EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support 5,600 North American missionaries.
WINNIPEG, Manitoba, Canada (BP)–Gary Smith and his 11-year-old son Caleb tooled down the Trans-Canada Highway in their rented Toyota on a winter’s day. They were in the middle of a 12-hour, 600-mile road trip from Quebec to Prince Edward Island when reality hit the 41-year-old missionary and he suddenly started to cry.
“What’s going on, Daddy?” asked an alarmed Caleb, the oldest of Gary and Sue Smith’s four children. “What’s happening?”
Through his tears, Smith asked his son, “Caleb, do you realize that in all of these towns, cities and villages we’re passing by there are no Christian churches to tell the people about the Gospel? There are no Sunday School classes for kids. There’s nothing like you’ve known all your life.”
As he looks back now, Smith thinks that’s when Caleb finally got it -– realizing why his daddy was gone from home so much. “He and I stopped and prayed together for those towns, cities and villages,” Smith recalls, “and it was a precious time for just the two of us.”
The Smiths are national missionaries for the North American Mission Board and the Canadian National Baptist Convention, responsible for planting churches all across Canada. They are among 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions and are featured during the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest”; the 2009 Annie Armstrong Offering goal is $65 million.
Smith, a native Kansan, realizes he’s not in Kansas anymore when it comes to the difficult challenge of planting new churches and sharing the Gospel amidst a vastly “lost” Canada.
“In eastern Canada, there’s a spiritual void,” he said. “If you’re under 40 years old and in Quebec, you don’t probably know who Jesus Christ is. I’ve had some people literally tell me, ‘Oh, that’s a curse word.’ That’s all they know about Jesus. And this is where we are trying to evangelize, witness and plant churches.
“It can be a hard place but it gives us an incredible opportunity,” Smith. “Can you imagine the sweetness of sharing Christ with someone who is hearing for the very first time? They have no concept of Jesus. They’re a blank slate.”
Only 8 percent of all Canadians are connected to an evangelical church compared to 28 percent in the United States, Smith said.
“Montreal has nearly 5 million people. Almost all of them are lost. Only half of 1 percent are evangelical Christians. We’ve been here eight years now but only scratched the surface.”
As an example of the fading spiritual condition in Montreal — Quebec’s largest city — 95 percent of Montreal citizens attended a Catholic church weekly in 1955. Today, it’s only 5 percent. The Catholic Church not only has lost most of its spiritual ground in Montreal, it’s almost been kicked out of the culture, Smith said.
But the same holds true for Protestant churches in other Canadian provinces such as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Despite local church planting by Southern Baptists — numerous churches in these provinces have either died out or been turned into art museums, Smith said.
Sharing the Gospel in Canada often calls for new, unique and creative tactics in lieu of traditional “hard-sell” methods, Smith said. In a country where so few know of Jesus, tangibly reflecting the love and compassion of Christ proves more successful.
“On an airplane recently, I met a young French woman who was a social worker in Trois Rivierre, Quebec, one of the most unreached cities per capita in all of North America,” Smith recounted. “Not only was she a social worker, she had a caseload of 50 unwed pregnant teenagers, average age 13.
“I asked her if she had ever heard of Jesus Christ and she gave the typical reply. ‘Yes, Jesus is a curse word.’ I told her, ‘No, He’s much more than that…. He loves moms and babies.'”
Smith got her e-mail address and phone number and weeks later told the young social worker’s story at a Baptist missions conference in Florida.
“The folks in Florida got so fired up that five weeks later, I had these huge boxes delivered to my doorstep in Montreal. We opened them up and it was incredible — baby snowsuits, diapers, wipes, things for the moms, etc.”
When Smith drove to Trois Rivierre to personally deliver the baby items to the social worker, she and her colleagues told him, “It’s so incredible what you’ve provided.”
“And I told them, ‘No, Jesus Christ provided these things for you today. This is who He is.’ That was these Canadian social workers’ introduction to the Gospel,” Smith said, adding that reflecting Jesus’ compassion in any lost place can make the mission field there much softer to plow and harvest.
In his church planting role for NAMB and the Canadian National Baptist Convention, Smith partners with fellow missionary Jeff Christopherson in Toronto and oversees volunteer church planting “advocates” in other Canadian provinces.
Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, Christopherson said. “In 2001, over 50 percent of the Toronto population was born outside Canada. By 2016, there will be more than 1 million Mandarin-speaking Chinese from mainland China living in the greater Toronto area. But 95 percent of them will be unchurched.
“People don’t realize it, but there are more Italians in Toronto than anyplace else in the world outside of Italy. You go to Brampton, a city of 400,000, and there are 90,000 Sikhs there. There are 50,000 Bengalis in Toronto.”
Christopherson said Toronto also is Canada’s headquarters for the country’s major corporations, media outlets, the Canada Stock Exchange and the major banks — making it a combined New York City and Los Angeles. As such, Toronto impacts the rest of Canada.
“Gary and I work well together,” Christopherson said. “He’s an incredible guy -– one of the most catalytic people I’ve ever met.”
Although Smith — who recently shifted his home base from Montreal to Winnipeg, Manitoba — is primarily responsible for eastern Canada, including Montreal, and Christopherson oversees Toronto, the two men say there are no turf battles.
“We see ourselves working together, and there is no ‘this is my city’ or ‘this is your city,'” Smith said. “We don’t care whose name is on what — we want to see these two strategic cities reached for Christ.
“In Toronto, we need to see an explosion,” Smith said. “Jeff is right now following up on nearly 50 potential new church planters. We don’t have enough people, resources or staff. It seems impossible to reach Toronto. But like the Old Testament says, ‘I’ll make a way where there seems to be no way.'”
Another Canadian church planter, Jarret Hamilton, who pastors Affinity Church in a Toronto suburb, Oshawa, also sings Smith’s praises.
“Gary is, first and foremost, an enormous encourager and supporter,” Hamilton said. “Like everything we do, he’s the first one to celebrate and the first one to offer encouragement. Gary also has a tremendous amount of wisdom and knowledge that he passes on. But one thing I appreciate is that Gary doesn’t force it on you. He waits for you to ask for it and then gives you insight and encouragement.”
And what does the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering do for church planters in Canada?
“I’m thinking of a guy in New Brunswick,” Smith said. “It’s a dynamic church plant, supported by the Annie offering. They’ve led over 200 people to Christ in this one church plant. And that’s because of the Annie offering that supports that church plant.
“I believe a church planting movement can arise out of Canada that would turn the tide for North America.”
For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.