Kevin Sawatsky on Rural Church Revitalization

kevin-sawatsky-speaking-wednesday-evening  

Wednesday Evening Plenary Session at General Conference in Montreal, Palais des congrès de Montréal on May 4, 2016

Kevin Sawatsky (right) and his French translator Rudy Moley speaking on missional vitality on Wednesday evening. 

Here is an excerpt from Tenacious, PAOC’s 2011 gift book where Kevin described the journey in detail.

My wife and I did not know it at the time, but our move to Saskatchewan was the beginning of some of the most exciting years in our ministry. Many of our solo-pastor, smaller rural churches are in great danger of closing or have closed their doors in recent years. A few years ago, it seemed that Lanigan Pentecost Church (LPC), as it was then named, was one of those ministries that did not have many years left in its future. Planted in the 1960s, LPC was a church that was birthed along with many others across Canada by Spirit-empowered and Great Commission people who were truly missional, years before that word would become known. What a debt we owe those pioneers!

When we joined this great, faithful rural church in July 2002, it was our impression that the church felt like it had seen its best days. Though led by many great pastors throughout its history, there were now mostly seniors with many who had been attending for years. There were very few families and young children attending. In fact, when asked what the future of the church might be in 10 years, several members of the congregation said they could see the doors closed. Praise the Lord that as we now near the 10-year mark, the doors are NOT closed or even close to closing on this faithful ministry. In fact, the “family” has again become a vibrant, multi-generational, “turnaround” church!

New people often walk through the doors. Many have come and continue to come to faith in Christ, and there is a renewed hunger for all the Spirit desires to do in and through us. In 2007, LPC even walked through a building expansion project that added 6,400 square feet to the original building, all the while seeing the Lord supernaturally provide in many remarkable ways. In 2008, forty years to the day of the original dedication of the building, they dedicated the new building to the Lord! It is a new day for this rural church.

The vast majority of our PAOC churches are in smaller rural settings. More of us can experience this renewal if we collectively (urban as well as rural ministries) call on God for wisdom, vision and rejuvenation in these churches. Otherwise, I fear that our impact for the kingdom will be greatly lessened in the years to come.

Here are just two lessons that God taught us along this amazing and often very difficult journey. 

Lesson #1: The price of experiencing a “turnaround” is high … but pay it anyway!

The rewards of seeing turnaround at LPC become reality have been amazing, but the price that these dear people paid to get there was great! I give honour to the original group of people who were willing to honestly discuss the reality of the position their church was in and had the desire to do something about it. Those folks knew that if their church was going to reach a new generation and a culture they did not really understand (or even like) with the message of Christ, they would need to change everything. LPC was willing to change, and everything did change—even the name of the church. Oh, how they prayed and worked and gave and sacrificed. I praise God for their desire, passion and willingness to become uncomfortable in their own church to see people come to Christ. God honoured them in response!

Lesson #2: Our ministry focus needed to shift from Sundays to weekdays. 

LifePoint asked the Lord how we could reach our community and the region around us in culturally relevant ways. He began to open our eyes to the need for a community gathering place for parents with young children. With long winters and no place in the region for parents to let their kids run and play, we knew we could help. Our church, like most churches, sat empty most of the week. We had a large space that was used only for a few hours each week for Sunday worship. So we turned the “sanctuary” space into a play area called “LifeLand.” Each week we stack the chairs and set up a large indoor playground, open and free for all to use during the winter months. Not everyone liked this idea of kids and parents running, jumping and even playing floor hockey in “the Lord’s House.” Some felt it was sacrilegious. Yet last year we had about 1,000 midweek visits from November to April. We now host a 10-week parenting class, and a Bible study for moms was started out of the new relationships that were formed. The Lord be praised!

It is my prayer that all of our small rural churches would become vibrant and healthy in the diverse contexts where they are found. God longs to use us in His mission to change the world. Our Lord loves big, faith-filled, desperate, personally costly requests for Him to move in and through us. Change is inevitable. I pray that we will all take the faith-filled risks He is calling us to.

 

Rev. Sawatsky also shared some of these thoughts with delegates at Wednesday evening’s plenary session:

“God gave us eyes and a heart for the many communities, towns and villages within an hour of us, most with no gospel witness. We began to take spiritual responsibility for that community."

“No matter how good your church is, Canadians are proud of the town in which they live. [They won’t go out of their way to attend church were you are.] But if you begin by showing up in their town and their community, they might come out."

“Smaller churches (100 or less) are the backbone of the PAOC. Come on you 67% churches-under-100! Will you drive 20 minutes and plant a church in a place that doesn’t have one?"

“We have seen over 5,000 people walk through the doors for their kids to play. I can spend hours talking to you about the personal cost that my family has had to pay. The five-fold ministry is given to equip the people to do the work of the ministry. The cost is high and continues to be high. But kingdom impact is happening. Yes, we have some impossible deadlines to meet, and yes, we are tired. But God is calling our less-than-100-people churches back to pioneering work in Canada.”

Read more about Kevin Sawatsky here.

Photo by Leslie Ghag. © 2016 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.