parkdale united church

429 Parkdale Avenue, OTTAWA, Ontario K1Y 1H3

40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH

UNBINDING THE GOSPEL

 

One day last summer Anthony said he would like to talk to me; he said he had ‘an interesting proposition’ to discuss. Curiosity will almost always get the better of me, so we met for lunch and I listened to what he had to say.

 

It was an invitation – an invitation to participate in the pilot group of Unbinding the Gospel, a small group study that explores faith issues, with a strong emphasis on evangelism and prayer. I was very reticent. The word ‘evangelism’ scared me silly, and my prayer habits were inconsistent, to say the least. I really didn’t think that I was an appropriate candidate. But I took the book, “Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism” and agreed to read it while on holiday in North Carolina.

 

If you appreciate the power and the beauty of the ocean and the wonders of walking barefoot on the beach, shell hunting and bird watching, admiring glorious sun-sets over the water, and surveying marvellous star-filled skies, you really must spend some time in North Carolina! I often found my-self humming as I walked the beach; the familiar hymns ‘For the Beauty of the Earth” and “All things Bright and Beautiful” ran through my head as I marvelled at God’s wondrous works. It was in this beautiful setting that I cracked the cover on Unbinding the Gospel – and I started to feel slightly nauseated. Surely Anthony would be able to find someone else, some-one better suited to evangelism and faith-sharing than me, for his pilot group.

 

I worked away at the book, a few pages at a time, not enjoying it much, until I reached Chapter 3, entitled “If You Don’t Like Statistics, Skip This Chapter!” And I thought to myself, this will be easy, there won’t be any stomach-wrenching references to evangel-ism here, so I delved in! The statistics were American, but I knew instinctively that the situation would be similar in Canada. “Have the mainline denominations lost members? Yes. Is the Protestant presence in the US declining? Yes. Is America becoming a less religious country? Yes”. And then this: “Children are being born to parents who have no faith tradition whatsoever. One hundred years ago you would have had to search hard to find someone who didn’t know the Christmas story. Today all we have to do is walk into the local high school.” This made me stop and think. A few sentences later: “Today, people who have never attended a church populate our neighbourhoods and work places. The next decades will see millions more... The thought of “going back to church” when they’re in trouble will never occur to them, because they have never been inside a church building in the first place. For them, a church is an alien, possibly intimae-dating place – not a cradle of com-fort and hope.” I was compelled to think some more.

 

I thought about my life and how my Christian upbringing and education had influenced my outlook and my identity. The ‘Golden Rule’ had grounded me from an early age; my parents saw to that! Sun-day school and church youth groups, Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) and their leaders played an important role in shaping my character, and were perhaps even more influential than the provincial academic curriculum. I thought about how differently I might have handled personal dies-appointments in my life if I had not felt supported by the Spirit. I thought about how I would live my life now if I were not able to, as I often do, just ‘let go –and let God’. And I knew I would say yes to Anthony’s invitation to join the pilot group.

 

Six months or so later, I can tell you without hesitation that my participation in the Unbinding the Gospel has been an amazing adventure!

The pilot group experience was challenging for this self-professed - and very private - introvert. But the experience of sharing stories with eight others was cathartic and invigorating. We were gently encouraged to identify our own needs, and to have others pray for these. We moved through Unbinding the Gospel, expanding our horizons, and experienced the benefit of prayer – for ourselves, for our church, and for people who have no one to pray for them! I began to truly appreciate the potential of a small group experience.

 

Group members shared discoveries and concerns; we got to know each other better as we pointed out the highlights of our week and experiences with our 40-day prayer journals. We developed a deep appreciation for our prayer partners. We began to step out-side our comfort zones as we shared our vulnerabilities in an environment that we knew to be respectful and safe. As we gained a better understanding of ‘evangelism’, I realized that all those Sunday school, youth group and CGIT leaders that had played such an important role in my development were, in fact, evangelists. And we realized that there is a lot of evangelism going on at

Parkdale — in the nursery and Sunday school, with Parents and Tots, in our confirmation class, with the youth groups. Opportunities are not restricted to children and young people; there are ample opportunities for adults to meet in small groups and share their faith —Bible study, adult faith formation classes, and now Unbinding, an intentional faith-sharing opportunity.

 

The eight-week pilot project ended and I thought my involvement was over. But then my prayer partner (David Odumodu) convinced me that we should undertake to lead a small group, as part of the second phase of the Unbinding initiative, reaching out and sharing the experience with a larger segment of the congregation. After a good bit of excuse-making on my part, I agreed to support David as he led a group – and we were off again!

 

The second time through Unbinding and the prayer journal was an eye-opening experience. I found that my attitude towards some of the topics we discussed had changed since the pilot group experience, sometimes quite significantly. I still struggle to find a consistent prayer time, but I find that I am praying more consistently and not only for myself! I may never be comfortable with extemporaneous prayer, but I am now more able to put a couple of heart-felt thoughts together and share them aloud with others. I am learning to listen attentively for what the Spirit may be saying to me.

 

But perhaps the most important realization for me was a growing appreciation for the power of a small group discussion. I will never forget the group discussion during which we shared ‘experiences with God’. I still get goose-bumps when I think about it – and that was week one! Sharing these very personal stories was an incredible bonding experience and, in my estimation, our group never looked back. We knew we were in a safe place with like-minded, loving and respectful people. Our confidence in sharing our faith experience with each other –and with others – grew.

 

The eight weeks flew by – and I miss our Thursday evening get-togethers. It is easy to lose the momentum and to fall out of prayer practice when the structure of a weekly meeting is removed. Fortunately, our group unanimously agreed that we wanted to sustain the momentum and agreed to continue to meet monthly until the Fall - and other groups have done the same. It would appear that there is a lot of appetite among Unbinding participants for continued efforts to strengthen our prayer lives and to pursue

some of the ideas that were generated during group discussion.

 

More recently, I have personally benefitted from participating as Parkdale’s lay representative in the coaching teleconference calls with other churches engaged in Unbinding and our coach, Nancy Wood. This experience brought home to me the reality that there are others ‘out there’ who are pursuing this study; we are not alone. The calls are invaluable in providing an opportunity for Unbinding participants to share highlights, as well as concerns, and to seek ad-vice and receive encouragement. There has been a huge investment of social capital on the part of the pastors involved in this initiative and their personal commitment to the project is impressive. They have made a concerted effort to make time for Unbinding in al-ready busy schedules; shepherding the Unbinding flock is an obvious priority for all.

 

The next phase of the Unbinding series, Unbinding the Heart, will roll out after Thanksgiving and will provide another opportunity for spiritual growth and faith sharing. Faith-sharing, by the way, is how ‘evangelism’ is defined in Un-binding the Gospel. It turns out it is not as scary as I thought!

 

By the way, for those interested in the future of the United Church in Canada, an analysis by Rev. David

Ewart of Capilano United Church, projected the following scenario for the average United Church by 2025, if current trends continue:

· 52 financially supporting households

· zero new members received

· zero new members in Sunday school

· zero baptisms (all ages)

· zero weddings

· four funerals

 

2025 is only 13 years from now. Although Parkdale does not currently seem to fit the profile of an ‘average’ United Church if the number of baptisms and the size of our Sunday school are any kind of performance indicator, it will be important that we work towards sustaining the positive momentum!

 

If you are interested in more information on the Unbinding experience, please feel free to talk to me or others who have participated in the Unbinding the Gospel initiative. It has been a rewarding and inspiring experience for me – and I look forward to continuing the journey, gaining confidence in sharing my faith, improving my prayer practice and striving for a deeper relationship with God. Join us for the next phase and find out for yourself how rewarding it can be!

 

Helen