By Tim Callaway
Where bright angel feet have trod
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river
The beautiful, beautiful river
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God."
– Robert Lowry, 1864
The old apocalyptic hymn ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’ is taking on modern significance for a small but impressive number of Calgarians. An initiative started three years ago by a group of local Christian men, eager to engage in old-fashioned street-corner preaching, has expanded into a regular Sunday afternoon gathering now widely known as "The Street Church".
A tiny downtown park, sandwiched between the Drop-in Centre and the Bow River, has become the weekly stage for an evangelistic team headed by a local chiropractor. They lead worship for part of Calgary that is uncomfortable walking into a typical church.
"This entire operation is definitely God’s doing," chuckles Lawrence Irwin. "Every week that goes by, we’re truly surprised by the responses we see. We find it truly humbling to be used by God, to experience how just declaring the good news of Christ’s love brings the power of God unto salvation."
It has been two winters since Irwin’s small group first went out on a street corner near 17th Avenue S.W. and began preaching simple Bible messages.
"We weren’t surprised when we attracted all kinds of attention," he laughs, adding that these Monday night ventures are still ongoing.
"Many are merely curious as to what is going on…and come over to investigate for a few minutes before moving on. Others stop by to heckle or jeer."
Irwin who attends Centre Street Church, says members of his team are often drawn into provocative discussions with bystanders, many who openly share about struggles they are encountering in their lives.
Group member Bryce Saunders, a New Zealander who attends a church in Airdrie, says, "It’s like they’re less intimidated talking to us, because they don’t see us representing a particular church or denomination." And Saunders adds, "The openness to the gospel has surprised me."
Since many of those responding to the group’s initial efforts were clients at the Drop-In Centre, the group soon launched a Sunday afternoon worship service close by, under the 4th Avenue flyover. Attendance at this outdoor was encouraging.
"Yesterday we had three men come forward expressing a desire to follow Christ," Irwin recently stated in his weekly e-mail update. "Two of them ended up giving their testimonies immediately after their decision, and we baptized all three in the Bow River, everyone singing, ‘The cross before me, the world behind me, no turning back, no turning back.’"
Irwin readily admits following up with the new converts is a challenge, since many are transients with no permanent address or phone number.
"For those we are able to keep in touch with, we do our best to put them in contact with established ministries like the Dream Centre, Victory Outreach Centre or Mustard Seed. Some are now attending Centre Street Church, but our preference is to get them linked to a ministry downtown."
While awareness of Street Church slowly seeps into suburban congregations, the group wants to raise its profile, so the Body of Christ in Calgary can help. Team member Art Pawlowski spoke to the monthly Calgary Evangelical Ministerial on October 20.
"People from different denominations have heard of us and assisted in remarkable ways. A couple from Victory Outreach Centre opened their homes to some of the girls we’ve encountered – that’s been a huge encouragement to us,’ Irwin says.
Along with the Sunday worship and Monday night street preaching, the ministry has launched a discipleship group meeting, on Monday nights in the Salvation Army Centre cafeteria. New converts are urged to attend Victory Outreach Centre’s Wednesday night Bible study or catch the Dream Centre bus, heading to that Macleod Trail ministry for Saturday evenings.
New convert Patrick Bound, who came to Christ a Street Church just over a year ago, says "we shouldn’t be surprised that the church has encountered some complaints" from people who want it shut down.
"But you know what? When I first met these guys, I was so far down that I had absolutely no hope and was thinking of the worst things," Bound says.
"People tell me I’ve changed since I came to Christ at Street Church."
Saturday, October 22, 2005