Last October, I had the privilege of travelling to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to meet AJ Thomas, the pastor of Deep Water Church. AJ is a really great guy who loves Jesus and his city, and I was excited to share his church’s story with Compassion’s sponsors in the January issue of Compassion Today. Today, I also get to share it with you. I hope you are blessed as you read it.
“Welcome to the dark side.”
This was not the greeting I expected when I first met AJ Thomas, the 30-year-old pastor of Deep Water Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As we drive from neighbouring Dartmouth toward downtown Halifax, where Deep Water meets every Sunday morning, he paints a picture of the city he finds himself in.
“Halifax is very much a post-Christian town,” he says as we drive through the narrow streets packed with parked cars. “People tend to be either apathetic or antagonistic towards Christianity here. A lot of people have the typical wrong ideas about Christianity and Jesus. It’s mostly the usual things we hear” –Christians are intolerant, and Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God – “but, the bonus is that culture is working to our advantage. We’re at a point now where we can say, ‘Hey, if I’m supposed to be open and tolerant about your lifestyle, you can do the same for me.’ [Some people] are at a place where they’re happy to hear a bit about anything – they’re not looking to become Christians or anything, but they’re interested to hear about a few things. I’ve found that the people I’ve met have respected what I believe, but… really, authentic Christians are seen as something of a novelty in this town.”
It would be difficult for anyone to argue that Canada on the whole holds to a “Christian” value set. In times past, even if people weren’t Christians, they’d still send their children to Sunday school to learn “good morals.” Today, those morals are seen as outdated, even offensive. They’re considered irrelevant in our much more open and affirming culture. “Anything goes, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else (or at least as long as it doesn’t hurt me)” is the philosophy of the day. And it’s no different in Halifax. Founded in 1749 as a naval and army base, the harbour city is one of Canada’s largest. The city grew as New Englanders moved to Nova Scotia, attracted by its busy shipping and fishing industries. Today, its port remains one of the busiest in the nation.
It’s also very much a drinking town, according to AJ. “The bar scene is huge here. In other places, that scene is something you grow out of; but here, you don’t. Instead, mom and dad leave the kids with a sitter, and head out to get hammered.”
And these are the people AJ and Deep Water Church are trying to reach.
AJ grew up the son of a Wesleyan pastor, in a happy, Godly family on a quiet residential street on the campus of a Bible College. “Basically all the things people say they never had, that was [our family].”
Around the age of 15, he started getting the impression that he would do something in ministry, but wasn’t sure exactly what that looked like (“At one point, I wanted to be a hairdresser,” he jokes.) Over the next few years, he developed a passion for the inner city, and went to Bible College.
“The idea was that I’d move to Toronto and work with homeless teenagers. God continued to refine and tweak that.”
After “stumbling” into youth ministry and leading worship, the positions he served in primarily before starting Deep Water, he felt burdened with a desire to do something a little different.
“When I moved here, I began to, for the first time, encounter people who just didn’t know [anything about Jesus]. They didn’t just assume that the Bible was true, that church was the place to go to find all the answers. They didn’t know the back story,” AJ explains. “It’s kind of like a superhero movie. Some don’t make any sense [if you] don’t know the back story. So I started meeting people like that – who didn’t know the back story, who didn’t know the Sunday school stories, all that [stuff.]
“And I started wondering, ‘Wouldn’t church look different if it was trying to connect with folks like that? Wouldn’t how we communicate Scripture look different if we didn’t assume that people didn’t know all that?’ [It seemed that] this was something God wanted me to do… to meet that need, that some people just don’t know enough to make an informed decision about following Jesus.”
When it became clear to him that this was God’s calling for his ministry, AJ shared his vision with his pastor. From there, he met with the church’s board, which backed him fully. His marching orders: “Recruit a team, take some money and go do it.”
For two Sundays, AJ stood before the congregation of Cole Harbour’s Hillside Wesleyan Church, sharing his heart and his vision for what Deep Water could be. Then, he waited.
“It was one of those scary moments because it was a long time before anyone signed up… but I realized that they were actually praying about it, really seeking God’s will.”
Over the next several weeks, people began signing up, and the launch team formed. After much hard work, including scouting over 40 different locations, Deep Water Church launched on November 4, 2007. “[The day we launched] we went out to eat and had a birthday party to celebrate. I gave what I hope was a pretty compelling speech, and said: ‘This is the birth of Deep Water and the death of this launch team.’ What will kill us is an ‘us and them’ mentality… [We wanted to make it clear] that was where the core started, but the heart and soul of Deep Water is both the people who were here before the launch and the people who came after.”
Sunday morning, AJ gets up to preach, after a short set from the church’s indie-rock worship team. He issues a challenge to the congregation: “I dare you to worship.”
He continues: “God gave us principles for worship, not methods. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Thou shalt play three rockin’ songs followed by two slower ones… He gives us principles, but not methods. Worship is important…but unless it’s backed up, it is repugnant to God.”
Preaching from the book of Amos, AJ explains how God describes the worship He desires: But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24). He elaborates with Paul’s appeal to the Roman church: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1).
“God is looking for lives that pursue justice… [People that] have given everything they are to Him. And worshipping together is a celebration [of this] and is sweet to God’s ears.”
AJ delivers hard words to his people, the only kind that truly transform culture. Many today, including several prominent church leaders, believe that preaching of this sort is passé and irrelevant, but he simply shrugs, “[Those people] are all wrong. I think people who argue that just don’t get it. Preaching has nothing to do with [a time]. God’s had people sharing His word in different cultures for centuries… The truth is people come to hear. The people who are really hungry for God want to hear about Him. People who don’t know Jesus don’t want to sing about Him. They don’t even really want to share their thoughts on Him right away… They want to hear.”
Creating a culture that embodies the pursuit of justice, the offering of oneself as a living sacrifice to God, is the heart of Deep Water. “How can we say we love God who we can’t see, when we don’t love our brother who we can?” asks AJ. “It’s important to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, but it’s right next to loving our neighbour like ourselves. That’s really a part of the heart and soul of who we are – beyond just being a part of what it means to be a Christian.”
AJ sees compassionate ministries as opportunities to share the gospel – although not just with the people they’re helping. “We don’t want to create ‘rice Christians,’ where if you don’t love Jesus, we won’t feed you… We see it as a chance to connect our unsaved friends with the mission of Jesus on this earth.”
“There are people who won’t come to church on a Sunday morning… but they will collect food and feed the hungry. So we [try] to build some common ground and move forward into what the gospel’s about.”
This ethos fuels international pursuits as well. Deep Water’s desire is to build an ongoing connection with a community in the developing world, focusing their international efforts and giving a face to poverty and the international church. A key partner in this: Compassion.
“One of the things we love about Compassion is they share that vision of partnership. They partner with the local church [both at here and in the developing world.] We all bring our best strengths to the table and can step back when the person who knows better than us is in the driver’s seat. When it comes to being the presence of God in a community? That’s the local church. When it comes to knowing how to feed, tutor and develop kids? That’s Compassion. When it comes to having money to give and some certain skilled labour, especially in the medical and technical fields? Let us contribute what we can.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel… so why would we do something on our own poorly when we could do it well with the experts?”