Glocal Lent Series: "A Story of Calling"
My journey into church planting begins with the first time I had ever experienced church.
Growing up, my dad would try to get me to church on most Sundays, but I already had a religion and it was football. Sundays were when I worshipped the Chicago Bears. Knowing this, he managed to get me to a Saturday night service when I was 13 years old (he was a tricky man). I had been to a few churches before that, but I only ever understood church as a ritual people participated in out of some sort of moral obligation or cultural habit. They told each other old stories from a book that taught them how to be good people, but it was terribly boring.
This Saturday was different. The church met in a warehouse. The pastor spoke on Mark 13 and said in no uncertain terms that Jesus knew the future, and was actively bringing it about today. The people sang songs with their hands lifted, and seemed to need God for something deeply personal. The next week, my dad took me to a nearby high school, because I guess this warehouse church had started another church there. We walked in and a young man greeted us warmly and excitedly. My dad told him I was in junior high, to which he responded, “Oh you’ll love the junior high group here!” and took my hand to lead me to the appropriate place. Normally I’d be in sheer panic at this point, because I knew how junior high kids were—they were evil. But something about his presence made me trust him. And this community ended up being unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I was welcomed by strangers. I was included for no reason. 13-year-old boys sang worship songs with one another for fun, when they were just hanging out. They talked about Jesus like they knew him, like they experienced him daily.
I began to read about Jesus and realized he was like them—or rather, they were like him. He ate with rejected people and welcomed them, because it wasn’t the healthy but the sick who needed a doctor. I had never seen anyone sit with the sick kids at lunch “just because”—I knew because I was one of them. As I read more, I realized that they were different because Jesus had given them new life, he had taken up residence in them, and that he’d do the same if I gave him my life. That was amazing to me. Sure, I knew I’d lose “friends” for this, but I had come realize they were only “friends” and Jesus had life, the kind of life nobody else could offer. So it was a no-brainer, really. I jumped in that baptism tank and never looked back.
This church plant taught me who Jesus was. I learned to worship with my whole heart, to pray boldly, to memorize Scripture (books at a time), to receive care, to share the good news of Jesus with others, and to love forgotten people. For all four years of high school I heard my youth pastor say, “The Great Commission means we should go unless we are called to stay.” And then in my senior year, he left for Spain, where he still labors for the Gospel. By this point, I understood fully that the Gospel was the greatest gift I could ever give another person. But somehow, I’d also picked up that a person doesn’t go into ministry full-time unless they can’t stand to do anything else with their lives. I loved school and could imagine hundreds of fulfilling careers, so I ruled it out.
I went to the University of Michigan on a math scholarship, moved into South Quad, and found a church I loved the first week on campus, New Life. This church operated as a sort of network of microchurches around the campus, so I went to one for South and West Quad (“Southwest”). We formally met in West Quad on Thursday nights, but it eventually dawned on me that church could happen anywhere at any time; I could invite four people from my hall to my dorm room and we could do exactly what we did on a Thursday night. That’s when I decided South Quad needed its own microchurch, and in faith, I would just ask God to bring the people. So in my third year, I started reaching out to people I knew, asking them to do church with me in South Quad, and two years and dozens of baptisms later we had 90 students gathering in 13 small groups as part of this microchurch we called Southside. I didn’t know that people in India would have called me a church planter. I just did what came naturally, and formed the same kind of Jesus-centered family that had changed my own life seven years earlier.
After experiencing all that God did in my own life and in this group of students, I really didn’t want to do anything else with my life. I found an even more passionate woman in Jessie, we raised our funds and began working at New Life full-time, reaching students. In the eight years since, we’ve grown more deeply in love with Jesus and one another, started five more microchurches, and felt a pull on our hearts to lend our love and leadership to a new place, where we could reach university students from around the world who didn’t have microchurches in their residence halls eager to reach them. I made a list of cities where I could continue to give away this gift of church among young people that had less access to the gospel than we had at U of M. The list read: Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston. Toronto came first because it was more international and less reached than the others from what I could tell. Plus we could drive there, and plane tickets are expensive.
We visited Toronto last Easter, and Daniel and Linda let us stay at their house while we navigated the city without a phone plan that worked in Canada (I never made that mistake again). We loved it, and could easily see ourselves making a home here. Jessie knew it was where we would end up, but I thought we might love the other cities as much. We headed out west in May and spent two weeks in California, visiting five more campuses. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t home for us. There seemed to be plenty of churches doing what we wanted to do, and I’ve always had that Romans 15 impulse to be where Christ was not known. I talked with other collegiate church planters and they had so many dreams and plans for students in American cities, but none were looking at Toronto.
After that trip, I didn’t even want to visit Chicago or Boston. I just kept thinking and dreaming about Toronto, about the wonderful students I had met here and how they told me that a church for them seemed unthinkable. I was scared that I wouldn’t know how to do it, wouldn’t be Canadian enough, wouldn’t know what to do where football games didn’t draw 110,000 fans on Saturdays, and where students went home at night. But I knew my soul wouldn’t settle until I tried. So that’s why I’m coming. And Trinity Life has felt like home during every Sunday service and every conversation with Daniel, Mike & Missy, Adam, Archie, and others. We know we’ll need a family here, and TLC has already become one for us.
By Mike Filicicchia