Ryan Sim is looking to start a new church in Ajax, a fast-growing suburb east of Toronto, Ontario. How are things developing in an area where over 80% of working age adults commute outside the area to work, and most have young families at home?
Concerned that busy commuters were too busy to try an event or service as their first point of contact with the gospel, I developed Redeem the Commute, a mobile app and web site with quality marriage, parenting, Christianity 101 courses and a daily discipleship challenge, all in less than 10 minutes a day.
This is no online church, however, users are encouraged to:
- share this content with commuters, colleagues, neighbours and others they know;
- form small group communities;
- grow deeper in discipleship;
- with time, come together for special events and corporate worship as Redeemer Church.
With technology as our primary medium for discipleship content, we have an abundance of statistics on hand at any time. Because we're planting a church – and not just trying to grow web site traffic – what's important is figuring out what the numbers really mean and not letting the numbers become the point of it all. We want to know the names and stories behind the numbers.
In saying that, things are developing well generally. We have seen the app installed on over 800 mobile devices since November 2012, most of them in our metropolitan area. That's in addition to hundreds of web and social media users a month, of whom a decent percentage remain engaged each month.
We're really encouraged by the overall numbers, but I like to use the parable of the sower to illustrate how visitor traffic is like the seeds sown. Some who've installed the app or visited the site will try it once and not return, or try it a few times and then stop. That's to be expected but the reason we sow seeds is in the hope that some will make it a regular habit, form small groups, eventually gather together as one and become followers of Jesus along the way. We are starting to hear a few stories like this, and I think we have huge potential for that to happen at a larger scale, but aren't there yet. Discipleship takes time, and our technological medium adds to that challenge.
We expected it to be challenging to reach a busy commuting population because they are barely at home and seldom look for extra events to attend that don't obviously add significant value to their lives. We would be asking them to reprioritise their schedules and lifestyles in order to hear the gospel. Instead, Redeem the Commute is about helping people hear the gospel even while they are overwhelmed by life, so a relationship with Jesus will help them reprioritize everything.
Adjusting to this way of life, as a pioneer, has been harder than I expected personally. The app was meant to be a way around that reality but it brings its own challenges; namely the anonymity of the Internet and Canadian privacy values. The neighbourhoods are very quiet during the day, and most people rush home in their cars, out again to activities, and back again for the kids' bedtime.
We are doing our best to engage with our neighbours and community, but it's a very different pace of life than we've experienced in rural, small town and urban settings. Having experienced this lifestyle first hand, I think we've made the right decision to connect with people as they commute, but it's a tough way to do ministry.
It means I continue to pour time and effort into discipling an audience I can't see, whose names I don't know, and who may or may not be local, unchurched people. It's up to them to tell me that kind of information (evangelism via technology is much like permission marketing), and it will take time to develop that kind of trust. At lunch with an Anglican priest recently, I told him that my ministry is much like preaching with a blindfold. We do miss the comfortable surroundings of an inherited church! Those who reach out first tend to be Christians already but that is no surprise – they know Redeem the Commute is part of the church 'family' and have a higher level of trust than an unchurched user.
I also haven't heard any stories of groups forming yet. I know we need to be patient, and we have a sense that the harvest will sprout from the ground all at once after a period of waiting, but we wouldn't mind a hint now and then that something is growing beneath the surface!
I've been surprised at the unexpected opportunities that have come our way. I expected the marriage, parenting and Christianity 101 courses we offer would be the 'draw' but, in fact, the most popular materials are our daily challenges focusing on different Christian themes.
These challenges were intended to be deeper content for those who were already followers of Jesus, or something people would grow into as they became disciples, but those statistics again show them to be are our top content. This means I'm putting a lot of effort into these, writing and filming them every week, which means that I have less time for other aspects of missional ministry that I'd hoped to engage in. I think it's a good sign, and the right place to put the emphasis right now, but engaging in this kind of ministry to commuters means we can't do the kind of events, ministry of presence and so on that other church plants or fresh expressions might engage in.
We are always adapting our content, and looking to offer new ways for people to make themselves known through things like surveys, story requests and event polls. A few people here and there take those opportunities but we'll just keep trying new things and measuring the results. We have a live Christianity 101 course starting this autumn in partnership with a local church, and know that we will meet some of our users there.
We also adjusted our group strategy. I expected to recruit Christians to lead small groups on trains and buses but, when they were difficult to find, we opted for a more organic approach using existing friendships – and that is better anyway. Other than that, we're not making any major changes and know we need to stick with it to give time for anonymous, busy, disconnected people to open up to the gospel and to one another, eventually forming a church body.
Encouragement comes from stories of people using our content and it sparking conversations with others, or changing their way of life. We've heard a few, but admittedly I long to hear more stories like this; they keep me going and give me hope that there is potential for a fresh expression of church to form. I've also suddenly started to hear from potential team members, which is great because those people have been very hard to come by until now. So we do have hope and we do have potential, not too bad at all at this stage of our journey.
(Photos: Michael Hudson Photography)