Caution: may inspire readers to re-think church and, if necessary, begin again.
A surprise phone call leadsto a challenging assignment: plant a new church in the oldest church building in downtown Ottawa. Working without a playbook and without much time, the author scrambles to get church up and running in the midst of neighbourhood battles and theological controversies. ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church is the story of this urban church plant, told through the eyes of its pastor, a former entrepreneur and quantum physicist. It IS also the story of the profound and often disturbing changes currently taking place in mainline churches across North America. Often humourous, sometimes poignant, but always hopeful, these stories from an urban church plant serve as both spiritual autobiography and as manifesto for the paradigm shift that is taking place in today’s church.
In these days of declining membership in mainline congregations, a new church plant is a rarity. Even more so, perhaps, when the church plant involves an existing 145-yearold building, and a focus on ministry to college and university students, young adults living in the neighbourhood, and those experiencing homelessness and dealing with poverty. In ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church, Mark Whittall shares the insights and wisdom he and a small-but-dedicated team gained as they worked to establish a new congregation in St. Albans Church, the second oldest Anglican parish in Ottawa.
About the author
Mark became the Incumbent of St. Albans on July 1st, 2011. Mark was born in Montreal but grew up in Manotick, Ontario. His studies took him to Queen’s in Kingston and Oxford in the UK, where he completed degrees in engineering, physics and development economics.
He returned to Ottawa to begin his career in technology and international development in 1987. His work with Intelcan took him to more than forty countries around the world, from the jungles of Africa to the tundra of the Arctic. But in 2005 he returned to school, this time to St. Paul University in Ottawa where he completed his Masters in Pastoral Theology in 2008. Mark was ordained in 2008 and served as Incumbent of the Parish of Huntley in Carp until 2011.
Mark is enthusiastic about his return to downtown Ottawa to be the Pastor at St. Albans Church. Now he can bike to work! Ministry at St. Albans provides Mark with and exciting and unique opportunity to engage with a diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds, including the folks at Centre 454 and students at the University of Ottawa. Mark brings a particular passion for working with children and youth to his ministry, a passion which is evident in his puppet collection!
At home, Mark shares his life with Guylaine, his wife of 20 years, and his two children, Jonathan, 17 and Michelle, 15. In his leisure time he enjoys sports, music and even a bit of quantum physics, and he tries to get away on a canoe camping trip with family and friends every summer.
Excerpt: ReInvention: Stories from an Urban Church (by (author) Mark Whittall)
My education and my subsequent working career can best be described as ecletic. My first degree was in engineering, my second in theoretical physics and my third in development economics, with a heavy dose of philosophy courses whenever I could fit them into my schedule. But if there was anything that served as a common theme, apart from loving a good challenge, it was my fascination with models. Models, conceptual frameworks, paradigms, or, if they are comprehensive enough in scope, worldviews, are the lenses through which we understand, interpret and interact with the world around us. Without models, engineers can’t solve problems and economists would have nothing to say about economic behavior. But the one model that captivated me more than any other and has since become a life-long passion is the model of quantum physics.
Up until third year university, I was immersed in the model of classical physics. Newtonian physics. Matter, motion and forces. Causality and determinism. Objective reality. The clockwork universe. Atoms as miniature billiard balls moving on a stage of space and time. But in my third year of university all that changed when I hit quantum physics, with a few doses of Einstein’s relativity thrown in for good measure. Atoms turned out to be mostly empty space. Particles turned into waves. Waves turned into particles. An electron could be in two places at the same time. Causality and determinism both disappeared at the microscopic level. Day by day as I went to class, the concepts I’d grown up with, ideas like space, time, matter, particle, mass, causality, determinism, objectivity, all of these were chewed up and spit out, to be replaced by strange new conceptions. My brain hurt as it was forced to move from the comfortable world of classical physics to the brave new world of quantum physics with its curving space-time, wave functions, tunneling electrons and uncertainty principles. It’s one thing to talk about paradigm shifts – it’s a very different thing entirely to experience one.
Curiously enough, at the same time as I was being both disrupted and fascinated by these shifting paradigms, I discovered that Rev. Bob, the priest at the Anglican Church on the corner of campus, was also a big fan of models and paradigm shifts, which he regularly incorporated into his preaching and his theology. “But what if we were to look at this with a new model” was one of his favourite ways of bringing fresh insight into a familiar passage of scripture. We would often talk at the Wednesday morning breakfasts at the church. He offered to read a paper I’d written on the wider influence of scientific models. My thesis, which I still maintain, is that the conceptual frameworks developed by scientists to explain and understand nature have a profound impact on the world views of society at large and consequently affect our understanding in fields as diverse as politics, philosophy and theology. Bob read my paper and promptly handed me a book to read: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. It was in this classic text that Kuhn introduced the world to the idea of a “paradigm-shift” using examples from the history of science. Progress and change don’t happen as a result of the incremental accumulation of more and more facts. Real change results from paradigm-shifts: conceptual revolutions that ask new questions, fundamentally change the rules of the game and re-write all the text books.
Is the church in North America in the early 21st century in the midst of a paradigm shift? Or perhaps the question should be, does the 21st century church require a paradigm shift? Many would say yes. A quick survey of books and blogs inundates us with the emerging church, the converging church, the disappearing church, the post-Christendom church, the missional church and much more. Something’s happening in church-land, and there are parallels with Kuhn’s analysis of the history of science. One of the parallels is surely this: paradigm-shifts are generally difficult, disruptive and divisive.
If there’s a paradigm shift happening, I want to be right in the middle of it. That’s what drew me to quantum physics, that’s why I used to teach about paradigm shifts in my history of science classes, and that’s one of the reasons that I jumped at the opportunity to plant a church in downtown Ottawa. I think that there’s room for new ways to do and be church that will change the rule book and shift our expectations. But while having a passion for shifting paradigms is a good start for a church planter, ideas alone won’t get a church plant off the ground.
““ReInvention” is a story of positive deviance: an urban congregation that is bucking recent trends.”
-The Presbyterian Outlook
“This book is a “must read” for any church leader who feels that God is calling their church to live out their vocation in a new, authentic way. ReInvention was written with the promise that “God is not done with us yet” and (author Mark) Whittall, in explaining how St. Albans Church was planted, proves that this isn’t some lofty, far-off promise: the Gospel can be and is lived out through the Church.”
-Morgan Bell, Crosstalk
“Mark Whittall seems to me to be a prophetic voice in our midst. He has something to say to people of faith across the church spectrum.”
-Wayne A. Holst, Colleagues List
“Whittall’s book is inspiring – who doesn’t like the story of ta successful start-up? – But it also presents a profound challenge to the established order.”
-François Bregha, Image