by Alastair Sterne
February 19, 2018
9 min read
When I became a Christian in 2004 I was mostly alone. I didn’t have any friends who followed Jesus. I wasn’t sure about organized religion. I was isolated. It made following Jesus difficult, as I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, a classmate in my undergrad invited me to visit her church. I accepted her invitation. While I didn’t end up joining her church, her little act of faithfulness connected me to a house church that I ended up joining in 2005. It was there that I discovered the gift of community. It’s what kept me coming back week after week to a little home in East Vancouver. When I moved to Orlando in 2006 I experienced more of this beautiful, broken, and yet powerful Christian community known as ‘church.’ I found my sense of place, my people, my family, my home in the church.
A little over five years ago, the Vancouver Foundation released their Connections and Engagement report. It revealed some challenging findings: Vancouver is a hard place to make friends, our neighbourhood connections are cordial but weak, and participation in community life is on the decline. This past year they released an update to their study. Unfortunately not much has changed. Vancouver not only remains in the same state as five years ago, but people are even less active in community life today and participation in almost every community-related activity has dropped since 2012.
Many people in Vancouver struggle to experience community, let alone the quality of community I’ve come to discover in the church. When Julia and I moved back to Vancouver in 2012 to start a new church — this church — our vision was simple: we wanted to see God build a community in Vancouver, but not just any community: a community centred around Jesus and his scandalous grace. This is why we chose the name St. Peter’s Fireside: it reminds us that grace came to Peter not when his life was tidy and clean, but when he was broken, full of regret and disappointment, and haunted by his sin and shame. Grace meets us where we are, as we are; precisely in the places where we need it most. And when grace infuses itself into our souls, a whole new world of possibilities bursts open: it’s impossible to stay the same when you walk in the grace of the living God.
When grace infuses itself into our souls, a whole new world of possibilities bursts open.
This year in our survey we asked, “If you have visited STPF more than once, why do you continue to attend?” I am so encouraged that 50% of our respondents said: community. People described our community as engaged, welcoming, warm, beautiful, accepting of brokenness, safe for mental health, and on and on. These are the signs of life you would hope to see in a community centred around our beautiful Lord Jesus and his grace. Our dream is to grow into this all the more, to become a light in our city that shines distinctly for Jesus. I want us to be all of these things but also described as on mission, making Jesus known, bold in our witness to his goodness.
I’m encouraged by the qualitative data of our survey: we are meeting a deep need of those who call Vancouver home. We’re connected and engaged. Those who long for community are finding it here. As I’ve reflected upon all that God has done in the past year, I’m full of gratitude and joy. But there are aspects of the quantitative data in our survey that I find challenging. For example, when asked “How many times a month do you invite someone to St. Peter’s Fireside? (Whether it be Sunday services, events, or community groups)” 56% of people said never. Similarly, 64% of the people who responded to the statement, “I take every opportunity to share the good news of salvation with others, no matter what relationship I have with them” said rarely or never. While I wish this wasn’t the case, in some sense, I am not surprised. Vancouver is a difficult place to meet new people and to make friends. It’s hard enough, let alone throwing in the faith factor.
Speaking about Jesus in our city is like living in dense fog. When you live on the ground, all you know is the fog. There is no backdrop beyond the gray. But as followers of Jesus we persistently say, “There are mountains beyond the fog. I’ve seen them, I know them!” But how on earth can someone who only sees the fog discover that there is more beyond the fog? Well, first, they need to encounter people who live as though the mountains are real, because they are real. They need to encounter people whose lives are so distinct and peculiar that the only logical explanation is that there truly are mountains. Second, they need the light to break through the fog — even for a moment — so they can see the mountains for themselves.
A member of our leadership team described St. Peter’s as “one of Vancouver’s best kept secrets.” The survey shows that people who call St. Pete’s home love our community, but are reticent to share it with others. It’s difficult to keep talking about the mountains in fog-land. But our community is one of the ways people will discover the beauty of God’s grace. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be such an intimidating task. The Vancouver Foundation reports that 53% of people surveyed would like to get to know their neighbours better. People want to connect, they want to engage, they’re longing for community. They will likely be far more receptive to your invitation than you may suspect. But the quality of our community alone is not enough.
Our diocesan bishop Charlie Masters has challenged us to “Remember Jesus, risen from the dead” (2 Timothy 2:8-9).
Jesus is alive.
Jesus is alive and we’re invited to pass this good news on. The gospel always comes to us on its way to someone else. Through our community — a community that wants to not only remember Jesus but experience the power of his resurrection — God can cause his light to break through. He can open minds, awaken hearts, restore souls, awaken the dead, and do more than we dare ask or imagine. I am optimistic and hopeful about our future as a church.
We do not need to be afraid. Because Jesus is alive and he can use broken people like us for his good purposes in this world.
We may struggle to share our faith at the moment, but it does not need to stay this way. We do not need to be afraid. Because Jesus is alive and he can use broken people like us for his good purposes in this world. From an ancient prison cell, St. Paul charged Timothy to remember Jesus. It changes his charge when we realize he is not being metaphorical, but literal in saying, “For the gospel I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” The word of God is not bound because Jesus is alive. The mountains are real. But what will it take for us to become unashamed of the gospel, to tell the world that there are in fact mountains?
We must remember Jesus.
As we live in fog-land, we should not lose sight of our hope. As St. John writes, “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2.8). The true light is already shining. Jesus will make himself known. We’re called to remember him, at all times and in all places. Remember him when you wake up. Remember him as you support your friends. Remember him as you journey to work. Remember him as you care for your coworkers. Remember him at family dinners. Remember him on the Skytrain. Remember him in the grocery store. Remember him in each and every face you encounter. Remember who Jesus is and the profound grace he has shown you, and it will change you and the way you relate to our city. And as you remember Jesus, he will present you opportunity to invite people into his grace.
Several years ago, long before we ever had a service, someone on our launch team shared a prophetic word with me that has stuck. He saw God plant a seed in downtown Vancouver, and it grew roots beneath the streets, and it slowly expanded under the city. But eventually, what started as a small seed blossomed and grew and broke through the ground, the concrete, and filled every crack; what blossomed was seen all throughout the city.
As Zechariah prophesied long ago, “Do not despise these small beginnings” (Zech 4:10). God has indeed planted that small seed in the city and it has started to grow — and we are full of gratitude. As St. Paul promises everyone who labours for the gospel, “your labour is not in vain.” We may still gather two stories underground, but our roots are stretching out. Our leadership team eagerly longs for the day when our church will flourish and grow and be a light for all our city to see. We dream of our community becoming a greater blessing to our city. We pray for the day that we will see our services filled to the brim; to point that the only logical next step is planting another church. We earnestly desire that our family — every single one of us who calls St. Pete’s home — would become more and more like Christ each and every single day. We pray for the day that sharing our faith, while difficult, is an ongoing activity and disposition in our lives. And I am convinced there will come a time when the light shines so brightly that the Lord will bring an incredible harvest to his church in Vancouver.
The good news is that the true light is already shining in the world, and is already shining through us; and Jesus will shine brighter still. I’m sure of it.
This year, let’s put every effort into this charge: