(Photo: Robert Robotham)
By Debra Fieguth
THE COMMUTE from the suburbs to downtown Toronto can be long, exhausting, or just plain boring. According to Statistics Canada, the trip to work in Toronto takes an average of 45 minutes each way – the longest in the country.
Plus, says Diocese of Toronto church-planter Ryan Sim, the commute dictates everything else about your life: waking and sleeping times, what you eat (because you’re in a hurry), what kind of childcare you get, what kind of car you drive, and what you do with the precious leisure time you do have.
So when he began researching the community of Ajax, just east of Toronto, in November 2011, Sim soon realized that the daily commute was a major factor influencing what kind of church life could even be possible.
A whopping 87 percent of working adults – including Sim’s wife – commutes from Ajax to somewhere else. “They clear out during the day,” says Sim, 32. “They spend very little time at home, and little time with their kids.”
His research – and much prayer – led the former web developer to create an app (or software program for mobile devices) that would give commuters a 10-minute daily segment on a topic important to them.
“Redeem the Commute” was launched in November 2012 with two main offerings – one on parenting and one on relationships. Since then, almost 500 people have installed the app on their mobile devices. Although the majority of users are in Canada, primarily in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), others from around the world have also downloaded the free app. When CBC TV picked up the story in January, 65 new users joined in one evening alone.
Although Ajax has about 110,000 people, the community has only one Anglican church, and that is on the outskirts. “Ajax has grown by leaps and bounds,” notes Sim. So there’s room for another Anglican church.
But Sim didn’t want to attract Christians from other local churches. “We wanted to plant a church that would reach people who weren’t already followers of Jesus,” he explains. For example, “Christians prioritize corporate worship. If you’re not a follower of Jesus you don’t have those priorities.” Sunday morning is often the only time for commuters to sleep in. “We’ve got people who have very little downtime.” With commuters, “there’s a huge barrier” between them and traditional church.
Redeem the Commute is aimed at those people – folks who don’t make church-going a priority and who have precious minutes of downtime when they’re travelling to work. The segments “don’t presume any Christian knowledge,” notes Sim, who partnered with Alpha to create the material. “But they do introduce some gospel priorities and values – in a gentle and inviting way.” Those who wish to go deeper can also take a “Christianity 101” course.
The way it works is that commuters on a GO train or in a carpool can view or listen to the material, then take part in a discussion with fellow travellers. “A lot of people ride the GO train with people they know,” Sim points out. That built-in community makes it easy to engage in discussion questions. For example, a recent segment in the 48-part parenting series talked about establishing routines. The discussion questions centred on what kind of routines parents have established and what they would like to establish.
Even with his web-development background – Sim owned his own web-hosting company before going to university – the computer-savvy priest “found this very challenging.” He worked with a company that is experienced in producing church materials, but it still took a long time to get the app up and running. “We’re doing something so complex and so big.” The app includes about 200 days of prepared content with fresh daily material being added as well.
Users first access the material anonymously. They can leave feedback online if they want, or join Sim for real-time discussion at Starbucks. That they haven’t yet taken him up on the offer doesn’t faze him. “What we have here is a process.”
Sim is rector of what is appropriately called Redeemer Anglican Church. But don’t look for a Sunday service near you just yet. “Approaches to church planting that try to move too quickly to worship tend to attract Christians from other churches,” Sim observes. “I really want to see new disciples made.”
First, “my dream is to see a network of small groups forming organically.” These can be formed by clusters of people following the Redeem the Commute courses.
Sometime in the future, he does hope to see a community of new believers gathering together to worship on a Sunday. But in the meantime he is patient. “We have a long road ahead of us and we have a lot of off-ramps.” TAP