Lasting networks of encouragement in Canada (John Bowen)

John BowenJohn Bowen discusses lasting networks of encouragement in Canada.

The fourth annual Anglican church planting conference, hosted jointly by the Diocese of Toronto and the Wycliffe College Institute of Evangelism, offered great signs of encouragement.

Those attending Vital Church Planting East 2010 were from many parts of Canada, from Winnipeg to Newfoundland. Western Canada will have its own conference – sponsored by the Diocese of Edmonton and the Institute – next month. In 2007, 60 people came to conference; this year there were 180. Most of these were Anglicans, though a contingent of interested United Church pastors was there too. Six bishops – the five Toronto bishops plus Don Philips of Rupert's Land – also attended.

A wide range of workshops included Wycliffe graduate Rob Hurkmans talking of his Church on Tap in a Port Colbourne pub, and Judy Paulsen on Messy Church in Oshawa. Tay Moss (Church of the Messiah) and Ryan Sim (St Paul's) explained how to use new and social media in evangelism. Ann Crosthwaite also led a session on Contemplative Fire.

As with all good conferences, some of the best things often happen in the cracks – over coffee and lunch, and between sessions. Relationships begin, emails are exchanged, ideas are swopped, and problems are debated and sometimes even solved. This has been one of the advantages of holding this conference each year: Not only has it gained numerical momentum, but people come back year after year, and lasting networks of encouragement and wisdom begin to emerge. It's difficult to be a pioneer in isolation.

Were there any low points? For me, the most depressing moment was when one person asked: 'I am finding a conflict between, on the one hand, the fact that we're wanting to do this for the sake of self-preservation and, on the other, the fact that we're talking about authenticity. How can we do both these things?'

Following Jesus is never a matter of 'self-preservation'

Pernell Goodyear, a Salvation Army church planter in Hamilton, was one of our conference speakers. He dealt with the question far more graciously than I would have done, and explained that following Jesus was never a matter of 'self-preservation', and that following God's mission always involves laying down our lives. You'd think it was obvious, but apparently not.

So does this conference achieve anything? Frankly, I am too old to have any patience for conferences that leave you with a set of notes you never look at again, and warm feelings that evaporate within a week. So I am glad to report that the answer is yes. For example, one priest, Chris Snow from St John's Newfoundland, came the first year. As he told us later, he wanted to check out whether there was any theological substance to this thing and to see if it was just an evangelical clique.

He decided we were OK on both counts, went back home and hired a young curate to start a Messy Church. The next year they both came, and reported on what they had done. During the year that followed, the Messy Church grew into a Eucharistic community. Once again, Chris and Sam came back to the conference and inspired us with their story. And the number of such first-person stories increases year by year.

So I pray, and invite you to pray too, that the seeds sown at this conference will be nurtured and bear fruit across the country for years to come. I believe it may take 20 years for significant change to come – not for the survival of the Anglican Church (it's about mission, not survival, remember), but for the furtherance of the Good News of Jesus among those who have never heard it.