December 13, 2011 / Praxis
In this meditation on Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, Melissa Skelton urges us to embrace the voice of God speaking in the depths of our souls, and to not be afraid.
June 7, 2017
One of the great mysteries that has troubled philosophers and social theorists alike is why anybody believes anything at all. A more local Cascadian mystery is why anybody bothers with the church.
I recently saw an icon of Cascadia’s aggressive irreligiosity. I saw a man without a shirt who had tattooed onto his chest in enormous block letters the word Atheist. What you permanently ink on your flesh is a serious statement about belief.
Another powerful image of secularism comes from professor James K. A. Smith as he interprets Canada’s great philosopher Charles Taylor. Smith speaks of the immanent frame of secularism as a closed dome above our heads. But that dome has some cracks in it. And through those cracks you can see some stars. I’m convinced that reports of the church’s demise in Cascadia are overdone. God is still alive and well here, and the church is emerging. Yes, the story of church decline has some truth to it. However, it’s not the whole truth. There are cracks in it. Here are some of the stars:
It is hard to imagine a more Canadian church in all of Canada than Canadian Memorial United Church (CMUC), which was built to commemorate World War I. A Canadian Forces chaplain traveled the continent raising money to build his church in Vancouver. The neo-Gothic result is an architectural gem. Stained-glass windows commemorate each of the then-nine provinces of the dominion (plus Yukon Territory). The great window above the entryway hopes for an eschatological time when, as the text below it reads, “Right not might shall rule the world.” And the altar space has a copy of the book of remembrance listing the names of all the Canadians who died for their country in that war; the altar looks like a reliquary.
The church might have become a reliquary too. Many formerly gothic spaces in Vancouver have been replaced by condos and nightclubs, and a fair number of the other United Church of Canada (UCC) spaces that I’ve visited elsewhere are lifeless in worship. The UCC as a denomination has fought hard for inclusivity as a sort of New Democratic Party of prayer, and it has succeeded in many ways—gay marriage, for example, was legalized in Canada less than a decade after it was approved by the UCC in 1994. So what’s left for such a denomination to do when Canada is already in the running for nicest country on earth?
In this regard, CMUC has cultivated some of the entrepreneurial spirit of its founder. The gothic space is well lit, the sound is professionally done, and surprisingly, for a mainline church the music is not terrible—they recruited their worship director from a vibrant multisite megachurch in the city. Their rendition of “Blessed Be the Name” has had words like Lord removed, as is the UCC’s wont—the UCC worries that speaking of God as Lord reifies hierarchy, so they generally hunt for alternatives. And Pastor Beth Hayward apologizes for the hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” as one that makes some “want to tear their hair out,” but she explains that “if you’re not a little uncomfortable in church you’re doing it wrong.”1 One retired UCC minister sneered that the music reminded him of Elton John. But others might say that the composer of “Candle in the Wind” has spoken more profoundly to his contemporaries than the average organ concerto or German anthem sung by paid choir members in other tall-steepled mainline parishes. CMUC shows that the worship wars are over. No one is debating whether we should use guitars or organs. The question now is whether we do whatever sort of music we do with excellence.
But the most interesting thing, perhaps, about CMUC is that it has hitched its wagon to the horse of evolutionary Christianity. This doctrine is not quite process theology, but it’s a close cousin and doesn’t do well with notions of a supreme or sovereign deity. Rather, taking in insights from modern science, evolutionary Christianity sees God, and all the rest of us, as on our way to becoming what we’ll eventually be. Evolutionary Christianity has as its leading saints thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who inspired Flannery O’Connor and the current pope (these are not liberals it seems worthwhile to point out). CMUC also makes room for unbelief. And as the current holder of the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology, I have watched proudly as a half dozen of our best students have been called to ministry from CMUC over the last ten years.
The Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby remarked recently that those churches that once thrived from European immigration have failed to attract Canada’s newer Asian immigrants and are thus in danger. “If you have stock in the United Church or the Anglican Church, Presbyterians or Lutherans, you’re going to lose a lot of money,” he said.2 That may be true writ large, but that doesn’t mean creative congregations like CMUC can’t carve out an alternative future of abundant life.
Dave Koop doesn’t look like your stereotypical church planter. He doesn’t sport skinny jeans, a soul patch, or product in hair. He doesn’t come off as cool—if anything he’s a little corny. In most services at Coastal Church, he and his wife, the Reverend Cheryl Koop, descend from the stage and do a little back-and-forth bantering routine as they deliver announcements. This is intentional. First, the pair seeks to buck the traditional gender hierarchy of conservative Pentecostals; they seek to demonstrate a woman’s capacity to lead. And second, they are quite consciously showing their love for each other. In the West End of Vancouver 60 percent of people live alone, fortressed in by towers of cash and glass. In their bantering, the Coastal Church pastors illustrate that relationship and connection are gifts from God.
When Koop started Coastal, many churches were pouring resources into the drug and poverty problems of the downtown Eastside, but few were investing in the more materially affluent but spiritually poor West End. Tim Keller has begun leading evangelicals to rediscover the cities, but Koop’s book, Making the City a Better Place, shows specifically why Coastal has worked. The book is winsome, generous, and willing to confess missteps: like the pastors at CMUC have found, “the unchurched community is attracted to a church that does not have the attitude that they are the only ones with the answers.”3
Koop’s teacher was the urban missiologist Ray Bakke, a leader who kept talking about God’s heart for the city while many evangelicals were fleeing it. Koop and his family fled in, encouraged by Bakke and a sending church, Victory Christian Centre in Surrey (now Relate Church). They had early hiccups. Street evangelism seemed too pushy to their new neighbors. Thousands of copies of the Jesus film went out in the mail, and no response came back. Direct phone campaigns yielded no guests. So they adjusted. They took Jesus’s words to the disciples in Luke 10 as a model, and they began meeting with people in their homes. They asked them what hurt, and they prayed for them. They befriended them over food. And they unpacked the gospel for them, particularly through a curriculum called the Alpha course. Here the city’s most crushing ailment—loneliness—was met head on.
When I visit Koop to learn more about his congregation, I’m first struck by Coastal’s building. It is a historic former Christian Science church that was acquired by developers before being sold to Coastal at a cut rate of more than $4 million. Believe it or not, this was a bargain even fourteen years ago. At the time, it was the first new real estate acquired by a church in downtown Vancouver in fifty years. Koop had fellow Pentecostals try to dissuade him from buying the traditional building. But he has found that people are drawn to a building that feels “safe” and “traditional,” one that “silently speaks twenty-four hours a day.”4 The building does its speaking on West Georgia at Alberni Street, which Koop describes as the Rodeo Drive of Vancouver. He points out Prada and De Beers stores to me: “Those used to be a 7-Eleven and a dollar store,” he says.
I ask Koop about secularization, about the theory that fewer and fewer North Americans are interested in the work of the church. In contrast, he tells me that “folks are much more open to us now than they were twenty years ago.” And even twenty years ago Coastal got help. Koop has one story after another of wealthy Vancouverites who went out of their way to help Coastal get a foothold in the city. One pulled a work crew off the Wall Centre to help refurbish the newly bought building. Another helped Coastal rent an otherwise unavailable space for the impossibly low figure of 10 dollars—not per square foot but ten loonies total. “We have Jimmy Pattison [one of BC’s most powerful businessmen] and Michael Bublé [an internationally celebrated musician] beside homeless people,” Koop told me. At Christmas, Coastal rents the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and fills it with a procession of flags from folks’ home countries—they had seventy-five last year. Koop tells stories of Coastal’s engagement with the city: holding a police appreciation day, making thousands of pancakes when the Olympic torch came by the church, opening up the building for a broadcast of Canada’s overtime gold medal win in the 2010 Olympics (its viewing party even landed on TV).
When I attend a worship service, I find that Coastal’s historic building is beautifully redone for contemporary worship. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the words behind the stage announce—neither a verse nor a translation that seeker-sensitive practitioners of the ’90s would have chosen. Coastal sold the air rights over their building for millions with which to redo the building and reach out to their community (a move pioneered by Christ Church Anglican Cathedral). That money funded a beautiful renovation—the building has the muscular solidity of a historic building with the technological adeptness of any contemporary theater. The music is hopping, as are the musicians who lead it—I sweat just watching them.
Surprisingly for this teacher of preaching, Koop is not a thrilling preacher. He is energetic, almost nerdy in his enthusiasm, but he is not necessarily excellent at the microphone. Yet somehow his authenticity and his trustworthiness comes through. Koop tells a story of a new church plant in the area approaching a hotel to rent a space. “Are you like Coastal?” they were asked. “Yes,” they said. “Then we’ll rent to you.” Koop observes, “Maybe we’ve helped advance the kingdom a little.” And thus he opened another crack for the stars to shine through.
The Cascadian story of secularization is also offset by another story: immigration. Some of the largest churches in the Lower Mainland are Roman Catholic immigrant parishes. St. Mary’s Joyce Street on the city’s southeast side has more than seven thousand parishioners in worship on a Sunday. More than six thousand worship at St. Andrew Kim in Surrey. These are largely immigrant parishes, with St. Mary’s largely being Filipino and St. Andrew’s, Korean. I ask Pavel Reid, the archdiocese’s director for life, marriage and family, what other denominations can learn from the Catholic story—“They should find a lot of folks from their denomination in another country who want to move to Canada,” he jokes.
But good ole fashioned pastoral work is essential too, as otherwise lots of churches fumble away natural advantages like immigration. In 2009, priests at St. Mary’s noticed exceedingly long lines for confession on Good Friday. In response, they added more confession times, and they still continue to do so. Sociologists observe that Pentecostals have cut into Catholics’ market dominance in Latin America with faith that is personal, warm, and vibrant. But Catholics have their own version of personal, warm, and vibrant, and it’s working in these parishes. The demographic of the Collingwood neighborhood, which was once largely white and middle class, has since blossomed into a diverse community representing at least eighty nationalities.
Personality matters too. Priests in both settings have been well-liked. “These things go in cycles,” says Vesna Jankovic, the first pastoral assistant at St. Mary’s. “We had a down cycle in the ’70s. I attribute the change to John Paul II and Francis and their way with young people—they have moved a whole generation. . . . Francis speaks well to my atheist relatives.” The Catholics also have more theological diversity in their midst than any group I’ve met within the Lower Mainland. “We have both prolife and soup-kitchen Catholics, social-justice and cultural-renewal people, peace-activist nuns and a fire-breathing bishop. And we have the numbers,” Reid says. Catholic masses are full all over the city. The archdiocese can’t open parishes quickly enough.
Catholics have never been culturally dominant in British Columbia. Reid points out that Catholic parishes built before World War II tend not to be on main streets. “The city was very English then,” he says of a day long gone. For the past five years the largest immigrant group to Canada has been Filipinos, a famously pious people. “The largest gathering in world history was World Youth Day in Manila,” Reid says, referring to the event in which some five million folks gathered with Pope John Paul II.
Reid describes the people of St. Mary’s as disproportionately young and zealous. “Filipinos don’t wait for priests to evangelize,” he said. “Lay people do it themselves.” Jankovic likewise tells of a group that goes out on Saturday night and offers refreshments at a nearby Pokestop. “There’s something called a triple lure there. So they feed people and try to talk to them about Jesus.” St. Mary’s has the energy of any evangelical megachurch I’ve been to—with nary an empty seat, and music that is loud and engaging. And it is markedly Catholic. A line forms in front of the statue of Jesus as parishioners seek to touch his immaculate heart with their hands or bulletins. Priests offer confession before and after every Mass—“I wouldn’t say continually,” she hedges, but clearly she’s proud it’s nearly so. And there is a powerful patron. “Whenever we have plans as a parish we take them to our Lady,” she says. “Her word is very powerful with her Son.”
The Catholic Church in Canada is learning some tricks from Protestants. Father James Mallon’s book Divine Renovation describes the way he revitalized his parish in Nova Scotia using the Alpha course—the very same curriculum used by Coastal Church in Vancouver—praise-and-worship music, and passionate language about Jesus. The book has been adopted across Canada by dioceses trying to live into Pope Benedict XVI’s “new evangelization.” Jankovic has seen European immigrants start in churches and eventually fade away as they became more Canadian—her own Croatian family fits this pattern—but younger immigrants today are actually more likely to be churchgoers than their parents, according to research by pollster Angus Reid. And they’re fervent: “They’re not just ticking off taking the sacrament,” Jankovic says. “They’re living out discipleship in every part of their lives.”5
I caught a glimpse of Vancouver’s Catholic fervor last fall when Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ was released. The archdiocese hosted a panel to react to the document, and they invited the press. Their sparkling new diocesan ministry center was full. Even the mayor of Vancouver came. “On his bike,” Reid adds. Gregor Robertson intends Vancouver to be the greenest city in the world by 2050. He’d been invited to the Vatican for that reason, and he reached out to the archbishop—who might be the only religious figure in the city capable of single-handedly moving a few thousand votes. No other Christian community could have pulled off a gathering quite like this. The Catholics may once have built their ministries on side streets in British Columbia, but now they occupy the main street, religiously speaking. “We were never in charge,” Reid tells me. “So we’re not mourning a lost Christendom.” They may instead be building a new one.
Before I visited the secularization-defying churches of Vancouver for this paper, my hypothesis was that churches only grow big with great preaching. But St. Mary’s may show this isn’t necessarily so, a conclusion echoed by a retired priest friend of mine:
Catholics don’t care much at all about a homily, particularly when the preacher is not speaking in the congregants’ mother tongue. Catholics tend to go to church for the sacrament, the obligation, the community—in that order. If they happen to bump into something like a decent homily, that’s fine, but it has almost nothing to do with why they go or where they show up.
No one I speak to mentions great preaching as they describe the parish’s growth. They mention prayer, immigration, transportation, Mary, and Manny Pacquio. It’s enough to set a preaching professor to worrying.
As the Catholic gathering with the mayor illustrates, one hallmark of Christendom has always been the church’s ability to get politicians on the phone. And if we use that as a metric for church health, then one little church in Richmond, British Columbia, shows that Christendom is far from dead.
One afternoon I was minding my own business in my seminary office when my student Father Hrant Tahanian came to me to ask for an extension in class. Why? “Because my parish is taking in eighty Syrian refugees,” he said. I almost choked on my coffee—I knew that his congregation was itself only three hundred members and twenty-five worshipers on an average Sunday. Eighty refugees? I had heard of churches banding together to take in one family of four or five people—but eighty? At thirty thousand dollars a head? “Yep. Want to donate?” That number subsequently climbed to eighty-eight in the church’s first wave of invites, and St. Gregory’s now awaits sixty-one more.
Father Hrant invited me to preach on Orthodox Christmas when the community would be welcoming the newly arrived refugees. There were three hours of smells and bells that interrupted my standard twenty-minute evangelical-and-mainline sermon. “That was very nice,” Father Hrant said. “And now Harjit Sajjan, defense minister of Canada, would like to say a few words.” Hrant had warned me that a few local politicians might show up, but he did not prepare me for the three members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, three members of the Parliament of Canada, or the Speaker of the provincial legislature. Sajjan later thanked St. Gregory’s for being a model for all Canadians.
These Orthodox are Armenian. Many of the church members were survivors or descendants of one of the first genocides in the twentieth century. They are therefore quick to recognize when someone else is in trouble and needs help. They have their politicians on speed dial. When the federal government promised to take in thirty thousand refugees in just a few months and then realized they didn’t know how to do it, it was communities like St. Gregory’s that promised to help settle the Syrian cousins of the Armenian Christians. This little church became a bridge culture for Ottawa. Following the Sunday service, the church agreed to take in one hundred more, again on their own nickel.
Churches across the theological spectrum assume that the bigger your congregation, the bigger your public witness. St. Gregory’s demonstrates that this is not necessarily true. Canada is justly proud of its open policies toward refugees compared to some other countries in North America. But that does not suggest that Canada is without need of assistance. St. Gregory’s was in a position to help—and to grow its congregation—simply by virtue of following the altruism of its faith.
For the record, though, Father Hrant can really preach. However, on that particular day he did not. It was a lesson for me that Jesus meets us in the whole liturgy—not just in the preached word.
I cheated a bit there by using St. Gregory’s as one of my stepping stones to illustrating the ways in which the church is growing in my community. St. Gregory’s happens to be in Richmond, about a half an hour south of downtown Vancouver. So let me return to the downtown peninsula. The journalist Frank Stirk is currently working on a history that traces the return of the church to the heart of the city. When Vancouver was founded in 1886 there were only six churches on the peninsula. In 1994 there were a grand total of nine churches on the peninsula—it took over a century for three additional churches to spring up in the area. Today, however, there are three times that number.
In 2013 Westside Church bought the Centre for Performing Arts. Two other companies tried and failed to bring Broadway-style entertainment to this venue. Now, each week a church fills the concert hall with well over one thousand people. Les Misérables failed to work but Ephesians does. The church is part of C2C, a multidenominational conservative church planting network that draws on Psalm 72, a verse that promises that the Lord’s dominion shall spread from “sea to sea.” It is this verse that inspired the Canadian Fathers of Confederation. Westside is considered the jewel of C2C’s crown.
For many years, Pastor Norman Funk served young adults at Willingdon, a large suburban megachurch in Burnaby. Mennonite Brethren are mixed on their own pacifist heritage, but unmixed on their desire to plant churches. And Funk’s decade there served him well—he had built-in members when he planted in Vancouver. Westside was founded in Kitsilano, then outgrew the space, moved to Granville Island, also outgrew that space, and he despaired. Old mentors at Willingdon asked about the performing arts center—which was quietly offering the building at $14 million. Funk said it might as well cost $14 billion. Word came back: one, where’s your faith? And two, half the money is already raised. Mark Burch, the new national director of C2C, said, “There’s plenty of money in Christian Canada if you know who and how to ask.”
Westside is also surprising in its approach. The church preaches in a line-by-line, exegetical form, which is more suggestive of a Bible study than a mode of preaching. I often hear mainline leaders bewail growing evangelical churches as nothing more than smoke machines and skinny jeans, but Westside does not market hipness; instead, it demonstrates the inanity of so much of our preaching. Apparently people do want to hear the Bible broken open, patiently, lovingly, in a way that informs our actual lives. The media has disparaged the church for its apparent conservative take on social hot-button issues (this just in: conservatives are conservative). And the growth of the church may in fact have little to do with overseas immigration, as it is likely attributable to the immigration of locals from Burnaby and the Fraser Valley—folks from Abbotsford settle in the city and hope to find a church that shares the values of their former one.
This essay has been a bit like the craft brew tour of Vancouver—we’ve rushed quickly through a crowded city, noted places that are full of people, gotten a small sip, and moved on. What can we say about commonalities? These churches show that excellent leadership matters. Each person at the microphone is winsome and inviting. But they offer more than the leadership of a good cruise host. They also invite hearers into something deeper, a life more profound and demanding than what we individuals could come up with on our own.
We also see that history and place matter. These churches each have a history so intricate it would take hundreds of pages to delineate the differences—Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox, Pentecostal. But they don’t front the brand—the labels don’t sell. What they front is their town. Each is located in a specific neighborhood, community, and city, and their love for the place is palpable. They want to see the flourishing of their place. They’re connected well, speak with local accents, praise local endeavors, and name local worries. And yet in the best glocal sort of way, they don’t limit themselves to what’s nearby. Global issues like refugee crises come up, and folks are given invitations to respond personally.
And it seems that the church that’s coming to Vancouver will likely be made up of more committed people, not fewer. As the gap between church and the wider culture grows, it will take serious wherewithal to commit publicly to Jesus, so those who affiliate with churches will be making intentional decisions that mark them as different from their neighbors. The church that’s coming will also be more Asian—Vancouver expects a million more immigrants by 2030. City leaders have not adequately prepared for the influx they know is coming—public transport and housing affordability are nowhere near ready. Is the church? These half dozen places say yes. May their tribe increase.
Jason Byassee teaches preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is a Methodist minister from North Carolina and is the author, most recently, of Trinity: The God We Don’t Know.