VANCOUVER, British Columbia (BP) — Young entrepreneurs Victor and Candice Thomas landed in Vancouver promising they’d never stay.
That was four years ago.
They came from South Africa so Victor could start a four-month stint as a researcher at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University — what he called an extended honeymoon for the newly married couple.
Three weeks before they were to return to Cape Town, however, Thomas walked the Burnaby campus of Simon Fraser, a quick train ride from downtown Vancouver.
His eyes seemed to open for the first time.
“I saw these students with blank looks on their faces, and I started to tear up. For a South African male, that’s not cool,” Thomas recounts of his 2007 experience. “It was as if God was saying, ‘Isn’t this the poverty I’ve called you to.'”
From a family with seven generations of pastors, Thomas told his friends he’d never be a pastor. He stayed true to his assertion for more than two decades, though he’d always served the poor alongside his dad. He also started a company consulting on construction projects in environmentally sensitive areas.
“Life was good back in Africa,” Thomas says. “I’d just hired a friend and we had several big contracts. We’d never intended to stay in Canada.”
God began to draw the Thomases to the work of The Point, and a long drive with the church’s then-planter, Kelly Manire, sealed the decision.
“He told us he was moving on,” Thomas recounts, “and that he wanted me and Candice to take over.”
The Point, although an existing Canadian National Baptist Convention church, had dwindled to a small Bible study. Taking over The Point would amount to a re-launch and, as Thomas saw it, a launching of additional campuses in Coquitlam and in downtown Vancouver.
Thomas is just one of several church planters serving in the greater Vancouver area, where the North American Mission Board launched Send North America: Vancouver on Nov. 8. Send North America is NAMB’s strategy to mobilize and assist churches and individuals in hands-on church planting throughout the United States and Canada.
In the beginning a dozen people would attend The Point’s Bible studies, but as the Thomases saw the potential for growth, they started a Sunday morning service. Now, about 40 attend Sunday worship in Burnaby, about half of them students and half non-students. Today across The Point’s four sites more than 90 people gather for weekend services.
“That has continued to grow as we’ve done community festivals,” Thomas says. “When God broke our heart for the city, it was for the whole city, not just for Burnaby Mountain.
Coquitlam was a key area that “God laid on our hearts,” Thomas says. “It is the least-churched area of metro Vancouver, which means it’s one the least-churched areas of North America.”
It also happens to be one of the fastest-growing areas of metro Vancouver and soon will be included on the SkyTrain line.
Outreach in Coquitlam began with a Bible study group last fall.
“I sent a semester missionary over there a couple of times to find a person of peace but he came back and said, ‘No one wanted to talk to me and I think security was following me,'” Thomas recounts of what he now counts as a miracle. “So I went with him and we prayed we’d find the right person to talk to for starting a student group.
“Sure enough we turned down a random corridor and came across a lady taking a picture. We started talking. Usually I’m a little reticent to come out and tell people what we’re doing, but I felt God saying, ‘Just tell her.'”
Thomas explained their idea of starting a Bible study on campus.
“It turns out that not only was she in charge of student groups at the campus, but she also happened to be from South Africa and had dated one of my uncles,” Thomas recounts. “She told us she’d help us work it out.”
Since that amazing day, Bible study groups at Coquitlam and in downtown Vancouver have been welcomed by campus officials and have grown both in size and in stories.
“One lady heard about Jesus for the first time and said, ‘Wow. He seems like an amazing person. Where can I learn more about Him?’ I told her there’s a whole book about Him called the Bible,” Thomas says. “She went home and read through the New Testament in a couple days and gave her life to Christ.
“She said, ‘I wonder why no one ever told me about Him before,’ I was amazed she had never heard the name Jesus.”
Though Thomas is planting churches in a traditionally Anglican city, a growing number (43 percent) of Vancouver residents claim no particular religious beliefs. And while 63 percent claim a general spirituality, the God of the Bible is far from their minds.
“There is only one Christian bookstore in the city,” Thomas notes. “And it’s difficult now to walk into a bookstore and find a Bible.”
As the Thomases continue the work of The Point throughout the city, they’re praying for partners to join them in prayer and in making Christ known throughout Vancouver.
Churches interested in partnering with a church planter in Vancouver can start the process by visiting www.namb.net and click on “mobilize me.” For more information about church planting efforts in Vancouver, visit www.namb.net/Vancouver.
Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
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