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Discipleship's Secret Ingredient

by Kevin M. Johnson

It’s clear that pastor Courey is enjoying the telling of this story
The moment you enter the spacious foyer of Calvary Pentecostal Assembly in Cambridge, Ontario, something becomes apparent. This place is a haven teeming with gracious, hospitable people. On most Sunday mornings the first person you’ll meet when you enter the doors is a police officer, albeit a retired one. No worries. He’s not there to bounce you. Len Sneath all but pulls you through the door. He’s old-school hospitable. While shaking your hand, his repertoire generally runs through a gamut of upbeat small talk. Compliments. The weather. The obvious good fortune you are experiencing as evidenced by the beautiful spouse on your arm. All the good stuff. He makes you feel welcome.

Len’s not the only one. Calvary is a people-friendly community church. The congregation believes that hospitality is an essential ingredient in the recipe for discipleship. Senior pastor David Courey explains:

“A large part of what we’ve tried to do is have open doors and create hospitality. It has helped us succeed in bringing much of the community into this place.”

As he shares the stories of his congregation, one can’t help but notice the vitality that underlies the presence and practice of hospitality amongst these people. One story is of a man plagued with schizophrenia who lived the sort of unsettled lifestyle of someone not only on the edge of society, but on the edge of humanity. A man who, during the level periods when he was taking his medication, was fine with life and those around him; but who, during the chaos associated with not taking his meds, was known to be something of a handful.

“He’s one of these guys,” says Courey, “who, when he was on the upside, was everywhere and in everyone’s face. But when he was on the skids, he was nowhere and no one knew where he was.”

He’d been introduced to Calvary during a transition from Kitchener to Cambridge. Courey continues, “He showed up and helped us with the sets for the Christmas musical—did an incredible job. After Christmas, he just disappeared.”

Tim Hyjek and Jeremiah Raible, both on staff at Calvary at the time, went looking for him. They found him at St. James Place. Courey describes how, during the process of trying to locate this man, a serendipitous chain of events began to unfold.

“We didn’t know about this place. It’s a big old rambling building that was started in the ’70s as a non-church place to help vagrants. It was run by the father of the woman who presently manages it. Her dad had done so for years. When he died, she took over.

“Our guys felt compelled to offer help. Sure enough, St. James had many needs. We sent people down there in teams to paint and refurbish rooms.

“The result of this was two things. Over the years, Tracy, the lady who runs the place, had many offers of assistance. She never expected anything because the offers never amounted to much. She was absolutely flummoxed that not only did we say we’d come, but we did come to help. The second result was that she and her husband started coming to church and have since then become believers.”

Ninety years ago, Calvary started as a regular prayer gathering overseen by a couple of women who’d been influenced by the decade or so of Pentecostal outpouring in Kitchener. This group was transformed from a regular prayer meeting into the Galt Revival Centre on Ainslie Street.

“The leadership eventually began to entertain the notion of building a ‘respectable’ church facility, a ‘traditional’ structure in downtown Galt,” says Courey. “They said, ‘Why remain on Ainslie Street? We’ve grown. We need space.’ So they put an offer on some space in downtown Galt. Their proposal generated an argument that began playing out in town council and in the newspapers. The neighbours didn’t want to have a ‘noisy’ Pentecostal church around them.”

Eventually, they ended up buying their current property. “Initially,” Courey says, “there was a bit of a tail between the legs feeling about the whole thing because they had been relegated to the edge of town.” However, they are ideally poised for yet another potentially massive harvest. Courey says, “Our philosophy has been that if somebody comes through our doors once, for any reason at all, there’s a better chance they’ll come again. We want them to encounter God and have an experience that brings them back.”

One group that Calvary is paying close attention to is the children of Cambridge. Calvary seems ready to forgo the artificial priority classifications that sometimes exist between age groups. Notions of dignity, coupled with a relentless drive for immediate results, can become hindrances. The Calvary church family seems to understand that the discipleship of children requires a sacrificial humility in order to see the view from a child’s level, to see the things that are important in their eyes. History overflows with morality tales that describe the long-term payoffs from either investing in or withholding from children. Calvary has become aggressively proactive by investing in children.

“We had just finished building this sanctuary,” recalls Courey. “We were refurbishing the old sanctuary and wondering what to do with it and how we could make it work. Carolyn Burge, the children’s pastor, had this idea of building an indoor playground.”

At a time when most congregations might want a breather from heavy stewardship obligations, leadership at Calvary began once again to entertain dreams. The treasurer suggested starting a fund to test the level of support that existed for the idea. It turned out that the level was quite healthy. The funds arrived and the playground was built.

It became available for two hours in the morning, three days a week. Hundreds of people filed through, making friends with one another as well as with people in the church. Then Calvary started seeing people from the playground coming to Promiseland, their Sunday ministry for children up to the Grade 5 level. They became connected. As already mentioned, Pastor David says, “You come through those doors once, and chances are high that you’re going to come again.”

This development was hardly the final chapter. In the process of building the present sanctuary, the leaders had established the number 800 as an indicator to let them know they had reached a tipping point and that the time had come to start having two Sunday morning services. When Sunday attendance reached that level, along with it came a surprise. The sanctuary wasn’t full. The kids ministry area was. Courey says, “It was packed, with no place to grow. This signalled a distinct change in our demographics.”

“We got this idea,” Courey whispers. “With a year to pay off the mortgage I thought, I bet you that for a couple hundred thousand— maybe half a million—bucks, we could do a lot on the other side. Well, of course, the board laughed at me. We ended up calling an architect—and you know that changes everything,” he laughs. “While he’s analyzing the property, he’s seeing all kinds of problems. He sees a confusing maze of alleyways and halls. So he came to us with a proposal, and it was incredibly exciting.”

Courey says, “Calvary wants a haven for the kids. A place so vivid, so kid-friendly, so interactive and alive that it becomes a place where kids want to be.”

It’s clear that pastor Courey is enjoying the telling of this story.

“So Carolyn went to a conference where Bruce Barry was speaking. He’s a guy who designs these compelling interactive spaces for kids. His dad worked for Disney. Bruce designed rides for Universal Studios. He’s the guy who designed the Rainforest Cafe.

“So the Calvary contingent went prepared. Strategically placing themselves directly in front of the unsuspecting Barry, they waited
for their moment to ‘surround’ him. They came with charts and drawings and an appealing pitch. He didn’t have a chance.”

While this issue of Enrich was being prepared, Carolyn and her husband, Chris, were getting ready to travel to Bruce Barry’s studio. They were anxious to get photos and a video of the Wacky World sets during the manufacturing process. Installation is scheduled for end of summer after Labour Day and will require two weeks to complete. Carolyn and her team of volunteers are ecstatic. She mentions a discovery by Barry’s research team: an incredible 100% of churches who have committed to a Wacky World makeover have experienced growth in attendance that in some cases doubled the original.

Pastor Courey notes that at one time their property “used to be a garbage dump on the edge of town out in the middle of nowhere.”

Theologians may notice the irony. Gehenna is the Hebrew term used for “garbage dump,” among other things. It was the pile where the remains of children who had been sacrificed alive to the Ammonite god Molech were deposited. The term is often used to parallel the New Testament concept of hell.

Several decades later this dump at the edge of town, symbolic of something dreadful, has become for an ostracized group of Pentecostals a place where vindication is sweet. Three communities — Galt, Preston and Hespeler—eventually became Cambridge. As the population continues to explode on the Hespeler side of the city, the church at the edge of Cambridge’s Gehenna has become a place where children are being offered to God. He alone knew and owned Calvary’s future. Today it is clear: Calvary, a church that puts children first, has been afforded pride of position over any building, traditional or otherwise, that may have clung with the ivy to a stagnating downtown core. e
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Is The Assistant editor of Enrich and provides web and design support for the PAOC communications department.
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