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Bringing people in

Whistler Village Church, like Millennium Place, is experimenting

The parishioners of the Whistler Village Church are on an adventure.

And they are not alone on their journey.

Senior officials of the United, Evangelical Lutheran and Anglican Churches are all watching.

"They want to see it work," said Rev. Stephen Hershey, who came to lead the church last month.

"They want to see how it might work. They want to see what happens if we use this model because the debate that is happening in the larger church is how do we make the best use of the resources that we have?

"The three sponsoring denominations are watching to see what happens. It is a different model of what you might call new church development."

The Whistler Village Church adventure will lead its community to explore an ancient idea in a modern world: worship without denominations.

This development in Christian worship blurs denominational lines. Biblically, explained Hershey, the roots of the idea come from Jesus at the Last Supper. At that time Jesus used the phrase: "We are all one."

"The church has long wrestled with the fact that we don’t know what to do with that (phrase) as it applies to the variety of our buildings and programs and faith statements," said Hershey a United minister who worked in Cloverdale and Sidney on Vancouver Island before coming to Whistler.

"To be post-denominational might have to do with discovering those things of value in each of the sponsoring denominations and honouring them."

But Hershey is not talking about basing worship on the lowest common denominator of all three or simply lumping them altogether.

What he is proposing is something new.

"It is about how can we, out of our different traditions, create something that has integrity, is relevant, is authentic without having to go the way of lowest common denominator or all stir together to be blah," said Hershey.

While shared ministries are nothing new the experiment underway at the Whistler Village Church is, and its quite startling.

If successful it may, in the long run, have a profound effect.

"The success of this place might lead to the death of denominations and all may be one," said Hershey, adding that it was the challenge of this new development which brought him here.

"My limits are being pushed. For 28 years in the ministry I have worn a gown on Sunday mornings. Is that appropriate now? It might be in one of the services but it might not be in another."

But the church is much more than an experiment. For many it is the soul of the community.

Hershey understands that and is striving to meet the needs of those who attend church. Some want the service to include communion, others do not; the role music plays is different for different people, and so on.

Then there are the unique segments of society the church has to cater to. It is not just a matter of coming up with a service for your local community; the church has to reach out to temporary workers and even visitors.

With a hearty laugh, more reminiscent of an innkeeper than a minister, Hershey ponders his relationship with Tourism Whistler.

"What is the nature of my relationship with them," he said smiling a smile that reaches all the way to his eyes.

"I’ve never had to worry about that sort of thing before."

While still trying to get around what kind of service he would hold for visitors he knows one thing for sure.

"They are taking a break and what I need to rattle around in my head is what does it mean," he said.

"So that might mean building a service around something that is quite different. It might be jazz, or gospel music-style oriented.

"Services are high energy. I put such a huge amount of preparation into them because it is the only chance I have got. It’s the chance I have to reach folks checking us out from the community and folks coming from other churches, those who are visiting with us.

"I have to make a sufficient impact that they are going to go home and tell their friends that if they come to visit make sure you go to the church."

For temporary residents Hershey wants to offer a place of calm to balance the often-hectic life they experience while living and working in the resort.

For locals, its time for a jolt.

Hershey wants to "take them out of their traditional understandings and their usual experiences of church and say, ‘it can be a whole lot more.’

"The only way that this church is going to grow is that from my side what I put together is recognized as being authentic and relevant.

"You have to be prepared to put your yeast into the bowl. If you hold onto it, it is not going to do anything."

He is intrigued with the idea of the church being inside a community centre but is anxious for some of the traditional trappings to mark it as a place of worship.

In the future he would like to see banners, candles and different lighting. Despite there being no visible signage indicating Millennium Place is a church the congregation is growing and now up to 80 people attend Sunday services. More than 300 came to the Christmas service and at Easter they had to lock the doors.

"I insist that it become a worshipping place," said Hershey.

"We are still trying to understand how we relate to this building."

But it is not just the building he is working on, it is the very image of the church in the community.

"The church has for too long said we are here but it is your job to come and find us," he said.

"The church is now discovering that it is my job to go out and bring people in."