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What to Tell People About Our Church? Perspectives, 2003 & 2023

Undertaking a 100th anniversary initiative, whether for an organization, or a seminal discovery, or a local church building and its congregation, is not just about celebrating the past, but to explore, discover, be inspired by, and to learn something from the past of value to the present and future. In other words, undertaking centenary projects is ultimately about making history matter.

While researching St. John’s history, particularly through its newsletters, there are numerous historical resonances between the events, challenges, and successes the church experienced during certain periods and those it is experiencing today. Among the most notable of such historical resonances is with the 2001-2003 period, which was the first two years of the incumbency of Gary van der Meer. This eventful period was highlighted in the Advent 2003 edition of St. John’s Journal, from page 7 through page 11. The full issue, printed on blue paper, has been scanned and is available to read from here,

The headline on page 7 asked: “Who Are We Becoming? What to Tell People About Our Church?” How the St. John’s congregation approached and answered these questions 20 years ago can provide some ideas and inspiration applicable to St. John’s today.

There are several daring though grounded initiatives that struck me as particularly inspirational, including being more direct about what members of the congregation said about St. John’s when meeting strangers for the first time. At the time, the church was promoting a major event and initially planned to just distribute flyers in mailboxes. However, when Gary and Evelyn Butler ventured into a new neighborhood to the north, flyers in hand, they realized “this was a doorbell exercise.” If there was no answer, put the flyer in the mailbox. “An answer, from people all over the world? Invite them to church.” They developed a script that read, in part,

“Hi, I am from St. John’s Anglican Church, just south of here. I wanted you to know about the benefit concert we are doing for the food bank, a reading of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’ One of our readers is Pinball Clemons, coach of the Toronto Argonauts… We also wanted you to know about our new Sunday School program and the times of our Christmas services.” As Gary emphasized, “the model is not the Mormons! The model is canvassing for an election. 30 seconds and share more if they engage in conversation.” To him, “this felt like a good way to talk to outsiders about St. John’s.” Based on this successful historical example, something similarly daring, yet grounded, could be road tested today in selected areas of St John’s neighbourhood to introduce the church and promote events. Indeed, the theme of being both grounded and daring underscored most of the changes St. John’s absorbed during the 2001-2003 period, particularly with transforming the interior walls from beige to the vibrant purple, yellow and green colours that unite the pallet of the stained-glass windows. Other grounded and daring initiatives focused on a new music program based on a roster of musicians, a new children’s program, and new community outreach activities, each of which can be inspirational to efforts to grow St. John’s today. The process of applying the colours to St. John’s walls was perhaps of most historical significance. As was underscored, “Frankly, we were not a beige congregation, and now that the beige walls are gone, occasionally we wonder, ‘Why did we put up with them for so long?’” During the colours consulting process, when the congregation was asked, “What kind of feelings do you want to evoke about being in this space?" "What can the building tell the community about who we are and what happens here?” they settled on the following words: • A transforming community • Easter people • Risk-oriented • In dialogue with our tradition • Engaged in the issues and questions of our day While many things changed over the subsequent 20 years, it seems to me that these words still resonate strongly within St. John’s congregation and walls as we celebrate the first 100 years of its Humberside home and move into its second.

Contact Christopher Rutty – – with your historical questions and contributions in support of the SJWT-100th, along with your ideas for special events based on the 100th theme. We are also looking for volunteers interested in leading and supporting the organization of special SJWT-100th events and activities, especially to celebrate the 100th of laying the church cornerstone on May 5th, and the official opening of the church on November 4th.


Originally published in St. John's Newsletter on January 29th, 2023

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