Church Planting British Columbia (British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches)
The first Mennonite Brethren (MB) church in British Columbia (BC) was founded in Yarrow in 1929. The leaders of this church laid the foundation for MB church planting in the province. Leaders like Johannes A. Harder were very instrumental in shaping the early life of the Mennonite Brethren churches in BC.
Early concerns for evangelizing beyond Mennonite people was expressed in the formation of a "Randmission" or "Remote Missions Committee" and also by the appointment of a full-time worker in 1937, and a second one in 1939. They were assigned to conduct home Bible studies, organize Sunday Schools and plan worship services in several Fraser Valley communities. The formation of a City Missions committee was added in 1937 to work among the Russian-speaking people in Vancouver. In 1944 Henry G. Classen was appointed city missionary in Vancouver, with a mandate that included ministry to people in "skid row" areas. He also ministered among Chinese people, resulting in the birth of the Pacific Grace Chapel. Classen’s associate, Sue Neufeld was very instrumental in working with women and children. She was probably the first paid female pastoral assistant in the BC MB Conference.
During the 1940s and 1950s the vision for home missions amongst the Mennonite Brethren in BC grew from its infancy stages in reaching scattered Fraser Valley Mennonites to a broader vision for evangelizing non-Germanic people. Men like Peter F. Ewert, Abe J. Stobbe, John I. Wiebe and Klaas Enns became the early leaders, resulting in the formation of the West Coast Children’s Mission (WCCM) in 1945. This organization became the mission arm of the MB churches in BC, focusing on conducting Vacation Bible Schools (VBS). In 1947 VBS was conducted in 47 locations, with Sunday Schools offered in 24 locations.
West Coast Children’s Mission
In the early 1950s an average of 100 teachers serving in 50 or more schools were active in Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) throughout the province. Over 3,000 children were reached each year. In order to provide nurture for these children, a correspondence course was prepared by Martha (nee Braun) Peters. Approximately 1,500 lessons were sent out as a follow-up to these contacts. In the 1950s and 1960s, while the major focus was on conducting VBS in the summer, local fellowships were also started as a result of contacts made through these VBS efforts.
In the early years other mission ministries were formed. In 1945 a Sunday morning radio program, "The Gospel Hour," was launched, broadcast from Chilliwack (CHWK). Another Mennonite outreach was the Tract Mission of British Columbia, formed in 1946. It provided material that many used in personal evangelism. Officially, this ministry it was not part of the MB Conference mandate.
Canada Inland Mission and Beyond
In the late 1940s the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches was alerted to the need for evangelistic outreach to the Russian-speaking Dukhobor people living around the Grand Forks, BC area. Peter Schroeder was actively ministering in their midst with assistance of private support. The Canadian Conference assigned George H. Sukkau to oversee the work of its newly formed arm, the Canada Inland Mission. Two stations came under its umbrella in BC, Grand Forks and Port Edward. In the 1950s these stations were transferred to the BC MB Conference and thus came under the oversight of the West Coast Children’s Mission. With this shift, the Canada Inland Mission had completed its purpose. In 1958 the BC Mennonite Brethren Conference accepted the recommendation to change the name of the West Coast Children’s Mission to Mennonite Brethren Mission of British Columbia to reflect the broader scope of the work of the organization.
During those early years a number of men provided good leadership. Henry Warkentin served as a part-time director of WCCM, overseeing the VBS program as well as several new church plants. John Reimer succeeded Warkentin into the early 1960s. His aggressive efforts resulted in the growth of community churches. Jake Friesen succeeded Warkentin, highlighting pastoral care and spiritual concern in his ministry. In 1966 George Braun became the director, continuing until 1972.
Challenges to these early mission efforts came both from within and without. Not everyone agreed on the meaning and implications of "home missions." Further, the use of German as the language of worship among BC Mennonites created barriers between established churches and these newly established fellowships. British Columbians still had lingering memories of World War II and resisted any identification with Mennonite people, who were known for their German background and ethnic exclusiveness. Consequently, the name West Coast Children’s Mission became an acceptable name for outreach instead of a clear identity with Mennonite Brethren. For similar reasons, new church plants began to carry "Chapel" or "Community Church" in their name.
During the 1960s the earlier witness to children matured into the establishment of independent local congregations. In 1960 the Pedan Hill Church in Prince George (now Westwood Church) was birthed with John Esau as the founding pastor. A church in Ocean Falls functioned for a few years. In the later 1960s churches were planted in Williams Lake, Fort St. John, and Dawson Creek. At the same time, some of these new churches began to reach out to surrounding areas.
Years of Change
The change among established BC MB churches to an outreach focus was usually slow and at times interlaced with pain. Eventually, Mennonite Brethren churches began to refocus their purpose, showing concern to reach out to people of non-German and non-Mennonite backgrounds. In 1970 the provincial conference Missions Board became known as the Board of Church Extension (BOCE). The Conference was now ready for a director who would prioritize church planting. Nick J. Dyck, then pastoring the Central Heights Church, was called, and in May 1973 began promoting church planting in BC under the direction of the board.
At first, only a few churches were started each year. This changed dramatically when the board led by John V. Friesen agreed to setting a goal of "doubling in a decade." During the 1970s and 1980s three or four new churches were annually added to the conference membership. By the end of Nick J. Dyck’s fourteen-year tenure in 1987, 30 new churches had joined the conference.
Whereas the early decades of Mennonite Brethren life in British Columbia were noted for their concerted efforts in retaining ethnicity and the German language, later decades witnessed a multi-ethnic and multi-language MB Conference that received wide attention and acceptance. In 1972 the Fraserview Church gave support to Santosh Raj for the purpose of evangelizing local Indo-Canadian people, resulting in the formation of an Indo-Canadian church (the Hindi Punjabi Gospel Chapel). In 1980 the Bethel Chinese Mennonite Brethren Church was planted with David Poon as pastor. A Vietnamese church (Vietnamese MB Church of Love) was also started in the early 1980s with Camloc Lee as pastor. These were the pioneers, resulting in a growing list of non-Germanic ethnic churches started by the MB Conference in BC.
Years of Church Growth
After the effective church planting years of Nick Dyck from 1973 to 1987, Jake Balzer directed the work from 1987 to 1995. Nick Dyck’s leadership had been significantly influenced by the Church Growth movement, which placed a priority on intentional outreach through strategic church planting. Jake Balzer continued to built on these foundational church growth principles.
A major legacy of the church planting leadership given by Jake Balzer resulted in specific church planting goals set by the BC Conference. The idea of "doubling in a decade," alluding to the New Testament Antioch church, resulted in the adoption of the "Antioch Plan," which encouraged church planting in subsequent years.
Several strategic initiatives facilitated rapid growth during the 1980s and 1990s. One was the provision of significant funding for church planting by the BC MB Conference. The Conference adopted a formula in which one-third of its annual budget was designated for church planting, one-third for the support of Columbia Bible College and one-third for all other conference ministries.
Another intentional factor that facilitated growth was the "Church Builder Plan" whereby funds were raised at various events to help new churches acquire buildings. Congregations that received down payments for a church facility through this plan included those in Fort St. John, Kamloops, Harrison Hot Springs, South Langley and Williams Lake.
Facilitating Growth Influences
In 1989 the BC MB conference approved a mission and vision statement calling for an annual rate of membership growth in the conference of 7-9% per year, along with a guideline that at least 30% of the new churches come from visible minority groups in the province. The vision statement also called for the establishment of the Antioch 88 Commission whose purpose was to expand capital funding and implement the growth plans through regional church growth clinics, area dinners and promotional Sundays. These church-planting goals called for the start of four new churches each year. A factor that facilitated church planting during Balzer’s leadership was the appointment of veteran pastors as church planters, including Herb Neufeld, Paul Fast, Peter Nikkel and Merv Boschmann. During this period a church planting internship for younger leaders was also established.
Another significant impact was the emergence of flagship MB churches that set an example by giving priority to evangelism, including Westwood Church in Prince George, Willow Park in Kelowna, and the Gospel Chapel in Grand Forks. In the greater Vancouver area, Willingdon, Panorama and North Langley became flagship churches. In the Abbotsford areas, Northview, Central Heights, South Abbotsford and Bakerview were some of the churches that demonstrated healthy growth. Further, in the Lower Mainland the Clearbrook MB and the South Abbotsford churches provided leadership in planting daughter churches. Under the leadership of Jake Balzer, 35 new churches were started.
Church Planting Diversity
The leadership years of James Nikkel, 1995-2002 and of Geoff Neufeld from 2002-2006 focused on keeping the church planting momentum going. Under Nikkel’s leadership some 35 new churches were established with about half being ethnic-based churches. By the year 2000, BC MB members were worshipping in 17 different languages. During the four years of Geof Neufeld’s church planting leadership the focus shifted away from ethic language church plants to suburban church planting and mother-daughter church plants. With the dawn of the new century, a further significant influence on MB church planning strategy came from the seeker-sensitive and seeker-targeted movements modeled by well-known American pastors Bill Hybells and Rick Warren.
Major emphases after the year 2000 included the focus on "churches planting churches," and on larger churches forming satellite church campuses. The decade from 1995-2005 saw a number of Chinese churches planting daughter churches in the Vancouver area.
Urban Leadership Focus
With the appointment of Gordon Fleming as the Church Extension director in 2006, a new era emerged. The emphasis now shifted from starting churches based on BOCE identifying strategic locations and recruiting the church planter to having individuals identifying themselves as potential church planters based on a sense that God had called them to plant a church in a particular urban location. There was also an increased emphasis on church planter assessments and church planter internships before church planters were assigned to the area to which they sensed a call.
Another decision of the Board of Church Extension under Gordon Fleming leadership was the implementation of the policy that all new church plants need to have a parent-church relationship. There are no more independent or pioneer church plants initiated by the Board of Church Extension at the time of this writing in February 2009.
Rate of Growth over Eighty Years 1929–2009
In the first 40 years, 40 churches were established by the BC MB Conference. In the next 20 years, 43 churches were established which means in half the time the BC Conference established as many churches as it did in the first 40 years. In the next 10 years the BC MB Conference established 46 more churches, doubling the rate again. Then in the last eight years until the end of 2008, 51 new churches are emerging. In summary, over an eighty-year period the BC MB Conference launched some 180 churches.
The retention rate for church planting from 1929-2009 was about 78%, with 22% of the new starts either closing, becoming independent (non-denominational) or transferring to another denomination. Most of these closures happened after the first five years of their existence. Over the years BC has closed more established churches than church plants under BOCE care. An important observation is that many of the churches started by a mother church, which numbered about 60 of the some 180 church starts in 80 years, have become some of the larger churches in the BC Conference.
The British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches has developed gifted and dedicated church planting leaders that have given visionary and strategic leadership to BC church planting over the decades. These leaders understood their times, making appropriate adjustments such as shifting the focus from children’s work to adult outreach, changing the language from German to English, shifting the location of new church plants from rural to urban locations and from a mono-Germanic ethnic focus to a multi-ethnic church planting focus. Other positive influences impacting the BC MB church planting movement came from para-church agencies such as the Navigators, Campus Crusade and from the Church Growth and the Charismatic movements. The Anabaptist theology of evangelism and discipleship was also a major factor in the BC story of growth. Another characteristic of the Mennonite Brethren churches over the years has been their ability to wisely adapt to and adopt from those agencies that are doing effective evangelism while at the same time remaining theologically faithful. That has been the story of Mennonite Brethren church planting in British Columbia, Canada.
Balzer, Jake. Interview by authors. 2009.
Braun, George. Interview by authors. 2009.
Fleming, Gord. Interview by authors. 2009.
Neufeld, Geoff. Interview by authors. 2009.
Schmidt, John. "Pilgrims in Paradise." D. Min. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1991.
Warkentin, Henry. Interview by authors. 2009.
Address: 101-32310 South Fraser Way, Abbotsford, BC V2T 1X1
Website: Church Planting BC
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To cite this page:
MLA style: Dyck, Nick J. and James R. Nikkel. "Church Planting British Columbia (British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. March 2009. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/board_of_church_extension_british_columbia_conference_of_mennonite_brethren_churches.
APA style: Dyck, Nick J. and James R. Nikkel. (March 2009). Church Planting British Columbia (British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/board_of_church_extension_british_columbia_conference_of_mennonite_brethren_churches.