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A Church You Should Know: 614 Thorncliffe Park
A church like no other – the Thorncliffe Park Network is a 24/7 outreach made possible by the collaboration of Mennonite, Brethren and Salvation Army groups.

Statistics Canada predicts visible minorities, mainly South Asian and Chinese, will be majority populations in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal by 2017. That’s already true in Thorncliffe Park, a little-known part of Toronto where 35 apartment buildings house 30,000 people – 90 percent of them Muslim. A small group of Christians has chosen to live in this neighbourhood.

Members of a Christian network are befriending – and living among – South Asian immigrants.

Canada’s largest new-immigrant neighbourhood

Thorncliffe Park Drive was originally a racetrack, but the grandstands were replaced with the 35 apartment buildings. According to the 2006 census, more than half the Thorncliffe population arrived in Canada in the past five years. Eighty percent are visible minorities, many from countries where it is illegal to convert to another faith. South Asians, many of whom speak Urdu, Dari, Punjabi and Pashto, make up 66 percent of the population.

While this high concentration of new immigrants is impressive, Thorncliffe is mainly famous for its school of 1,900 students. Thorncliffe Park Public School, Kindergarten to Grade 5, is the largest elementary school in North America! Representing 47 countries of origin, 93 percent of the students do not claim English as their first language.

A church without walls

The pastor* of the 614 Thorncliffe Park Network says: “We couldn’t believe an area like Thorncliffe exists in Canada. How could a community with the largest immigrant population in the country have only one church? Shouldn’t Christians be moving toward these areas, not away from them?”

As Christians become aware of areas like Thorncliffe, we need to “step back and redefine how we think of church,” reflects the pastor, who advocates a relational approach. “If we truly believe the church is the people, then we must learn from Jesus because He functioned almost completely relationally.” People who join the Thorncliffe community of faith live among the people – as Jesus did. They live in the same highrises, shop in nearby stores and send their kids to community schools.

Those interested in joining the network are “often the generation of 20- and 30-somethings who are looking for a smaller faith community with evidence of biblical authenticity applied every single day,” says the pastor. The result is a 24/7 church without walls. The Thorncliffe team demonstrates its philosophy of “living incarnationally by bringing together daily life, work and church all into one cohesive bond.” Rather than inviting neighbours to scheduled church programs, team members “love them as they ride the elevator together, walk down the hall or shop in the mall.”

Team members also get involved in local schools, the community centre or wherever they see an opportunity to be “salt and light” through the daily exchange of life. Instead of sponsoring a soccer ministry, they play soccer with kids in the park. They take their inspiration from Gospel accounts of Jesus meeting one person and accessing families and villages. Jesus didn’t invite them to the synagogue, He dropped by their homes, ate with them and shared stories about the kingdom.

Church historian Wayne Meeks suggests that the first church had a very different view of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ than we do today. “Becoming a Christian meant something like the experience of an immigrant who leaves his or her native land and then assimilates the culture of a new, adopted homeland” (The Origins of Christian Morality, Yale University Press, 1993). In other words, becoming a disciple wasn’t simply a heart change and changing moral behaviour, it involved the transformation of cultural values as well. Apparently, what’s old is new again.

What do the neighbours say?

How do these ethnically diverse neighbours perceive the Thorncliffe Park Christian community? One neighbour is quick to point out “They pray for me.” Another says he notices how “They are always helping people.”

Through the Salvation Army, the Thorncliffe Christians pass out winter jackets. They run summer festivals and teach Canadian traditions while building friendships. Neighbours frequently ask for help with immigration papers, English practice or homework for their kids.

The pastor comments: “Often I say, ‘We don’t do anything – but we do everything.’ We don’t funnel people into programs but everyone knows we’re available for practical help and prayer.”

A growing community of faith

“Frequently there is a need to deprogram church traditions,” says the pastor, “in order to see with new eyes how Christ equipped the disciples to share His message.” In this neighbourhood, the institutional church is completely foreign. Many ask questions about the Christian tradition and some request a Bible. Small groups are a mix of Christians and the curious.

Leaders call it a godparent approach, where neighbours are sponsored into the faith community to a deeper and deeper degree.

The Thorncliffe team has found a model for its ministry in David Garrison’s ten disciplines of “movemental Christianity,” which include extraordinary prayer, abundant seed-sowing, the authoritative Word of God, intentional church-planting and more. Garrison would say “Churches and believers are multiplied as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

A collaborative partnership

Team members have been moving into this neighbourhood over the past few years, praying and waiting on God. The answer came through a miraculous partnership of four strategic groups. The Mennonite Brethren and Vision Ministries drew up a partnership to see a local church established in Thorncliffe.

Leaside Bible Chapel played a partnering role along with the Salvation Army, whose headquarters is one block from Thorncliffe Park Drive. The result? A Mennonite Vision Salvation Brethren Ministries Army Church!

The challenge for the Church in urban areas like Thorncliffe is immense, but creative partnerships like the international 614 Network may prove to be an inspired answer.

Are there challenges?

“The challenges of church-planting are enormous,” admits the pastor of this little group. “But in an area like Thorncliffe Park, it requires a bona fide miracle!” In such situations it is a comfort to remember God’s promise: “Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told” (Habakkuk 1:5).

*The pastor is unnamed in order to protect relationships being built in the community.

Charlene de Haan is a freelance writer in Toronto. She also co-ordinates the EFC’s Missional Church Project.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2009.




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