By Karen L. Willoughby
VICTORIA, BC—A church with the one-word name of “Canvas” meets each Sunday morning on the West shore of Victoria.
“God is always working, and always painting on a canvas bigger than we can see,” church planter/pastor Ashley Austin told Canada’s Horizon. “And the canvas on a sailboat is a great reminder that we can lift the sail but until the wind blows, the boat is not going anywhere. Much like we can lift the story of what God has done and is doing in our lives but until the Spirit breathes, nothing of lasting value is going to happen.”
Despite the lack of a permanent location for the five-year-old CNBC church plant, the congregation has grown to at least 400 different people who attend at least once a month, and a weekly crowd of about 325. It meets at a school, military activity centre or resort, depending on what’s available. Social media and word of mouth lets the congregation know where to meet.
About 368,000 people live in Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a ferry ride southwest of Vancouver and north of Seattle. The area has a population density greater than that of Toronto but a smaller number of evangelical churches.
Settled by the British in 1843, Victoria, provincial capital of British Columbia, is known for its world-famous Butchart Gardens, historic government buildings and a castle.
The growth of Canvas has come, the pastor said, through consistent and faithful prayer, developing meaningful relationships, being intentional at looking to see where God is working and living in surrender to His activity through serving others, and trusting God to do what only He can in His time.
Austin, formerly on staff for 13 years at First Baptist Church of Biloxi, Mississippi, led mission teams to Vancouver, BC, for a dozen years before sensing God’s call to Victoria.
“When we came here, we said we needed to learn a new ministry context,” Austin said, referring to his wife April and three sons, Max, Mitchell and Andrew, who moved with him in March 2013. “We knew God was calling us to plant life-giving, Jesus-focused, relationally driven, family strengthening, and community serving churches that matched our context and reflected what we saw in Scripture.
“We knew we needed to pray for our city, because we couldn’t do anything in our own power,” the church planter/pastor continued, citing Zechariah 4:6 (not by might nor by power but by my spirit, says the Lord God Almighty) and Psalm 121:1 (my help comes from the Lord) to add scriptural support to his words. “We knew if God didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen.”
Canvas began in September 2013 with nine adults and six children meeting in the Austin home. In January 2014, monthly worship services started in the ballroom at the Westin Bear Mountain Resort in the western part of Victoria. By September 2014, as the congregation grew, those became weekly gatherings.
“We felt God was calling us to serve our community,” Austin said. “We wanted our city to be a better place because Canvas is here. So we asked God, ‘How can we be a good neighbour? What can we do to add value and life to our city?’”
One of the first ministries God led the Austins to start was Canvas Camps. Canvas Camps are high quality, low-cost camps led by high-level coaches, athletes, artists and musicians. During the last six years more than 1,000 children have been involved in Canvas Camps! These camps have provided great learning experiences for the children in Victoria through sports as well as the arts.
“We want them to learn character, teamwork, self-discipline, and how to develop leadership skills,” Austin said. “We want them to become better at whatever sport or art they’re doing, and we want them to know there is a God who loves them and cares for them.”
The Canvas Camps, a big Family Festival on Victoria Day in late May, and appreciation barbeques for local community leaders—first responders and teachers—are some of the ways Canvas reaches out to its western Victoria neighbours.
Deep relationships have led to friends with a growing relationship with Jesus, Austin said. He meets each week in his office with three discipleship/leadership development groups comprised of approximately 40 different leaders at Canvas.
“All three groups are about life-on-life discipleship, leadership development, prayer, and looking to see what God is up to,” the pastor said. “We have a very high value on Jesus, relationship, and prayer.”
Canvas said he is grateful to partner with the WestCoast Baptist Association and Canadian National Baptist Convention. The WestCoast Baptist Association served initially as the Canvas financial hub and helped Canvas take steps to becoming its own society.
As to CNBC, the pastor noted the family connection and the support shown to pastors and their families, including the annual pastor/wives Oasis, and in helping Canvas develop mission partnerships in Havana, Cuba.
“We really want to be a church that is actively involved in joining God in what He is doing around the world,” Austin said. “We as a congregation long to see God doing what only He can through His people.”
Canvas started its second church in February 2017, with Mike Blackaby as campus pastor of Canvas Oak Bay, on the eastern side of Victoria.
“We are so grateful for the miraculous work God is doing in our city and on the Island,” Austin said. “We haven’t done anything other than look to see what God is doing and respond to God’s call and His activity.”