By Adam Miller
Sprawling between the Bering Sea and Greenland, stretching from Arctic climates to temperate rainforests, the land of Canada is both idyllic for living and uninhabitable. It is a place of great religious roots, but that tree has branched into all directions of belief and unbelief.
The country was established in religious fervor, but many of its more than 33 million inhabitants now dismiss religious institutions as cold and controlling.
Canada has become the land of opportunity for church planters who have the patience, persistence and the faith that God has called them to a field white for harvest.
More than 25 million of Canada’s residents live in its urban areas, and because of milder climates and ease of trade 75 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the Canada-U.S. border in places like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
The front lines of church planting efforts in Canada are marked by great diversity of ethnicity and worldview. Vancouver and Toronto, the nation’s largest cities, are nearly half-filled (40 and 46 percent respectively) with immigrant populations; the majority being Asian. More than a quarter of residents in British Columbia and Ontario are from other nations.
The Vancouver Sun recently reported 1,700 immigrants arrive in the city monthly. Statistics Canada reported in 2006 that by 2030 immigration will be the sole source of population growth in the nation.
Equally unrelenting is the country’s secularization. Beginning in the 1960s with the Quiet Revolution, the Quebecois wrested ruling power from the Roman Catholics. In places like Vancouver during the 1970s, Canadians became equally distrustful of the powerful Anglican church, which fell prey to immorality among its priests.
“Most of this city is pre-Christian, meaning nobody in the family tree was a Christian. Forty-three percent say they’re atheists,” says Jeff Phillips, a church planter who moved his family from Texas to Vancouver a year ago to start The Crossings in downtown Vancouver. “We see the diversity and spiritual darkness, and we desire to be on the front lines of that.”
Though nearly 13 million Canadians call themselves Catholic and 9 million are identified as Protestant, many church buildings that thrived a few decades ago now sit vacant or have been re-appropriated for commercial use.
“The cost of making these buildings usable far surpasses the cost of buying the deed,” says church planting missionary Jacques Avakian, serving in Montreal.
In Vancouver, any semblance of organized religion is often met with mistrust.
“We’re very organized,” says Phillips. “But we don’t let anybody know that or they might not come.”
Most of The Crossings’ meetings are monthly dinners hosted by volunteer families throughout the city where Vancouver residents experience more friendship and community than organized religion.
“In a place like Vancouver we have to present the gospel of belonging before we preach the gospel of redemption,” says Phillips. “This is what you have to do if you’re going after the lost and the multi-cultural mindset.”
Phillips’ wife, Sara, says she’s never been friends with so many non-Christians. “My whole life I feel like I’ve been in a Christian bubble,” says Sara. “This is the first time I feel like I’m the only light among my friends.”
As in many of Canada’s major population centers, planting a CNBC church in the urban area of Vancouver has frustrated many previous plants.
“But we don’t see this as a failure,” Phillips says. “It’s just an unrealized opportunity.”
The ambitious vision of 1,000 CNBC churches by 2020 would seem slightly myopic to Southern Baptists in the South accustomed to what seems like a church on every corner. But it’s a different story for their neighbors to the north.
You can drive 2,000 miles in parts of Canada without seeing one evangelical church. In Quebec organized religion is scoffed at, and Jesus is barely remembered as a historical figure. Toronto and Vancouver represent an overwhelming array of language and worldview barriers. It’s places like these that make 1,000 churches by 2020 seem a daunting task for the CNBC.
“It’s God-sized,” says Jeff Christopherson, NAMB’s vice president for the Canada region. “We need support from the outside and leadership raised up within our cultures. There’s no other way we’re going to accomplish this without patience and partnerships with state conventions, associations and local churches.
“We need to point churches to the three cities of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, with a specific emphasis on Montreal. It’s easily the darkest city in North America,” adds Christopherson. “I’d call on churches to adopt a church planter in Canada, to adopt a church plant in Canada and for Southern Baptists to get their passports and come see for themselves.”
Across Canada seven church planter catalysts are putting their efforts into discovering and training indigenous leadership who can carry the mantel of church planting toward the goal of a church planting movement. This year’s goal of 50 churches will be a test for Canadian Baptists.
Because much of Canada is so undeveloped spiritually, calling on churches within the country would not put a dent in the monumental task of reaching the lost there. This is why the mobilizing of strong established churches in the United States is key to strengthening and planting churches in this pioneer region.
“It’s hyper aggressive,” says Christopherson. “When we cast our vision for 1,000 we had under a 100 churches. Now we’re at 270. If we plant 1,000 churches by 2020 it’ll be historic. Nobody has ever done this in the history of Canada.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC