TORONTO (BP)–Christians praying for a movement of God should look north, specifically to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) with a population of 5.3 million and an urban sprawl that spans five Canadian cities. There, an ever-growing group of church planters believes God has called them to live out the principles of authentic Christianity as practiced by first-century followers of Christ.
Using the New Testament church in the Book of Acts as its blueprint, The Sanctuary church planting effort has increased from the “shared hope” of a few couples three years ago to a “leadership host” of more than 40 people who have left homes, careers and sometimes homelands to take part.
Acts records God’s miraculous works as His followers turned their backs on their earthly security and invested in more eternal pursuits. History is still recording the results of those early evangelists. Christ’s disciples were more than church planters. They were Kingdom multipliers who used church planting as their primary vehicle.
In Canada, church planting is uppermost in the minds and hearts of Southern Baptists. At the last annual convention of the last millennium, the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists (CCSB), 165 churches strong, unveiled its vision for 1,000 churches by the year 2020 — a vision that first “bubbled up during a prayer time at a gathering of dozens of Canadian pastors and leaders in August 1998,” recalls Gerry Taillon, the CCSB’s national ministry leader.
Jeff and Laura Christopherson were church planters in Calgary, Alberta, at the time. Jeff believed in the CCSB’s bold vision, and he and Laura began to pray about what God wanted them to do to become involved. The Christophersons were aware of the great need for churches in the GTA, and, although convention staff were fervently praying for churches there, they had no funds to back it up. The Christophersons and three other couples met in Oakville, a Toronto suburb, in the home of catalytic missionary Barry Bonney one weekend in May 2000. They prayed. The call to do something bigger than they could have imagined was confirmed.
“… and without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).”
Before the summer of 2000 ended, the Bonneys’ house resembled a biblical inn as four families, pets included, converged en masse and began the process of resettling uprooted lives.
God’s message to Jeff, the senior pastor, as he prepared to enter uncharted territory and become more than a church planter was clear:
1. Come and trust Me, and I will take care of you.
2. I’m going to do an incredible work.
3. Don’t try to steal My glory.
The vision: 25 church planting centers by the year 2020.
“What we’re doing is what Christ intended every church to do,” Jeff says. “No church should say: ‘We exist for ourselves’ and be satisfied with giving a little to the Cooperative Program.
“Every church we plant should be a church planting center. We don’t want to grow a megachurch. A church chooses whether to gather or give away. Most churches gather — but that’s when they stop multiplying and start adding.”
THE PLAN, A PLANTING OF THE LORD
Jeff and the others knew that to reach Canada they had to reach Toronto first. Toronto is the financial center of Canada and a major media center. The first church was planned for Oakville.
“The leaders of Canada live in Toronto,” Jeff says. “And the leaders of Toronto live in Oakville, a suburb of the GTA with a population of 160,000. If we can reach these people we can plant other churches.”
The name Sanctuary was prayerfully chosen to appeal to the fast-paced, high-earning, over-committed families who predominate the area. Sanctuary refers to a safe haven, as well as a place of spiritual significance.
The plan is to build a network of interdependent church planting centers that will help one another with programs, strategies, encouragement, finances, manpower and shared office space.
Seekers, new believers and more mature Christians were regularly reminded that they were planting more than a church. For example, in order to build multiplication into the DNA of every church plant, Jeff and the team explained to worshipers at the five preview services of the Oakville Sanctuary, that the entire offering would be set aside in a church planting fund for the second Sanctuary planned for Burlington, another city in the GTA.
“… for whoever wants to save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35).
From an initial group of four families in 2000, the leadership mushroomed into 19 teams and is still growing. Church planting teams are already in place for:
— Oakville — launched Sept. 9, 2001, already one of the six largest churches in the CCSB.
— Burlington — begun Jan. 12, 2003, and growing fast.
— Mississauga — first public worship on Easter 2003.
— Milton – inaugural services slated Sept. 7 and 28.
On-mission Christians from all over North America have become part of the GTA Sanctuary network. The leaders’ homes often resemble Bed & Breakfasts as they host new families who join the effort but have yet to find lodging.
“We have turned down church planters who want to plant a megachurch,” Jeff says. He encourages them to act on the vision they received from the Lord but does not include them in his team. All the people who have joined the Sanctuary thrust came without any salary or any promise of receiving one and signed a covenant that outlines the vision for starting church planting centers.
People have left high-profile careers with secure incomes in business and ministry to move to Canada’s most expensive neighborhood to be part of what God is doing there.
Having no money to offer has been a positive thing, Jeff says, because it acts as a filter. Only those who are willing to walk by faith — those who have counted the cost — are part of the team.
God was there first, preparing the soil for planting, then He called partners to The Sanctuary network — like the CCSB, the North American Mission Board and the Piedmont Baptist Association, as well as churches and individuals, that have volunteered to pray, to give and to go.
Piedmont Baptist Association, a relatively small Southern Baptist association in South Carolina, has partnered with The Sanctuary work with a vision to sponsor one of the churches to be planted in the GTA.
“It would cost about $130,000 per year to do this,” reports Broadus Moody, PBA’s director of missions. “Of course, this is a faith thing. We have no funds,” he adds. “It has to be of God. The Sanctuary church planting success has excited our association like nothing ever has before.”
The association requires a church to satisfy several distinctives before they will agree to a partnership:
— There must be theological agreement as to the inerrancy of Scripture.
— The leaders must be men of faith and integrity, who walk in the Spirit.
— The church must be Southern Baptist, in compliance with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
Taking the long way home from a trip to Chicago last year, Moody and his wife drove through the Toronto area doing something he called a “windshield prayer tour.” On that trip and two more with his associate, Keith Mincy, he was struck with the high number of rapidly growing communities with no evangelical witness in them. Compared to his state that has 43 associations and hundreds of churches, the Greater Toronto Area seemed like a vast unreached area.
After meeting Jeff and other members of The Sanctuary leadership team, Broadus was convinced that “God was actively at work, and we have to join Him.”
In December 2002, 15 pastors from the Piedmont Baptist Association visited the GTA. God touched their hearts as they caught the vision for planting more than a church. Then in February 2003, the association invited The Sanctuary team to South Carolina, all expenses paid, to share their vision in the churches.
The timing could not have been better. Eager to step out as an on-mission association and wanting to lead their churches to be on mission, PBA was actively looking and praying for where God wanted them to become involved. At that same time, The Sanctuary leaders were actively praying and seeking partners to help them achieve their God-given vision. In His way and time, the two were brought together.
“Toronto is such a rich mosaic,” Broadus says. “If you reach Toronto, you can reach the world.”
The Oakville Sanctuary already has 35 lay leaders, almost all recent converts, who are now on-mission Christians and integral parts of the vision. There are 13 families sensing God’s call to ministry. Instead of automatically pulling them out of their situations and pushing them into fulltime faith ministry, Jeff encourages them to prayerfully consider whether God wants them to leverage their influence in their current positions. Business leaders, professionals and people from every walk of life are buying into The Sanctuary’s vision of planting more than a church, one heart at a time.
Connie Cavanaugh is a writer and speaker living in Cochrane, Alberta. This article originally appeared in On Mission magazine, published by the North American Mission Board. Reprinted with permission. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: LOOKING TO MULITPLY.