, weeks, months and years to come, a lot of what we will be called to do is to let go of the idea that people *should* come to church (because they should know better), and begin to articulate again why following Jesus is a life changing thing for us. 

The whole world is still in the midst of this pandemic reset. As we all slowly rebuild and refashion our lives and what we invest our precious time and energy in, God is calling the church to proclaim again the Good News AND why it matters to us and why it should matter to our neighbour. 

As difficult and scary as this task sounds, it is also exciting. God has big things in mind for us.  

Bonus Episode – Oscar and Maeve’s thoughts about church


Bonus Episode – Pastors Courtenay and Erik invite some special guests on the podcast for some interesting conversation about the church. Oscar (8) and Maeve (6) share some of their favourite things about church and some of their not so favourite things. 

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synodof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by Audionautix.com

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

Ep 204 – How important is this to you?


In episode 4 of season 2, Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik discuss “how important is this to you?” when speaking of belonging to a faith community. They talk about what this question means for understanding our values and identities as communities and new ways to begin this discussion for congregations. 

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synodof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by Audionautix.com

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

Our Complicated Grief for the Queen – Pastor Thoughts

I was sitting in the board room at church last week, having just finished two zoom meetings when the people I was meeting with arrived for my third meeting and told me that the Queen had died. 

I had just checked the news only about 45 minutes prior and knew that her doctors were concerned. Her family had been summoned and I had seen the Twitter reports that the BBC news readers were already in their black ties. This didn’t feel like the previous health scares. 

Most of us were either very young or not alive at all the last time a monarch died. While 3/4 of my lineage is Norwegian, a quarter of me is Scottish and Welsh.  

I am also the son and grandson of royal watchers, and so had to endure waiting in crowds for the briefest of glimpses of visiting royals growing up. I also had to watch royal weddings and funerals whenever they were broadcast on TV.  But I am sure that I am not the only one whose family had a love for royal things. 

Many of these images provided some of the touchstone moments of our history. Now we are about to witness another in about a week. 

As we grieve the Queen in the days to come, I cannot help but think of my own grandmother, 98 years old. From the same cohort and stock, she was a women whose life was also marked by service to her community as a Pastor’s wife. I am sure we all have loved ones in our lives who come to mind as we ponder the Queen’s 70-year legacy. As much as she was a remarkable woman, the Queen is also symbolic of an era of rapid innovation and loss, from World War 2 and the invention of TV all the way to the internet and COVID-19 Pandemic. 

As I talked with a parishioner this week, our discussion of the Queen led us to memories growing up in the horse a buggy, pre-electricity era. We compared that reality to the fact that my watch today can show pictures, tell me the weather, send text message and measure my heartbeat.

The Queen’s death is a time to grieve all the that has taken place during her reign and how the world in which she first ascended to the throne is completely different from the world she leaves behind.

Just in the days before the Queen died, we also bore witness to the terrible tragedy that just happened at James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon. Horrible acts of violence that will take a long time for families and communities to heal from. Not to mention that the story of the perpetrators of this violence is connected to Canada’s history of colonialism, most clearly symbolized by the Crown. 

They are reminders that in these days we are experiencing grief upon grief, and it is complicated and messy. 

As we contend with our experience of grief in the days to come, we will be reminded of all the change that happened in the world during these past 70 years. We also be reminded of how that change has impacted us personally. 

In a rapidly changing world, there is so much that we must leave behind, so much to feel as though we have lost. It will be a big change to see a different face on our coins, to sing God Save the King, to change the name of all the public institutions titled after the Queen that will now belong to the King. Reminders of change and loss, and I am not so certain that we are ready to find hope in the ‘new’ either quite yet.  

As we grieve the Queen and a changing world, the thing that we can hold onto is our faith. Perhaps more accurately, and what I often tell to families grieving a loved one, God is holding onto us. 

Even as we struggle with all that is taking place around us, even as we feel as though we are losing much to the pace of change, even as there is much grief to bear these days, God promises that we do not bear it alone. 

Instead, we bear it together, we navigate this changing world in the body of Christ, in community. We given each other to hold on to, and we are held by the love of God. God who knows grief and has walked this path before, and who will see us through to the other side.