My latest column at Christian Week:
The church I pastor is trying to become more outwardly focused. Sometimes it helps to learn from examples, so a group of us traveled a short distance to one of the most outwardly focused churches we know: Sanctuary Ministries in downtown Toronto.
Sanctuary is more than a church. It’s a ministry “that seeks to establish and develop holistic, inclusive and healthy community.” They live in a neighborhood that’s a little different from ours, one “plagued with homelessness, drugs, prostitution, unemployment and AIDS.” Though it’s not only a church, Sanctuary has the gospel at its core. “This Sanctuary is a gospel community at its heart, devoted to living out the good news that Jesus is God and Saviour,” their website says. “There really isn’t anything radical or new about it. It’s just simple, orthodox Christianity at work.”
We sat in a small room before Sunday night’s service talking to the Executive Director, Greg Paul. As we talked, we noticed that our language didn’t match up. We talked about Sanctuary as a mission; Greg talked about it as a community. We talked about targeting people; Greg talked about wanting to be with people where they are. We talked about servant leadership; Greg suggested that we’d be better off thinking more about servanthood and less about leadership.
When we come to a community with a set of services, Greg explained, there’s a power dynamic at work. We serve; they receive. They remain disempowered. When we go into a neighborhood, spend time with them, listen to them, and allow them to serve us, we become servants, and the power imbalance disappears. The challenge is to find who the poorest people are in the neighborhood, and to discover how we can be with them. Stop looking for programmatic answers, Greg told us. Go to people and listen to who they are, where they are.
Greg talked about lessons he’d learned: about becoming a church of the poor, rather than a church that only served the poor; of learning early on that he had to shut up and do more listening than talking; of getting past the idea that church is only a service on Sunday; of connecting with those who are broken by being vulnerable about our own brokenness. Does he know of any traditional churches that have succeeded in becoming outwardly focused? Not many, Greg said, but he couldn’t think of many churches that had tried.
It was time for the community to gather for worship, prayer, and learning. Music was homegrown. Those gathered called out the songs they wanted to sing; we sang home-grown blues songs to a band with bass, congas, and a B3 Hammond organ. Those who were gathered stood to read Scriptures they had picked. A man stood and talked about how Jesus had helped him become free, mostly, from his addiction to drugs and alcohol. A man stood up and broke the loaf, said that nobody could put it together again. Jesus came to restore what is broken, but then we broke him. God put him back together again on Easter, and he now lives to restore those of us who were broken. We came and ate the bread and drank the cup as we sang out Jesus. Then a break with sandwiches, cake, and coffee, and then we were taught about the armor of God.
The service was raw, less structured, more authentic than anything we were used to. Last year, a skeptic attended a service here and said, “Amidst all the pomp and circumstance of the Christian world out there, here lies a simple, honest place that really means it.”
We were getting ready to leave, and Greg asked to see us. It would be a mistake, he said, to look at Sanctuary and focus on the style of music, their methods, or his leadership. Sanctuary isn’t about that, he said. It’s about becoming a church of people who are broken, welcoming the poor and needy, and giving them a voice. It’s becoming a safe community for everyone, where they can meet Jesus.
I left thinking not about Greg or Sanctuary, but about the ultimate servant, the friend of sinners. I think we saw him that night.