United church uses innovative approach to branch out

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The new vision Knox St. Paul has outlined for itself has little to do with god, religion or getting more warm bodies through the door.

In fact, it's just the opposite.

While many churches are wracking their brains trying to determine a way to change in the face of a more secular society, where families would rather sleep in or take the kids to a hockey game on Sunday morning, Knox St. Paul is venturing out into the community and leaving the sermons at the altar.

Rev. Don Wachenschwanz, the spiritual leader at the Cornwall United church, said the philosophy is simple.

"We're going out into the city, instead of trying to bring people here," he said, adding the message being spread leaves god out. "We're not interested in peddling religion."

The church has partnered with four local agencies to help foster its vision, which is cemented in "helping to build a city where no one journeys alone," said long-time Knox St. Paul member John Irvine.

Knox St. Paul has partnered with the local Canadian Mental Health Agency office, Bereaved Families of Ontario, local religious minority groups and agencies that advocate on behalf of seniors in an effort to reach out to marginalized individuals who are alone.

In effect, the church is looking to hang out and spend time with people who find themselves with little to no companionship.

"We're not there to sell religion," said Wachenschwanz. "We want to help people who are alone."

That's not to say that if a person asks about the church, or about faith, that officials from Knox St. Paul won't talk about it - they just won't be actively preaching.

"If somebody raises the question, we can tell them what our faith is," said Wachenschwanz. "We feel you can believe what you believe, without telling people what you believe.

"For this congregation to say this is who we are, and this is what we're doing...it's very unusual."

Irvine has been a member of the United faith since he was an infant.

"In the old days everything revolved around the church," he said. "The message was how can we attract more people."

Knox St. Paul still has as many as 100 devoted members every Sunday, and would surely welcome more, but its new vision is keeping people coming back who might otherwise be scared off by a monumental shift in philosophy.

"We're retaining more people," said Irvine.

Wachenschwanz said if more people are attracted to the church that's great, and there have been some incremental steps in that regard. But he suggested a message is being delivered, even if more people aren't arriving Sunday morning, or getting a spritiually-focused sermon.

"We don't have to have more god for god to be there," he said. "And we don't need more religion to have faith.

"We're just looking to make our borders different."

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  • Judy Shand
    January 29, 2013 - 18:13

    A heartfelt "hallelujah". In the not so long ago good old days, the minister spent the morning in the "study" (office) and the afternoon out in the community "being" with it and its people. That might have meant home visits, a funeral, a meeting with social services, a stand at a council meeting or coffee at the local gathering place. And the congregation knew and understood and could and did join. It was about making the community a better place, about staying in touch with needs and issues we could be responsive to so we could be healed and helped, could give of ourselves and our resources. How far we've come from that AND I'm so glad to have this reminder and example of what does, afterall, work when we are called to love the world that God loves and keep ourselves in perspective.

    • Charmian McCullough
      February 05, 2013 - 17:10

      This church program is very interesting. We who are trying to keep small congregations viable, know we have to change, but don't know how. The idea of seeing need in the community, then trying to address them, and show God's love outside of organized religion has merit.