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May3FriPutting mission first revitalizes corps in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. May 3, 2019 by Captain Brent Haas
(Above) “We have experienced and continue to experience a move of God,” says Cpt Brent Haas, corps officer, Happy-Valley Goose Bay Corps, N.L., with his wife, Cpt Melissa (centre), and Jenny Seaward, community and youth ministries co-ordinator
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My wife and I arrived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., in July 2013. We had been told, and it did not take long to confirm, that things at the corps were not going well. Attendance was low, leaders were in short supply and the finances were in rough shape. There didn’t seem to be a sense of mission or vision for the future.
Fast forward six years, and what a difference! Attendance at our Sunday services and programs has almost tripled; we have more people in leadership roles, and more ministries and programs than ever before; and we have been financially self-sufficient for more than four years. There’s a real sense of living out mission and great anticipation about what God will continue to do in the future.
When people hear of this transformation, we are asked time and time again, how? How did a dying congregation come to life? How did a congregation so inward-focused become so engaged in their community? How did a congregation with very few children come to a point where about 25 per cent of the congregation is made up of children on a Sunday morning?
First and foremost, we must acknowledge and give praise to God for the work he is doing among us. We played our part by being faithful and obedient to how God was leading us as a congregation. It started with addressing past conflict and healing wounds. As we moved forward together, here are some of the major tools God used to bring about renewal.
From A to B
The first key factor was strategic planning, using the resources of the corps review process. We asked the congregation to identify strengths and weaknesses—Where are we? Then we started casting vision—Where do we want to be?
Three immediate goals were clear: financial stability, children and youth, and community outreach. We wanted to be a church where people not only came on Sunday, but were sent out to make a difference from Monday to Saturday.
We reviewed our goals at every board meeting, before any other business. Then we started to take action—How are we going to get there?
For our first goal, we distributed a letter to make sure everyone in the corps was aware of our financial reality. We did a sermon series on stewardship. We delivered church envelopes, rather than leaving them in the foyer in hopes that they would be picked up. And we kept the congregation informed of our expenses and giving through monthly updates. After two years, we were completely self-sufficient—and even able to hire a janitor and full-time community and youth ministries co-ordinator.
Our next goal was to focus on children and youth, keeping in mind advice from a church revitalization conference: “Act like the church you want to be.” Even though we only had one or two kids, we started a nursery program and held family-friendly activities. We got kids involved in the service by taking up the offering, and we began a singing company that participated every other Sunday. Now, we have 15 to 20 children under the age of 12 on a Sunday morning.
Our third goal was outreach, so we looked for the gaps in our community and found ways that we could fill them. With a hydroelectric megaproject in our backyard, rent is steep and homelessness is an issue. We were one of the community partners that worked together to make a homeless shelter a reality. And we started a monthly community meal on Saturdays, which has grown from 15-20 people to more than 200 at our Christmas dinner last December. We are also responding to the need for mental health supports and services.
As we began to see results after the first cycle of strategic planning, the board and congregation realized the value of this process, and we have set three new goals every year.
Another key factor was the mindset that mission matters most. While I’ve always wanted to see people come to Jesus, attending a conference with Dr. Paul Borden, a well-known church revitalization speaker, lit a fire in my heart and soul for mission. I came back a different person—and this transformation in my own life was contagious, spilling over to our leadership team and congregation.
Now, all my decisions as an officer are around souls. Sometimes I refer to mission as our “strainer,” like a spaghetti strainer. Everything we do, every cent that we spend, every decision we make as a church, has to be filtered through this strainer. And if it doesn’t stick—if something doesn’t fulfil our mission—we don’t do it.
Our mission is to make disciples, to share the good news of the gospel. As a church, we exist for our non-members, for the people who do not yet know Jesus. A book that was deeply influential on this journey, for both my wife and me, was Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, by pastor and author Andy Stanley.
In our growth and learning as officers through conferences and seminars, what has stuck with me is that the message and the mission of the church don’t change, but our methods to reach people must.
This idea—changeless mission, everchanging methods—is one of the founding principles of The Salvation Army. General William Booth had no desire to change the mission of the church, but he used cutting-edge methods, adapting the bar tunes of the day and bringing the gospel to the streets.
So we are always trying new methods of living out our changeless mission, and this must continue to be the case if we are to be most effective for the kingdom.
Some of the changes we have made include starting an ushering ministry to greet people as they come in; moving our traditional start time from 11 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. to accommodate young families with busy schedules; starting a coffee and fellowship time before the service begins; becoming more engaged in our community through social media; embracing the cultures around us; and trying new styles of worship.
On Sunday evenings, instead of a typical service in our sanctuary, we have Café Worship. We set up our multipurpose room like a café, with small tables and icicle lights, coffee and finger food. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, and many people come who would not be comfortable sitting in a pew on Sunday.
We still sing the same kind of songs; we still have a devotional; we’re still calling people to Jesus—it’s just a different method. And it’s working. One man who hadn’t been to church in years came to Café Worship, and now he and his family are members of the corps and attend almost every Sunday.
A Powerful Tool
Another tool God has used to bring transformation is personal testimony. As with many congregations, this practice had fallen by the wayside—it can easily turn into a health or weather report. But when we prepare by asking someone ahead of time, and give them a few minutes to share what God has been doing in their life, it is incredibly powerful.
When we ask new converts what gave them the courage to make this decision, one of the top answers is hearing the difference God has made in someone else’s life. We’ve seen a clear connection between bringing back personal testimony and an increase in the number of people coming to faith.
Year of Harvest
In many ways, 2018 was a year of harvest for us as a congregation, when it comes to seeing lives transformed—more than 30 people came to Christ—and being a transforming influence in our community. We wanted to connect with people outside the walls of our church building, so we kicked off the fall with the theme “Out of the Box: I Love My Community.”
In September, we hosted a huge block party to bring everyone together. We got permission to shut down a street right in the middle of town, and had games and rides, music and food, all for free. More than 2,200 people—about a quarter of the population—came through that afternoon.
That December, we had more than 50 new kettle volunteers, who told us they wanted to help because they’d been to the block party. When we first arrived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, our kettle goal was $18,000. This past Christmas, we raised $85,000, which was the second highest in our division.
Another way we got “out of the box” was by reaching out to Indigenous communities on the north coast of Labrador, where the cost of living is high and resources are few. We asked what they needed, then filled two sea containers with children’s clothes and bikes, furniture and household supplies, sending one to Nain and one to Hopedale.
It was a beautiful symbol for us that this fall, as we opened up our “box,” we also needed to open up our overflow space on Sunday mornings to fit everyone in. We are growing out of our building.
This transformation didn’t happen overnight, but that’s a good thing. It means that genuine growth has taken place—it’s not about people being attracted to new officers. The whole congregation is working together. And this is reflected in our new leadership model, where people in the corps take responsibility for different areas, such as business administration and pastoral care, so the leadership will live beyond us.
When I reflect on the last six years, it was when we became intentional about putting mission first that we began to see change. I hope our story can encourage other corps that might be in the same position we were six years ago. Maybe someone out there is thinking, We have no people, we have no money—this is hopeless. We are a testimony that when you put mission first, nothing is impossible with God.
Captain Brent Haas is the corps officer at Happy Valley-Goose Bay Corps, N.L.
Photos: Evan Careen