IRVINE, Calif.

“When I describe Canvas to outsiders I refer to it as an experiment of the Presbyterian Church, which almost always gets an invitation to explain further,” said the Rev. Kirk Winslow, pastor of this new worshiping community in southern California. 

Winslow is fond of referring to Canvas as an experiment, and that isn’t a word he’s chosen arbitrarily; rather, it reflects the thoughtfulness that Winslow and Canvas’ leadership team have put into this fresh expression of the church. 

Their hope? “To create an expression of the church that’s focused less on merely securing the afterlife than on embodying the message of Jesus in the here and now,” Winslow said. He is quick to point out that Canvas is a “very devotedly, Jesus-worshipping, Nicene Creed-confessing, Trinitarian congregation. 

“We share the opinion that ‘salvation’ is not limited to the delivery of souls from judgment, but God’s promise of the restoration of all things. Consequently, we see ourselves as joining with Jesus in the ‘making the world a better place business,’ and (are) looking to join forces with anyone and everyone who shares the same goal,” Winslow said. 

He realizes this is often not what people expect from religion. It also leads to a question: What might that look like?

“I usually respond by saying that one of the greatest decisions we made was to not make worship nine-tenths of what we do,” said Winslow. “Of course we believe that worshiping the right deity is essential — worshipping Zeus leads one further from to life and life abundantly not closer to it.” 

But he also acknowledges that worshipping Jesus is not necessarily an obvious thing for those outside the church to do. It can be quite a leap. 

“That Jesus is the embodied Son of God is not the obvious conclusion in the 21st century.  So, if people want to relate to Jesus first as teacher while they contemplate the Jesus as more-than-human, we understand,” Winslow said. 

The community’s mission is based on this understanding — inviting everyone to make their contribution to God’s work of new creation: a canvas. 

Canvas’ core values include building authentic community, being actively expansive, bettering the world and believing that everyone has a role to play in the betterment of God’s world. 

That brings Winslow back to the “experiment” part of this community. 

“One of the things we heard a lot in our focus groups is that parents were concerned that by not being connected to the church, their kids were not going to have a true moral compass,” he said. 

But those parents were equally afraid of what moral compass the church might promote. 

Out of this came a focus on a ministry to families that empowers those families to nurture their children at home and to create a congregation that is committed to caring for those families. 

Although Canvas is a new worshiping community and is trying new things, it’s not all that different from the traditional church model. 

“We still do worship, small groups, service projects, children’s education. But we engage in these from the perspective that smart, kind, inquisitive, decent people are already more on Jesus’ side than they are not,” Winslow said. “It seems to me that most decent people are already embodying a good bit of the Gospel.” 

For Winslow, Christian maturity boils down to the constant process of growing to love more and sin less. But he’s concerned that the church has over-emphasized the latter to the detriment of the former. “It is entirely possible to reduce one’s sinful behaviors while never really learning to love. We don’t think that captures the message of the Gospel, nor does it help those outside the church draw near.” 

Winslow and other Canvas leaders hope love will be the cornerstone of this new community. 

“We are basically orienting all of our work around helping people experience love more and to learn to love more in their own lives,” he said. “It seems impossible to me that one can truly learn to love and not, in the process, encounter Jesus.”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico, when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.