A young church plant helps people in the diverse city of Toronto find their true home in God.
Meet the Schoenigers
Ben and Julia Schoeniger are an intercultural couple: Ben grew up in Germany, and did his bachelors in Theology at Liebenzell College in Germany; while Julia is Canadian and grew up in New Jersey. They met during a study abroad program in Lithuania. After a couple of years of dating, they decided that they wanted to bridge the distance by getting married. After a lot of praying, God opened up a path for them to become missionaries in Toronto, Canada, where they felt both their callings could be met. They got married in September of 2019 and right after moved to Berlin to start their church planting training program, before moving to Canada in the summer of 2020.
“Our assignment as missionaries started with a building,” Ben and Julia share. Constructed in the 1960’s and located in the northern part of Toronto, the church building where they live and work was originally home to a German congregation, but most of the members are aging and the future of the church is uncertain. Rather than see the building demolished or turned into something else, Liebenzell Mission wants to see it continue to be used for the Lord.
Central to Ben and Julia’s ministry is revitalizing the building and starting a new church plant called Reach North York (reachnorthyork.com).
What does day-to-day ministry look like?
Right now, a lot of renovations! Plus mentoring, discipleship, and some “foster-parenting” for members of the IMPACT Team Germany. Julia has started a women’s small group, and Ben leads a Bible study for students who want to dig deep into God’s word, in addition to being associate pastor for the church plant in Toronto.
From April to July, there were 4 IMPACT Germany volunteers staying with them, stranded in Toronto due to Covid and difficult host home situations. Mentoring them was both rewarding and challenging. “Sometimes I’m 18 years old with them; and sometimes I’m my 60-year-old mother telling them, ‘Don’t do that!’” Julia laughs. A new pair of volunteers from Germany joined them by the end of August, so the Schoenigers ask for prayer that they’ll have wisdom and joy to lead their current team.
Where does the ministry most need support right now?
Definitely prayer, but also volunteers for renovations. The building is solid (“it has good bones”), but needs a lot of work — some systems like the furnace are failing, and components like lighting and carpets need updating. “If anyone has a free week to volunteer,” Ben says, they’d be more than welcome! “Reach out to Ben — he’s the project master,” Julia says.
What spiritual needs are there in the city?
The motto for Reach North York is “A church to call home,” because while there’s plenty of good preaching at churches all over the city, what people are really searching for is “a home, a safe place where you belong,” says Ben. “People really want places where they can talk about themselves and their faith.” Because Toronto is such a diverse city, with so many students, the focus of the church is to give young people the chance to find their home in Jesus and His church. “We want to share and live the Gospel in ways that are relevant to the very diverse and fast-changing city of Toronto.”
It’s true that there are plenty of churches in Toronto that reflect the ethnic diversity of the city, like the Korean church down the street from Reach. But there’s a need for more multicultural churches, where second-generation believers who don’t want to go to an all-Korean or all-German church can worship with other young people who represent more of their Canadian background.
Despite Covid-19, Reach North York has grown, and adapted to holding outdoor and online worship services.
What have been some encouraging moments lately?
Because Covid-19 has still been affecting Canada and lockdowns have been frequent even into the summer, it’s been challenging to meet people. But “there’s been lots of growth despite Covid,” Julia reports. They’ve been able to take walks with people outside for times of fellowship, and have invested in quality digital media for their young church. Sermons get uploaded to the church website every week, and members can meet both in-person and online for live services and small groups. Recently, the church uploaded a pre-recorded Pentecost service with video submissions of different members participating and a guided prayer time to do at home. “We got a lot of positive feedback even from people in the US and Germany,” Ben says.
Another encouragement was seeing how committed one woman has become to Reach North York — a church she’d never been to in-person before. In the beginning, she only knew the lead pastor’s wife, but has been faithfully attending since January. First she brought her boyfriend, and then her little sister. “One of these days, you’re going to get the whole family!” she promised. This past June, Julia was able to meet with her for the first time.
And the most encouraging story recently came from a young man from India. He came to Toronto almost three years ago, met Jesus at the student Bible study, and was baptized last year. In his enthusiasm for Jesus, throughout the past year he’s told all his friends and family about his God and his faith. “He is a real ‘gospel multiplier,’” says Ben. Around Easter, the young man called his cousin in India. But when his grandmother heard that he was on the phone, she grabbed the device, retired to a quiet room and said, “My boy, tell me about Jesus!” After he told her about Jesus’ death and resurrection, she replied, “Yes, I think that’s true about Jesus. But I’ve had my own faith all my life and don’t think I can just throw it overboard.” What to do?
Then he remembered something Ben had said one Sunday morning: “We are not called to convince people, but to be a witness for Jesus.” So he said, “Grandma, do you want to pray with me that Jesus will come into your life and show you what to do?” And she said yes, and they prayed together.
”Toronto is a gateway to the entire world. Whatever happens here may become known anywhere in the world...and has influences that we cannot even imagine.
“Words cannot describe what was going on in me when I heard this statement. Hallelujah!” Ben wrote in their last newsletter. “If a grandmother in India hears of Jesus through our work here, what else does God have in mind in Peru, Bolivia, Vietnam, the Philippines or Jamaica? Toronto is so multicultural that the majority of people have families abroad, which means the city is a gateway to the entire world. Whatever happens here may become known anywhere in the world…and has influences that we cannot even imagine.”
What are some ministry goals for the future?
The biggest task at hand is deciding how exactly to use the church building. “Do whatever you want,” their supervisor told them, “as long as it’s leading people to Jesus.”
That’s a very open-ended prompt for a very big building. What should be the purpose of each room? Should this spare room become a nursery, or a space for counseling? How can the church serve the greater community (as well as grow with each other as a church)? The potential is vast, but so is the number of options before them. Pray that the Lord guides and makes clear all these future plans.
In the meantime, “our dream is to have more small groups during the week — as community groups where we dig deep into God´s word and apply His truths to our lives. Then the Sunday service can be a place for worship, encouragement, and vision.” They also plan to re-start an existing student ministry and get involved in the new food bank right around the corner.
Pray that Ben and Julia may continue to help ground others in Christ, and help people to grow in their relationship with Jesus so that they find their true home in God.
Ways to Pray
- Pray that the Schoenigers can be there for people who are suffering from loneliness and hopelessness, especially due to lockdowns.
- Pray that their new team leaders Sam & Anne Strauss will settle in well and bring together the missionary team working in and around Toronto.
- Give thanks that Julia and Zanna (the lead pastor’s wife) were able to start a small group of women, and that Ben’s small student group has grown.