I recently had the privilege to lead a group of 11 wonderful people from First Baptist Montgomery on a missions adventure to Ottawa, Canada! From June 28th through July 7th, we renewed FBC’s long-standing partnership with one of our sister congregations, Sequoia Community Church. Located in the Barrhaven neighborhood in Ottawa, the strategic capital city of Canada, Sequoia is a growing church that is seeking to serve the Lord with their best. They currently meet at the Ottawa Christian School, but are in the process of acquiring land in order to hopefully begin construction on a new multi-purpose facility in 2015. One afternoon in fact, we were able to visit the site of the future church, and pray over the land, and God’s vision for all of the lives that may one day be touched there.
One of the real joys of this mission project was the chance to get to know some of the Sequoia members better. They graciously hosted us in their homes, and these stays with the host families provided lots of opportunities for mutual encouragement. They also served too as a powerful reminder of how through the blessing of fellowship in the Body of Christ, we can feel an instant connection even with people we’ve never met before! Staying with my host family, Mike and Donna Boisvert, I could immediately sense their servant hearts, their genuine interest in our church, and their fervent desire to partner together for the furtherance of the Gospel. These are traits that were shared by many other Sequoia members, including head pastor Ryan Dawson, and associate pastor Aaron Richert. They all did a wonderful job of making us feel welcome, gave us some great training in evangelism for the local Canadian context, and most importantly, consistently served right alongside us. In fact several of them took time off from work so that they could be with our team.
The main purpose of our trip was to use acts of service to the community as platforms for sharing the Gospel message. In a secular, post-modern setting such as Ottawa and much of the rest of Canada provides, people are hesitant to accept a truth simply because it is in the Bible (which many of them are unfamiliar with anyway) or it is proclaimed by a religious leader. Therefore it’s all the more imperative that as missionaries we first demonstrate Jesus’ love and concern through tangible acts of service. And this is the Biblical approach too—for as Jesus says in Matthew 20:26-28 “Whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant…The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”. There were three main ways in which our FBC/Sequoia team helped to serve the Barrhaven community in Ottawa. First, we participated in the annual Barrhaven community celebration of Canada Day (July 1st). It seems that perhaps too often in the United States, July 4th is a time for everyone to keep to themselves, or be with small groups of family, so it was nice to witness a true community celebration of a national holiday. The celebrations took place in a local park, and there was a carnival with rides, a stage for live music, various food vendors, and a spectacular fireworks show to close the evening!
One of our group’s roles was to help keep the grounds clean by picking up trash, and running a recycling tent. I was very impressed with how litter-conscious Canadians seem to be. There was actually very little trash around for such a large event (over 10,000 attended), especially in comparison to what one might have seen for a similar-sized gathering in the U.S. Recycling is also a big point of pride for Canadians, as people are very passionate about being “Green”, and environmentally-aware (Much like the citizens of Boulder also). In addition to our trash collecting, we also helped with Sequoia’s famous “fun cruiser” which is a mobile food stand, perfect for setting up at a variety of outdoor events. Finally, and most fun of all, we got to sit and visit with people who came by the umbrella-covered tables we had set up all around our designated area of the park. As it was a fairly warm day (by Canadian, not so much Alabama standards haha) there were plenty of people who stopped by. They enjoyed free fruit from the fun cruiser, and we got to visit with them. I was very impressed with how proactive our team was in terms of starting conversations. Every time I checked around, it seemed that almost every FBC person was going over to chat or sit down with a guest. In doing so, we really followed the lead of our Sequoia friends though, whose outgoing spirit was infectious, to say the least. So much for the stereotype of reserved Canadians haha. (However the stereotype of our northern neighbors using the “eh” interjection frequently did seem accurate, at least with some people we met. I discovered that “eh” can be a verbal nudge for mutual agreement, a question, an emphatic declaration, or simply a “crutch word” to fill up space)
Later during the week we participated in “Feet to Faith”, which involved a two-day work project at Barrhaven Non-Profit Housing, which provides affordable housing for people with special needs, physical disabilities, and environmental sensibilities. As a part of Feet to Faith, our team helped with painting, gardening, yard work, and general clean-up. The residents were very welcoming, even going so far as to cook us breakfast one morning, and then during our lunch break on July 4th, they baked us a suitably patriotic cake! It made for one of the most memorable Fourth of July observations I’ve ever had!
Also one of our team members, Mrs. Jane Ferguson, who is head of FBC’s extensive community ministries program, got to share with the group from some of her rich experience as a Christian social worker. Mrs. Ferguson has been one of my great spiritual mentors, and in her career she has very literally embodies the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 on the necessity of serving Jesus by serving our fellow brothers and sisters: “Then the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”. We concluded a wonderful week of service by showing a free movie in a local park on a Saturday evening. This was another community event, specifically targeted to families, that Sequoia has had a lot of success in promoting during the summer months. We publicized the movie a few days beforehand by prayer walking through local neighborhoods, and handing out flyers. The night of the movie, over 400 folks showed up! We served food from the fun cruiser, and the church’s mascot, which in true Canadian fashion was a hockey-playing bear named “Sequoia Sam”. On this occasion, Sam was admirably portrayed by one of our own team members, Nathan Smith.
So what kinds of witnessing opportunities did these various acts of service lead to? After all the goal was not only to serve others, but to strive in doing so to allow the Holy Spirit to create “Godspace”, where spiritual conversations could happen naturally. I am borrowing these terms from author Doug Pollack, whose book Godspace was read by all of our team members before coming to Ottawa. We actually spent a day in evangelism training with Sequoia’s associate pastor Aaron Richert, using some of the material from the Pollack book. We also practiced various scenarios for how we could share Jesus with people in the course of a regular conversation. While mock-witnessing and role-playing conversations might seem a little artificial, or even corny to some, I think this time of practice and preparation was absolutely essential for what would take place later in the week. I plan to use some similar teaching techniques with my Colorado students when it comes to instructing them in apologetics. The fact is that even seminary-trained minsters (and maybe especially seminary-trained ministers haha) can get nervous and “freeze up” when an opportunity to witness arrives. We can find ourselves in the position of one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional characters, who once said “It seemed I had everything in the world to say…but nothing to say first” So rehearsing different possible scenarios can be very useful in giving us a handful of different approaches and strategies for starting off, continuing, and then transitioning conversations to the spiritual realm. Perhaps the most important thing I garnered from this time of preparation however was a mindset shift. We should expect for God to give us opportunities to share our faith on a regular basis. And rather than vaguely hoping He will show up, what might happen if we expect Him to do so? Thus when we enter in expecting those conversations to happen, it’s amazing how often they will take that turn, often at the other person’s behest, and without us even having to try so hard to inject Jesus into things. In fact, had some of the most interesting spiritual conversations and witnessing opportunities of my life during my time in Ottawa. Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll share the specifics of some of these talks!