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Riverwood Church Community, Winnipeg
Understanding tension and balance between churched and unchurched helps them integrate, not segregate.

"Faded jeans and broken people welcome." This is the invitation extended by Riverwood Church Cornmunity, a non-denominational group in Winnipeg that welcomes around 750 worshippers.

A team of Riverwood volunteers hits the neighbourhood streets to clean up garbage.
Photo courtesy Riverwood Church.

"We are truck drivers, technicians, business owners, unemployed, retail clerks and disadvantaged — united as people being changed by the life-transformational power of God," declares Jon Courtney, pastor of extension ministries.

Courtney explains that the church's "inconvenient location" — on a side street in central Winnipeg, in an old warehouse, that doesn't look like a church — is a response to the call of God to the area in the year 2000. Volunteers pitched in to conduct their own "divine restoration" project and now they're bursting at the seams!

Mission statement or bottom line?

Around Riverwood there has been a shift from a mission statement to what the group calls "our bottom line." Riverwood sums up its focus as "L-3 living": Living in intimacy with God, Living in deep community, Living lives of influence.

"Riverwood isn't a place, it's a people," says Courtney. "It's not a building so much as a connected living body."

Mirroring neighbourhood diversity

Pastor Courtney describes the area as "disadvantaged" with low income housing, a high Native population and lots of immigrants. Reflective of the younger neighbourhood demographic, the congregation hosts a high proportion of young adults with families.

Even the church name adds a twist of the unusual. While many community churches see themselves as an establishment in the community, Riverwood Church Community reverses the words to emphasize the people are the community from the inside out!

When they outgrow this facility, they aren't looking to move to the suburbs. "God has called Riverwood to move closer to the needs in the neighbourhood," Courtney says.

Why neighbours know about this church

Derek and Michelle Mitchell spotted the tagline about broken people after trying a more traditional church that accentuated their alienation. This come-as-you-are church proved to be full of surprises. When Derek lost his job, four people offered work on the spot and set up a barbecue to celebrate. The Riverwood "family" was also there for Michelle when their son, Dayton, was born with complications.

"They'll stop their lives to help you at the drop of a dime," Derek testifies. The Mitchells started attending the Alpha program to learn more about their faith over dinner and discussion each week. Now they encourage relatives and old friends who show interest in their "makeover" to check it out.

The Breadth and Depth of a Community Mindset "The community knows us by the work we do," comments Courtney. "We take our church to our community." Block parties at the local park attract 1,000 people. The Adopt-a-Block team of 30 has been walking the streets for about five years. Teams knock on doors weekly, asking "Is there anything we can help you with?" They've gained entrance into 120 homes. Incredible connections are initiated doing yardwork or listening over a cup of coffee. The church also publishes a hip-looking, free community newspaper called Neighbourhood Life.

"We're not interested in people coming to fill up a seat. Everyone gets involved," says Courtney.

Community of Hope is the umbrella name for three Riverwood locations in the same neighbourhood: a church, a store and a community centre.

The Hope Store, in a leased facility, operates much like a thrift store. It aims to distribute clothing and household goods inexpensively to generate income for other projects and to help people regain employment by hiring friends in the neighbourhood.

Hope Centre ministers from a donated building, offering a weekly drop-in program for adults, where approximately 120 enjoy a no-cost lunch. A food bank, started in 1996, assists 80 families every two weeks. Alpha @ The Centre encourages people to host a table and invite their neighbours.

The Community Garden is a new initiative. Neighbours get a section of ground to grow organic vegetables. They build relationships with each other and with volunteers from the church. Gardeners keep most of their harvest and contribute some to the food bank.

The Refuge provides a safe haven for young, high-risk moms with one church mentor pouring love, acceptance, and grace into the lives of about three moms at a time — not to judge or change them but to help them learn to make positive decisions in relationships, parenting skills, education or job searching. Forty-five moms and tots appreciate weekly small group sessions with childcare provided.

A team of 14 volunteers operates Kidz Club in an elementary school gym, influencing the lives of 60 to 65 high- needs children through games, crafts and a "God-talk" and also touching parents through family movie nights and barbecues.

The ongoing challenge

Although Riverwood has experienced a good measure of success extending the ministry of the church into the community, "We want to strengthen the bridge from the community to the church," says Courtney. "It's easy to run segregated programs. You don't clash if each program is separate. We want to shift to a more integrated model of ministry."

For example, the youth program has a strong influx of community teens, which adds a different dynamic to the church youth. "How do we manage this?" Courtney muses. "Understanding the tension and balance keeps us working to integrate — not segregate!"

Charlene de Haan is a freelance writer in Toronto. She also serves as a consultant to The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in its Missional Church Project. Read all the profiles in this ongoing series at

Originally published in FaithToday, September/October 2008.




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