Canada: Learning From Our Neighbors to the North
Canadian churches are pursuing evangelism with people who have little church background … as a process.
“Canada is just America living 20 years in the future.” Those words come from Bruxy Cavey, lead teaching pastor of The Meeting House, a Toronto-based church with almost 20 locations across Ontario. In an interview on unSeminary.com, Cavey explains that Canada is a little more uniform in its secularization than the United States but opportunities for sharing the gospel still abound. “Many people turned off of religion still have a soft spot for Jesus,” he says. “They are open to learning about Jesus, and if we can give them a safe space to ask questions, that has great appeal to many who aren’t sure if they believe in God.”
The Meeting House—founded in 1989 and today drawing more than 5,000 people each weekend across its campuses—is part of a new wave of very large churches populating Canada from coast to coast. My website of global megachurches (LeadNet.org/World) identifies some three dozen churches drawing worship attendances from 2,000 to over 8,000. I estimate a hundred more are in the 1,000 to 1,999 range.
The phone rings frequently at many of these larger churches as congregations of all sizes, both inside and outside the country, want to learn from them. “American churches could learn from Canadian churches how to approach evangelism in a more post-Christian secular culture,” says Brent Dolfo, a British Columbia-based Canadian on staff with Leadership Network. “Canadian churches are pursuing evangelism with people who have little church background—often called the ‘Nones’ for ‘no religious affiliation’—more as a process, using tools like the Alpha Course. Canadian churches are also seeing good success reaching new immigrants.”
A case in point is Centre Street Church, a multisite congregation based in inner-city Calgary, Alberta. Founded in 1957, it is one of Canada’s largest, drawing more than 7,000 each weekend.
The church works hard to focus on growth through outreach. “We exist to introduce people to Jesus Christ, and to help them become fully devoted followers of Christ,” says the video greeting on the church’s website. That involves both intentionality and creativity in Canada’s more secularized environment:
Alpha: Alpha Course is a small-group based, highly relational apologetic ministry birthed in England by an attorney (known there as a barrister) who set out to disprove the arguments for Christianity. This strategy has worked so well for Centre Street Church that they ran almost 100 groups last year.
Modeling began at the top. “As my wife Gwen and I co-hosted an Alpha group, we had the joy of introducing a number of people to Jesus,” says Senior Pastor Henry Schorr, who has led the church since 1981. “When the Alpha series ended, it would have been easy to encourage the new believers to attend church, get involved in a community group, pray for them, give them a hug and send them on their way. However, to have done so would have been little different than parents deserting their infant. Jesus didn’t call us to make converts but disciples, and so we invited the new believers to continue to journey with us in learning what it means to be fully devoted followers of Jesus—and what a blessing this process of growing together has been.” The next steps involved connecting them with various ministries in the church.
Recent immigrants: In 2013, the church opened its New Canadian Friendship Centre, which drew over 10,000 visitors in its first year. The sign-up sheets for English as a Second Language classes and career workshops filled up quickly, as did the many other programs offered.
“I remember the time when we first came to Canada,” says Pastor Ashwin Ramani, the Centre’s chaplain. “I didn’t know where to get my driver’s license or even how to find a house for rent. We were so fortunate to have people come alongside us—and we want to do that for others.”
Like many initiatives of the church, the New Canadian Friendship Centre tries to meet the needs of the general public. The Centre’s website, intentionally separate from the church’s website, affirms: “We believe in God’s command to care for the needs of all people and to make a positive impact in our society. The Centre seeks to demonstrate God’s unconditional love, and therefore its programs and services are offered free of cost to people of all faiths and cultures.”
Even so, given that all staff and volunteers are committed Christ followers who care deeply for their community, many salvation decisions have been traced to people whose first contact with the church was through the Friendship Centre.
Special Needs: Like many large churches, Centre Street Church runs a special needs ministry, but here too they seek to partner with the community. The church sponsored a national conference called Umbrella. Some of the workshops were overtly Christian, showcasing spiritual care of people with special needs, while the workshops of other groups demonstrated the best of what the community offers. Likewise, when the Calgary community’s annual “Journey Transition Fair” (for youth with a disability) needed a host location, the church warmly welcomed a variety of agencies, organizations and associations to answer questions and provide information—and they also added their own.
Global Outreach: The heartbeat for evangelism at Centre Street Church is both local and global. Through both finances and personnel, they support church planting, Bible translation, missionary support, short-term missions, agencies to end human trafficking and more. This two-way street both informs their outreach back home and also shapes how they approach their work internationally.
Through these and other approaches, Centre Street represents many Canadian churches that are finding effective ways to re-introduce Jesus into conversations. As the church website affirms, “We want to make an impact in your life, your community and in the world. How do we go about that? By leading people to Jesus and helping them become fully devoted followers of Christ. That’s the driving purpose behind everything we do.” That missional focus is a healthy one for American churches, and perhaps all others as well.
CENTRE STREET CHURCH AT A GLANCE
Pastor: Henry Schorr
Became senior pastor there: 1981
Founded: 1957 Affiliation: Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada
2014 average weekly worship attendance: 7,000
Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is research director for Leadership Network and author or co-author of 27 books for church leaders. Bird oversees Leadership Network’s list of global megachurches at LeadNet.org/world.