Couldn’t this be a great place to plant a church?” I caught myself asking my wife that question many times over the last two or three years, when we would stop for coffee on our way through Red Deer, Alberta.
“Why Red Deer? When would that happen?” she would ask.
“Why Red Deer?” It is the city we just pass through on the way to other places. It is located on Highway Number 2 about 90 miles from Calgary, Edmonton, and Camrose; all cities where Lutheran Brethren congregations are located. It is a growing city of 100,000. It is a “hub city,” servicing the needs of more than 200,000 people in central Alberta. It has a large college with more than 4000 students in university programs and 32,000 sessional students enrolled in apprenticeships or continuing education programs. At a quick glance, it is underserved; there are 40 churches and, given a very generous average of 300 adherents each, that means there are 88,000 people in Red Deer yet to be reached with the Gospel and connected to a vibrant community of faith.
“When would that happen?” After 15 years as the president of Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, I was sensing that a time of transition was ahead. It had been a fruitful and fulfilling ministry as we mentored hundreds of students and staff in their Christian walk. But now the ongoing stress of overseeing the dynamics of such a school, coupled with the growing desire to be back in parish ministry, were tools God was using to prepare me for a new call.
During that same time, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren Canada was also sensing a call from God to plant a church in western Canada. A committee had been formed to look into the possibility of such an outreach. The CLBC Board of Directors, meeting in January 2016, broke into a lively discussion when this proposal came to the floor. The motion to plant a church in Red Deer, Alberta was approved and subsequently was brought to the Annual Meeting of the CLBC in March. Anticipation filled the room during that meeting. Who will be called? When will it begin?
The letter of call arrived and the plan was created. The first of September would be the start date to begin visiting Red Deer, with more than coffee and doughnuts in mind. Then the unthinkable happened. Our 26-year-old daughter, Annelise, died suddenly. She had been working at a Bible Camp near Vancouver and was soon coming home after a fruitful summer. Complications related to diabetes arose, and she slipped away into glory.
The outpouring of support for our family from our community and across the CLB family was amazing. Our home was flooded with gifts of love. The way that people reached out to care for us was humbling. Our family felt so blessed.
Weeks passed. In October, I began to visit Red Deer. I had a new motivation. I had been painfully reminded that life can be so fleeting. Every day, people slip away to a Christ-less eternity. Every day, families are thrown into chaos without the support system that had blessed us so tenderly. People in that beautiful Alberta city needed Jesus—a living relationship with the very personal, living Savior who gives hope when life is darkest.
What would we call this new church? During those weeks of deep sorrow, we had been comforted by images from the Psalms, especially the image of a river flowing from the mountains, bringing healing and hope. Why don’t we call it “The River—A Church of the Lutheran Brethren”? We shared the idea and all responses were positive. We searched for a domain in which to establish a website and found www.RedDeerRiver.ca. Amazing! Scriptures like Ezekiel 47 and John 7 spoke of the river flowing from the temple, bringing life wherever it goes, and from the hearts of believers will flow rivers of living water. We took these as very positive words of confirmation that we were on the right track.
We had a city, a cool name and matching domain, along with biblical references that helped us see the vision—but what about the people? Would there be a nucleus of people to help us begin this work? Once the word got out through publications like the North American Mission prayer notes, people started to contact me. A pastor friend and his new wife are praying about retiring to Red Deer. A group of people had left another congregation a few years ago, and are open to exploring a new vision for ministry. Bible School alumni are considering looking for work or a college education in the city. Doors have opened recently for some dear friends to relocate in a nearby town within reasonable driving distance of Red Deer.
It seems the Lord is providing that nucleus of committed Christian people whom, we pray, will catch the vision to build strong relationships with their neighbors and associates. Then, in time, as good friends, they might be able to share the hope they have in Jesus Christ as naturally as a river flows down from the Rocky Mountains west of Red Deer.
What’s next? We’ll be praying for contacts in town and people from the CLBC to join us in this adventure. I’ll be continuing to visit and become familiar with the city and its culture. We’ll have informal house gatherings to study Scripture and build a common vision. I’ll visit the mayor and other local leadership. I’ll have plenty of coffee with pastors in the city and “hear their hearts” for ministry. Eventually we’ll move to Red Deer and plan a launch date for public worship.
Please join us in prayer that the Spirit of God would renew us, so that out of our hearts would flow rivers of living water, and that everywhere we go, and into every conversation, we would bring life and hope, always centered in the person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Rev. Harold Rust served fifteen years as the president of the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute. He and his wife Joyce have been called by the CLB Canada as church planters to Red Deer, Alberta.
If you would like to join Harold and Joyce in this church plant initiative contact them by email at: harold@CLBI.edu