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Gathering at the Marketplace

Josh Wilton (below) believes Marketplace has flourished because it meets an unmet need in providing a safe place for Christians and others to meet and discuss work-related issues.

(Photos: Doug Kelk)

By Doug Kelk

THERE IS A BUZZ in the air as business people and public servants working in downtown Victoria arrive and mingle at the Marketplace Gathering lunch at Church of Our Lord. Inside the community centre adjoining Victoria’s stately old wooden church, a woman loads her plate with fresh vegetables and a ham and cheese wrap. She scans the room of about 45 people, seated at small tables, looking for a familiar face. A friend comes to welcome her. “I had no idea it would be so busy on a sunny day like this,” she says to her friend.  “But I really wanted to be here.”

Josh Wilton, Anglican priest and entrepreneur, who spearheaded Victoria’s Marketplace Gathering in September 2010, is chatting on his cell phone, smiling and nodding at those still arriving. At first glance, Wilton, in casual slacks, open collar and running shoes looks more like a savvy, thirty-something CEO of a small computer company than an Anglican minister.

But in a few moments, as he calls the gathering to order with a prayer, the pieces fall together. Wilton leads with a fine blend of vulnerability and strength. Projected on the overhead screen is a picture of his face taken during another adventure in his life in which he struggled to write a novel in an isolated corner of Alaska. His hair is long, bushy and unruly; he wears huge sunglasses and resembles a crazed character in a juvenile Hollywood movie.

“This is what can happen when you try to write a novel in the remote north,” says Wilton. His willingness to be vulnerable is a key in creating the trust and openness that distinguish Marketplace.

Christians from a variety of denominational backgrounds along with non-Christians – who comprise about 10 per cent of the group – all chat and lunch together. Wilton’s introduction of the rules of Marketplace is characteristically light and humorous:

“Don’t be a jerk; be respectful and polite. But don’t be a wuss; we are encouraging vigorous discussion. Finally, no churchy language that others might not understand.”

Marketplace in downtown Victoria, scheduled every other Tuesday from 11:30 am to 1 pm, has featured a broad range of speakers or ‘provocateurs.’ Each briefly presents a topic and then poses questions to be discussed at the small tables of six to eight. Later, a representative from each table reports back to the larger group. 

Wilton believes Marketplace has flourished because it meets an unmet need in providing a safe place for Christians and others to meet and discuss work-related issues.

“I learned that in the church in western Canada, there is a division between the sacred and the secular, matters of the body and matters of the spirit,” says Wilton. “You see a lot of churches emphasizing the spiritual life, distinct from regular life – the life of work.  Since most people work or want to work, this seemed to me to be a problem.”

Wilton, who earned an MA in writing from Regent College and has completed almost all required courses for a Masters of Divinity degree, also spent seven years as a tour guide and dispatcher with Princess Tours in Alaska.

“In the business world, I saw how faith in God could help or hinder one’s personal growth, and how people compartmentalized their faith.”

Wilton’s guest speaker today tells stories reflecting radical generosity. There is much discussion of money, how we spend it, and how those spending patterns reflect our values.

Wilton and fellow priest, the Rev. Andy Withrow, call their church The Table and oversee church plant initiatives together.  They liken The Table to a pomegranate, with many clusters, including Marketplace.

“The underpinning principle in everything we do is that all of life is mission,” says Wilton. “And that mission is to love God, love each other, and bless our neighbours.”

Wilton was first exposed to Marketplace in Vancouver, while doing a leadership apprenticeship at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church.  “John Mackay was on the board of directors, and he had a Marketplace ministry colleague, Tom Cooper, who runs City in Focus, an umbrella connecting group. Tom and the City in Focus team do an amazing job at helping connect, focus and care for people in business and politics.”

When he moved to Victoria four and a half years ago, Wilton found that Greater Victoria, with a population of more than 375,000, had no vibrant group like Marketplace.  Wilton reconnected with Tom Cooper, and shadowed him during the annual Vancouver Prayer Leadership Breakfast, hosted by City in Focus. He used principles he learned there, gathered a small group of highly motivated Christian business people in Victoria and spent six months meeting with them. In September 2010, he initiated Marketplace in Victoria. Eighteen people came. Since then, relying only on word-of-mouth, attendance has peaked at 70, and hit a plateau of 45 in June 2013.

Wilton speculates that part of the reason he is good at what he does is he understands “how difficult it is to live out a life of faith. There are so many gaps between what we think we believe and how we act.”

Vancouver Marketplace gatherings are based on a different model. “There, you find someone who has a lot of corporate success, or some form of visible success, and they speak from that platform about their faith,” says Wilton. In Victoria, Wilton has not sought out experts to speak, but built Marketplace on relationships, arranging speakers based on people’s gifts and interests.

Yvonne Mann, a leadership coach in Victoria, said she keeps coming to Marketplace to see leaders from various backgrounds being deeply affected by the topics discussed, taking notes and going away to make changes in how they live and practise business. “The lunches are also an opportunity for non-Christians to see Christians wrestling with issues as an expression of their faith. It makes us Christians much more accessible as people.”

Wilton says Marketplace is a break-even situation financially. Different individuals have contributed to cover costs, mostly to subsidize the meal, for which attendees donate five to ten dollars. Other Marketplace costs – Wilton’s leadership time and rent at Church of Our Lord’s community hall – are covered by The Table. “We are a fairly small three-year-old congregation, but we are committed to the long term health of the city. Part of that means seeing Christians in the marketplace make connections between their faith and their work.”

Apart from regulars at Marketplace, The Table is the spiritual home for roughly 130 people, including just over 100 adults, most of whom are young married couples or single parents. (Both The Table and Church of Our Lord are congregations within the Anglican Network of Canada.)

The Table “is a group of people in transition, who do not have much money. The Table takes in $7,500 a month from parishioners. That has nearly doubled during the last year.  As well, they depend on the generosity of outside donors, including a Christian philanthropist in Vancouver who provides The Table with an additional $5,000 a month.

“Finances are tight, and it’s a fair question whether a church planter should spend a good chunk of time on something like Marketplace,” says Wilton.  “But this is worth our investment. Even if there are no direct benefits to our church community, we believe we are adding value to the city by helping focus business and community leaders on Christ.”

Wilton says his main role is to envision, initiate and connect. “That’s what I do for all of our clusters, including Marketplace. We create safe places for people, whether young people transitioning into the faith, or under-churched or de-churched people, to meet and discuss substantial issues using the language and symbols they can understand. Our desire is to see Christ revealed in common life, during regular business hours.”    TAP

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