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The Annie Armstrong Easter offering is part of the North American Mission Board annual campaign to support more than 5,000 missionaries serving in the United States, Canada and U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. That encompasses some 363 million people, who speak 350 languages.

It is estimated that more than 75 percent of those people are lost. 

That is why missionaries Matt and Arrica Hess from Northwest Mississippi are serving in Toronto, Canada. Here is his story:  

In 2010, I was serving as pastor to a rural church in Northwest, Mississippi just outside of Memphis, TN and completing my final year of seminary as well. God was saving people in the church, we were seeing growth, and we were leading quite comfortable lives. But suddenly, my wife Arrica and I began to sense that God was calling us to something new. As we sought the Lord through prayer and fasting, we knew our hearts were being pulled towards church planting. But of course the question was where?

That question weighed on our hearts heavily for several weeks. And then one day as I sat in seminary chapel, I heard a clear and distinct calling from the Lord. The preacher was talking about the need to plant churches in difficult regions around North America. He mentioned Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, and then finally he said there was a need to plant churches in Canada. Now I’d never visited Canada and I knew nothing about Canada but in that moment the words of Isaiah 6:8 rang crystal clear in my ears and in my heart! “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” In that moment I knew we had received our orders.

Who’s Jesus?

There are fewer places in North America more different than Memphis, TN and Toronto, ON. Around the world Memphis is known as “Home of the blues.”, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and yeah you can find some pretty decent barbecue around those parts as well. While the Greater Toronto Area is known for its incredible multiculturalism, beautiful and clean architecture, and of course Canada’s national sport, hockey. However, we quickly discovered that the spiritual climate was quite contrasting as well. We went from serving in the most churched state in the Southern Baptist Convention, Mississippi where there is 1 church for every 1,395 people to one of the least churched regions of North America with 1 church for every 117,000 people.

I’ll never forget one day while going door to door and sharing the Gospel we asked a young teen around 14 years old what he thought about Jesus? He replied, “Who’s Jesus?” I said, “you know Jesus Christ from the Bible”. He said he had never heard of Him. Afterwards, we realized that we could no longer assume that our new friends and neighbors were familiar with the Christian faith. But what we once viewed as obstacles, the Holy Spirit has turned into opportunities to make stronger disciples! We now think in steps. As a church we communicate “next steps” very clearly. We simply want to invite our community into taking one step closer to exploring who Jesus truly is. When we shifted our frame of mind into journeying with people regardless where they are on their path towards Christ, we began seeing God move in some amazing ways!

Of course you can’t do it!

One night, shortly after we had moved to Canada, we put the kids to bed, and Arrica and I settled in to relax and read. I was reading a book on church planting. In the book the author suggested that you should have a core group of at least fifty people before you start a church. My heart was immediately filled with anxiety. Our core group consisted of five people all from the same family…mine! And we hadn’t even taught our toddlers how to tithe yet. We were in trouble! Where would the money come from? How would we reach this vast community for Christ? Where would we meet for worship? Would anyone come?

The next morning I woke up early and went downstairs to our basement to pray. As I quieted my heart before the Lord all I could utter were five words, “God, I can’t do this.” Truth is, I didn’t know a thing about planting a church. Sure, our sending church First Baptist Church in Collierville, TN defines what a sending church should be about and had done a great job preparing us in our residency program. But the reality is, nothing can genuinely prepare the church planter for the difficult realities awaiting for him and his family once on the field.

As I spoke those words to the Lord, the Holy Spirit recalled a verse that we try to live our lives by found in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” It’s as if the Lord was saying, “Of course you can’t plant this church…but I can.” And when I gave up, that’s when God showed up.

We launched Fellowship Pickering in October 2013 and by the grace of God we have started two additional churches. Fellowship Church Rouge Park in 2015 and Fellowship Oshawa in the fall of 2016. We have seen over 100 baptisms, the beginnings of a church planting network on the East side of Toronto, seventy percent of Fellowship Pickering’s congregation comes from an unchurched background, and multiple lives impacted by the Gospel all for the glory of God. And the best part? We believe He’s only getting started!

Weakness equals strength.

We have learned some things about planting churches over the past few years but in return, planting churches has taught us much more. The Holy Spirit revealed idols in my heart that had to be uprooted for God to use me more effectively. I have learned that success can look like an overflowing worship service on Sunday morning but more likely in our context it looks like a one on one conversation with the spiritually curious on a Saturday afternoon at a soccer field. And most importantly, we have learned much about the character of God. Specifically, that He delights in using the weak. That “He opposes the proud but honours the humble.” He always has, and He always will. You see it wasn’t until I realized that our calling to plant churches had nothing to do with my ability and everything to do with His that He began to work in ways we never dreamt possible. May God keep us weak and fill us with His strength, in order for His Kingdom to advance!

“Fellowship Pickering launched in October 2013 and by the grace of God we have sent out two more gifted planters and their families along with a core group from Fellowship Pickering. Pastor Kesavan Balasingham and wife Viji started Fellowship Church Rouge Park which launched in 2015. While Pastor Jared Huntley and wife Jennifer started Fellowship Oshawa in the fall of 2016. We have seen over 100 baptisms, the beginnings of a church planting network on the East side of Toronto, seventy percent of Fellowship Pickering’s congregation comes from an unchurched background, and multiple lives impacted by the Gospel all for the glory of God. And the best part? We believe He’s only getting started!”

Hess, Matt. "Here Am I!" Send Me!" Annie Armstrong, North American Mission Board, 2017, https://www.anniearmstrong.com/here-am-i-send-me/

 

 

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North Italy. July.  Both bring to mind fun and smiles in their own unique way.  

When joined together by the simple preposition “in”, North Italy in July takes on a whole new meaning. Let me tell you about what we discovered on a July 5-13 mission vision trip there.

The Missouri Baptist Convention began work in Northern Italy last year and wants churches to go partner with a church or church planter in that area.   When we think of Italy, we automatically think of Rome, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church.  That is accurate, but while over 95% of the population in Italy claim to be Catholic, less than 10% are actually practicing their faith and attending church.  That leaves a large number of people who are unsure of their faith.  That is our target audience.

On July 5th, ten Missouri Baptists from across the state joined the trip organizer from the Missouri Baptist Convention, Rick Hedger and his wife Sandee, on a vision mission trip to North Italy.  Four were from a Kansas City area church, and four of us were from Wentzville. Departing Lambert airport on Thursday morning, we made a connection, then flew overnight arriving in Venice on a bright, sunny Friday morning.  Italian Customs was quick and easy, and we were soon on a bus, heading to our hotel in Mestre, a Venice suburb. The hotel we stayed in was across from the train station so we could get to the cities we were visiting easily and without the hassle of dragging luggage and checking in and out of hotels daily.  That was a wise plan by Rick! 

After checking in, we had lunch and met with Jesse Schreck, a young church planter there in Mestre. Jesse shared how the gospel is not viewed the same by everyone there.  Instead of being the sound of salvation and freedom, it may be viewed as another burden they must work for.  The need is for evangelists who can share the good news of God’s grace and mercy in the person of Jesus Christ.  That is something we can do.  Over the next five days we visited five cities and met with other church planters who were burdened for the souls of the people in their cities. 

Our mode of transportation was Trenitalia, the Italian train system.  Initially confusing, it became very easy to use the more we used it. Treviso was a short 15 minutes away and we met Pastor Caio of Agape church and his wife, Astrid, who along with the interpreter told us about the work they had started and how it grew to five other cities, in home churches as well as other small meeting locations.  One of the cities in work is Verona (remember Romeo and Juliet?) which we explored and fell in love with—just not enough time to visit, but will find time to pray for them.

We returned to Treviso on Sunday and visited their church, which had 100-150 people attending.  The youth had just returned from camp that week and were still excited to tell everyone what they had learned and how they had grown in the Lord.  We were welcomed with open arms, and we especially appreciated being driven back to the train station that afternoon as it would have been a long walk!

On Monday we jumped on the train to visit and prayerwalk around the university city of Padua. Pastor Caio has a home church established in Padua and asked us to pray for that work.   University towns usually have a humanistic mindset that is not open to the gospel. He told us that people want to learn English and using English as a second language (ESL) training was an opening to sharing the good news.  Like all the cities we visited, it was ancient and had beautiful buildings everywhere. 

By Tuesday we were becoming fluent in using the Trenitalia ticket kiosks and were ready to try the faster bullet train to Firenze, also known as Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. Renowned for many masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, it is home to Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture and many buildings that you would recognize byphoto.   We prayer walked our way through the side streets and met and had lunch with Pastor Scott Pethtel and his wife Dominque and their two daughters. They work with another couple who planted Mosaico Church 8 years ago, and today has an average attendance of 110. The church services are in English which draws those wanting to hear or learn English.  Again ESL training is the opening used for sharing the gospel.  

Before returning from Florence that afternoon we met with the International Mission Board coordinator for all of Italy, Charlie Worthy.  Charlie has been in country for over 15 years and knows how to share the gospel in Italy. His first question for us was, “What does your church do well?”  Once we know that, it is easy to determine what we can bring by way of support to the mission field in Italy, or anywhere. Charlie has created a summer work program for college age young people who are interested in missions in Italy. He has had over 70 interns involved over the past four years. Let me know if you want more information. 

The next day we took the train to Trieste, northeast of Venice, over by the border of Slovenia and met with Tyler and Jessica Stewart and their two young sons, Antonio and Giacomo, good strong Italian names!  They arrived in Trieste less than a year ago and are currently in language training with plans to plant a church within the next 18 months.  We would like to revisit when they are ready.

Our final day was spent sightseeing and touring around Venice. It is an adventure just to get there. A bus or train will get you to the boat ferry and taxi terminal which is the public transportation around Venice.  Upon arrival at the terminal, we caught the ferry to Saint Mark’s Square and joined thousands of my closest friends from around the world.  Literally. While waiting for a team member at the Dukes Palace at Saint Mark’s, we met a group from New Zealand who were on an around-the-world cruise!  The Square is amazing with the intricate stone sculpture and the art works on display. The view of the bay is beautiful and memorable.  Trekking across several bridges over the canals and through the streets, we made our way to the Rialto, the famous bridge whose name has been used on theaters, restaurants, beaches and even cities worldwide.  

But, when we saw the thousands of people in Venice visiting the Basilica of St. Mark, we cannot help but wonder how many of them have heard the good news of Jesus? Sure, they know about the Jesus on the cross, but do they know the resurrected Savior who wants a relationship with each of them?  We want to share that good news with them. It will take time, but we know how to do that. Are you ready to go and be a part? This was a vision trip, but we will return with a team next year.  There is planning to be done and recruiting team members as well. Watch and listen, as details will be forthcoming in the bulletin and website. 

  

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