ReInvention

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Stories from an Urban Church

Mark Whittall

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ISBN: 978-1-77064-805-0

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Caution: ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church may inspire and challenge readers and leaders to “re-think church” and, if necessary, begin again.

In these days of declining membership in mainline congregations, a new church plant is a rarity. Even more so, perhaps, when the church plant involves an existing 145-year-old building, and a focus on ministry to college and university students, young adults living in the neighbourhood, and those experiencing homelessness and dealing with poverty.

In ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church, Mark Whittall shares the insights and wisdom he and a small-but-dedicated team gained as they worked to establish a new congregation in St. Albans Church, the second oldest Anglican parish in Ottawa.

The challenges the team faced were not small: the renovation of the original building, negative reaction from the community to the placement of a day program for the homeless, creating new liturgies and a new kind of church experience, and learning how best to reach out to and involve people with little or no prior church involvement. The result of all these efforts, however, has been the transformation of St. Albans into a vibrant centre for worship, a beautiful venue for the arts, and place of shelter and safety for many of the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

Mark Whittall, Author

The Rev. Mark Whittall is the pastor of St. Albans Church and a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.  He is an engineer by training, and obtained graduate degrees in Theoretical Physics and in Development Economics from Oxford University.  His first career was as an engineer and executive in the high-tech sector, rising to the position of CEO and earning recognition as Ottawa’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000.  Soon afterwards he left his business career and turned to the study of theology. He served as Professor, History of Science at Augustine College in Ottawa from 2002 to 2007 and was ordained as an Anglican Priest in 2008.  After a brief stay in a rural parish, he was tasked with building a new congregation at St. Albans Church in downtown Ottawa in 2011, where he currently serves as pastor. www.markwhittall.com

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Media Reviews

Kevin Flynn, Director – Anglican Studies Program, Saint Paul University, Ottawa

How refreshing to read a story that runs against the familiar tropes of inevitable church decay and decline! Mark Whittall’s account of planting a new church in a tough context is the story of creative pastoral sagacity – an ability to reimagine church and to bring a vision to birth. It is the story of a distinctively Anglican church plant – rooted in place, nourished by the great traditions of liturgy and sacrament, unafraid of the best insights of the human sciences, and  committed to justice for all – yet also one that relates those orientations to the realities of the congregation’s contemporary urban milieu. We can be grateful that the insights that have arisen from this adventure are made available to a wider public in an engaging, accessible prose.

Anna Carter Florence, Ph.D. Peter Marshall Associate Professor of Preaching Columbia Theological Seminary

A lively and absorbing account of one pastor's experience in what is surely going to be the reality for many of today's clergy: church planting and revitalization. Mark Whittall writes with honesty, energy and faithfulness. This is a book that will encourage and empower others along the way.

Reverend Gregor Sneddon, Rector at St. Luke’s Ottawa

Mark is a leader, an entrepreneur, and a scientist with a pastor’s heart. He leads us on a journey where the future creates the present - the eschatological hope and vision that shatters the doubt and negativity of the past. 

Mark  does not know the meaning of “it’s not possible.”

Morgan Bell, 3rd Year student of Trent University

Vocation. Homeless ministry. Budgetary constraints. Emergent worship. Community backlash. Youth ministry. In his first book, ReInvention, the Rev’d Mark Whittall covers all aspects of what it means to lead a “Spirit-led, Christ-centred, contemporary urban church” – and what it’s like to start one.

Whittall – a successful business executive turned Anglican clergyman – humbly and insightfully relates his experiences as parish priest of St. Albans Church, a new “church plant” in downtown Ottawa. St. Albans is an old building with a new congregation; a painful backstory with a hope-filled future; a story of church resilience, indeed Resurrection, when the trend for mainline churches seems to be death and despair.

In ReInvention, Whittall acknowledges this well-known transition into post-Christendom. Drawing on trusted academics as well as his own background as a theoretical physicist, Whittall views this trend not as one of absolute denominational demise, but as a paradigm shift from Church hegemony to an “age of authenticity” where the Church is a choice among many community-building groups and spiritual centres.

Cue the story of St. Albans Church.

As a new church plant, Whittall shares how this small urban church is acting as a “research & development laboratory” to discover what it truly means to “be Church” in the 21st century, but more importantly, how that looks when it is lived out. Whittall and his congregation have committed to being a church that welcomes the stranger – be they young, atheist, transgendered, married, homeless, rich, or anyone in between – and aims to live out the Gospel in the 21st century.

ReInvention tells of St. Albans’ growth as a church – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The book shines a light on Centre 454, a day centre for the homeless housed in the church. It showcases how they built and facilitate a youth and young adult ministry for the neighbouring Ottawa community. Whittall explains how the Spirit led the church to new, emerging forms of worship infused with deep liturgical elements from many traditions. In relaying his church’s vocation and self-expression, Whittall gives the reader a springboard for inspiration regarding their own community of faith.

This book is a “must read” for any church leader who feels that God is calling their church to live out their vocation in a new, authentic way. ReInvention was written with the promise that “God is not done with us yet” and Whittall, in explaining how St. Albans Church was planted, proves that this isn’t some lofty, far-off promise: the Gospel can be and is lived out through the Church.

Crosstalk, February 2016 (p. 1)

Morgan Bell

Vocation. Homeless ministry. Budgetary constraints. Emergent worship. Community Backlash. Youth ministry. In his first book, ReInvention, the Rev’d Mark Whittall covers all aspects of what it means to leads “Spirit-led, Christ-centered, contemporary urban church” – and what it’s like to start one. Whittall – a successful business executive turned Anglican clergyman – humbly and insightfully related his experiences as parish priest of St. Albans Church, a new “church plant” in downtown Ottawa. St. Albans is an old building with a new congregation; a painful backstory with a hope-filled future; a story of church resilience, indeed Resurrection, when the trend for mainline churches seems to be death and despair. In ReInvention, Whittall acknowledges this well-known transition into post-Christendom. Drawing on trusted academics as well as his own background as a theoretical physicist, Whittall views this trend not as one of absolute denominational demise but as a paradigm shift from Church hegemony to an “age of authenticity” where the Church is a choice among many community-building groups and spiritual centres. Cue the story of St. Albans Church.

As a new church plant, Whittall shares how this small urban church is acting as a “research & development laboratory” to discover what it truly means to “be Church” in the 21st century, but more importantly, how that looks when it is lived out. Whittall and his congregation have committed to being a church that welcomes the stranger – be they young, atheist, transgendered, married, homeless, rich, or anyone in between – and aims to live out the Gospel in the 21st century. ReInvention tells of St. Albans’ growth as a church – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The book shines a light on Centre 454, a day centre for homeless housed in the church. It showcases how they built and facilitate a youth and young adult ministry for the neighbouring Ottawa community. Whittall explains how the Spirt led church the church to new, emerging forms of worship infused with deep liturgical elements from many traditions. In relaying his church’s vocation and self-expression, Whittall gives the reader a springboard for inspiration regarding their own community of faith.

This book is a “must read” for any church leader who feels that God is calling their church to live out their vocation in a new, authentic way. ReInvention was written with the promise that “God is not done with us yet” and Whittall, in explaining how St. Albans Church was planted, proves that this isn’t some lofty, far-off promise: the Gos[el can be and is lived out through the Church.

Colleagues List

Wayne A. Holst

“But what if we were to look at this with a new model?” -- that question, posed by an Anglican campus pastor began a process in the mind of a scientist with a desire to live the Christian faith in light of the changing ways by which the world seems to work today. That opened the way to new thinking, using new models for conceptualizing the context for ministry as well as ministry itself.

Some branches of Christianity seem to be doing better today than others. In Canada, mainline Protestant churches in general seem to be living in a funk. Catholic parishes may seem to be flourishing because they keep being infused with new immigrant members from other parts of the world. Conservative evangelical churches have been somewhat creative with local congregational models and are not content to simply repeat old formulas. But many are also in a malaise.

Taken together in truth, the handwriting is on the wall for most of us and perhaps the mainline is just the first to succumb to the effects of seismic, contemporary, societal changes.

I have always been interested in mission and the challenge of communicating "good news" across boundaries of time, culture and space. That is why Mark Whittall's book is interesting to me. It is exciting to discover how an old downtown parish church could be remodeled  into a new faith community without having to be transformed into a restaurant or office space.

When I hear fellow-church members complain about things going downhill, my first response is to disagree. We can affirm what we still have going for us, and to suggest how we might 'think differently' using the resources of our location and opportunities more creatively.

Truth be told, creativity is usually the way good  and  substantial church mission has always evolved.

First we need to claim that the Gospel is everlasting but not confined to assumed expressions. Then we must acknowledge the real changes taking place. Then we need to become creative in terms of the real possibilities available to us.

Mark Whittall seems to me to be a prophetic voice in our midst. He has something to say to people of faith across the church spectrum.

I thank you Mark for writing this book, and encourage those for whom my words carry some meaning to secure a copy and use it well.

Image Sandy Hill Newspaper - February-March Issue

François Bregha

The Anglican church of St. Alban the Martyr at the corner of Daly and King Edward avenues is one of Ottawa’s oldest churches, as old as Confederation itself. Although over the years it attracted the cream of Ottawa society, by 2011 St. Albans face an existential challenge. Its congregation had left the Anglican Church over issue of same-sex marriage. The diocese’s announcement that a drop-in centre for vulnerable people would move back to the church basement had attracted interest opposition from the immediate neighbours. The building itself was old and in need of expensive renovation. Could St. Albans be saved? Or, as Mark Whittall, St. Albans’ new minister, asks provocatively in his just-published book ReInvention, “who in their right mind would start a new church in downtown Ottawa in 2011?”

At one level, ReInvention tells the story of how a church community was re-established at St. Albans and has come to thrive in spite of the odds. The book’s more important story, however, is about the need for churches to re-imagine how they interact with their communities. Whittall argues, and his own successful experience supports the point, that churches need to reconsider their role, their liturgy, and the use of their buildings and their outreach in order to reflect today’s societal values and expectations.

Unusually for am minister, Whittall used to be an engineer and entrepreneur. He describes St. Albans as an R&D lab for the broader church. This background gives him a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities that established churches face. Even though we live in a secular age and fewer people identify with mainstream denominations. Whittall believes that attendance at downtown churches is not fated to drop inexorably if they are prepared to adapt. But they will need to do more than learn to harness social media or garner new revenue streams through concerts. Being authentic, talking about stuff that matters, exploring answers together and establishing strong relationships are some of the essential attributes to success Whittall lists.

Whittall’s book is inspiring – who doesn’t like the story of ta successful start-up? – But it also presents a profound challenge to the established order. St. Albans’ solutions will not work everywhere. But given the number of old churches in Sandy Hill, one can only hope that this book receives wide readership and its lessons are studied closely. These lessons are relevant not just to churchgoers but to everyone who lives in Sandy Hill.

Claire N Terry

Just finished your book...well actually I started and finished in one day. Your reflections and thoughts are both compelling and inspiring. Thanks for being obedient, first to His word and then to His calling and finally in sharing your journey with us all. I especially appreciated your point on shifting from authority to authenticity. Within the Western worldview of 'church' there is an overriding misconception of having to fit into some preconceived box of what Christianity should look like. God never prescribed Christ followers to be conformed to this world, rather He would call us to be transformed by His abundant love, mercy and justice through community. It is out of our communion with God and others that we in turn are empowered to be catalysts of change in this present age. Thank you for a great read!

The Presbyterian Outlook

Jeff Krehbiel

Some years ago at a NEXT Church conference, Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens (of the consulting group Pneumatrix) spoke about the importance of lifting up examples of positive deviance before the church. We all know examples of negative deviance: those leaders and congregations mired in dysfunction and crisis. We also know all too well the norm in the North American mainline church: aging congregations in decline with decaying buildings and lackluster ministry. Fortunately, that’s not the whole story.

“ReInvention” is a story of positive deviance: an urban congregation that is bucking recent trends. In 2011, Mark Whittall, a second-career priest in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, Canada, was called to launch a new congregation in the abandoned building of the historic — and now shuttered — St. Albans Church in downtown Ottawa.

As a former executive in the tech industry, Whittall had entrepreneurial chops but little church experience, which may have been to his benefit. With little direction from the diocese other than to see if he could engage the growing young adult population that was moving back into the city, Whittall jumped at the chance to experiment with being church in a way that “wasn’t constricted by years of habit, tradition and the cultural influence of previous generations.”

The only problem was that the Anglican Church of Canada had almost no experience launching new churches. Whittall and the small-but-growing group of young leaders were essentially on their own to figure things out as they went along. They did have two important assets, which makes at least a part of their story unique and non-replicable: The diocese would help with renovation of the building, and a vital and impactful ministry with the homeless called Centre 454 would relocate to their building. Other than that, whether a new worshipping community could emerge in that space would be entirely up to them.

The story that Whittall tells is the step-by-step (along with missteps) trial by fire experiment of engaging largely unchurched young adults in an effort to become a church where they would want to participate. Influenced in part by the Emerging Church movement, the only rule was that there would be no cookie cutter approach to their ministry. They would do what seemed right in their context with those that were at the table — and those they hoped to reach — all while seeking to be faithful to the essential elements of the Anglican tradition.

At an important moment in their development, their staff was reading recent literature about why millennials don’t come to church. Instead they decided to ask their millennials why they were coming. Their answers were instructive: It’s all about relationships; we talk about stuff that matters; we can ask questions and explore answers together; my LGBTQ friends are welcome here; social justice is part of our DNA; we get to participate and contribute; this community engages my culture; I feel welcome here; this is a Christ-centered church.

As pastor of another downtown urban congregation that is growing with young adults, those answers resonated — and they give me hope.

Jeff Krehbiel is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., and author of “Reflecting with Scripture on Community Organizing.”

My education and my subsequent working career can best be described as ecletic.  My first degree was in engineering, my second in theoretical physics and my third in development economics, with a heavy dose of philosophy courses whenever I could fit them into my schedule.  But if there was anything that served as a common theme, apart from loving a good challenge, it was my fascination with models.  Models, conceptual frameworks, paradigms, or, if they are comprehensive enough in scope, worldviews, are the lenses through which we understand, interpret and interact with the world around us.  Without models, engineers can’t solve problems and economists would have nothing to say about economic behavior.  But the one model that captivated me more than any other and has since become a life-long passion is the model of quantum physics.

Up until third year university, I was immersed in the model of classical physics.  Newtonian physics.  Matter, motion and forces.  Causality and determinism.  Objective reality.  The clockwork universe.  Atoms as miniature billiard balls moving on a stage of space and time.  But in my third year of university all that changed when I hit quantum physics, with a few doses of Einstein’s relativity thrown in for good measure.  Atoms turned out to be mostly empty space.  Particles turned into waves.  Waves turned into particles.  An electron could be in two places at the same time.  Causality and determinism both disappeared at the microscopic level.  Day by day as I went to class, the concepts I’d grown up with, ideas like space, time, matter, particle, mass, causality, determinism, objectivity, all of these were chewed up and spit out, to be replaced by strange new conceptions.  My brain hurt as it was forced to move from the comfortable world of classical physics to the brave new world of quantum physics with its curving space-time, wave functions, tunneling electrons and uncertainty principles.  It’s one thing to talk about paradigm shifts – it’s a very different thing entirely to experience one.

Curiously enough, at the same time as I was being both disrupted and fascinated by these shifting paradigms, I discovered that Rev. Bob, the priest at the Anglican Church on the corner of campus, was also a big fan of models and paradigm shifts, which he regularly incorporated into his preaching and his theology.  “But what if we were to look at this with a new model” was one of his favourite ways of bringing fresh insight into a familiar passage of scripture.  We would often talk at the Wednesday morning breakfasts at the church.  He offered to read a paper I’d written on the wider influence of scientific models.  My thesis, which I still maintain, is that the conceptual frameworks developed by scientists to explain and understand nature have a profound impact on the world views of society at large and consequently affect our understanding in fields as diverse as politics, philosophy and theology.  Bob read my paper and promptly handed me a book to read:  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.  It was in this classic text that Kuhn introduced the world to the idea of a “paradigm-shift” using examples from the history of science.  Progress and change don’t happen as a result of the incremental accumulation of more and more facts.  Real change results from paradigm-shifts:  conceptual revolutions that ask new questions, fundamentally change the rules of the game and re-write all the text books.

Is the church in North America in the early 21st century in the midst of a paradigm shift?  Or perhaps the question should be, does the 21st century church require a paradigm shift?  Many would say yes.  A quick survey of books and blogs inundates us with the emerging church, the converging church, the disappearing church, the post-Christendom church, the missional church and much more.  Something’s happening in church-land, and there are parallels with Kuhn’s analysis of the history of science.  One of the parallels is surely this:  paradigm-shifts are generally difficult, disruptive and divisive. 

If there’s a paradigm shift happening, I want to be right in the middle of it.  That’s what drew me to quantum physics, that’s why I used to teach about paradigm shifts in my history of science classes, and that’s one of the reasons that I jumped at the opportunity to plant a church in downtown Ottawa.  I think that there’s room for new ways to do and be church that will change the rule book and shift our expectations.  But while having a passion for shifting paradigms is a good start for a church planter, ideas alone won’t get a church plant off the ground.

A surprise phone call leads to a challenging assignment: plant a new church in the oldest church building in downtown Ottawa. Working without a playbook and without much time, the author scrambles to get church up and running in the midst of neighbourhood battles and theological controversies. ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church is the story of this urban church plant, told through the eyes of its pastor, a former entrepreneur and quantum physicist. It IS also the story of the profound and often disturbing changes currently taking place in mainline churches across North America. Often humourous, sometimes poignant, but always hopeful, these stories from an urban church plant serve as both spiritual autobiography and as manifesto for the paradigm shift that is taking place in today’s church.

In these days of declining membership in mainline congregations, a new church plant is a rarity. Even more so, perhaps, when the church plant involves an existing 145-yearold building, and a focus on ministry to college and university students, young adults living in the neighbourhood, and those experiencing homelessness and dealing with poverty. In ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church, Mark Whittall shares the insights and wisdom he and a small-but-dedicated team gained as they worked to establish a new congregation in St. Albans Church, the second oldest Anglican parish in Ottawa.

There is, I suppose, a certain irony in having the needs of the church become a secondary issue in all of this. Perhaps though, there was not just irony, but also a bit of divine inspiration at work. Ministry and mission became the drivers, and the vision and shape of the church which would ultimately support that ministry and mission was developed in response. It was a given that a worshipping community would have to be re-established upstairs. Not only would the absence of a congregation in one of the most historic churches in the city be unthinkable, but city bylaws required the existence of a worshipping community in the church building in order to allow its basement to be used for social services…”

– Mark Whittall, ReInvention

The Rev. Mark Whittall is the pastor of St. Albans Church and a priest of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. He is an engineer by training, and obtained graduate degrees in Theoretical Physics and in Development Economics from Oxford University. His first career was as an engineer and executive in the high-tech sector, rising to the position of CEO and earning recognition as Ottawa’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. Soon afterwards he left his business career and turned to the study of theology. He served as Professor, History of Science at Augustine College in Ottawa from 2002 to 2007 and was ordained as an Anglican Priest in 2008. After a brief stay in a rural parish, he was tasked with building a new congregation at St. Albans Church in downtown Ottawa in 2011, where he currently serves as pastor.

How refreshing to read a story that runs against the familiar tropes of inevitable church decay and decline! Mark Whittall’s account of planting a new church in a tough context is the story of creative pastoral sagacity – an ability to reimagine church and to bring a vision to birth. It is the story of a distinctively Anglican church plant – rooted in place, nourished by the great traditions of liturgy and sacrament, unafraid of the best insights of the human sciences, and  committed to justice for all – yet also one that relates those orientations to the realities of the congregation’s contemporary urban milieu. We can be grateful that the insights that have arisen from this adventure are made available to a wider public in an engaging, accessible prose.

– Kevin Flynn, Director – Anglican Studies Program, Saint Paul University, Ottawa.

A lively and absorbing account of one pastor's experience in what is surely going to be the reality for many of today's clergy: church planting and revitalization.  Mark Whittall writes with honesty, energy and faithfulness.  This is a book that will encourage and empower others along the way.

– Anna Carter Florence, Ph.D. Peter Marshall Associate Professor of Preaching Columbia Theological Seminary

 

Church Renewal/Church Growth
6" x 9", Paperback, 160 pages
ISBN 978-1-77064-805-0, Price $19.95

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