With only 38 members, New Westminster URC (formerly ORC) in New Westminster, BC, is definitely one of the smaller congregations in the United Reformed federation. But it follows God’s leading to out-distance larger congregations in creative outreach efforts.
On January 12, 2015, the church launched its newest endeavor: The Way Forward, an addictions recovery support group. Meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday evenings of each month from 7:00-8:30. The leader reads Scripture and delivers a meditation, which is followed by a time of sharing spiritual struggles and joys or discussing the meditation. The discussion time is closed with prayer, and then participants enjoy fellowship and refreshments.
The program began after the director of Union Gospel Mission (UGM), a local outreach to the poor and homeless, asked if the church would consider developing a group support program for recovering addicts.
Pastor Gary Zekveld relates two motivations for the request: “Statistics show that community is vital to long-term success in addictions recovery. This is what we’ve always believed as Reformed Christians, but sometimes take for granted – recovering sinners need the body of Christ.” He adds the second reason, “Many of the guests at UGM in New Westminster do not want to step foot in a church. The Director wondered if we could form a community group to help bridge the gap between UGM and the church. The church council received this as an opportunity and gift from the Lord.”
Prior to implementing the program, the congregation had to work through concerns such as: Is this safe? Is this going to require too much of an already-stretched membership? Isn’t this a little bit out of our league?
After discussing it at a congregational meeting, the consensus was to move forward. A group of eight volunteers spent about 10 months preparing for the program. They studied Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave by Ed Welch. They invited the director of addictions recovery from UGM in Vancouver to come as a speaker. They obtained advice from a recovered alcoholic, who is a member of a local Reformed church, as well as from Canadian Reformed personnel involved with a similar program in Ontario. After preparations were complete, they began advertising in December for the January launch.
Another outreach effort is the church’s weekly Homework Club, through which people from the community can receive homework assistance.
“A few of us were brainstorming of a way to reach out that was: 1) Sustainable for a congregation of our size; 2) Relational; 3) That would establish a greater presence in the community,” Rev. Zekveld explains. “A few ideas were mentioned, and we decided on Homework Club. We didn’t want to call it ‘tutoring’ because we envisioned something a little more low-key. We hung up posters and did some very-focused Facebook advertising.”
For more than a year, the idea seemed to be going nowhere.
“After 14 months of receiving no response, we decided that it was a failed experiment and we would try something else,” he says. “The very same evening that we decided to quit, a Muslim woman called: she wanted to start sending two of her children! Since then we have had anywhere from 4-12 children attending. Through our relationships with these children and their families, we have been able to have them in our homes and to invite them to several church functions where they heard the gospel.”
In addition to the above two outreach efforts, New Westminster URC hosts a chapel service every third Sunday of the month at Queen’s Park Hospital in New Westminster.
The congregation meets for worship at 9:00 AM and 7:00 PM at the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church (701 6th St.) in New Westminster, which is located in the Vancouver metropolitan area along Canada’s scenic southwest coast.
One way the church builds community is through Covenant Fellowship, which takes place on the last Friday of each month. Pastor Zekveld says, “This is open to the entire congregation as well as friends and neighbours from the community. The study is quite simple and is followed by games and fellowship.”
Every other Tuesday evening, a prayer meeting is held at the church from 8:00-9:00. These meetings consist of reading a portion of Scripture, singing a song or two, then taking prayer requests and bringing them before the Lord.
A discussion-based Bible study for women of all ages meets on alternate Wednesday evenings. Catechism instruction at junior and senior levels takes place each Wednesday evening at the pastor’s home.
When asked about the joys and challenges of small church ministry, Rev. Zekveld responded, “I would prefer to speak of the benefits and challenges of small church ministry. In fact, I’ve found that all of the benefits of small church ministry can also be a point of challenge.”
He lists three aspects: Accountability, Responsibility, and Diversity.
“Anonymity is the enemy of accountability,” he says, “but there are fewer places to hide in a small congregation. When someone’s not in church everyone notices. When someone leaves right away, everyone wonders why they didn’t stick around. When there is something ‘not right’ between members, everyone feels it. We’re all kind of in each other’s face all the time, so the warts are more obvious. On one hand, this is a great benefit because that’s the reality of living together as a family of sinners. On the other hand, this a great challenge because we have to learn the grace and forgiveness that is so hard to give; we have to keep short accounts with one another; we have to learn to love one another, or else cracks develop and grow. This is not peculiar to small congregations, but I do think that it’s more of an obviously and always present reality.”
Regarding responsibility, Rev. Zekveld observes: “With fewer people comes a smaller pool of resources and gifts, and that forces members into roles and tasks that they probably wouldn’t do in a larger congregation. This is a benefit in that it stretches members and encourages commitment and service. There are two drawbacks to this: first, things can get a little clumsy at times because we’re not necessarily doing things that we are particularly gifted for; second, the membership can be pushed to the point of exhaustion.”
On the issue of diversity, Pastor Zekveld shares insights gleaned from a “quite true and perceptive” article on the 9Marks website. “A large church will often have greater diversity (gifts, interests, ideas, ethnicity, etc) than a small church, but members of small churches are forced to deal more with diversity. In a large church, we will more likely find and make friends with those who are of like mind and shared interests. In a small church, our friends are the people that we worship with. We don’t have much of a choice. We can’t find our ‘group’ or our ‘clique’. That might sound like an awkward thing to say, but it’s true. Loving one another is a choice we make. Needless to say, this comes with challenges, but it is truly a great benefit.”
The church is constructing a new website at: www.newwesturc.org
The above article appeared on pages 12 & 13 of the February 25, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.