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Missionary duo starts with Bible in Toronto launching new churches

TORONTO, Ontario (BP)–Under an overcast Toronto sky, members of Dixie Baptist Church begin to trickle into a small building attached to an apartment high-rise, much like they have for 21 years.

Though the makeup of the congregation has changed several times, it remains a strong witness to the life-changing power of Christ in this multi-ethnic Canadian community. In this case, the congregation–the first Southern Baptist church started in Ontario–meets on an eight-inch concrete slab poured over a former indoor swimming pool.

Downstairs, the women’s swimsuit changing room serves as a nursery; showers in a corner still testify to its former use. Next door in the men’s changing room, youth gather to hear stories about Jesus.

On this Sunday morning 15 nationalities join together to study the Bible. It’s not a fancy building, but it serves its purpose well. In fact, the building testifies to the tenacity and creativity of Canadian Southern Baptists to plant churches whenever a door opens — or, in this case, when a swimming pool closes.

It’s a small congregation, but no one ever told the group it was too small to make a difference. As a result of its faith in God, this international mix of immigrants now sponsors six mission churches — one English-speaking, a Hispanic, a Vietnamese and three Korean. A First Nation congregation, similar to Native American work in the United States, is in the planning stages.

Helping Dixie in its church-planting efforts — and being a catalyst among 20 other churches and missions scattered across the city of Toronto and province of Ontario — are North American Mission Board missionaries Barry and LaWanda Bonney. Barry serves as a church planter/catalyst. LaWanda assists Barry by leading teacher workshops in the churches and in her role as WMU director for Ontario.

The couple — featured in the March 5-12 Week of Prayer for North American Missions — lives in Oakville, a Toronto suburb, with their three young daughters — 7-year-old Kayla, 5-year-old Kristen and 2-year-old Kelsey.

It is a ministry built on teamwork.

Though he concentrates his ministry in Toronto, Barry travels the expansive province as he helps churches locate sites for new home Bible studies or missions. LaWanda’s upbringing as a missionary kid in Mexico and Central America opens doors in the Spanish-speaking community. And the children’s subtle witness among their peers helps introduce others to Bible stories about Jesus.

“One of our greatest struggles is not being able to be involved in one church,” Barry says. “We relate in some way to 20 congregations, double what was here when we came here in 1996. The work is growing, but it causes us to be spread even more thin.”

As church planter/catalyst, Barry works with pastors to constantly brainstorm and share ideas on ways to start new churches. The catalyst portion of his title means just that — he serves as a catalyst to stimulate new work.

Barry is there to be sure that churches are being started with regularity, depending on the resources available. In many ways he’s a recruiter, assessor and coach to new church planters. He also helps existing churches partner with new starts.

When the couple accepted the challenge to move to Toronto from a smaller city in Saskatchewan, they came to the province of 11 million residents to work with ethnics. Since then his job description has been modified to include working with new English-speaking churches.

The Bonneys are the only NAMB missionaries in the province, which includes the nation’s capital city of Ottawa. Their task is daunting at times.

“It’s really a God-sized project,” LaWanda says. “That’s why we tell the churches that our goal is for them to be church-starting churches. It will require them to regularly look beyond themselves and look to God in order to accomplish the task.”

It means the work must be shared among churches and denominations. That’s why they network with other evangelical groups.

“We are kingdom building-minded, so we work with other denominations — not in competition with them,” Barry adds. “It will take all of us working together to reach Ontario for Christ.”

That’s a big challenge, since the province is home to more than a third of the nation’s population and two of the nation’s most prominent cities.

Toronto is the capital of Ontario and serves as the financial heart of Canada; all of the major banks have their headquarters there. While Toronto could be called the New York City of Canada, Ottawa could be called its Washington (D.C.).

The Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists has a goal to plant 1,000 new churches as quickly as possible, up from about 150 today. It’s obvious that many of those churches need to be in Ontario because that’s where such a large percentage of Canadians live, Barry says.

The way to reach the goal, he notes, is to cultivate the planting of key churches that will rapidly multiply themselves throughout the area. That’s the big-picture goal, but it will require more church planters from Canada and the United States who share the vision.

“In addition to Canadian church planters, we are looking for gifted Americans with cross-cultural skills similar to those of someone surrendering to mission service in any other country. That is surprising to some of those coming from the U.S. to minister here,” he explains.

Canada is not the 51st state, Barry says in a serious tone softened with a smile. It is not culturally part of the United States, he adds, making his point even clearer.

“Some of those coming here from the South feel like they are on another planet when they realize how unreceptive Canadians are to the gospel,” Barry says. “Canada is no longer a Christian nation, and it has been officially removed from that list by the United Nations. We are a highly diverse, multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic nation.

“The government is very open to immigration and wants the immigrants to maintain their cultural distinctiveness as much as possible — including their spiritual beliefs, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist,” he notes. “In fact, the government helps build cultural centers for the different ethnic groups where they can gather to maintain their sense of heritage and community.”

While the United States has been referred to as a melting pot, Canada maintains its ethnic distinctiveness as a mosaic of cultures, working together but remaining separate. Because of that diversity and the nation’s drifting from its historic Christian roots, Canada is one of the most postmodern cultures in the world.

“When you share your faith with someone,” Barry explains, “you cannot assume that they know anything about the Bible. You cannot assume that they have heard the story of the Good Samaritan or of Noah and the flood, so you can’t make a passing reference to these stories without explaining what you mean. You would go right over some of their heads.”

“It is challenging to reach this generation of Canadians,” LaWanda adds. “Because of this it often takes much longer to plant a church.

“We’ve lost several church planters across Canada because they couldn’t handle the discouragement factor,” she says.

But the problem isn’t just among Anglo church starters. Even immigrant church starters coming from other nations share the same frustration.

“People come here to make money,” LaWanda continues. “It’s the Land of Opportunity. They don’t have time for God because they buy into the Western mind-set that possessions — which they lacked at home — are what bring happiness.”

That’s why the Bonneys need Southern Baptist prayer and financial support.

“We believe that part of God’s plan is to bring the world’s unreached people to the province of Ontario where they can hear the gospel and influence their families back home. We know that 30 percent of Canada’s immigrants have arrived in the past 10 years. We also know that more than 50 percent of the nation’s immigrants from 180 nations eventually end up in the Toronto area,” LaWanda said.

“The world is coming here but it is not being reached. One key to reaching them will be through multicultural churches with multicultural leadership. Our passion is to see these people come to know Christ and share him with their countrymen as missionaries to their own people.”

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury