Praise the Lord and pass the converter. The evangelical movement has received a makeover, nose-ring included.
No more the domain of sleazy TV pastors in seersucker suits, today's new evangelism plays straight to the youth demographic and high-energy versions of the old revival meeting are taking place in pubs, clubs and hockey rinks all over the country. For a growing number of Canadian kids, that old-time religion looks pretty cool.
The steady rise of evangelism in Canada is well-covered in Revealed: Hip 2B Holy (Monday, Global at 10 p.m.). The original documentary is narrated by Global anchor Kevin Newman, who also co-produced and co-wrote the film. The subject matter was a strong draw for the TV news veteran, who witnessed the hard-sell of American evangelism while working for ABC back in the nineties.
"Evangelicals believe they have a duty to spread the gospel," says Newman. "In the U.S., the evangelical strain has been fused with the fundamentalist strain; that isn't true here. The evangelical movement links into many different strains in Canada. We're a more secular country."
Keep in mind that approximately 80 per cent of Americans are regular churchgoers, whereas roughly 26 per cent of our population is. "The role traditional church plays in our lives is one of the major differences between Canadians and Americans," says Newman.
The film's genesis dates back a few years ago to a time when Newman began noticing signs for something called the Alpha Course. "At first I thought it was a self-help thing, an outreach program from the Anglican church," he says. "Later I learned it was a major evangelical campaign with billboards all over the country. It got me thinking maybe my eyes needed opening."
In consort with director Karen Pinker, Newman waded into the evangelical world. As shown in the report, the Alpha Course is a 10-week Bible primer conducted after work hours in bars, churches and any other available space. The course teaches the wonders of conservative Christianity and has apparently been taken by more than 10 million people worldwide.
In Toronto, the film interviews some Bay Street types who speak highly of the Alpha program. "Christians seem to be going one way and everyone else seems to be going another way," says one young devotee.
Alpha also has the backing of Vancouver billionaire and lifelong evangelical Christian Jim Pattison, who sees nothing wrong with the group's aggressive ad campaign. "You've got to appeal to young people," he says, "because that's the future of the country and the whole Christian movement."
And assorted offshoots of the evangelical faith have sprung up all over Canada. The program visits the fledgling Connexus Community Church in Barrie, Ont. A good portion of Connexus parishioners previously belonged to a conventional Presbyterian congregation. Now they meet Sunday mornings in a local movieplex, where thirtysomething pastor Carey Nieuwhof eases new members into the group ("How is this?" "This feel good?"). His gentle sermons are conveniently made available for video-on-demand download.
"He's pretty typical of what we saw across the country," Newman says. "It's not a rural western movement, it's an urban-surburban cross-Canada movement. These people are your neighbours; they just happen to have some interesting beliefs."
Also profiled is Nate Gerber, a 25-year-old youth pastor who uses music and dance to spread the word. The charismatic Gerber describes his group, the Divine Force Company, as "a Christian hip-hop dance team."
The cameras follow Gerber to an event in Kingston, Ont., put on by a travelling U.S. evangelical group. The Kingston Arena is packed to the rafters with young Christians who came to watch skateboarding and fire-jumping displays, in between the peace and love pitches. "Nate's there as an observer, but it's a very strident evangelical message. It's too in your face for him. It's not Canadian," says Newman.
The program also travels to Ottawa, where a group of young political activists are shown working to expand the evangelist agenda amongst Canadian power brokers. "Their political stance is a little more nuanced," says Newman. "They're seeking influence in any number of issues, including the environment, financial affairs and the assisted-suicide debate."
Politicians are listening. The evangelical rise in Canada coincides with the decline of other denominations. The United Church of Canada, for example, has seen its congregation dip by 20 per cent since the seventies; the Presbyterian Church has reportedly lost 36 per cent of its members.
Current polls figure Canadian evangelical membership to be somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of the population - and the number is steadily rising. And the Christian message has found its way to the highest corridors of power.
"What's interesting to me," says Newman, "is that we've had a succession of three prime ministers who self-identified themselves as being quite religious. Stephen Harper is evangelical; Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien, both strong Roman Catholics. Journalists don't often ask them about it, but it must influence how they see public policy. When they are asked, the usual answer is there's a line drawn between church and state. It's still a very interesting question."
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