During this past year, Diaconal Ministries Canada heard from several churches looking for creative ways to become more integrated into their communities despite the ongoing pandemic.
“Churches were seeing job losses and increases in food insecurity, mental health issues, and addiction, among other things,” said Rachel Vroege, Diaconal Ministries’ Western Canada regional ministry developer. “It wasn’t so much the ‘why’ of community engagement, but the ‘how’ that they were looking for. They needed some tools and resources.”
One such tool is Diaconal Ministries Canada’s Community Opportunity Scan, a process in which experienced staff walk alongside churches to help them discover how they can engage with their local communities and see them transformed through the love of Christ.
Typically, a COS happens with a single church as a group of leaders looks at the church’s specific community and discovers how the church can meet existing needs. However, with the ongoing pandemic and with some fresh insights received from the denomination’s Connections Project, Diaconal Ministries staff wondered if it was time to bring together a small group of churches to learn and share their experiences together, Vroege said.
Seven Canadian CRCs from across the country took part in this pilot COS learning cohort, which started in the fall of 2021. Jodi Koeman, World Renew’s Church with Community coordinator, co-led this group and invited churches from the U.S. that also longed to be more deeply integrated into their communities.
While it took quite a bit of work to turn the COS material into an online-friendly learning cohort, Vroege and Koeman said the effort was worth it. Each of the six sessions featured a teaching component, inspirational stories from churches (some of whom had done a COS in the past), small group breakouts, and some homework. Topics included elements of a community-focused church, discerning a church’s readiness for community engagement, learning how to define your community to discover its assets and strengths, and incorporating prayer.
“Watching churches journey together and learn from each other has been one of the highlights of this group,” Vroege said. “Cross-pollination has so many benefits, and in my experience, churches that embark on this journey with an ecumenical approach (partnering with other churches in their town or city) tend to ‘go all the way.’ The posture and way churches engage is much more about mutual accountability and a sincere desire to work together for God’s kingdom.”
“Above all, the COS is really just a starting point for churches,” said Mark Vanderwees, Vroege’s counterpart for Eastern Canada. “The even bigger win is changing the culture and posture of a church, helping their members become more community-focused and community-minded. When this happens, it begins to shape every area of ministry in the church and leads to even greater opportunities down the road!”
Vroege agreed. “Sometimes it takes years before we see a church truly dive in and engage with their community,” she said, “but it reminds me that the COS process planted small seeds—seeds that are now taking root—and that is exciting to see.”
Participants have shared their appreciation for the online learning group and are looking forward to what it might mean for their local congregation. “It has been great to participate in a gathering in which people are interested and excited to live out their faith in (their) neighborhoods,” shared Mike Booy, member and former deacon at Sonlight CRC in Regina, Sask. “The support of Diaconal Ministries’ staff to encourage and coach us has been very important.”
Diaconal Ministries staff hope to launch a second COS stage this fall focused on helping churches who have identified ministry opportunities to take the next steps.