The Drive is not a typical location for an Anglican church. But, then again, Immanuel Vancouver is not a typical Anglican church. The Rio Theater situated in this upcoming hip commercial area, is an alternative venue that puts on small stage productions, hosts bands, shows some offbeat films and at times houses a church for the disconnected, the disaffected and the hurting. Feet sticking to the floor, surrounded by posters that would cause most church ladies to blush, and amidst the smell of beer, a diverse group of people gathers. Some of them are obviously from the young alternative scene that dominates The Drive, some come from the corporate world, others come with the difficulties of a life on the street etched into their faces.
That’s Immanuel Vancouver: an incredibly eclectic gathering of folks in the heart of downtown, connecting unchurched young people (20-40 year olds, who have no interest in church or Jesus but who do have great social concern for the poor), the disillusioned (those people who love Jesus but have a hard time loving His Church), the substance addicted and the mentally struggling to Jesus Christ and to each other.
“We are all about transformation,” says The Rev. Simon Neill, the Rector of Immanuel, “ we believe that if you walk with Jesus the inevitable thing is transformation. With this level of brokenness – it simply takes time. 18 months ago, it almost killed us – it is so brutal and thankless. But isn’t that what I do to God? This is the story of God.”
Simon began his work at Immanuel in 2008 with 12 faithful people and has seen it grow to a regular group of 125 attending adults, with about 90 in church on any given Sunday. “We are a bunch of nutcases, but we love each other,” says Simon, or as a motto of Immanuel states, the church is about “Real God, Real People, Real Lives.” The vision of the church to reach those who are struggling and disconnected is revealed in the identity of its people: 45% had a previous drug addiction, 25% have serious mental health issues, only 22% have a full time job, only 4% earn above the average wage, 48% have never attended a church before Immanuel, and 20% do not self-identify as Christian. When Simon says, “this is the story of God” he points to those whom God is gathering at Immanuel- the broken and unloved, the hurt and the lost- and how through the persistent work of the Gospel, new life is being found in Jesus Christ. Immanuel is a very unique church, but shares in a very ancient story of a faithful and loving God.
Simon has an incredible array of examples of how God has been faithful to build His Church in Vancouver: Stories about the unchurched coming to know Christ for the first time through Alpha courses and other avenues; stories about devastated lives resurrected after addiction, abuse, and neglect have done their terrible work; stories of hope being found. Just this month, the community at Immanuel saw a young man they have been working with for three years, who’s life had been shattered by addiction and abuse, give his life to Jesus Christ in a profound and decisive way. This is the work of the Gospel, this is the work of Immanuel.
The stories that have come out of Immanuel Vancouver are an incredible testimony to the faithfulness and goodness of our God, and the potential of Jesus’s body empowered by His Spirit to make a real difference in the world. But in the midst of great tales of redemption, Simon is very clear about giving the glory to the proper place. “I want people to hear these stories and long for them to happen in their church as well. At the same time, as you go through the work, it’s definitely not sexy. It’s dull, it’s monotonous, it’s frustrating. You can tell all the great stories at the end, but that doesn’t communicate very well how difficult it is when you’re in it. And things don’t get done because we made great decisions. The whole way I ended up in Vancouver was pretty stupid, motivated in large part by my arrogance. I had a great deal of success in the UK in business and in ministry, but all I had ever done was reapply resources that already existed. When we came to Vancouver, there were no resources at all, and it was so brutal and thankless that it was devastating to me and my family. We made bad decisions. But God simply blessed us anyways. He remained faithful and gracious in the midst of our foolishness.”
“Faithfulness” is the operative word in the story of Immanuel. 12 faithful people were involved in a dying church, but God called them to stay in Vancouver and bring a pastor. A pastor showed up expecting to start a revival in Vancouver, but he only finds backbreaking work and God’s call to keep fighting the good fight. The community has a huge heart for those the world has destroyed – the addicts and the mentally afflicted – and they tirelessly love and serve them, but there is little fruit. The story of Immanuel is a story of persistence, long suffering and the faithfulness of God.
“Isn’t it so like how Jesus deals with us? We are foolish and stupid, sinful to the core, and He simply remains present with us,” says Simon, “Even though it’s excruciating for Him, He suffers with joy in His heart. And it’s when we see that joy on His face that we start to be changed from the inside out. It’s when we notice that no matter what we do, no matter how evil and wicked our sin, He won’t leave. That’s when we start to feel safe. We start to let our guard down. So that’s what we do here at Immanuel. We remain present. We’re not particularly smart, or cool, or hip. We have nowhere near the necessary resources to meet the pastoral needs of our church. With the kinds of problems people in our church have, there’s no way we can fix them fast. So we take the long road. We walk with them for a long time to show them that God loves them. We walk with them long enough until they know they can trust us to let down their defenses. And it’s crazy, but if we remain present, God shows up and does His work of transformation in people’s lives.”
What is certain is that in Vancouver, on The Drive, at the Rio Theater no church is more aptly named- Immanuel! God is with us!
To see more visit www.immanuelchurch.ca.