WEEK OF PRAYER: Creativity meets church planting in Montreal

EDITOR'S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 6-13, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provide support for missionaries who serve on behalf of Southern Baptists across North America. With a goal of $70 million, this year's offering theme is "Here I am. Send Me." For more information, visit anniearmstrong.com. To read about other 2016 featured missionaries, visit anniearmstrong.com/missionaries-2016.

MONTREAL (BP) -- When Tony Silveira's family arrived in Montreal in 2006, the Portuguese native was not naive. After starting churches in Toronto for 12 years and assisting with efforts in Montreal, he knew challenges existed in cities where there was an apparent resistance to religion.

"In general, churches don't have a good reputation," Silveira said. "Religious words are curse words."

A city that he now says is against religion was once nicknamed "the city of 100 bell towers," evidenced by the presence of so many churches. Many were extraordinary cathedrals, some nearly 200 years old, with exquisite architecture. Today, most are empty on Sundays. Many of those bell-tower buildings are now tourist attractions.

Local governments have zoning laws that make locating churches on a main thoroughfare virtually impossible, which calls for creativity.

South Shore community

Montreal's regional population of more than 5 million people (with the core city occupying an island, much like Manhattan) is bounded on the south by the St. Lawrence River. The South Shore community where Silveira is church planting has about 1.5 million residents.

While permits for churches in high-traffic areas are impractical, municipalities are anxious for commerce. Silveira found prime real estate that has an estimated 200,000 cars passing every day and started The Studio, a convention center venue for business seminars and meetings -- and churches.

"It looks more like a Starbucks than a church," Silveira said. "It's cozy -- not too big."

Creating a business center aligned with Silveira's objective to reach marketplace leaders and university students. Besides community and business events, the venue now hosts six churches, three of which he started. This allows the Studio to double as a multi-congregational site, where each church pays rent to make the location viable.

Research reflects Montreal's ambivalence toward Christianity. While some statistics say less than .5 percent are Christian, Silveira believes it's closer to 7 or 8 percent.

"The Gospel is growing very fast here," he said.

That growth stems partly from youth rebellion, as teenagers and young adults often do the opposite of their parents during that stage of life, he noted.

"Millennials are where I see the best potential for growth," Silveira said. "Their parents are anti-church, and, naturally, when they go through the rebellious stages, they will look for church."

Churches across Montreal

Silveira brought about 27 years of church planting experience to Montreal from his work in Europe and Toronto. But he knew nothing about the North American Mission Board (NAMB), Send North America or the farm system.

That lack of knowledge changed when he met Jacques Avakian, NAMB's lead church planting catalyst for Quebec. Silveira's introduction to the farm system, NAMB's method for identifying and mentoring potential church planters, aligned with his vision and experience.

"I listened to his story and the vision God had given him," Avakian said. "I loved what I heard."

Meanwhile, Silveira was pleased to learn about what was already happening in Montreal.

"I was so touched by seeing the other church plants that NAMB has here," Silveira said. "The farm system was the first time I've ever heard about it. It's the best church planting model I've seen in the world.

"I started Passion Canada to mentor church planters," Silveira said of his registered ministry.

Passion Canada is the umbrella organization under which Silveira plants churches and mentors others. With The Studio, he's created a reproducible model.

"He is very creative," Avakian said. "His whole church planting strategy speaks for itself."

Silveira preaches at the 9:30 a.m. English multi-cultural service called The Church Unlimited. At 11:15 a.m., there's a French-speaking congregation called La 180 Zone. Then at 6:30 p.m., an English service called WeR1 (We Are One) has mostly youth and young adults. One of his protégés leads that service.

"I'm about to launch two other churches through the Passion Center," said Silveira, who intended to start six new churches by the end of 2015. (He calls The Studio the Passion Center when it's hosting churches.)

Meanwhile, he preaches every other week at a Mohawk First Nations church on the South Shore, and, when possible, he travels to Northern Quebec to minister to the Cree tribe.

The average giving of a Christian Quebec church member is $7 per week, Silveira said, which necessitates the business model he's chosen. His only other financial support comes from NAMB through the Cooperative Program (CP) and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering (AAEO).

"Without the CP and AAEO, I would not be where I am now," Silveira said.

That stability also allows him to plan proactively.

"My vision is to multiply what we have here," Silveira said. "I don't see that the next generation wants a mega church. What I foresee is opening multiple locations where 300 people can still do community.”

The next generation also isn't likely to want bell towers, preferring a simpler organic church model built on user-friendly evangelism, discipleship and fellowship, he said.

"I would like to expand the model with different flavors and styles of churches in different regions of Montreal."

Jim Burton is a photojournalist and writer living in Atlanta.
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