Celebrating 100 years of St. Margaret’s / West Coast – and Pastor Bob

The Vancouver Sun featured St. Margaret’s Community Church in a 1972 article. This picture shows Pastor Bob Birch in the midst of young worshippers.

Metro Vancouver has many good churches and, over the years, many good pastors. But few are as widely known as St. Margaret’s Community Church (now West Coast Christian Fellowship), or its leader for 25 years, Pastor Bob Birch.

The church has been serving its East Vancouver neighbourhood, just south of the PNE, for 100 years, and the congregation will celebrate that fact during a special service this Sunday – with a particular focus on 1952 – 1977, the years Birch served as minister.

Past members, or anyone with fond memories related to the church is welcome to attend.

St. Margaret’s became very well known around the city and far beyond during the late 1960s and early 1970s as a magnet for young people, including hippies, many of who had previously shunned religion.

The unlikely story of how a serious / introverted / button down / Bible believing / tongues speaking pastor came to lead a revival which turned the lives of many Vancouver hippies (and others) upside down is told well in Beth Carson’s biography, Pastor Bob (from which the next few quotes are taken.)

 When Rev. Robert Birch began at St. Margaret’s Reformed Episcopal Church in 1952 the congregation was stagnant:

It was 30 years since Reverend Gardiner, the fiery Scottish evangelist, had founded St. Margaret’s, and most of the small congregation had become comfortable with a church that survived rather than thrived.

But Pastor Bob loved to work with young people, and by 1966 “the youth group now had a new aliveness.” His focus on youth, along with his devotion to prayer and a new appreciation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit changed the atmosphere at the church. 

In the late 1960s Birch was confronted by a new phenomenon, the hippie movement. He was drawn to the young people involved, not because he liked their lifestyle, but because he felt compelled to reach them:

Converted through the preaching of a missionary at the Firs [Camp in Bellingham] so many years before, Robert Birch was a missionary at heart. He told, in his sermons, how he shared the gospel with anyone . . . But during these years there was a community growing in Vancouver that he found totally alien.

Birch told the church in April 1968:

The appearance of the cult of ‘hippies’ and the arrest of a number of them on the courthouse plaza in Vancouver brings to a head like a boil the deep underlying sickness of our society. Their moral position is an unmistakable voice of rebellion against all that Christianity stands for, and is a lighted fuse which would blow up both law and order.

In August he followed up with this:

This week I had the opportunity of talking for about an hour and a half with two of the leaders in the hippie community in Vancouver  . . . As I talked with these long-haired men, I could readily think of a hundred reasons to be negative and condemning in my attitude to them, and all those reasons would have suited my own temperament.

But I was arrested by the following scriptures which explain to us the attitude of God: “For the love of Christ controls us . . . God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (1 Corinthians 5:14,19 NASB)

I felt then that if I was to recognize the authority of the name of Jesus Christ over me, and in our conversation, that therefore I must love them as Christ loved them . . . I found that as I took this attitude by faith, I found that any sense of hostility toward them was removed, that I could assure them that I did not want ‘to turn them off,’ nor had they any need to ‘turn me off.’

St. Margaret’s was planted in 1922; the current church building was completed in 1938.

His approach bore fruit, and drew people from across the city. Beth Carson wrote:

Events at St. Margaret’s were coming to the attention of the press. In January 1972, Eve Rockett of The Vancouver Sun wrote: “Much of the flock is blue-jeaned, long-haired and bearded and, because it is January, they are wearing shoes.”

Pastor Birch is described as “a sparrow of a man, who wears the colour brown by instinct . . . standing on the dais rocking gently back and forth as he leads his flock in jubilant, uninhibited adoration of the Lord.”

“St. Margaret’s had become an international focus for renewal.” Visits by two key English leaders in the early 1970s – Michael Green and David Watson – underlined that reality.

Green pointed to Birch’s humility:

He’d sat there doing nothing during the service [during which Green preached], while body life erupted all around him. But I saw people coming to him and being prayed for. I saw healing happening in front of my eyes.

In that service there was singing in tongues and a beautiful interpretation and this absolutely made my eyes stick out like organ stops.

Beth Carson read passages from ‘Pastor Bob’ at a gathering earlier this year.

Watson described Birch – and St. Margaret’s – clearly in one of his books:

Bob Birch was a man whom you might not look at twice on the street. . . . But his whole life was directed totally towards Christ, and he was one of the most prayerful and godly men I have ever met.

However, what struck me more than the pastor was the church itself. We had never been anywhere before where we felt so completely overwhelmed by love. As I looked around that packed-out church – people were sitting everywhere – I noticed an amazing mixture of ages and backgrounds.

All the normal social and cultural barriers were broken down by the love of Christ. Barefoot students in jeans were sitting next to bank managers in pinstriped suits.

And the worship in the church was simply glorious. Everyone seemed totally absorbed in the act of loving Christ through praise and prayer. You could see from their faces that the vast majority were profoundly aware of his living presence in our midst. . . .

The service, though non-liturgical, was ordered and dignified. At the same time there was a spontaneity and freedom about it so that the words of prophecy and singing in tongues seemed perfectly natural and in no way contrived.

West Coast is holding several 100th anniversary events this year.

None of this should lead one to believe that either Birch or the church was perfect. When he believed he had heard from God, he acted. Sometimes those around him were simply forced to fall in line or be left behind. But there is no denying that many thousands of people have been positively affected by his leadership.

Some of those people still attend West Coast; many attend other churches all over the city, and even internationally.

Even before the hippie phenomenon, Birch was a well known figure around Vancouver. He had a radio show on KARI. Then, after being noticed by Jimmy Pattison, the church was featured on CJOR.

Birch was asked to be co-chairman of the Billy Graham Crusade in 1965 and then chaired the Vancouver Inter-Church Fellowship when it began in 1967 (the dynamic Pentecostal pastor / preacher / politician Bernice Gerard was also on the leadership team).

St. Margaret’s left the Reformed Episcopal fold and became independent in the early 1970s. (The Reformed Episcopal Synod was very generous in letting the church go, charging just $1 for the building.) The name was changed to West Coast Christian Fellowship in 1980.

Records and documents decorate one wall downstairs at West Coast.

When Birch died, there was a full house at Harvest City Church for his January 5, 2008 memorial.

For more about Pastor Bob and his time with St. Margaret’s, join the100 year anniversary service at St. Margaret’s / West Coast this Sunday (October 9, 10 am): “There will be special guests sharing stories of God’s faithfulness and singing some retro songs from those times.”

Full disclosure. My wife Margaret and I have been attending West Coast Christian Fellowship since last year. But our connection goes back further than that. 

I remember being invited, around 1970, to a service by one of ‘the Bain boys,’ who grew up near me in Point Grey but lived at the church for a time. I had no idea what to make of it, just being afraid someone was going to point at me and tell me to raise my hands or babble out loud or something. I was also not a big fan of Jesus People, thinking that they were ‘subverting the revolution.’ Glad I experienced it, in retrospect.

Margaret’s mother used to receive tapes from the church while serving with her husband as missionaries in Japan. I heard about St. Margaret’s on the farm in Zambia where I got saved. We decided to attend the church when we arrived home after meeting at L’Abri in Switzerland in 1978.

We attended St. Margaret’s for about a year, loving the worship music and the people (not long after Birch had moved on), and then went on to worship at Marineview Chapel, near UBC, where we were both studying. It’s a pleasure to be back at West Coast, following 38 good years with New Life Community Church in Burnaby.

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8 comments for “Celebrating 100 years of St. Margaret’s / West Coast – and Pastor Bob

  1. Wow . . . I remember St Margaret’s in the early 70s. One night I was arrested for not reporting to my parole officer. Pastor Bob took the time to come down to the police station, advocate for me with the Justice of the Peace and I was released the next morning . . . as my parole had already ended by that time. Stayed out of trouble after and ever grateful to this man!

  2. I was dedicated as a baby at St. Margaret’s in 1958 and grew up with involvement in Sunday School, Christian Service Brigade and attended the church camp at Sheridan Hill in Pitt Meadows and later at Springcrest in Langley. I saw much of the years of the hippie movement and many of the people I met I still have contact with through Facebook.

    I was at St. Margaret’s until about 1976, when I started attending another church in South Vancouver. My mother had attended St. Margaret’s with her parents in the original building before the new church was built.

  3. I attended St Margaret’s 1970/1971 and again in 1974 (in between I was part of the Milwaukee, WI Jesus People). I will always be grateful for Pastor Bob’s words of wisdom and the precious worship of St. M.

  4. I’m sorry I missed St Margaret’s; a bit before my time. But I remember Bob Birch from Burnaby Christian Fellowship at two locations – first at the YMCA(?), then at MacPherson Centre, close to Rumble Street. Now it’s all houses.

    When we started there, we all bought ‘shares’ to get the church going; before it had been a curling club. The owner, at that time, of Honda Kingsway was the driving force in buying the curling club facility.

    I remember very long unrehearsed Spirit-filled services with very good musicians; lots of singing and even dancing in the aisles.

    I also remember we started a Christian Night Club in the upstairs mezzanine. You could get
    food and drinks, all with biblical names. Many Christian recording artists, often from the USA, did the rounds all over Surrey, etc.

    There was a choir called ‘the praise makers,’ all young adults. They made several very professional recordings; I still have the tapes from that time.

  5. We are missing you at New Life, Flyn, but I can see why you have strong sentimental ties to St. Margaret’s / West Coast. Fascinating bit of church history in Vancouver.

  6. Thanks, Flyn. You’ve stirred many good memories for me here. And thanks for the update on you and Margaret.

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