Seeking creative ways to live in North America’s most expensive city

By Aften Thiessen

By Aften Thiessen

Life in the Neighbourhood is a day “geared to helping begin a movement of neighbourhood churches across the city.” Sponsored by Forge Canada and hosted by First United Mennonite Church, the April 11 event will feature four tracks: 

  • Neighbourhood Life
  • Launching and Leading Neighbourhood Groups
  • From Here to There: Creating Missional DNA in the Local Church
  • Affordable Housing: Creative Solutions to Living in the Neighbourhood

Greg Thiessen is on staff at First United Mennonite Church; this article is re-posted by permission from January 2015 issue of Forge Canada’s Missional Voice newsletter.

When I first moved to ‘The Big City’ of Vancouver from Chilliwack, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement at the sight of the skyscrapers of downtown nestled among the waters and mountains of Vancouver’s beautiful landscape. As I thought about the masses of people living in such close proximity, manifesting a social, cultural and intellectual core for our area, and about the great potential for the kingdom to break in among these masses, I felt waves of enthusiasm, seeing the need and opportunities for ministry.

Now that I am back in this great city of Vancouver as an associate pastor at First United Mennonite Church, I have found my original vision for ministry in the city considerably weighed down by the challenges of living – let alone ministering – in the city.

Over the past number of decades, our church numbers have been steadily declining. And in all honesty, as far as I can see, this is not in large part reflective of the health of the congregation, but simply reflective of the practical difficulties of living in Vancouver.

Vancouver delivers numerous challenges to Christians . . . who would seek to be church within its borders. Various cultural, intellectual and religious challenges abound, and the work of rethinking what it means to be ‘church’ and to live out the kingdom in this unique setting requires more prayer, reflection and attention. . . .

One particular challenge we need to think more about is the cost of housing. In a recent report by The Economist, Vancouver was identified as the most expensive city in North America! This is in large part due to the discrepancy between wage and housing costs. Middle class Vancouverites, living on an average income in Vancouver, cannot afford to buy housing in Vancouver.

This economic situation inevitably results in a trend: as families grow and look to purchase a house, they move out of the city to where property is more affordable. Families that move out of the city might continue to commute into church (hardly ideal), but oftentimes find another church closer to their new suburban home.

This trend has noticeably affected our congregation and probably most congregations in Vancouver. It has left First United Mennonite Church with a distinct lack of young families. We do have a regular influx of young adults who move to the city and start their careers, but they tend not to stay once they want to buy property or once they start having children.

When this is combined with older members of the congregation (who purchased property in the area when it was affordable) downsizing, entering retirement homes (often out of the city), and passing away, one begins to wonder about the future of our congregation.

But if this is the trend, not just of one congregation, but for many congregations and neighbourhoods in the city of Vancouver, what does that mean for the potential of ministry in a city so desperately in need of God – one of the most unchurched cities in North America?

By Aften Thiessen

‘East Side Advent’ by Aften Thiessen.

Having grown up in the Fraser Valley, and having a father who is a realtor – and who has trained me well in financial prudence, investment and property – when I come up against the housing situation in Vancouver, my impulse is to move back to Chilliwack where I can afford to buy a house.

I get the sense that I share this impulse with a lot of people. Home ownership and land are key elements of the North American dream. Our society tells us that we ought to have private property, where we can thrive in privacy and independence. These are understood as our rights.

My own Anabaptist tradition, however, quickly challenges such a presupposition, replacing the North American dream with a vision of communal living and practiced interdependence.

We forget in our present context that suffering is valued in both my Anabaptist tradition and in the broader Christian story. This is clear in situations of persecution, where “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian). I would also propose that the church is built up through voluntary suffering, hardship and self-sacrifice involved in living for the kingdom despite obstacles from our context.

Our lives and ministries should not gravitate to that which is most comfortable, least obstructive and in line with our own personal interests. Rather, our lives are to be ones of self-denial, taking up our cross and following Christ daily (cf. Luke 9:23). This means trusting in God when we want to establish our own material security, and that of our children. It means sacrificing not only the desires of the sinful nature, but also our rights to good things, for the sake of the kingdom and out of loving service to our neighbour.

When we come to the question and challenge of housing costs in Vancouver, it is clear that the context does not accommodate our ‘right’ to our own spacious house. Does this, however, mean that the trend of migration out of the city that I observed previously should continue, to the decline and death of the churches in the city – and with them, the light of Christ? What would happen if Christians willingly laid down their rights and willingly suffered for the sake of the church? What would this look like?

By way of starting a conversation rather than offering an exhaustive list of solutions, allow me to suggest some possibilities – possibilities that may sound like foolishness to the world, but may very well glimpse a kingdom perspective.

• Against our ‘right’ to our own backyard, might we ‘suffer for Christ’ by choosing a more affordable condo or townhouse instead of a house? Vancouver has tons of parks – let’s share them with our neighbours and get to know them and live missionally while we’re at it.

• Against our ‘right’ to our own space, might we ‘suffer for Christ’ by communal living? Families, singles and/or couples – even multi-generational ones! – could form community houses, sharing common living space within the house. It seems our Indo-Canadian neighbours have no problem sustainably living in Vancouver this way. For the sake of maintaining a missional presence with them, might we not live likewise?

• Against our ‘right’ to private property, might we ‘suffer for Christ’ by choosing to rent indefinitely rather than buy? This goes against some of the common sense economics of saving, but what if we view this as one of the ‘costs’ of discipleship and ministry rather than as just throwing money into a ‘pit.’ If this seems too extreme, what about renting from an organization or people you don’t mind blessing with monthly money? Rent from someone in the church; rent from an organization like More Than a Roof; get involved in a housing co-op.

For those who do own property in Vancouver, I invite you to think creatively around the relationship between stewardship and sacrifice. Your choices with property do affect the wider community. Why not use it to bless others and further enhance the mission of local Vancouver churches. For example:

• What would it look like to invite others to stay and live with you in your house, or to pool resources and start a church co-op?

• If you’re looking to downsize and sell, what would it look like to choose to sell to someone in the church at a reduced price or as a rent-to-own as a way of tithing to God, rather than selling to the highest bidder and giving a tithe of the profits to the church? I can’t help thinking that the gift of lasting resident members is more beneficial to the health of the church than the gift of money.

I invite you to prayerfully, thoughtfully and creatively consider our situation of living in Vancouver (and in all our costly and increasingly unchurched North American cities) and reflect how we as a church might rise up by denying ourselves and with the power of the Holy Spirit overcome this economic challenge to ministry in the city and the building of community.

Indeed, while at first such things may seem a sacrifice, in the end they will likely prove to be a greater blessing to yourself and others as rich community develops and deepens and the light of Christ shines the brighter through it. May the Lord instil in you a heart for the city of Vancouver, and pray that he might open a way – through you and me – for the church to thrive and for the kingdom of God to break into Vancouver all the more.

After graduating from Regent College, where he studied church history, Greg Thiessen taught for two years at a Bible college in Malawi before marrying his wife, Aften, and returning to Vancouver and First United Mennonite Church. Greg and Aften became parents on January 1. Greg’s passions include church history, ecumenism and discipleship.

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