Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'It's an experiment worth trying'

Spirit Path, a United Church program, takes bold steps to attract believers

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Here are three words you don't hear very often: New United Church.

What you are likely to hear, instead, are words such as "decline" and "struggling" when the mainline denomination is mentioned in the media.

Here in Winnipeg, though, there is a new United Church in the works -- Spirit Path.

Conceived in 2010 by the United Church's Winnipeg Presbytery as part of its Ready, Set, Grow strategy for southwest Winnipeg, Spirit Path is aiming to provide a new kind of church for the 40,000 or so people who are expected to be residents of Waverley West when it is completed.

The goal of the new church is to be a place where people can find meaning in life, see things "from a new perspective" and "renew and refuel" in "today's fast-paced world."

Funding for the new church came from the Donnelly United Church, which closed in 2005. When that church, located in Fort Garry, shut its doors, members made $200,000 available to the presbytery to start a new congregation in the southwest part of the city.

Instead of doing a traditional church plant, the presbytery wants to create something unique, unexpected and "out of the ordinary."

The person who has been hired to turn that hope into reality is Cole Grambo, 46, who came to Winnipeg last summer after pastoring United Churches in rural Manitoba for 20 years.

What makes Grambo's job a bit out of the ordinary is that Spirit Path doesn't have a building -- and may never have one.

"The old way of buying land, building a church and waiting for people to come isn't where society is at anymore," says Grambo, noting while 80 per cent of Canadians say they believe in God, only about one in five attend worship services.

As for why people don't go to church, Grambo wonders if it's because "they don't believe there is a faith community that can meet their needs. If we could find a way to make these people feel welcome, maybe not all would come, but I feel a number of them would."

Grambo's goal over the next few years is to see if he can create that welcoming place. It may or may not involve building a church -- it will all depend on what people who join the new church want to do.

"Right now, I'm taking time to talk to people, find out what kind of church they want," he says.

It could mean building a traditional church, but it might also mean something that finds people meeting in small groups in various settings, as is happening in Guelph, Ont., where another new United Church -- yes, there are at least two -- is being created.

Called Rising Spirit, this new church has a vision to help people grow "in what it means to walk in the Way of Jesus today" by meeting people "where they live their lives -- in coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, outdoors," according to a statement on the church's website.

For John Lawson, Rising Spirit's minister, this means doing church through "pub conversation groups, study groups, café gatherings, etc." It's a way, he says, to reach out to "those who do not find a place within more traditional structures."

Spirit Path and Rising Spirit aren't the only new expressions of faith coming from the United Church these days -- St. Paul's United Church in Kelowna, B.C., is trying something bold and unusual.

Called The Sanctuary, the new project will find the church reinventing itself thought a new development project that features a theatre/performing arts/worship space, residential housing for seniors, a café, art gallery, office and retail space and a rooftop garden.

According to the church's website, the idea to do something new like The Sanctuary arose out of a desire to make the church sustainable and enable it to continue to minister and serve in the community.

Spirit Path probably won't end up looking like that -- Rising Spirit is a more likely model. But Grambo wants to be open to all options.

"We want to be open to the new thing God wants to do in this area," he says.

No matter what the church ends up looking like, in the end it's about creating "something meaningful, something that people will want to be a part of," says Grambo.

This "doesn't mean watering down the gospel, but it means taking seriously where people are at."

As for his hopes for the church, "there are a lot of people searching for answers and for community," he says. "Spirit Path can be a place where we can be open to the questions, walk with people on their journey of faith, and be open to the new thing that God wants us to be about."

It's a "bold experiment, a little risky," he admits, but "it's an experiment worth trying."

For more information about Spirit Path, go to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J13


Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:43 AM CST: edit

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