The regular sermon time at Trinity Church, Aurora may never be quite the same again.
Throughout the season of Epiphany, the church has replaced the sermon with a conversation between the incumbent, the lay associate minister and the congregation. The new format has created a buzz in the parish and even attracted the attention of the local press.
The series, called Holy Shift! How to Navigate a Changing World, features the Rev. Canon Dawn Davis and Philip Hamilton sitting on bar stools at the front of the church, discussing some of the most pressing issues of the day. The congregation is then invited to ask questions and give comments as well.
The conversation isn’t just a talk about current events. Throughout the discussion, the speakers, both at the front and in the congregation, talk about God, Jesus Christ and how their faith informs their opinions on the issues.
Canon Davis and Mr. Hamilton select the topics each week, based on what is in the news and what’s on the minds of parishioners. The election of Donald Trump and his executive orders on immigration and other subjects has provided ample material for discussion.
Some of the topics have included “What is Truth?”, an exploration of how the Gospel can help Christians navigate between facts and so-called alternative facts, and “Who Stole My Church?”, addressing numerical decline and Christ’s vision and mission in the midst of that. On the Sunday after the massacre at the Quebec City mosque, a local imam was one of the speakers. All the conversations are available in audio on the church’s website, www.trinityaurora.ca, and additional commentary is posted on its Facebook page during the week.
Canon Davis says parishioners like the format because it gives them a chance to participate in conversations about important and challenging topics in a safe place. “We’re in a moment of drastic change in society, when things are shifting quickly around us, and we wanted to slow the pace down and find a space that’s safe for us to reflect together on what is the role of our faith in the midst of all of these changes,” she says.
She says the impact on the parish has been profound. “When people are coming out of the church, the place is bubbling and everyone is talking. I’ve had parishioners tell me this has elicited huge conversations in their homes or between friends. A number are connecting with people and going out for coffee after church to further the conversation.”
In addition to the conversation, the format includes one other important element. After each talk, the congregation is given a “spiritual takeaway” to help them navigate the change they’ve just talked about. For example, after the “Who Stole My Church?” talk, parishioners were asked to reflect on if they’ve ever had a spiritual encounter with God and if they had told anyone about it. If so, they were encouraged to tell a loved one about it.
The spiritual takeaways have led to some surprising moments of grace. The week after the “Who Stole My Church?” talk, a parishioner stood up and shared his spiritual story with the rest of the congregation. “It was a holy moment,” recalls Canon Davis.
The takeaway exercise is not without some light-hearted moments – an important aspect of the format. If people complete the takeaway, they are given a sticker. “There’s some whimsy to it because part of the survival kit is holy humour,” explains Canon Davis.
People can also attend small-group discussions on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to start to build a Rule of Life for navigating today’s turbulent times. The groups have seen an uptick in attendance since the series started.
One of the interesting aspects of the series is that Canon Davis is a baby boomer and Mr. Hamilton is a millennial. Mr. Hamilton says they often have different perspectives on an issue, something the congregation appreciates.
“In most parishes, being a millennial in church is like being a unicorn – there aren’t too many of us around – so I think the majority of our parishioners, who are of the baby boom generation, find it really helpful to hear the two of us interact and hear in our conversations some of the conversations they’re having with their children,” he says. “The way Dawn and I approach problems and even truth is very different, and people have found that really helpful to hear two different opinions.”
The two often disagree, which is not only accepted but a welcomed part of the format. “That’s what’s been fun about it, that even in our preparation we’re trying to teach people and model for them what it is to disagree well and to have different opinions and to still be unified in purpose and mission and vision,” says Mr. Hamilton.
Canon Davis agrees. “Holy Shift is really a listening platform. We can be listening to the generation that went before us or the generation that comes after us. We can be listening to all the diversity in our parish. It’s helped us be a lot more respectful of other people’s perspectives.”
She says churches need to respond in creative ways in these changing times. “I think there is so much change going on that we have to be pretty light on our feet and make sure that our churches and our liturgies are responding to the spiritual needs that people have right now, because if they don’t we’re going to miss an incredible opportunity for Christ to speak into people’s lives.”