In Search of Shalom: Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta
It’s a typical Sunday at Fellowship Church. As the 10:30 a.m. starting time passes, worship leader Anne Berkenbosch calls vainly for attention amid a hubbub of conversation and entering latecomers. This morning, the task is particularly tough as the congregation’s newest members make their first appearance—twins whose perch at the back of this tiered atrium pulls members out of their seats for hugs and congratulations. Perhaps it’s no wonder Pastor Nick Knoppers, longtime mentor and member, characterizes Fellowship as “organized chaos.”
Including the Body
For us, “chaos” seems an unavoidable outgrowth of an intensely held belief that worship, justly enacted, includes the whole body. For us, the body has communal as well as individual significance: worship takes all of us, whatever our gender, age, or ability.
Thus visitors to our semicircle are welcomed by name and invited to participate in member-written liturgies (typically projected on a screen) rich with responsive readings and justice-minded songs. Women as well as men lead all aspects of the service, sermon included. Children have roles of their own: examining and wondering during a visually aided précis of the day’s theme, bringing a microphone to those who wish to add a petition to our member-led prayer, reading Scripture, perhaps sharing snippets from recent Children in Worship times. For those who cannot hear, words are interpreted into sign language. Efforts to involve the cultural and artistic body include services incorporating Native leaders, mime, liturgical dance, and symbols. One series of Lent liturgies, for example, incorporated a potter moulding a pot that in later weeks is broken, mended, and used.
Celebrating the Body
Our sacraments also celebrate the whole body. Christ-followers of all ages are invited to join in weekly communion as we pass and break bread, followed by juice for dipping. At the baptism of an eldest child, the family receives a bowl made by a potter within the congregation, a bowl then used for all baptisms in that family and for daily life between.
A thirst for worship that involves and nourishes all believers was central in Fellowship’s formation twenty-four years ago, recalls Jim Visser, whose family stands among nineteen charter households. “We wanted the church to be a sharing and open community, both socially and liturgically. We wanted to participate in the needs of the greater community. Our church has to be a nurturing body to promote that. We can’t just do it on our own.”
Charter members sought to create a day of worship and communion that would strengthen believers for the six days between, recalls Visser, a retired farmer and painter who is deeply involved in land stewardship efforts. Eschewing the tradition of two near-duplicate worship services, they returned to the pattern favored by John Calvin by developing a markedly different education service. At first, that second service contained a catechism-based sermon followed by small group discussion while children attended Sunday school. More recently, it has evolved into “Solomon’s Porch,” an hour that typically puts adults in touch with local and global justice efforts through speakers, videos, and books (leading at times to letter-writing and other action) while children attend classes of their own. Between the worship service and the education hour, the congregation shares a potluck picnic-style meal.
Committed to Justice
As a matter of stewardship, Fellowship has always worshiped in shared quarters—first at a public school in northeast Edmonton and more recently at The King’s University College. While freeing the small congregation to contribute heavily to denominational and other causes, sharing space demands energy for set-up and clean-up each week—and adds to a certain rootlessness that results from the fact that our 125 (or so) worshipers hail from all across Edmonton and beyond.
An early commitment to building a presence in the northeast segment of the city where Fellowship first worshiped led to some outreach efforts, including a youth club. But these efforts soon withered as members concentrated on justice efforts more closely connected to their daily walk. The congregation has recommitted instead to supporting local and global initiatives in deed as well as through funds and prayer, a commitment confirmed each week as the offering of the day is described in detail, often by a congregation member involved. Members’ passions, in turn, pull the congregation into communal action. Refugee advocate Marlene Mulder’s expertise, coupled with overseas connections by several others, for example, fuels an active ministry of sponsoring and supporting refugee families whose own stories give us reason to repent.
Leadership By Consensus
The congregation takes a decidedly nonhierarchical approach to leadership, seeking wisdom—and, ideally, consensus—from the body as a whole. An elected Pastoral Committee fills nurturing and some leadership roles, but most decisions about worship, education, and fellowship are made either by the relevant committees or by a Coordinating Council involving representatives from all church committees plus any members who wish to attend. Major issues come before the entire congregation. “We work really hard at enabling people to use the gifts they have,” muses bricklayer John Berkenbosch. “We give value and worth to our committees; we don’t rehash what they’ve gone through.”
Fearing that reliance on a professional would erode that participatory worship and decision-making, Fellowship decided from the beginning not to hire a full-time minister. Pastor Knoppers still chuckles about his first meeting with Fellowship. “They told me what I was not allowed to do,” he says. Fortunately, that attitude meshed with the Knoppers’ desire to join a collegial congregation open to renewal in worship. “I came here to be a member,” he recalls now, “and perhaps preach once in a while.”
In recent years, the congregation has hired one of its members as part-time administrator and arranged regular preaching series with Chaplain Case Vink, King’s Campus Pastor Roy Berkenbosch, and others. Yet some in the congregation are chronicially underserved by Fellowship’s small size and lack of staff, including young adults. As John Berkenbosch observes, “Fellowship is a high-maintenance organization. It requires a lot of energy, and it’s easy to burn people out. Sometimes I think if we had somebody running this outfit, it would free us up for other things.”
At heart, however, Fellowship remains committed to an egalitarian search for justice in worship and life—unity in diversity, as it’s termed in a congregational mandate—that invites individual expression by members and committees while calling all to be responsible to the whole.
Not that change happens overnight at Fellowship, as John Berkenbosch points out: “If we make changes, we do so after a lot of talking, discussion, and consensus building. At times, we put ideas on hold, to see if more of our members can become more comfortable with them.”
For example, biblical study and discussion preceded a 1986 decision to invite children to partake in communion at their parents’ discretion. “At first, we thought young children should make a simple profession first,” recalls Peter Mahaffy, one of those charged with examining the issue in depth. “But then we realized that the sacrament itself can play a role in leading children to Christ and is in its own way a profession of faith.” The congregation developed an overture inviting the denomination to reconsider whether its policy of requiring a cognitive test for participation harmonizes with scriptural intent and covenantal theology.
Although Fellowship feels strong kinship for the denomination, as evidenced in the many members who have devoted energy to denominational committees, boards, and mission agencies, there is no doubt the congregation is open to a broader range of views than many sister churches. In the nineties the congregation wrestled with two wrenching issues: first, deeply divided beliefs regarding how to respond to a member who was homosexual and was publicly battling for equal rights; second, a request that worship and education embrace untraditional views of the divinity of Christ. Each time, the congregation plumbed the Bible, held special meetings, affirmed its desire to walk together—and lost members. Some left dismayed that Fellowship would not censure unorthodox views; others left in search of a place that would move beyond tolerance to greater shift in proclaimed beliefs, particularly regarding the divinity of Christ.
Within the body, a sense of unresolved tension remains, as members realize that discussion has ended not so much because of consensus but because people have grown weary of wrestling with those questions while busy trying to be Christ-followers. Yet the ability to live with the tension makes Fellowship a home for those who might otherwise find no place to nurture their walk with Christ.
Being Present for the Body
Fellowship is home, for example, to four chaplains, some of whom have had unhappy experiences within the denomination. The congregation recently held a service honoring the work of those individuals, who carry justice in God’s name to prisons and hospitals and help the underprivileged and weak see that their life has value in a world wretched with unjust discrimination and quick judgments.
“Somehow Fellowship has communicated that hurting people are normal and need each other,” muses Chaplain Harry Vriend. By accepting those who hurt without making judgments, he adds, “the congregation has created an environment where people feel they can express their neediness.”
Fellowship’s commitment to be present for all its members is evident in its provision of a sign language interpreter for worshipers who are hearing impaired. In addition, its Partners in Disability Fund helps families meet medical and equipment costs not covered by public sources. The congregation funded a ramp to make the worship space accessible and joined parents in advocacy aimed at closing funding gaps. The presence of several disabled worshipers enriches us all, notes Donna Schuurman. “Everyone is aware that the body is made up of many different members, each with her unique worth and gifts.”
Perhaps it was a decade ago that Pastor Nick Knoppers began closing worship with the words “Shalom my friends! Until we meet again, shalom,” to which the congregation responds, “Shalom!” That salute has come to be one of Fellowship’s treasured traditions, aptly expressing what we long for each other, and for God’s groaning creation: a flourishing. Shalom.
“People feel safe enough to share both joys and intimate hurts openly with each other during prayer, but also during the communion. After a rushed morning arguing with your daughter about getting into the car on time for church, the Spirit (and spirit of forgiveness) touches you powerfully when this same daughter hands you the elements saying, ‘The body of Christ broken for you, Mom.’”
“I feel a genuineness from members to worship as honestly, humbly, and
sensitively as possible, to be active and committed to social justice, each other, and God, and to embrace the . . . struggle that the congregation believes it is to be earnest Christians, both individually and
collectively. . . . Highlights are the congregation prayer and prayer request segment of the service, as well as the real community that Fellowship is. . . .”
—Ann (Bruinsma) Vriend
“I’ve been thinking back to . . . a session on the politics and economics of food production. That presentation . . . opened my eyes to the importance of being a conscious consumer of groceries . . . being aware of how and by whom the food is being produced, and what the costs to workers and the environment are. As a result, I now buy as much as I can that is produced locally.”
- About 55 worshiping families.
- About 45 children and teens, 17 singles in Edmonton, plus several working and living elsewhere.
- Worship, 10:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:45 a.m.; Solomon’s Porch (adult and youth education), 12:30 p.m.
- Member participation in a typical worship service: set-up crew, nursery attendants, worship leader, pianist and perhaps other instrumentalists, children’s leader, overhead projector attendant, Scripture reader, pastor, offertory announcer, prayer leader, microphone assistant, after-church clean-up crew.
- Website: www.freenet.edmonton.ab.ca/felocrc/ .
Excerpt from “Bible Study of Justice”
God expects justice from Christians. It is an integral part of the Christian life, not merely a luxury or a secondary outcome of Christianity. We often think of justice as something to “get” or “gain,” but the Bible talks about justice as something to “do.” Justice is the hope of those who have been denied their place, whose gifts or concerns have been ignored, suppressed, repressed.
To such people, justice is more than an abstract measure of balance or equity; it is a source of hope, it is in itself a sign of God’s favor, evidence of redemption.