Every Sunday evening, a group of about fifty individuals, fluctuating in age and life experience, gather in an old church building known as Sanctuary for prayer, worship, and fellowship. This building, currently converted into a drop-in arts center and homeless outreach, has stripped any connotations of what a traditional church looks like. They do not have a pulpit, special table for communion, or pews, and yet this place remains a church because it is where the body of Christ is gathered. Primarily serving people on the margins, including present and former addicts, homeless individuals, and people with mental illness, this church is not just proclaiming the message of Christ but is also vibrantly living it out.
Sanctuary is a church located in the downtown core of Toronto, around the Bloor-Yonge area. Under the leadership of Pastor Greg Pauls, this church thrives on participatory facilitation and joyful celebration rather than formalized leadership positions. When I first entered the sanctuary, I noticed that all the members were sitting in a rectangle surrounding the communion table. The atmosphere was very relaxed, informal, and intimate, and people were all wearing casual clothes. The service started about half an hour later than was planned, but as people freely greeted and talked with each other, it soon became apparent that the real purpose of the church was to fellowship, and so there was no need to rush into the more organized service. When the service did begin, it included several songs set to upbeat music, which the congregation seemed to thoroughly enjoy. This was followed by an open time for sharing prayers and Scripture, a moment of silence and communion, followed by a sermon, and then ending with a blessing and fellowship time.
This type of atmosphere is unlike the carefully scripted, reverent Mennonite churches I have attended throughout my life. Instead at Sanctuary, there was a fresh sense of free-flowing movement from the Holy Spirit. At Sanctuary, everyone is invited to participate by leading prayers, readings, or instituting the communion. Proper theological training is not imperative for hosting these roles; instead, a determined obedience to Christ, a love of communion, and a desire to grow are the necessary elements that propel people forward as they participate in this service.
This openness also truly speaks to how the congregants view God. For many people, God can seem like a distant entity, one who does not have the time to care for the trivial needs of mere humans, or even one who has abandoned them during their times of trial. Considering that many people at Sanctuary have been through very difficult seasons in their lives, there is much healing and support that is able to flow from an organization that sees all people as equals and values the contributions of each member. This shows that church and God are trusting, safe places where people can go and where they will be heard and accepted regardless of their lifestyle choices or issues. Here, there is no disconnect between the Jesus in the Gospels who reached out to the Samaritan woman, the woman with the issue of blood, or the adulterous woman and the Jesus who also promises to meet His disciples where two or three are gathered.
Also of note is that certain elements that are generally found in the majority of churches such as the offering, sharing of prayer requests, and pastoral prayer were missing from this service. Nevertheless, I actually came to appreciate this because I think it is relevant to the context these individuals are in. Since the church is reaching out primarily to the marginalized population, it seems very hospitable to assume that some people will not have the means to financially contribute to the church. By not having an offering, it reduces their anxiety and promotes the philosophy that one does not need to bring anything to God before He can accept us just as we are. Also, although there was no formal time of sharing, individual fellowship was happening throughout as we spent an extended amount of time communing and eating together after the conclusion of the service.
Although Sanctuary now considers itself a non-denominational church, their roots trace back to the Brethren movement. This is still evident in many aspects of their church life: For example, their communal participation rather than having solo-leadership, and their weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper are representative of the Anabaptist and Anglican roots from which they come. Understanding that there are many different types of Brethren churches, Sanctuary is still more progressive than the traditional closed versions because of its allowance for women to speak and the fact that no one wears head coverings.
The sermon was also very rooted in Scriptures and displayed a distinct love for God. Greg Paul’s preaching style was more expository than narrative, as he generously went through a large portion of the book of John, teaching the congregation of Christ’s love and blessings. I was also very impressed by Paul’s delivery of the sermon, as he preached effectively with no notes – a skill not many pastors possess.
Lastly, communion is a very important aspect of both the traditional Brethren Churches and Sanctuary. Although at Sanctuary anyone is able to bless the bread and the cup (and so it varies weekly), this week, a woman instituted the elements both at the same time. It was not traditional in terms of the words and passages that are generally read surrounding communion in many traditions, but rather was just a simple prayer and the injunction to remember Christ in our daily lives. After the elements were consecrated, there was no order to who would receive the bread, but rather everyone simply went up individually to receive it. I noticed that both children and adults came to the table and that a few people even came more than once. There was an option for both a common chalice and individual cups, but there was no cloth with which to wipe the chalice. Also, no one exchanged words between each other such as “the Body of Christ broken for you,” but instead, it was a very personal act.
Typically, in Brethren churches, communion is celebrated weekly with all believers of Christ being able to participate – although in some traditions, a closed table is practiced. Coming from Puritan roots, including situations in which people were imprisoned or martyred for their faith, it seems reasonable to expect salvation as the criteria for partaking in the Eucharist. I believe that at Sanctuary they truly embrace this. They may not have instituted the action with the typical command that only believers can participate, but this was clearly evidenced throughout their service as they shared freely of an open relationship with Christ. Sanctuary’s unique ministry and missions focus to reach out to marginalized, harken to the need for hospitality and grace to triumph over mere theological differences.
From the beginning of the service, noticing the relaxed environment and the genuine care these members had for each other, to the final benediction and fellowship afterwards I was drawn into this sacred space. Truly, Sanctuary is a church that promotes equality, active rather than passive participation, and joyful delight in the wonders of God’s word and world. Today, as I reflect back on this experience, I am truly grateful for the unique contributions each person brought to the service, for their courage in sharing their inner struggles and dreams with one another and with the congregation, and for their desire to be hospitable and gentle with each other despite the various struggles many of them have experienced in their personal lives. I am thankful that I was able to attend a “Church on the Margins” one Sunday evening, and I am excited to do so again in the future.