CityLife: The Story of Abbotsford’s Newest Church

Categories: Student Stories, Student Success, Uncategorized

There’s nothing surprising about seeing a pastor in a coffee shop. Unless it’s Jon Wiebe, lead pastor of Abbotsford’s newly-launched CityLife Church. You won’t necessarily spot him with his laptop, working on his next sermon. Don’t expect to chat with him about life and faith over Americanos. Instead, Jon may well greet you with a smile and a friendly “Hi!” while he whips up your grande half-fat latte, extra-hot.

Pastor Jon Wiebe is a Starbucks barista. Two days a week, he dons the green apron and everything that comes with it: long line-ups, tricky drink orders, grumpy customers, and taking out the trash. He’ll be the first to tell you it’s been quite an adjustment.

Four years ago, Jon was the youth pastor at South Abbotsford Church. He was exactly where he wanted to be: leading a thriving youth ministry with a congregation he loved. In 2006, Jon had graduated with his BA in Youth Work from Columbia Bible College with the sole focus of becoming, and staying, a youth pastor. “I didn’t want youth ministry to be a stepping-stone to something else,” he explains. “I wanted to stay in one church.” I didn’t want kids to have three different youth pastors in their high school career.”

No one was more shocked than Jon when he sensed God might be leading him elsewhere. After Jon finally got up the courage to tell his wife, Gabrielle, how he was feeling, the couple started exploring what they might do next. The one idea they couldn’t shake? Planting a new church.

When they took their idea public, Jon and Gabrielle were surprised by the support they received. Their close friends, family, and spiritual mentors affirmed their new direction. Another blessing came in the form of South Abbotsford Church: they generously offered Jon a summer sabbatical so he could explore his vision for launching a new church and take seminary classes in church planting. When, at summer’s end, Jon presented his church planting proposal, South Abby agreed to partner with him, even if it meant losing their much loved youth pastor.

That’s exactly what happened next. Jon resigned to focus fully on training with C2C Network and on gathering a church launch team. That, and making lattes at Starbucks two days a week at Abbotsford’s Highstreet Mall, the future site of their church.

“We chose Highstreet as our place,” Jon explains. “They’ve done a really good job of creating community and a neighbourhood feel in a mall.” Anyone who’s strolled the Highstreet sidewalks can attest to its unique design. The mall has, for instance, a wildly popular kids’ playground right at its center. “We saw Highstreet as a natural point where people gather,” Jon continues. “I believe that we need to bring church to where people are, not expect them to come to us.”

Going to where the people are is why Jon decided to become a Starbucks barista. He wanted to enter into the community and really get to know it. “Working at Starbucks, I see the same regulars, the same families who do everything right there — shopping, working out, going on date nights, doing their banking, picking up groceries.” His green-apron shifts have been eye-opening. Among the interesting insights Jon has picked up on the job is just how many people are driven to climb the corporate ladder, to land the next raise, to top the next big business milestone. Another is how rudely people — some Christians included — tend to treat service workers.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Jon was becoming aware how many in Abbotsford have grown up far outside the church. In a community nicknamed the “Bible Belt” of Canada, it’s easy to assume that most people’s parents and grandparents grew up attending church, even if they themselves didn’t. It turns out that’s just not true. “A lot of people have no idea what goes on in church,” Jon says.

This is why, when pressed with the question, “Why plant a new church in Abbotsford, of all places?” Jon has a ready answer. It’s a question he is asked often, and no wonder. Abbotsford already has close to one hundred churches. Why not start a new church in a city like Vancouver, or Montreal, where the need is greater?

“There’s always room for more gospel,” Jon explains. His Starbucks experience is backed up by statistics: over two-thirds of Abbotsford’s 150,000 people never go to church, and thirty percent consider themselves to have no religious affiliation. He also brings up the fact that newer churches (less than ten years old) are most effective at reaching unchurched people. “So,” Jon concludes, “a city continuously needs new churches in order to have more people come to know Jesus.”

Step into CityLife Church on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see this concern for the unchurched everywhere you turn. For one thing, CityLife meets in the Highstreet Cineplex theatre. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to come to a familiar place, and be able to hear about Jesus” is the way Jon puts it. Their entire Sunday morning service is geared towards pointing an unchurched person to Jesus in a way that’s fun and engaging. Expect to hear the band open with a mainstream song. One week it was Blink 182 in honour of the band coming to town. Don’t be surprised if the service incorporates funny bits in the vein of late-night TV.

You won’t hear any churchy phrases — not from the front or in the worship lyrics. Whenever key theological terms — gospel, redemption, and the like — are used, they’re carefully explained. You won’t be celebrating communion; it’s a ceremony that excludes the unchurched, so they reserve it for their discipleship groups. And you’ll never experience a service over 65 minutes long. “We’re trying to provide a predictable experience,” Jon explains. In fact, CityLife is doing everything they can to make church “un-cringe-worthy,”so believers will feel it’s safe to invite their friends.

What does this mean for CityLife’s teaching? In a church so focused on the unchurched, you might expect light and fuzzy sermons, designed not to offend. But Jon is clear that this is not the direction they’ve chosen. Instead, they aim for what he calls “double-barreled preaching,” practical, biblical messages that are meant for Christians, but with the awareness that the unchurched are listening in. “If you’ve kept people engaged to the point of the message,” Jon asserts, “you don’t need to change your message.” He’s fine with people walking away and not agreeing with the sermon, as long as they feel it’s a message worth considering and a community where they feel welcome to explore
spirituality and Jesus.

Jon is also fine with making believers a little uncomfortable. He’s aware that CityLife is bound to attract Christians on the lookout for a trendy new church. “We’re unapologetic about not welcoming believers who are seat-fillers,” Jon says. “If you’re a believer, you’re going
to feel the pressure to serve and get involved.” That said, if you’re willing to commit, there’s a definite place for you. “We need Christians,” he explains, as he passionately describes CityLife’s vision to be good neighbours – both at Highstreet Mall, and in the local neighbourhoods where believers live. It’s also their dream to build community groups and volunteer groups where real discipleship happens.

Now that CityLife Church has officially launched, will Jon quit his job at Starbucks? No way, he says, and quotes a recent tweet he enjoyed: “Being bi-vocational is not a punishment; it’s an opportunity.” One unexpected benefit of his barista gig is that it’s taught his leadership team not to rely on him too heavily, but to get on with the work of being the church.

And it turns out that getting to know the community cuts both ways. By now, Highstreet regulars have gotten to know him. “I’ve become a Highstreet fixture,” Jon says, with a laugh. Green apron on and off.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Columbia’s Contact Magazine.