The houses around our church in Scarborough,at the eastern edge of Toronto, look like suburban houses anywhere in North America. Their inhabitants do not. If all of the neighborhood's residents gathered in the street, one would see an astonishingly diverse assembly-— different colors, different languages, different religions— "from every nation under heaven."
Twenty-five years ago Dutch immigrants settled in this neighborhood and founded Grace Christian Reformed Church. At that time most of the new church's members were Dutch. But today Grace's church directory lists people born and raised in nineteen different countries around the world—countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Czechoslovakia, Ghana, Egypt, England, Denmark, and several Caribbean nations.
This diversity didn't just "happen." It took a lot of deliberate work and conscious outreach. It took groups like our Coffee Break program and our Christian School, which are both committed to outreach. It took elders trained, and willing to train others, in the Evangelism Explosion program. Most of all it took friendly members who were ready to open their hearts as the Spirit led people through our doors.
We deliberately cultivated a friendly atmosphere by serving coffee after the morning worship and by making an effort to speak warmly to visitors. Since so many of us at Grace are from other countries, we know what it feels like to be strangers. And we know how much a friendly welcome means.
Even our pastor, Simon Wolfert, has an international background. He's a Dutch American who came to Canada in 1985 after living in Brazil for eighteen years. His accent, permanent suntan, and warm heart have helped make our church a friendly United Nations.
On weekdays, members of our church operate a thriving day-care center for one hundred and five children. They use an old Christian school building that's located right on our church campus. That service, too, gives us a lot of contact with people from the neighborhood.
Grace CRC not only reaches out to individuals in the community but also to other churches in our area. Our congregation, along with all the other local churches—Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, United, Salvation Army, Lutheran, to name a few—belongs to a dynamic ministerial association in Agincourt, the part of Scarborough in which our church is located. Activities include an annual exchange of visitors at worship services (members of each local church visit other local churches), pulpit exchanges (in which we have not yet participated), an annual joint evening service on Palm Sunday, an extensive two-weekend, premarital clinic each spring for couples planning marriage, and an annual series of six ecumenical Lenten Bible studies. The ministerial association has established a city agency called Agincourt Community Services Association and has also compiled a directory identifying the services and outreach ministries of all the Agincourt churches.
Last year the ministerial association sponsored Scarborough's first annual ecumenical Reformation Day Service. Eather Terry Gallagher of St. Bartholomew's Roman Catholic Church read Matthew 18:15-17 and said that the Catholic Church has long needed to confess its sins against the priests who tried to reform the church. He urged that now, twenty-three years after Vatican II, all Christians join together to confess our sins to each other and to God. Pastor Baretta of Christ Lutheran Church read from Isaiah 60 and John 17. He told us we should recognize the truth for our day of Luther's famous line "Though this world with devils filled…" and bring the light of the gospel to the dark places of our world.
Creating an Environment for Worship
Our church building is modern, attractive but rather plain. The seats are arranged in a partial circle to provide some feeling of being at worship together with other people.
We've made a practice of sharing this worship space with other smaller congregations in our area. Right now a black Seventh-Day Adventist Church uses our building on Saturdays and on Wednesday nights. A few years ago we rented to a Korean United Church congregation.
Artists in our congregation, and others who are willing to help them, prepare and hang banners in the sanctuary to highlight the church season and special events. The florists in our congregation see that we are well supplied with plants and flowers —especially at festive times.
Our Sunday worship services are probably not remarkable by the standards of Christian Reformed congregations of our size. We do not have a choir (there are few choirs in Canadian CRCs). But we are blessed with a beautiful, small tracker pipe organ, an instrument of a quality that is rare in any medium-sized Canadian church. And we have a good grand piano.
Recently we decided to hire a part-time music director to play our organ for one service each Sunday and to try to bring together instrumentalists in our church who can contribute their music to our worship services. The supply of qualified volunteer organists, on which churches like ours depend, is running thin.
Worshiping with World Vision
An elder opens worship at Grace on most Sunday mornings, greeting the congregation, welcoming guests, and making limited announcements. Later in the service the same elder prays for the opening of the Word and reads the biblical passages that the pastor will preach on. When we have a visiting minister, an elder also leads the congregational prayer.
We celebrate the Lord's Supper every two months at both Sunday services. All professing members who are present partake both morning and evening so that the evening celebration doesn't become largely a spectator event. On communion Sundays we place elders at the entrances to inform visitors of the celebration and to invite, even urge, them to join in partaking if they are believers in Christ and members of a church.
Our pastor carefully prepares his service opening and the service of confession and forgiveness, giving them new form and content each week. Creatively, he uses the liturgical forms in ways suited to the situation. He is very conscious, as is apparent from references in prayer and sermon, of the current and worldwide scope of the gospel. After a week of news about Tamils in Sri Lanka or Sandinistas in Nicaragua or tensions in Hungary— these concerns become very much the concerns of our congregation. When we see in the rows around us people who grew up in these places and still have family members in these areas, the need for prayers and expressions of concern is very real.
Members play an active role in planning and leading worship at Grace. Worship committee members meet monthly with the pastor, young people prepare and lead youth services, and a variety of members take part in our evening "theme" services. In a theme service, one or more members of the congregation tell how they live the Christian life through their vocation. Before each testimony the pastor reads appropriate Scripture and offers a short meditation to give biblical context to that area of life. The testimony is followed by a congregational discussion.
We have been moving gently toward encouraging women to participate more fully in the life of the church. We have had women deacons ever since the church order first permitted us to do so. And we are very conscious of the fact that the other offices are not open to women. Because in our denomination women are not permitted all the privileges of membership (e.g., serving as elder) our consistory ruled against welcoming new members with the traditional words, "Rest assured that all the privileges of full communion are now yours." Some years ago we informed Classis Toronto that we would declare instead, "We welcome you to the privilege of full communion."
As we struggle with such issues and expand our outreach in the community, Grace CRC continues to grow. We in Scarborough treasure being with people who are struggling to cope with life. We help in every way we can by offering fellowship, by praying, and by listening to God together in the context of our daily lives in a cosmopolitan city.