Many churches would be shocked and perhaps offended to hear their lead pastor say,
“THIS PLACE IS FOR SCUMBAGS.”
What the Deep Water Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has found is that the gospel not only changes the hearts of the “scumbags,” but also changes the hearts of those who are judgmental of those whose lives are less than perfectly put together.
AJ Thomas, founding pastor of Deep Water in 2007, has led the church since then except for a two-year stint in the United States. The congregation first met in an urban mall movie theater. In the fall of 2015, Deep Water bought a 100-year-old church building on North Street, in the heart of Halifax’s artistic community. With multiple services in a sanctuary that seats 200, Deep Water has grown to a congregation that averages 550 – 600 in worship attendance. On Easter Sunday, 772 people had attended. This makes it one of the larger evangelical churches in Halifax, whose population of 400,000 makes it the largest city in Atlantic Canada.
When asked about the church’s dramatic upswing in attendance, Thomas credited Alpha, a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith. Alpha includes food, a talk (live or by video) and discussion.
It’s about more than conversion; it’s also about discipleship.
He also credited Celebrate Recovery (CR) for putting them in touch with people who have hurts, habits and hang-ups. He cited a partnership with the Halifax Community Chaplaincy Society, which has referred a number of persons recently released from incarceration to Deep Water’s CR program. These are people endeavoring to reintegrate into society, many of whom are sex offenders who want to change.
Thomas said he was proud of the Deep Water board who deliberated only a few seconds when opportunities for such a partnership arose. They made sure their Child Protection Policy and safety measures were in place, but through this partnership and CR, they have seen many lives transformed.
One formerly-incarcerated man has been “made new” and is serving as a worship service sound technician. In the same media booth is a policeman who serves as a projectionist. Not only do the men work together, but they have developed a friendship. “It has been amazing to watch the transformation. It was a joy to watch the formerly-incarcerated man running around, handing out Christmas cards to people who have been meaningful to his spiritual growth,” said Thomas.
The policeman says it is easy to pray for “the guys,” his term for those who are overcoming their backgrounds, because he sees their pictures on the wall of the squad room. It reminds him, “Oh, yeah, these are my friends at church.”
The ripples from Deep Water’s impact continue to expand.
Misfortune has also extended the church’s influence. A young man, active on the worship team, got sick at church, was rushed to the hospital and died of a brain aneurism. He left a 27-year-old widow and a young daughter. This tragedy brought the church together, serving the widow and her family. More than 800 people attended the funeral, and some later began attending the church. Three other untimely deaths in the young congregation, including a suicide and a cancer victim, have had similar results. It’s because the church has learned to work with people who are profoundly broken.
Asked about the name, “Deep Water,” Thomas said it’s appropriate for Halifax, which is a major port city. It is also a way to emphasize that believers must follow Jesus into “deep water.” It’s about more than conversion; it’s also about discipleship. He assures those who attend that it’s okay to be a mess, to not have it all figured out. Consequently, those who come from non-church backgrounds tend to feel comfortable there. The church also attracts those who have been “burned by other churches” and have fallen away.
With the expanding church, the staff has enlarged to eight persons, including the site pastor for a new location across the harbor in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where Deep Water plans to begin services in the fall of 2019. So far, 100 people have signed up to be part of the new congregation, including some who were on the original launch team when Deep Water began 12 years ago.
In the spring of 2019, Deep Water adopted Metro Wesleyan Church, a struggling congregation in another part of Halifax. Ultimately, plans call for Deep Water to expand back into the community from which Metro came, with a new location and ministry.
Deep Water’s culture of acceptance has brought healing to lives in Halifax. The ripples from Deep Water’s impact continue to expand.