The Rev. Brent Stiller is rector of New Song Church in Port Perry, Ontario, a church in the Anglican Network in Canada.
How did you come to lead New Song Church?
In 2011, I realized I could longer remain in the Anglican Church of Canada. I relinquished my license as a diocesan priest and soon after, along with a team of committed co-workers, planted the church that would become New Song. We met first in a living room of a church member, then a school, and now in the building we call home (a renovated Odd Fellows Hall). It felt like a huge risk at the time, but not an unreasonable one. The people of New Song are such a courageous, God-dependent community. We sensed the Holy Spirit’s conviction and presence with us from the beginning, for which we are grateful!
An emphasis of New Song Church is building bridges in your local community. What led you and the congregation to make this an important focus of your life together?
I can’t imagine being part of a parish that doesn’t do that, to be honest. I think most churches try to build bridges into the community. If we believe God is already at work, which we do, it’s our job to listen and discern where and how and join in. In a community like Port Perry, which is generally a comparatively affluent community, the listening process takes a little longer. “What can we offer to this community? How can we best minister, and where?” are important questions we continue to ask ourselves. Each Sunday we pray, “Lord continue to show us what New Song’s unique mission is in the Port Perry area?” We don’t know that we have figured that out exactly, and it will probably change anyway over time, but we think we are on the right path.
Of course, one could simply react to an endless number of ministry opportunities so we’ve submitted ourselves to an “envisioning process” with an outside coach to help us become more focused in our mission values and strategic goals. We are about 80 percent finished, and I’m excited because I believe this will be very helpful to the parish, in both the short and long term. It is easy for a parish to live in a reactionary mode and we want to become focused on real ministry goals.
New Song engages with the community through the worship arts (like the David Festival), refugee resettlement programs, your art gallery, and mission trips to Honduras. How did New Song come to get involved in these types of community activities? How has the local community responded to your partnering efforts?
When we remodeled the building that is now our church, we built an art gallery space. We purchased (and invented) art hanging hardware so we could hold shows featuring the work of Christian artists in the area. We think this gives artists a great platform and reinforces the importance of the voice of the arts in the Church’s mission—something the Church has not been so good at in more recent times. I think the artists appreciate the opportunity, our congregation enjoys the changing shows, and it helps us grow in our faith as we see faith interpreted and presented through different mediums and forms. It also provides a safe space for non-Christian artists to enter the parish and engage with new friends and ideas.
With the refugee resettlement program, that arose quite naturally out of the dire situation with Syrian refugees. We were watching the news like everyone else and hearing about Canadians sponsoring refugees. We just looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we do that?” Questions like, “What if?” and “why not?” can be great ministry starters, we have found. We held a couple of very well attended community meetings and determined there was a will to do this as a wider community. We invited other churches in and very intentionally invited non-church people to be full participants. We said publicly that we knew responding to this crisis was something many people cared about, not just Christians. It’s been a wonderful undertaking and we have almost doubled what we set out to raise. One Syrian family has arrived already, more will follow. Time will tell, but I believe the efforts of the churches has reminded people that we are here, present in the community, and that we care. We are not living in a private country club.
With the David Festival, that is a collaborative effort run by a committee of volunteers that include several New Song members. We believe in it because it encourages excellence in the worship arts, and again draws different churches together, to learn together. It’s been a great encourager of the arts. Last year New Song ran a writer’s group that met monthly as a direct result of the David Festival.
Why should the church engage in promoting and participating in the arts?
The Church used to be a patron of the arts. I think that is coming back. Art is a reflection of God, who is a creator, and created the world. The Bible is full of artisans co-creating, sculpting, writing, and doing art for the glory of God. That is why we do it. If you have ever been moved by a painting, or a song, or a poem, or an essay, or wanted to dance to a worship song, or a sonata, then you know how art can draw us closer to the Holy God. Art also provides various means by which we can express the whole array of human experience, before the only and most Holy One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In a similar way that Christian worship can be almost disingenuous when churches remove the Psalms from corporate worship, Christians can become fragmented when the voice of the arts is absent from the life of the Christian community. I really believe that.
Artists, particularly Christian artists I am guessing, are often isolated, even discouraged by what many call “Christian art” and sometimes face financial struggles. If the Church can help by highlighting their work and reminding them they are essential to the life of the Church, why wouldn’t we? Moreover, it is critical their voice, their gifting, is as recognized to be as valid as any other member of the body of Christ’s in mission
New Song is also building bridges to refugees. How have you seen the church impacted by helping refugees in their time of great need?
I think it has pulled us together and reminded us that we can actually come along and help those who are suffering. I think it’s been energizing and empowering for all the churches who have been involved. There has been a concert at one church, a Syrian lunch at another, and an art show at yet another (New Song). We believe that this model of working together on an issue, to help others, can be used again on a more local issue. We’ve already talked about that.
And of course, biblically we know that when we give, we also receive. We have been blessed by a sense of doing the right thing at the right time, and doing it together.
How have these engagements in the community made a difference in your own walk with Christ?
It’s been generally very encouraging. We know that faith without works is dead. These practical community engagements put our faith to work, and our faith is strengthened and grows. Something we should never forget is that all persons are made in the image of God and therefore everyone has an innate sense, nudge, urge to know their true home, which we ultimately find in Christ Jesus. As we engage with individuals in the wider community we have plenty of opportunity to discuss important and deeply human issues around need, love and mercy. These places of conversation in word and through art often become places where the Gospel can be shared in contextualized language.
One of the things I notice about the David Festival is that it seems to be a community project rather just an outreach from just New Song. Is that true? How is partnering with other churches and organizations making a difference for sharing the Gospel in your local community?
On a very practical level, it’s a good witness to the community that churches are not in competition with each other, but serving together. And it also makes it easier to do things together. We pool our gifts and resources and create a more efficient, impactful experience. Christ prays for our unity and we are trying to practice that a little bit at a time.
Another thing that strikes me as quite interesting is how projects from New Song weave into one another, for example: the most recent Art Show is raising funds to aid in the resettlement of refugees in your community. How do you find this encourages evangelism and building bridges in your community?
There has been a nice synchronicity with the Art for Refuge show, where we invited artists in the community to create works around the theme of refuge to donate to be sold to raise to build new lives for refugee families. In many cases the artists are not Christian artists per se, but we invited everyone.
But here they have created art that will hang in a church gallery to raise funds for a cause we are all working together on. It feels perfectly right and wonderful. I don’t know how it will translate into evangelism and building bridges; these types of things are often non-formulaic. And we don’t have to worry about the end results of our projects, we can focus more on the relationships within it, and listen carefully to what is being shared.
To learn more about New Song Church, visit their website here
– By Mary Ailes, Director of Communications for the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.