EDGE asks: Are we dying, really?
Consider this, EDGE, the little-known innovation arm of the United Church of Canada (UCC) has quietly launched 589 projects grounded in spirituality, over 500 social enterprises, and 55 new ministries. EDGE started as a three-year experiment, but is now in its 12th year of reimagining church through grassroots initiatives. Have you heard of Lumsden Beach Camp’s new apiary selling honey near Regina? EDGE was there. The launch of 1JustCity’s Indigenous Cultural Program in Winnipeg? EDGE was there. Faith & the Common Good’s interactive map tracking green energy in sacred spaces? EDGE again.
This sounds like a living, breathing church to me. But as Executive Director Rob Dalgleish says, “We just can’t see it because we are caught in grief about something that’s been lost.” We are grieving the packed pews and teeming children’s programs of the 50s and 60s. With fewer members in the church, finances are a struggle, including maintaining properties, many of which are closing. EDGE was established by the national office to help the church adapt to this new social context. And they’ve done it. EDGE can show they have found sustainable models for living out church. The problem is that those invested in the UCC structure have a hard time recognizing what is emerging. Dalgleish says when people see EDGE’s incredible results, “They don’t believe it. They don’t trust it… they say, well, that’s not church.” Culture change has become one of EDGE’s biggest roles; shifting perceptions of what “counts” as church.
When Carla Leon began her contract work with EDGE, she wanted to get a lay of the land and to find out what churches needed. So, she called and asked. That is to say, she called 800 people. This worked so well, that EDGE’s Lori Houle called “the rest of them,” says Leon. That’s around 2200 communities of faith on Houle’s speed dial, and now “outreach and feedback” is her full-time gig.
When Leon called those 800 congregations, her first discovery was that a third of the churches needed to make property decisions. With all the energy around this, she and the EDGE team sensed a call from the spirit. But it was “really intimidating.” They had “zero real estate experience.” She says, “I heard it, and I tried not to listen; heard it again, tried not to listen.” The call continued, relentlessly. Finally, Leon broke, realising, “Oh [expletive], we have to.” It took “six years of internal politics,” but EDGE partnered with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, specialists in affordable housing, and started the United Property Resource Commission (UPRC). They are shifting the church mindset away from buildings-as-burdens—empty spaces to light, to heat, and to maintain. Any real estate agent would see these places as the huge assets that they are. For UPRC, it is about advancing social justice through housing. This is the work of the spirit. Leon says, “I would brag that I’ve never launched anything that came from me. It all came from the phone and it all came from the conversations and relationships.” God’s up to something. Do not be afraid.
EDGE has really lived into its name. Buttrey explains that at first, they worked nearly exclusively with ministers and congregations, fully within the system. The work shifted outward from there, to their own church properties, then further still, to local organisations, community ministries, and nonprofits. And here they sit, on the edge. They are the go-between, via a phone line, between the national UCC structure and your local congregation on the corner. They are translators on the edge. To the secular world, EDGE is constantly explaining why partnering with a faith-based organisation makes good sense. To the church, they are tasked with translating why these NGOs, social enterprises, co-ops, and new initiatives are church. While they are deeply invested in their ministries, EDGE does not own them. Bronwyn Corlett says they are supporters, encouragers and networkers. It is not about EDGE. It is about midwifing.
What baby will be caught next? There is a call EDGE is not yet heeding. Zoë Chaytors says, “There’s this layer we have to confront– white supremacy and colonialism in our [church’s] history, and that means letting go of control, and giving up things that have been successful and given us lots of power and privilege, and having to let go of the tenants of capitalism that have helped the church survive.” Dalgleish tells me about hearing Cayuga First Nation of the Six Nations Reserve spiritual leader Adrian Jacobs speak. When asked how the church could get relevance, Jacobs said, “Give back the land.” Dalgleish names the felt impossibility of us doing so as the “spiritual paralysis of the church.” He says, hearing this he realised, “the profound truth of it is that if we actually did that, it would so open us to what God is doing in this time.” He adds, “Knowing what we know, why wouldn’t we?”
EDGE sees themselves on the road to Emmaus. They think that, like Jesus, the church has already risen again and is in our midst. Yet, like Jesus, because the church looks different, nobody is recognizing it. Consumed by grief, nobody believes, nobody can see. It is first century women’s work all over again. The women are saying, “He’s alive, he’s alive!” EDGE is saying, “The church is alive! The church is alive!” Maybe if we were to witness EDGE’s ministries, we would believe.