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Offbeat Churches Lure Flock
Meeting House and others coming to a big screen near you.

They shuffle into their theatre seats with cups of coffee and looks of upbeat anticipation.

Bruxy Cavey
Bruxy Cavey

Some folks chat, some nibble on snacks. Others just wait expectantly for the feature attraction in one of the larger theatres at Ancaster's Silver City cinema complex.

But there isn't so much as a kernel of popcorn in sight. And it's hours before the day's screenings will begin. Instead of movie mags, audience members are thumbing through Bibles.

Suddenly, the lights dim and a rock band takes to the stage and belts out a Gospel tune. The crowd sings along, the adults clap in time, and the youngsters bounce in their seats.

Then it's sermon time and everyone sits back expectantly in their seats. But when the pastor takes to the stage, it's from the silver screen, his larger-than-life image staring out at the crowd courtesy of the miracle of technology.

Welcome to The Meeting House, "A church for people who aren't into church."

Some 300 to 400 people assemble every Sunday morning at the Meadowlands theatre complex for worship, a stimulating sermon and free coffee. They're just a fraction of the 2,500 people who attend The Meeting House's main church in Oakville and its three satellite locations.

The Meeting House's adherents are in turn just a fraction of the thousands of people across Canada flocking to unorthodox church services which more often than not are in the Evangelical fold. It's a trend that Christian churches of every stripe—most of which are struggling against dwindling numbers—are watching closely.

"Our largest demographic and the one we feel called to perform a service to are people who consider themselves spiritually open but who are disconnected from any form of organized religion," said Bruxy Cavey, the shaggy-haired minister whose erudite yet informal sermons fill four churches every Sunday morning.

"Disconnected is probably a mild term," Cavey said. "Some of them are just totally turned off from and angry towards organized religion. Yet they've got this God impulse that they don't know what to do with. They're reading Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer, watching Oprah and surfing the Internet in search of spiritual things.

Bibby reports people would attend church if there was more … response by clergy to their everyday needs.

Walk through any bookstore and you'll see how widespread spiritual hunger is today. At the same time, mainline Christian churches are losing adherents by the tens of thousands.

Some Protestant churches recorded double-digit losses in their ranks in the most recent Statistics Canada census data. While Roman Catholic numbers are up, analysts attribute the bulk of that growth to immigration.

At the same time, people identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation reached unprecedented heights, with "religious nones" taking a 44 percent leap to 4.8 million Canadians between 1991 and 2001.

In a 2003 poll by the Environics Research Group, 81 percent of respondents reported a strong belief in God, while two-thirds said it wasn't important to belong to a religious group.

Yet Evangelical churches are growing. No one is sure by how much because StatsCan only provides data for denominations with 60,000 adherents or more. Researchers affiliated with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) estimate there were about 3.2 million Evangelicals—almost 11 percent of the population—in 2001, up from 2.9 million in 1991.

Many Evangelical churches are also struggling with dwindling numbers, said Aileen Van Ginkel, an EFC executive who helps pastors minister more effectively. But overall, they are experiencing a steady but modest growth that is being led by offbeat churches like The Meeting House.

Ken Styles, lead pastor at the Silver City Meeting House location, said his church is Evangelical but only to a point. Their theology recognizes God is alive in peoples' lives and that the Bible is inspired by God. But they encourage their flock to be involved with the wider community, and schedule once-a-week home-church sessions on top of Sunday services to encourage that.

Ken Styles
Ken Styles—lead pastor at Silver City Meeting House, Ancaster, ON

"If a church is in survival mode, it's often because they're looking inward instead of looking to see what they can do for others," said David MacFarlane, an EFC executive who tracks national trends. He's watched The Meeting House and others—Nouvelle Vie in Longueuil, Que., Centre Street in Calgary—balloon in size as disenchanted Christians and the unchurched are drawn to them.

"I think what they have in common is a sense of mission," said MacFarlane. "They feel they're here not just for themselves but that they're here to make a difference in the lives of others."

Dr. John Stackhouse, who holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, University of British Columbia, said most churches have failed to remain relevant to the evolving spiritual needs of pluralistic Canada. But the churches who do stay abreast, whether they are offbeat or conservative, are growing.

Prof. Reginald Bibby, sociologist of religion at the University of Lethbridge, reports that more than half of the 80 percent of Canadians who don't attend weekly worship would be willing to consider going if churches could better meet their needs. In Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada, Bibby reports people would attend church if there was more youth ministry, lay involvement and response by clergy to their everyday needs.

Over at Silver City, a gaggle of junior highs are in a cinema discussing the theme of honesty, while across the hall, Cavey leads their parents through the heady stuff of Romans. Using a clip from Mel Gibson's blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, pieces of Scripture and quotations from secular philosophers, he makes the case that the Apostle Paul was against the corruption that had crept into ancient Judaism's governance and practise. It's a charge that Paul could just as easily make about large swaths of Christianity and many Christians today, Cavey tells them.

"Church history is pretty dark in phases and most of the time when it's dark, it's because they quoted bits and pieces of the Bible but then didn't actually follow the example of Jesus. We see that Christianity minus Christ is a pretty ugly monster," Cavey told the Spectator later in an interview.

Sharon Boase, a daily journalist since 1986, is Faith and Ethics Reporter for The Hamilton Spectator.

Originally published in The Hamilton Spectator, February 21, 2005.
Reprinted with the permission of The Hamilton Spectator.




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