My Church Renewal Weekend Experience

Three times each year, pastors and ministry leaders from all over the world are invited to Southland Church in Steinbach, Manitoba to experience a Church Renewal Weekend. Here’s what we encountered!
This was the photo Bev and I sent our kids before we boarded the plane to fly from Calgary to Winnipeg

Earlier this year the good people over at Grande Prairie Alliance Church hosted a round table presentation/Q&A with Ray Duerksen, former lead pastor of Southland Church in Steinbach MB turned Church Renewal Executive Director. McLaurin Church was invited and several delegates went, myself included. We got to hear how God used a rather bizzare health development in Fran’s life (Ray’s wife) to lay a cultural foundation of prayer during the formative days of Ray’s pastorate, and how from that foundation God has gone on to build a vibrant church community at Southland that is producing effective and engaged followers of Christ.

After this, we were challenged with a few questions: Does the church in fact need renewal? What might our churches look like if pastors and ministry leaders got serious about being truly renewed in their walk with the risen Lord? How might such a revolutionary renewal take place?

The rest of the round table consisted of an explanation of what Church Renewal is; an in depth mentoring experience for pastors aimed at renewing them in the Word, in the Spirit, and in the resurrection power of Christ so they in turn might facilitate that renewing work of God in the people under their care. The round table closed with a ‘taste and see’ invitation; come down to a Church Renewal Weekend at Southland church, where you will get to experience firsthand how the principles for renewal are applied in their context and what a renewed congregation can look like.

In the end, we signed up to go, and so last week early friday morning, Peter, Tara, Bev and myself boarded the plane…first time I could legitimately say I was “Goin to Winnipeg!”

“Do you speak English?”

Two planes, a rental car, an Olive Garden, a quick rip to Steinbach, and a hotel check in later, we crossed the road to Southland Church to begin the conference. We couldn’t help but notice it seemed rather empty as we approached the welcome tables to collect our nametags and conference materials from the warm and welcoming volunteers who greeted us.

The Southland Church Campus is a whopping 59,891 sq. ft after the phase 3 addition was completed in 2013.

Well as it turned out, we’d read a time wrong somewhere and were about 15 minutes late to the first session. That would explain the empty halls! We rounded the corner to find the auditorium.

As we opened the doors to find dozens of round tables packed with participants, more volunteers greeted us. Before I could say anything, one asked us ‘English? Or do you speak something else?’ Not at all what I was expecting, I think Tara beat me to the answer. Yes, we speak English. “Okay, welcome here, your tables are on the other half of the room by the other doors”

So we found the other doors and were again welcomed warmly, and told that the only seats available were at a table near the front of the room. I had thought it odd that we would be asked so quickly whether or not we spoke English at the other door, but now I could see why, nearly half the room had centerpieces holding a sign that said, ‘TRANSLATION’ on them! As if that were not enough, as we sat down and briefly introduced ourselves to the 3 other participants already seated at the table, we quickly learned they had come from Iceland.

Iceland.

Beside Kaleb: Frederick, two ladies I cannot remember nor pronounce, and Tina, my new friends from Iceland!

As we would learn, Church renewal has grown fast and far beyond what anyone would have thought possible considering it’s home of operations. In the small town of Steinbach, with a population of barely over 15,000 , this CR Weekend in particular saw over 400 participants representing over 160 churches from 16 different countries including a handful from south America and Africa, and even Australia.

And Iceland!

The conference

The Church Renewal Weekends overlap with a weekend retreat Southland hosts for it’s own congregants and community called the ‘Set Free! Retreat’ which runs Friday night and all day Saturday, and all CR Weekend participants participate in the whole ‘Set Free!’ retreat. This retreat consists of 7 sessions:

  • Spiritual Warfare
  • Destructive Habits, Attitudes & Actions
  • From Impure to Pure
  • The Cross
  • From a Divided to Single Heart
  • Inner Healing
  • The Holy Spirit

Sessions 1-3, 5 and 6 a time of teaching, prayerful reflection and consideration on certain aspects of your life (with a focus on confessing offense, a need for healing or deliverance, or a sinful act, attitude, or pattern) and a small group time also known as ‘triads’ or ‘cell group’ time. These are three people groups, where every person has both an opportunity to confess to each other theirs sins/struggles/hurts and to give and receive focused prayer and forgiveness through Christ. Stories and explanations are not really encouraged at all, just straightforward confession, commitment to repent and forgive, and this is something I found particularly wise.

The Cross session featured some praise and worship, followed by some teaching on the cross, particularly it’s necessity. The father ordained the cross for his Son, and the Son embraced it willingly. This session ended with us watching portions of the flogging and crucifixion scene from Passion of the Christ. It had been the first time I’d watched those awful scenes in a long time, and it was a moving experience. May I never deny my Christ, after what he suffered for me! I’m always amazed that Christ went to the cross willingly, for the joy that was before him. That is encouraging when we face the specter of sins past or present.

The Holy Spirit session features essential teaching on the person and work of the Holy Spirit and how necessary the Holy Spirit is to our efforts if they are to be truly fruitful. We can be filled repeatedly and continually by the Spirit, and we should be actively seeking to walk in step with the Spirit and to receive his power for our needs in all areas of life, particularly in ministering to others and growing in holiness.

Sunday

With the SET FREE weekend wrapped up by Saturday Night, Sunday is given to regular service times at 9am and 11am, with the opportunity to tour the building and peek in on all active ministries during whichever slot you are free to do so. We hit the 9am service and were treated to a fantastic experience. We were treated to some familiar songs during the praise portion as the musicians, including a full Choir, led us through a few songs we’d just sung during the Set Free Retreat, songs that were still new to us McLaurin folks but totally singable at this point. We also song ‘Yet Not I, but through Christ in Me’ which is an exceptionally beautiful song I heard for the first time just a day or two before we left Grande Prairie, so that was a highlight. There was also a Choir performance of Andrew Peterson Song ‘Is He Worthy?’, which I consider a must listen.

As the praise portion gave way to sermon time, the congregations eyes were diverted for about two minutes as an eye catching and well edited ‘Southland News’ video rolled onto the large screens in the auditorium. I couldn’t help but notice the perfect timing as the last of the musical gear and choir crew were barely off the stage before the video faded out and Ray was ready there at the podium to deliver the morning message, which he did with a humble yet passionate heart, and with clarity of conviction.

After the AM service, we spent the next 90 minutes exploring the church and inquiring about the different programs and structures in place and how they were staffed, and also learn more about the church in general.

A view into the Grade 1-3 Kids Church room

We got to interact with many staff and volunteers during this time and found everyone we talked to very happy to engage with us and genuinely excited to be a part of the community and ministry of Southland church in whatever role they were filling.

After lunch, Ray engaged with all of us once more in a session answering questions about the Set Free Retreat and Southland church in general, and then introducing and fielding questions regrading the Church Renewal Mentorship program which would be available to all the pastors/ministry leaders who were in attendance. After taking many thoughtful questions, we were given a bit of heads up regarding what to expect for the Prayer Summit that evening.

Prayer Summit

The main auditorium was packed to capacity with over 1600 people in attendance for the Prayer Summit. This is not an unusual turnout by any stretch, SouthLand prayer summits are always very well attended. The excitement and joy was palpable before we even began.

The prayer summit was perhaps the highlight of my week, though the Sunday morning service still is contending for that in my mind as I write this. It started with more praise and worship, very passionate too. The Choir and praise team set us all in a humble state. Ray took the floor after a while and after singing the last song praying on his knees from the stage, he rose and called out ‘Isn’t our God just so good?’ Loud applause filled the air. As he continued on he had the media people recall prayer items from the past summit, which he then gave updates on. One major request, which was for a translator who could begin translating Church Renewal documents into French, had apparently been answered before Ray left the room at the last prayer summit (apparently a man rushed up to the stage as Ray was leaving at the previous summit and asked him ‘so, are you still looking for a translator?’ They had literally prayed for it not 10 minutes earlier). He gave updates on all the prayer items, and invited everyone to praise and thank God for each of the items of answered prayer.

So, all 1600+ people began praising and thanking God, out loud, for his goodness and provision. At the same time. The musicians played a little light music, and people continued praising God for answers to the updated prayer list which was displayed over two slides on the massive auditorium screens.

Then, after praising God for past faithfulness, we were introduced to the new set of prayer items, which included a vote to reaffirm two elders for another term on the board, an upcoming municipal decision on whether Camp can move forward with a new building project, a new translator needed to start work on translating Church Renewal materials to even more languages, prayer for all the Church renewal pastors currently in mentoring, prayer for the Life Hike and for increased unborn advocacy efforts in Canada, prayer that the fear of the Lord would fall on pastors and ministers all over the world, for the salvation of the Lost and the Gospel to go forth. From specific requests to sweeping calls for God to move in his church with power, we prayed together, probably for 5 or 10 more minutes through each of the three slides containing these requests. Again, everyone, praying out loud together over some light music.

And then, they prayed for the Church Renewal Weekend pastor participants.

Any pastors or pastors wives were invited to stand up and find (or be found by) a crew of Southland people who would gather to listen for God and pray for them, or pray into whatever God might have for them. You’ll notice in the picture, all the chairs had been rearranged sideways to be facing each other instead of in forward facing rows as they were regularly. This was so that it was easy for natural groups to form around us CRW participants. Ray asked if there was any room over in the youth section and the whole front left side of the auditorium exploded in cheers and shouts. These youth are pumped to pray for pastors!

Bev and I were debating whether we counted as the pastors or associate/youth pastors who were specifically called to stand up and receive prayer, as we’d been told earlier that because of how full the room is and how many reps there are this weekend, they may have to limit it to pastors only and not every participant. As we were mulling it over, a crew near us in the back formed a circle around us and informed us that the discussion was over, we’d be getting prayed for! The group was a diverse bunch, a few ladies who looked and dressed very different from eachother, a young couple, two even younger teenage girls, a middle aged man in a business suit, a farmer looking guy, another older lady. People who you would never really picture together for any other reason all gathered around us to pray for us. They were excited and they all knew what to expect, because they had all been here before and done this before in previous Prayer Summits, whether for other congregants or other pastors at past CRWeekends, or for their cell group members. Everyone here knows how to pray for people, they’re practiced at it, and they enjoy doing it. It’s just part of life.

After a time of quiet listening, people shared their thoughts or pictures they had regarding our request. One lady said she saw a lot of young families and kids, just lots and lots of them. Another saw us walking a tightrope, balancing several plates, but walking quickly and confidently forward. Someone else had a word for us to be patient and seek God in all we do. Then we all just prayed together, and several prayed for us audibly, at least one prayed in tongues, one lady wrote on some paper and gave us the sheet afterward.

And then after a closing prayer from Ray and a loud cheer, the praise team took the stage to lead us in closing songs. As the choir and musicians were assembling, the team leader invited five different CRWeekend attendees up to help sing. And so we started singing ‘How Great is our God’….in their own languages! We started with Ungandan, Portugese, Spanish, then French, and finally…Icelandic! And everyone was cheering and trying their best to sing along, they had all the lyrics in these languages written up on the screens so people could join in. And we ended the summit praising God together with a powerful song, ‘Who Will Rise Up?’ and as we were singing I looked and saw hundreds of men, young and old, with arms stretched out toward heaving singing passionately ‘We will help the church, We will rise up’, and I had to stop singing for a moment as I was overcome with emotion at the sight. May our young men hear and answer that call, Lord!

The prayer summit ended with a rousing rendition of ‘Home’ (Not sure what the deal with all the CityAlight songs at Southland! I didn’t know how many we heard were CityAlight songs until looking them all up for this post!)

Monday and Goodbye

Sunday morning as an intro to the Hearing God seminar.

Monday morning was one more go at the automatic pancake maker for our continental breakfast at the hotel across the street and then over to the church one last time for our final session. This consisted of a bit more information on the Church Renewal mentorship offered to Pastors at the CR Weekend, a Q&A session, and then an introductory version of the Hearing God seminar that is also done at Southland Church and is also a part of the level one mentoring for Pastors.

At our table we connected with Bob and Alice, a couple from BC (if I recall correctly) and they were a wonderful couple with a unique story, involving some serious marriage difficulties and God’s work in overcoming that. They were very joyful people, and very encouraging to all of us. During our lunch break right before the close of the conference, we got to speak more with them and hear about their story, and Alice then gave a very meaningful word to Peter and Tara about God’s pleasure with them and his good plans for them and for McLaurin in general. Without really knowing much about our church or where we’ve been in the past few months and years, she spoke about the work God has been doing in our church in terms almost identical to the phrases and pictures I’d used to describe us in the past, and spoke what I imagine would have been very encouraging words to Peter and Tara as well! I was laughing out loud hearing what she was saying, God was all over it and I knew it right away.

I think we actually were sitting at the same table that we started the conference at, and I think the warm fellowship over some good food proved to be the perfect bookends to an altogether very worthwhile weekend.

REFLECTION POINTS AND PICTURES

Here are some quick reflections and comments and a few pictures

Panorama of the large coffee/kitchen area outside the main auditorium. It really was very well designed and welcoming building by all accounts, lovely signage and wide halls.

SOUTHLAND is a remarkable faith community in a number of ways!

  • SIZE – By the numbers we heard, Southland is a very large congregation with weekly attendance spiking over 5000 on some occasions thanks to two Saturday and two Sunday services. When you consider the size of Steinbach is only about 16000 people, that is staggering. (There about 60000 people who live within 30 minutes of Steinbach and many come from these other small communities in close proximity. We asked about attendance from Winnipeg, and was told it was effectively non existent.)
  • HEARING GOD – This growth is a product of the cultural development toward hearing God and walking in freedom/holiness as the Lord leads us to confess and work on certain areas of sin or weakness in the power of his Holy Spirit and in community. Once leaders begin seeking God personally and dealing with their sin and character issues, it has a profound impact on the unity of the church. Ray recalled a time 7 years back or so for us on the last day where for multiple months he couldn’t shake the idea that the church should skip it’s phase 2 renovation and move right to phase 3. To do that would cost 18 million, and phase 2 was much cheaper, but combined with phase 3 it would cost quite a bit more to do both. So he brought it up at a board meeting ‘Guys, I can’t shake this thought. Could this be God talking to us? Or am I out to lunch?’ So they all took half an hour in the meeting to pray and listen, writing down their thoughts. one they reconvened and shared what they’d written (so nobody can change their minds!) they were in unanimous agreement in what they sensed and heard. So, they pulled the trigger. They saved millions of dollars over the long run, ended up being adequately prepared for the high and steady growth God brought, and the whole decision took half an hour without any arguments, debates, or lengthy outside human expert consultation, and it happened because each of the board members had already been living out attentiveness to God’s word in their personal lives and taking their character issues seriously. God was able to lead them in a powerful way and revealed his plans for them in advance. This is one of many inspiring and convincing stories that we heard throughout the weekend.
  • STAFF – Literally everyone we met was warm, welcoming, knowledgable and very helpful. Altogether, Southland employs 70+ people (not sure on FTE there though) in pastor/media/maintenance/IT/other roles.
  • VOLUNTEERS – Altogether there are well over a thousand individual volunteers who contribute in some way each calendar year. Because they have enough staff, they are able to run a single massive THANK YOU banquet/party for all Southland volunteers, and it is always a wild success. So Efficient!
  • TRANSLATORS – Another way to gauge the international presence at this conference is via the size of the translation team. These folks would translate over headset to leaders of a group or table who would then relay to their people. All volunteers, many whom had to put in a significant amount of time and effort to become fluent enough to do the job well in the language they were translating to.
  • BILLETS – Bev and I got to stay in a hotel while Peter and Tara were billeted out and had a lovely experience. I have heard that at CR Weekends when Southland hosts hundreds of pastors, organizers actually have to turn billets away sometimes because of how many families are coming forward to open their home. It literally is ‘you got to volunteer last time, so we’re going to give someone else a chance now.’
  • FOOD – We’re at a church conference in Mennonite heartland. You can guess how good we ate. Dozens of volunteers were at work to feed us all. Also, the Prayer Summit ended with….
  • TIMBITS – enough to feed 1700 people. These were two of like 8 tables I think filled with timbits. (No wonder so many people come…)
  • GODLY ORDER – At times, we can come to equate the presence or leading of the Holy Spirit with the casting off of timelines, schedules, plans, and other such restraints in order to enter into the unknown realms of where God is going to take us. I have no doubt whatsoever that the Holy Spirit does have a way of adjusting our timetables and altering our schedules if we are open to that sort of thing (and sometimes when we’re not!) But my experience this weekend was of a conference impeccably organized, perfectly scheduled, and flawlessly executed. I can’t think of a single moment throughout the weekend where we were left hanging, or waiting, or with something out of place. Every break was accompanied by a graphic and countdown timer on every screen in the building, so you knew exactly when to be where you needed to be, and everything was ready to go when we arrived. Whether human, inanimate, or technological, all the pieces were in place, on time, and ready to roll for the entire weekend. We know God is a God of order and of peace, and Bev and I both sensed his presence in how orderly our experience was, even with all the detail and coordination required to host an event of this magnitude. That the Spirit of God was all over this event was evident precisely because there were no schedule overruns or other such element of chaos introduced in the name of ‘being led by the Spirit’. Rather, it was led by spirit filled people operating on purpose according to schedule, and it was so great.
  • TINY CHURCHES were all over the building. They’re being auctioned off to raise money for Camp! Neat!
  • THE HOTEL we stayed at across the road was essentially built so that Southland could accomodate more guests. Ray was praying for a bigger hotel in Steinbach, closer to the church. And then someone built it. The continental breakfast was amazing!
  • THE DINER ON 52 is right in front of the Hotel facing the church across the street, we did banana splits and milkshakes there on Saturday. It reminded me of Cars (the movie) more than any other building I’ve ever been in to date.
  • BOSE Array speakers were all over the place in the foyer/hallways. Good choice, Southland, good choice 🙂
  • CMS – Southland uses Church Community Builder as their CMS (Church Management Software) which allows them to handle cell groups, praise teams, event registration, checkin, giving and donations discipleship progress, and a lot of other membership organization details. They also build their own web/phone apps from the CCB database. (I had a fun chat with one of their three IT team guys!)
You’ll have to zoom in or enlarge the photo, but you can see on the far wall the prayer targets below the Southland logo and then below that a whole row of pictures all along the wall.
  • SIGNAGE – It was everywhere. And we noticed. Large ‘ 2019 Prayer Targets’ were visible in multiple locations, and every hall you went had placard type photos from all sorts of church community events; staff, camp, youth, children, family events, sunday services, ministry graduations, Prayer summits, retreat weekends, and Church Renewal Staff. Just seeing all the pictures made me want to be a part of the community there, to move my family to Manitoba and join the moments. Very effective at portraying the story. I can’t help but think of our Archive corner at McLaurin Church, which I have found has grabbed my attention on many occasions. I think these sorts of pictures and stories have the power to capture the next generation, and all it can take is a glance to be drawn in.
  • THEOLOGY – Throughout the conference, both during and after the ‘Set Free! Retreat’, from every person who spoke, the theology was almost entirely spot on. Very thoughtful caveats were given on multiple occasions that addressed potential overreactions or opportunity to misunderstand or misread what was being taught, opposing views were engaged, and none of it seemed heady or smartypants, everything was relevant. I did not engage in any discussion of potential disagreement with content or delivery at all during the conference, and was happy that by the time it was over I felt it would be unnecessary to do so because while yes I could have debated a point or two of potential misinterpretation, that is absolutely not the point of a conference like this, and was not at all central to the point of the conference as a whole. Besides, after listening to the redemption stories and the teaching and just experiencing the whole weekend, especially Pastor Ray’s vision, one common theme that ran through the whole event was….
  • A HEART FOR JESUS – You just couldn’t miss this. Like, impossible. Ray especially is a man who so clearly loves Jesus, so clearly is living for Jesus, so clearly is seeking to establish Jesus Christ as the functional Lord of his life, and to lead others to do the same. And the wisdom in the words I heard from him this weekend was palpable. He was a joy and delight to listen to, and I am looking forward to just being able to listen to him again. I love listening to godly men speak with precision in the joy and conviction of the spirit, and that is what I heard this weekend.
  • CELL GROUPS – By the sounds of things, doing cell groups is about as automatic as eating for Southland. The high appeal of the Southland Culture is an undeniable argument for the power of small groups in forming Christ in the individual lives that together make our churches compelling communities.. I’m taking that seriously to heart as I consider the future for children’s ministry and youth discipleship at McLaurin.
  • CHURCH RENEWAL is growing fast and crossing all sorts of denominational lines. In a personal conversation I had with Ray, he told me that there are a handful of United Church ministers in Canada who have been drawn into mentoring. The United Church, as you may or may not be aware, has as of this year embraced a female minister who has been attempting to remain in the denomination as a pastor after openly declaring she no longer believes in God. That is how liberal and ‘open-minded’ things have gotten in that denomination, and is in fact a revelation of where the denomination has already been for many many years. So to hear Ray speak of Church Renewal finding it’s way to United Church ministers was beyond exciting for me. Could it be possible that this could be the beginning of a grassroots revival in the United Church? What a thought that is. Lord may it be!
  • MENTORSHIP in Church Renewal is offered free of charge, because the Holy Spirit told Ray and the executive team as they were putting the material together that that is how it was going to be. So that’s what they are doing. Even the Church Renewal Weekend is not charged with intent to profit, it is only to cover cost of food and materials basically. Ray says what was freely received is to be freely given. So that is what he asks of the mentors as they move forward in the program, ‘what you have freely received, now you must freely give. Bring this renewal to your family and church and community.’
  • TIME IS SHORT is a phrase I heard from Ray on more than one occasion, and it stuck with me. Time really is short. We have to be about God’s business now, we don’t get back the time we waste. We need God so badly! We need his Spirit, his leadership, his guidance, if we are to redeem the time.
  • PREFERRED FUTURE – I received a text from uncle James Penner as we were boarding the plane to Winnipeg, expressing prayers and excitement as we ‘experience a preferred McLaurin future’. James was instrument in producing the ‘Hemorrhaging Faith report in 2012’ and has spent a lot of time with churches and youth. So when he suggests we might encounter a preferred future at Southland, he means there is something special and right happening there. My experience confirmed that. Is Church Renewal part of the preferred future at McLaurin? I suspect another Church Renewal Retreat may be in order so that our leadership can have that discussion at a broader level. We’ll see what the Lord has in store. In the meantime, as was repeated often: Renewal starts with you (pastor/leader) first.

I have other thoughts but this is certainly enough by now! I’ll leave you with one more MUST READ reflection and wrap it up!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

  • THE DAILY BONNET – If you’re familiar with the Babylon Bee, the Daily Bonnet is the Mennonite equivalent and is actually run by someone from Steinbach. It’s a Mennonite satire site. A few years back, a particularly funny article reads;

In a bold move of solidarity, Penners across North America have pledged to do their part to have more babies than the Reimers.

“We’re sick and tired of the Reimers outnumbering us in the phone book and flaunting that fact at every turn,” said campaign leader Mr. P. Penner. “There’s no reason why, with a little ingenuity, we can’t have more Penners than Reimers by the end of the decade.

Well, seeing the massive Church member file folder mailbox (which is about the equivalent of 12 McLaurin filefolder mailboxes side by side) I recalled the daily bonnet article I’d read a while ago and decided I’d see who was winning!

I was concerned to find 74 Folders for couples/familes under the name REIMER. That seemed like a lot. But imagine my elation when I counted…

ALMOST A WHOLE ROW! From Adam & Tanya to Willy and Taylor 🙂

…94 PENNERS! I jumped for joy, we’re WINNING! Amazing!

I won’t tell you that as I checked the competition (Doerksens, Fehrs, Klassens, etc) I was devestated to find that while there were 94 Penner folders, there were 97 Friesens!!! Apparently the Penners of Manitoba got lazy after surpassing those Reimers’ and didn’t see those Friesen upstarts.

I’ll definitely check again if I ever go back!

Thank you Lord for a very special weekend with the family of God in Southland. May you multiply them even further and do immeasurably more through Southland and Church Renewal than anyone could ask or imagine, for the glory of your Son, for the unity of the church, that the world may know for certain that you sent Christ, that Jesus is of the Father and the Father was an is in him. John 17! Amen!

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