Hipsters of the holy: How a Toronto church became a hit with young believers
With slick social media, a gospel of self-help and services that look more like Arcade Fire concerts, a Toronto congregation is bucking the global trend of aging Christian congregations. Eric Andrew-Gee checks it out
Until recently, Aimee Burke was a cartoon of her generation. She cut hair on Toronto's gentrified Ossington Avenue. She partied a lot and was partial to coke. Her hookups comprised partners both male and female. She was unhappy.
Her life began to change, she said, with the appearance of an unusual tattoo. (Even her epiphany had a millennial cast.) About two years ago, a client at her salon flashed a wrist inked with an image of Christ. When Ms. Burke asked about it, the tattooed client said she belonged to a new Toronto church.
Soon after, having confirmed that she could attend in ripped jeans, Ms. Burke went to her first C3 Church service.
There was no guarantee she would be won over by a Pentecostal movement founded in Australia 35 years earlier as the Christian City Church and re-branded in the course of its rapid, worldwide growth.
"I'm pretty sure I went to the service hungover from the night before," she recalled.
But as the service wore on, she found herself weeping. "I just felt less empty."
"Everyone was within about 10 years of my age and I was 24 years old at the time. They were talking about God, but they looked like people I could party with," Ms. Burke said. "I felt like I could be myself right away."
The church had won a convert.
"As the Christians would say, I've surrendered over my life," she said recently. "I do everything. I pray in the morning, I pray at night, I read my Bible every day. … Now I'm waiting for marriage. I've been sober for almost two years."
Across the West, Christian congregations are aging and young unbelievers now outnumber their religiously committed peers in Canada, according to an Angus Reid survey last spring. But amid the general greying of the religious population, C3 has found a niche as a hipster church.
Although it will perform a water baptism if you so desire, its focus is a self-help message geared to the practical worries of young, alienated urbanites and a glossy social-media presence. It is making worshippers out of people who might otherwise have spent their Sundays scrolling through Tinder in a coffee shop. C3 has grown to include more than 450 churches around the world, including 11 congregations across Canada with about 3,000 parishioners total, and a Toronto branch so big it recently split into eastern and western "campuses."
"I think people are looking for something to believe in," Ms. Burke offered, "even if it's just themselves."
'Do life together'
On a recent Sunday, the foyer of Toronto's Central Technical School looked like the orchestra pit of an Arcade Fire concert.
Many forearms were covered with tattoos, many male faces were covered in beards and the median age was about 30.
The morning's second service at C3's western campus was about to begin, with close to 300 people in attendance.
The church does not have a bricks-and-mortar place of worship in Toronto, but in virtually every other way it presents as a thriving and exceptionally well-funded religious community.
Volunteers had placed little Christmas trees spangled with candy canes in the dank public school bathrooms.
Inside the school auditorium, volunteers with walkie-talkies in their back pockets arranged children artfully on a Persian rug in front of the stage for "Kids Takeover Service," in which the pastor's wife interviewed kids from the congregation on stage.
From the vantage point of most Christian churches in Canada, every day at C3 is Kids Takeover day. The youth of the place cuts sharply against the national trend.
"They've managed to do something a lot of people haven't managed to figure out," said Brian Clarke, a lecturer in the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology. "In 1961, the United Church of Canada looked like Canada, in terms of age profile, in terms of ethnic diversity. … You look now and it doesn't. United Church is not alone in that. All the larger Protestant churches have gone through that."
C3's demographics are no coincidence. The church carefully gears its message and outreach to striving young city-dwellers. The Toronto congregation has an Instagram page and a podcast. Photographers buzz around parish events snapping deftly lit photos for diffusion on social media. Sunday services open with a Christian rock concert.
Pastor Sam Picken started C3's Toronto chapter in 2012 with his wife, Jess Picken, and it has been a family affair ever since. They and their two small children are the face of the church.
On a recent Sunday, Jess introduced the congregation to Rocco, the C3 kids' mascot – an adult dressed in a plausible-looking raccoon costume – and recounted how "dope" the church Christmas party had been.
"We crowd-surfed people at our Christmas party," she said.
The church's upbeat, easy going style attracted many of the parishioners at its west end campus.
"The big thing here is people come and they don't feel pressured to be anything other than who they are," said Jonathan Li, 30. "It's more about having people to do life together.
"I think people are a lot lonelier these days, even with social media. … I think there's a false sense of connectedness there."
Mike Sexsmith, 32, is part of a church Connect Group – like a Bible study group, but not necessarily for studying the Bible – that meets to play a game called Spikeball.
The Greater Toronto Area has millions of people, he said, "but it's like the loneliest place in the world." At C3, "Guys just invite you to hang out."
When Mr. Picken walked on stage to deliver his sermon, he looked like a guy just inviting you to hang out. Dressed in tight black jeans and a denim shirt, his hair shaved on the sides, he carried a Bible and an iPad in the same hand, eventually reading from them both.
"God's presence is in this place," he said, as the band played softly in the background. "Thank you, Jesus."
His sermon that day was a riff on the theme of inadequacy, drawing widely from Biblical scripture.
"God is doing something massive in your life," he said in a rough-hewn Australian accent. "God has a strong plan for 2018."
"God is higher than your thinking," he went on. "If you are inadequate, he is adequate."
Parishioners urged him on. "Right!" "Yep!" "That's good!" "Come on!"
"Nobody understands why you give your money to the church," Mr. Picken said. "They don't understand why you give your time to the church."
It's true that some parishioners are misunderstood by their friends – colleagues at the salon call Ms. Burke "crazy Jesus lady" – and also that many parishioners give generously of their time and money. C3, which has a staff of seven including Mr. and Ms. Picken, is funded entirely by donations, like many churches. Worshippers at the Sunday service were given a card indicating giving options, including PayPal and regular automated debit transfers. "Take a moment to thank God for his faithfulness," it said.
The sermon gained urgency and intensity as it went. The overriding message was that inadequacy is something to embrace, not shy away from, because it brings one closer to Jesus.
"God wants to point a finger at your owie," Mr. Picken said, using the idiosyncratic, modern evangelical diction in which giving a sermon is "preaching a word" and caring for someone means "loving on" them. "Jesus is excited … to work in your stuff."
"Dear Jesus, I thank you that you died on a cross to work in my mess."
Mr. Picken was born in Australia 33 years ago and while he was raised Christian, he came across C3 while he was a musician playing bar-band classic rock covers.
His intense, declamatory style in the pulpit seems less inspired by the great rock n' roll frontmen than by self-help gurus like Tony Robbins. He said during his sermon that he listened to the podcasts of other preachers for inspiration; asked about his influences later in the day, Mr. Picken said: "Business books."
"Just like anyone else in an industry, you want to be the best you can possibly be."
His comfort with modern, secular rhetoric mirrors the church's ease with modern forms of communication.
"We use technology to try and advance the Gospel," Mr. Picken said. "I think Jesus would have had an Instagram account if he had been alive today."
Relationship, not rules
The church's modernity also extends to its social teaching. One of C3's selling points for the young and spiritually curious is that it avoids the language of judgment and sanction.
"We don't present ourselves in any sense as know-it-alls," Mr. Picken said. "We're trying not to offer rules, but relationship."
The church's disinclination to tell people how to live their lives seems to extend even to the fraught realm of same-sex relationships, which have so bedeviled modern Christianity. Mr. Picken tiptoed painstakingly around the subject, but ultimately deferred judgment.
"Sexuality is such a personal thing that to make a blanket statement about it feels really objective and impersonal," he said. "I see my role not to tell people what's right or wrong or what to do, but to point them to having a relationship with Jesus."
Prof. Clarke suggested that C3's studied neutrality on hot-button moral issues was a canny move for a growing church.
"I think a lot of churches realized part of their legacy was that they were judgmental and that turned a lot of people off," he said. "You've got to meet people where they are."
Aimee Burke is glad the church met her where she was. At C3, she felt like she could be herself, without feeling "self-condemned," she said. All the jokes about saying Hail Marys when she swears at work are worth it, Ms. Burke insists.
"This is going to sound really Christian-y," she said, "but it felt like the chains came off of me."
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