Hip, young Christians taking "God's mission" to where Vancouverites live

Image by Hanna Stefan

Alastair Sterne plans to start a new church, and he's finding stony ground in Vancouver.

"I like that people in Vancouver really aren't interested in Jesus," said Sterne, 30, a musician-turned pastor who apprentices at Pacific Church in Yaletown. "I like the challenge."

Sterne is one of the growing numbers of Mennonite Brethren church planters, who, like good shepherds, consider it a mission from God to "plant churches" in the city's bustling communities. 

"If you look at the Christian message, if you really believe people are lost and need the grace that only God offers, then I want to go where there is most need," he said. 

Sterne became a Christian after his rock band broke up when he was 22 years old. After the break up, he said his life lacked direction and meaning. It was these feelings which later influenced his decision to join the ministry.

Young, cool pastors discussing faith over a few beers 

In a secular city like Vancouver, the church planters have discovered a colourful way to engage the community. The pastors are artists, musicians, and young people, ministering in school gyms, cinemas and public libraries. The sermons feature contemporary local rock bands that sing traditional hymns often accompanied by neon-colour electric guitars.

"It's about taking what's good in culture and affirming that," Sterne explained.

Aside from delivering sermons, Sterne organizes a social event called Beer & Theology where atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, get together, drink beer and hash out their faith -- or lack of faith.

Last Wednesday, 27 members met up to discuss the relationship between faith and science. One attendee wrote on the homepage: "Faith is trusting and insisting on your beliefs. Science is the process in which truth and facts are to be found. No relations unless they collide in one's mind."

Led by Adam Wiggins since 2007, the Pacific Church, holds a service every Sunday in a gym at the Elsie Roy Elementary School on Drake Street. But it also organizes fundraisers for the poor (associated with Food for the Hungry), and a free, family-oriented summer program called Art in the Park.

To plant a church involves reaching out to the urban population and helping them "find Jesus" with the help of the start-up congregation. A pastor plants a church when he (and his family) move into a community and build their church up from scratch.

Mennonites starting up churches

The prime mover in the church plant movement in Canada is the C2C Network. Largely associated with the Mennonite Brethren, C2C describes itself as the "catalyst for church planting" across the country.

Pastors join C2C, which pays a salary through an apprenticeship planter program for three years, until a plant becomes self-sufficient. New churches will get monthly support from a larger, established church. The money helps with office costs and engaging with the neighborhood during the week.

There's a rigorous three-interview process involved in becoming a church planter that determines whether the person has a "clear call," said Denise Kneebone, who administers training sessions at C2C. "We don't want them to get all the way down the road and discover it's not for them." 

C2C's seven-minute video on its website explains the network's ambitions. It begins with grey storm-clouded skies and grim circumstances. Canada's urban population is experiencing "profound ignorance" when it comes to Christian spirituality. People are lost and searching, but don't quite know what for. No one knows what's in the gospels -- let alone cares about Jesus, according to the people in the video.

BC: Canada's most secular province

In fact, Vancouverites don't seem to bother with religion much. The 2001 census found that more than one-third of British Columbians reported to have no religion. BC rivals the Yukon as Canada's most secular province.
Professionally designed websites and blogs mention an "authentic relationship with Christ," and tell visitors to "Come as you are." Each church plant engages with the city's diverse communities. There are churches called the HFAN Filipino, Vancouver Vietnamese, and Artisan for churchgoing creative types. Surrey has Arabic Church.

The Vancouver Vietnamese church, for example, was planted by Hung Phi who came to Vancouver from Edmonton. The church is geared toward first-generation Vietnamese, who experience language barriers and financial troubles among other immigration issues. He described his church plant as a form of outreach that involves "building up a community" not just a church.

Many planters follow the thinking of Timothy Keller, an American pastor of the wildly popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City that has over  5,000 followers every Sunday. Keller shuns the traditional evangelical label, because of it's fundamentalist and political overtones.

Angry, self-righteous religion: not the way to go 

In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Keller wrote:

“Churches that are filled with self-righteous, exclusive, insecure, angry, moralistic people are extremely unattractive ... Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their experience."

Keller became successful by recognizing what the advertising world has known for decades: young professionals and artists are hugely influential in shaping popular culture. And reaching that demographic involves meeting them on their terms. 

Edmund Gibbs, an expert in church growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary in California, was quoted in the New York Times, saying Keller understands the "strategic significance of the city" and "urban culture and the need to engage that diverse culture at every level."

But despite an evangelical movement that considers contemporary popular culture conducive to spreading its message, the new churches are still bound to a covenant that dictates traditional values. Women aren't pastors. Life begins at conception. There's a belief in creationism and in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"Embarrassing" religious attitudes 

The church plants don't seem to proselytize the political views often associated with evangelical Christianity. Sterne's sermon one Sunday morning focused on the danger of fear, misunderstanding and accusations. He read from and interpreted Book 5 of the Gospel of Mark when the scribes accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan to discredit the miracles he performs.

"Have you ever had someone accuse you of being Satan and mean it? Just imagine the tension in the situation. That'd be so stressful ... You really think this person is the embodiment of evil. The accuser himself ... And this can lead to all sorts of dangerous situations."  

But traditions are evident, for example, in pictures of a pastor husband and an adoring, supportive wife and often large families with more than two children posted on various churches' websites.

When asked questions to do with abortion and gay marriage, Nelson Boschman, who is a jazz musician and the pastor of Artisan, says he recognizes there are aspects of evangelicalism that are not open-minded. He admits they are "embarrassing" characteristics.

"Unfortunately, that is an aspect of the Church everybody sees," Boschman said. "The bigotry."

Citing one of his favorite quotes, Boschman puts the church planting message this way: "The Gospel is the good news that God has come to us in Christ to show us his love, save us from sin, and set up his kingdom, and shut down religion." 

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