Carla Leon asks if we're missing the signs of vibrant ministry because they don't fit our existing ideas of church.

A dirt road running straight through the sparse desert, with dramatic clouds overhead.
Credit: Joshua Case on Unsplash
Published On: April 1, 2021

"When I was younger I used to struggle with this particular story. Jesus has died and risen again. But when his friends on the road to Emmaus see him, they don’t know that it is him. How could Jesus’ best friends not recognize him? They had spent all of that time with him travelling, learning, and being his family. If COVID has taught us anything, it is how to be with the same people for a long time and all the things that we learn about them when stuck together.

So this story always puzzled me. I couldn’t believe it! Not recognize him?! It meant to me that either they weren’t actually Jesus’ friends OR that they didn’t believe that he could be arisen. Now I don’t think it was the former, as there was much love there. So it must be that they couldn’t take that leap of faith to actually look at him and see him for who he was!

Stittsville United Church – The SPARK

They wanted to envision who Stittsville United Church could be.
So, they put out a sign and invited people for free coffee so that they could have conversations with the neighbourhood and determine what might be needed and where there might be some positive energy. The first day, no one came for coffee. The second day, a woman poked her head in and asked, was that sign serious? After that they had many conversations with the neighbourhood to understand what might be of interest to experiment with and to gain a better understanding of their own role in the neighbourhood.

In Ottawa a couple years back every single school in Ottawa had tablets and laptops in schools. This got the church thinking, "well, our Sunday school is just outdated!" So they decided to start by mixing up Sunday school. They recognized that their minister’s gift and spark was Sunday morning worship and he gave a great sermon. But everyone in the community of faith had a gift or a spark, and maybe we could unleash that in people sharing their gift during Sunday School rather than the traditional Sunday school they had been running. A local baker came to share their gift. An engineer did a Lego day. A local artist did painting classes. Sunday School grew to Sunday afternoons, Wednesday evenings, and more and more people wanting to share their gift too.

One of the programs that had the most energy was their paint nights. They had so much interest that they had to have shifts, with up to 300 people coming through during an evening. Even with COVID-19 and Zoom, this is continuing with huge murals being attached to fences in the town to inspire hope throughout this time.

Watch the story.

There are some other stories that show that we may be on the Road to Emmaus:

You may have heard that the number of people who attend church on Sunday is declining and that that means the church is dying. I remember speaking to a community of faith that told me that they had a small congregation with only 50 people on average on a Sunday. We continued to speak and it turned out that they had a meditation circle of over 300 people that gathered for reflection. I was awestruck and very excited about the energy that new ministry was taking.

According to the community of faith where this was happening, this was not considered church. It was a great outreach, but not church.

So this brings me back to the Road to Emmaus.

Why couldn’t they recognize him? Is it that they weren’t taking the leap of faith to see who he really was? Is it like the last example, where the new and vibrant ministry was right before their eyes but they couldn’t see it as it didn’t fit their existing model of church?

We are in Lent and approaching Good Friday.

And I leave you with this thought. Have we been telling ourselves that we as communities of faith are in the story of Lent or Good Friday or Easter Saturday or even Easter?

But what if we are past Easter? What if we are already on the road to Emmaus? But we are not able to see that the Spirit is not only walking with us, but walking before us."

 — Carla Leon is Innovation & Special Projects co-ordinator for the EDGE - A Network for Ministry Development.

Watch this as a sermon entitled "Are we on the Road to Emmaus?" on YouTube.


[Photo by Joshua Case on Unsplash]

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.