Trustees see Toronto's 'vertical neighborhoods'

TORONTO (BP) -- For the first time in the 17-year history of the North American Mission Board, its trustees gathered on Canadian soil, and a vision tour preceding the Oct. 9 meeting revealed to many just how real the needs are.

Toronto, for example, is increasingly vertical as a large number of residents -- about 40 percent -- live in buildings of five stories or higher. High-rise condos are becoming the norm and are indicative not only of a population boom but also of a growing isolationism among residents in "vertical neighborhoods," as city coordinator Brett Porter of NAMB's Send North America: Toronto calls them.

"We have a whole new set of challenges as we try to reach vertical neighborhoods where access can be so difficult," Porter said. "Even the people who live in these buildings only have access to their own floors and no others, so floors don't mix well."

Populations the size of some small cities now can fill a single block in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as glassed-in urban residences launch skyward. In many places populations are expected to double in just a few years.

Construction cranes in the GTA are signs of this growth. Visible from nearly everywhere in the city, the number of active cranes is among the highest in the world.

The growing population and a growing skepticism toward Christians make Toronto an especially critical place for church planting. Jeff Christopherson, NAMB's regional vice president for Canada and the Northeast, noted when Christians are denied space in buildings that once housed churches you know you've reached a profound place.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote the Christian classic "The Pursuit of Holiness," was pastor of Avenue Road Church in Toronto -- which now is a Hari Krishna temple.

"Not many people know that A.W. Tozer pastored a church in Toronto," Christopherson said. "Now his church and a number of others are being rented by religious groups like the Hari Krishnas."

NAMB trustee Steve Holdaway, pastor of LifeSpring Church in Omaha, Neb., said he saw telltale signs of other types of growth in the area on the tour.

"I was struck by the beauty of the high-rise buildings and also by the reality of just how much of a multi-ethnic city Toronto is," Holdaway said. "Brett told us that more than half of the people in Toronto were born outside of Canada. I was also encouraged by how many church planters we met who are actually from Toronto. When you start raising up indigenous leaders like that it means the system is working."

Trustees loaded three buses heading out to the east and west sides of the city. They heard from native Torontonians, political refugees fleeing their countries and Southern Baptist church planters who moved to the GTA within the last few months or years. While stories of how they came to the area may vary, they shared the common conviction that God had placed them there to bring the Gospel to Canada's cultural and economic nerve center.

Among the planters trustees met was Robin Wasti.

Wasti hasn't seen his wife or kids since he fled Pakistan under religious persecution nearly three years ago. As he prayerfully awaits the reunion with his family, Wasti is doing in Toronto what caused him to flee Pakistan -- establishing Gospel communities among many different people groups. From Sikhs to Hindus to Muslims, Wasti is seeing the unlikeliest of people come to Christ and become leaders among their family, friends and neighbors.

"Here [in Toronto] we have the gift of worshipping and speaking the truth without persecution," Wasti told trustees as they gathered in the parking lot of a prominent Hindu temple in the Brampton area. Wasti and other key leaders have been successful in starting seven small groups of various ethnicities, including about 100 South Asians.

Church planter Mike Hauser, who left a prominent position at a large church in Toronto to plant a church in a neighboring community, summed up the mindset of reaching people in a place like Toronto.

"When God calls you to do something and you look around with your own eyes, you begin to think, 'There's nothing here!'" Hauser said. "That's when God says, 'I've got this. Just step out in faith.'" God often just wants us to make ourselves available."

If trustees had visited Toronto only a few years ago, there might not have been enough church planters for a worthwhile tour. But as trustees and planters gathered after the tour, it was obvious the tide in Toronto is changing.

"A few years ago I was personal friends with most of the planters in Toronto," Christopherson said. "I knew them because I had personally dragged them here myself. This is truly a historic moment not only for Toronto but for Canada as a whole."


Adam Miller writes for the North American Mission Board. To learn more about Toronto's needs and how to become involved, visit www.namb.net/toronto. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).