Category Archives: Religion

139 Pages

Just read through the complete text of the EFC report Hemorrhaging Faith.  

HemorrhagingFaith_cover

Although it is somewhat skewed by its biases, it’s a valuable document.  A solid research effort went into interviewing several thousand participants and analysing their responses.

All of the participants were between 18 and 34, and all had some kind of church background.  The study examines the extent to which they are currently engaged with the institutional church, and their reasons for their level of engagement.

It’s a welcome document, not least because it is firmly rooted in the Canadian context.  For once, we don’t have to rely on American materials to understand our culture.  The unique religious environment in Quebec is examined, as are the churchgoing trends of first-generation immigrants.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t go far enough.  It recognises the large number of young people who have rejected the church, and carefully notes their reasons, but doesn’t really allow that their criticisms might be valid.  The report sometimes feels as if it has been written by a group that used to enjoy a position of influence and prestige in society, and is frustrated that now it needs to compete on a level playing field with other sources of information and ideas.

Despite that, I’d recommend the report to any church leader, and I’d recommend thinking long and hard about the implications of the report’s findings.

 

Hemorrhaging Faith

At Vox Alliance church (the new name for Redwood Park Church) this morning, we were treated to a review of the report Hemorrhaging Faith, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.  This report looked at the reasons why people, and especially those in the 18-34 year old age group, are leaving the institutional church in Canada.

In some respects it addresses the same ground that has already been covered in the excellent book unChristian, but does so in a Canadian context.

I have yet to read the entire report, but several points caught my attention from the overview we were given.

Firstly, people’s attitudes towards the church are shaped by a variety of sources.  The primary influence on young people, perhaps surprisingly, is still their parents.  Whether positive or negative, our family experiences have a huge influence on the choices we make in life.  After parents, respondents said that their attitude towards church was shaped by their experiences or lack thereof of God, whether their church communities had felt authentic or hypocritical, and the nature of their churches’ formal teaching.

Another important point that was raised was that the biggest drop-off in church attendance is not at the end of teenagehood, but in tweenagehood.  The transition between Sunday School age and youth-group age, when kids start taking more responsibility for their own use of time, is one of the most critical life-transition events they will experience.

Unfortunately, however, the publication did not actually survey anyone in this age group, and so I feel missed out on one or two important reasons for kids choosing to leave church.

I attempted to correct this oversight this evening, with a couple of interviews with representatives of this age group, and learned that kids may choose to cease church attendance for the following reasons:

  • They do not feel they are able to ask questions, or engage in honest dialogue.
  • They are made to feel unwelcome.
  • Their time is constrained with growing responsibilities such as homework and jobs, and and there does not seem to be a clear sense of purpose in church attendance.
  • They have no age-group peers, and feel isolated.

But most importantly, I learned that kids also leave church not because they choose to, but because they are kicked out.  Kids who look wrong, dress wrong, talk wrong, or ask difficult questions are made to feel unwelcome or even asked directly to leave.

I appreciate the insight of the EVF report, but I feel that it is incomplete if it does not address the way that as well as failing to retain young people, at times the church directly drives them away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards a True Kinship of Faiths

For the past year or so I’ve been engaged in what I like to call a Church Crawl, whereby I visit different churches to get a feel for the varied and diverse expressions of Christianity in the city.

In his excellent book Towards a True Kinship of Faiths, the Dalai Lama goes several steps further, and provides a sympathetic and extremely well observed review of the teachings and practices of the major world religions, along with a well reasoned consideration of the challenges facing us as a global society as we figure out how to live side by side with people of different cultures and faiths.

One of his most interesting points is the way that he has seen first hand as a citizen of India the ways in which it is possible for those of different religions to live next door to each other peacefully.  He also fearlessly approaches the very real philosophical differences between the monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic traditions.

He makes no bones about his commitment to Buddhism, and yet his treatment of Christian theology is one of the most succinct and accurate that I have ever read.

Strongly recommended.

Church Crawl – Special Edition

Something slightly different today.  I’m posting this under ‘Barrie Church Crawl’ but the place I visited today was neither a church, nor in Barrie.  In fact, I got to visit the Gurdwara Jot Parkash Sahib in Brampton.

The occasion was a friend’s wedding, so this was a chance to experience a very different environment and see how another culture conducts its marriages.  So, in no particular order, some of my observations.

The bride looked stunning.  Compared with her striking redsalwar kameez, bracelets all the way up both arms, intricate make up and hennaed hands and feet, the standard western white dress looks a bit boring.

When we arrived at the Gurdwara we definitely felt like outsiders.  The folks who greeted us spoke very little English, and seemed a bit nonplussed at the idea of non Punjabi speakers visiting.  We ended up getting ‘parked’ in a small side room for an hour while we waited for the bride and groom to arrive.

Things improved when they did, however.  The celebrations were kicked off with a buffet featuring excellent samosas and other vegetarian finger food.  A Gurdwara has no chairs, so this was eaten sitting cross-legged on the floor in a basement dining area.

After a while we were ushered upstairs to the hall that the wedding ceremony would be held in.  Once again, we would be sitting on the floor.  Being a Sikh must mean that you develop strong back muscles – mine were pretty sore by the end of the day!  The ceremony started with twenty minutes of music played on two harmoniums and a tabla drum.

Interestingly, the bride and groom didn’t say anything during the ceremony.  There were a number of speeches or prayers by the leaders, and the couple processed slowly several times around the table holding the Sikh holy book. At one point, a small lump of sweet pudding was placed in each  hands of each guests to eat.

After the ceremony, we processed downstairs again for yet more food.

I’ve found a very good description of the structure and significance of a Sikh wedding at http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Attending_a_Sikh_Wedding.  I really should have printed it out beforehand, as there was very little guidance for non Punjabi speakers as to what was happening or why.

That said, I was very glad to have been able to experience this, both to be part of my friend’s wedding and to have a truly new cultural experience.

And finally, it’s nice to see that in an era of religious tensions, there is one symbol that young people of all different cultures and creeds have accepted as being truly valuable and meaningful.  I refer, of course, to the sacred and holy Apple iPhone.    Texting teenagers are just as prevalent in a Gurdwara as in any church that I’ve attended.

 

The Unpleasant Story of Samson.

A Bible study group I attended last night touched on some emotional nerves, as we talked through the end of Samson’s life.

I think that I react to what I perceive as glibness in the face of human suffering. If we’re talking about the story of Samson, we cannot ignore the fact that it ends with an act of terrorism, with profoundly disturbing similarities to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Here is a guy whose last act is one of religious vengeance: he knocks down two towers, killing himself and 3,000 other people.

I do not believe, I cannot believe, that Samson is to be in anyway respected or emulated.

And I guess I do find it worrying when we happily sit around splitting theological hairs about predestination and ignoring the horror of the passage that we are encountering. Maybe it’s because familiarity has dulled the human tragedy of the story? Maybe we say ‘it’s in the Bible, so it must be OK?’ Maybe we think that the point of the story is to give us a nice cozy life application for the week?

Or maybe we realise that if we looked too deeply, we’d have to acknowledge that the author of this story portrays God as being complicit in this massacre? And that’s not something that any of us are comfortable with, least of all me.

Some of our theologians deal with this by saying ‘yes, sure God can kill anyone he wants whenever he wants, and that’s fine.’

The first part of that sentence makes sense – if God is omnipotent, then of course he can.

The second implication in the sentence horrifies me. Because it tends to include the implication that we shouldn’t let this bother us. That to react emotionally to human death and suffering is somehow a sign of a weak faith.

If this is truly the case, then I don’t want that faith. I’d rather hold on to my humanity.

There are parallels with this and the unfortunate responses to grief that we’ve experienced occasionally. Some people think that if we can explain suffering, then we don’t need to console the grieving. That what the person suffering bereavement most needs is a helpful book explaining how their loss is all part of some bigger picture that they are unable to see.

This is, of course, callous in the extreme. A mourner doesn’t need an explanation. They need compassion. And they need someone to share their burden, not someone to tell them that it doesn’t exist.

Likewise on a larger scale. Faced with the horrors of genocide, of war, of sickness, of death, I don’t actually need or want someone to come along and say ‘yes, well, this is all perfectly OK because it fits neatly into my theological schema.’ I want someone to acknowledge the horror of what we are witnessing. I want a mourner, not a theologian.

I guess this is an easy trap to fall into. Preachers are taught that their job is to explain the passage. Here is a story of a man called Samson. Here is what happened in his life. Here is the background. Here is what other theologians have said about it. Here is what we can learn from the passage. Now we can go and have coffee.

But maybe that’s not the point? Maybe that’s not needed from the preacher? Maybe that’s not even the point of the story?

The art that we remember that comes out of atrocities is not abstract, clinical and structured. We remember Dulce et Decorum Est not because it gives a high level view of the political causes of the First World War or military strategy, but because it viscerally reveals to us the real experience of one individual caught up in the terror of a gas attack.

At that point the author, Wilfred Owen,  is not telling us about the grand meaning of the conflict. He is telling us what it is like to see his companion fail to get his gas mask on before the poison chokes his lungs.

We rush to explanation too fast. We want to say that we have mastered the passage.  What would happen if we were willing to say “huh. This is tough. This represents an ugly side of humanity. And maybe it even represents an ugly side of humanity’s concept of God.”

Breath Deep

I can’t really go on about embracing diversity and dialog and so on without linking to one of my favourite songs ever.  The Lost Dogs say it about as well as it can be said:

Church 34 – Mapleview Community Church

This Sunday I visited Mapleview Community Church.

I have less to say about this one than some others, not least because I didn’t really get the chance to talk to anybody.  Despite hanging around for 10 minutes after the service, no one introduced themselves to me, so unfortunately I have to score Mapleview a little low on the ‘friendliness’ scale.  I did see lots of other interactions between people though, so I expect it is a friendly community if you are an ‘insider’.

So, first impressions.  Mapleview meets in a large, new, purpose-built building near Essa and Mapleview.    The meeting room seems designed for warehouse concerts, and the service is well-attended, slickly organised, and loud.  Stylistically they are probably closest to Connexus out of the other churches in the city.

Mapleview is enthusiastically embracing modern technology.  The announcements were delivered in the form of a short video, and as the service started we were encouraged to ‘tweet’ our presence to our social networks.  This is also the first church I’ve been in that has a public WiFi network that I could connect to. The service I attended can in fact be viewed in full on Vimeo at  http://vimeo.com/44663738.

On reflection, I quite like this trend.   One of the main points of this church crawl is to encourage greater communication and dialog between the churches of the city.   If blogging, tweeting and facebook-ing encourage this conversation, then I’m all in favour.

Of course, these tools aren’t perfect.  One of the risks of social media is that we can, just like in meatspace, surround ourselves with voices that we agree with.  If I only ever listen to voices within my cultural, religious, and political tradition, I will mistakenly assume that the whole world agrees with me. I will only ask certain questions, and only consider certain answers.  History provides us with many painful examples of what happens when a culture collapses in on itself and refuses to see those outside as being fully human.

My hope is that we can have the courage to step beyond our comfort zones and engage in conversation with those who are different from us.   If you consider yourself politically left wing, try reading some articles from The Economist.  If you’re right wing, leaf through The Guardian occasionally.  If you mostly consume Canadian news, try Al Jazeera‘s  exceptional global reporting some time.  Read some religious blogs outside your church tradition.  Try Internet Monk, or Rachel Held Evans or Fred Clark.

And then engage in dialog.  In Barrie we’re lucky to have some quite fascinating discussion nights organised through David’s Temple.   Over the past few months we’ve had some wonderful opportunities for dialog across political, cultural and religious divides.

I hope to see this continue, and I’m glad that Mapleview is taking these opportunities to connect digitally to the broader community.

Church 33 – Barrie Victory Centre

I haven’t visited very many overtly charismatic churches in my church crawl yet, so I began to redress this imbalance on Thursday night with a visit to Barrie Victory Centre.  

I suppose it’s odd that we even have a distinction between charismatic/non charismatic.  Let’s face it, it’s an inescapable fact that the gospels are absolutely chock full of wild, crazy, supernatural stuff.

Think about the book of Mark.  We encounter the first miracle halfway into the first chapter.   In fact, a quick review reveals that every single one of the first eleven chapters of Mark describes at least one miracle.  Jesus heals people.  Jesus controls the forces of nature.  Jesus performs exorcisms, and even brings dead people back to life.

If all we had was the Gospel of Mark, we would have to assume that Christianity was about little else than healing, deliverance, and miracles.

Strangely, though, I haven’t actually heard much talk of this in most of the churches that I’ve visited so far.  One church even managed to preach an entire thirty minute sermon about Mark 1:29-34 without ever once mentioning the supernatural nature of the healings and exorcism that the passage talks about.

However, there are churches that talk about little else.  Barrie Victory Centre, for example.

Now, to be perfectly honest, there were a number of things that made me uncomfortable on Thursday night.   The sermon went on for 90 minutes and I have no idea what it was meant to be about.  I took pages of notes, and even after reviewing them now I still can’t figure out what the structure or intent of the talk was supposed to be.

What did stick in my mind ranged from the unfortunate (such as carrying around a whip for the entire sermon as a bizarre visual aid) to the downright dangerous (such as claiming that ‘Real Christians’ will never experience depression or burnout.)

The large and rather disconcerting banner at the front of the church portraying heavily armed soldiers and helicopters like something out of Apocalypse Now didn’t help either.

However, this is also a genuinely warm and friendly bunch of people.  Many folks greeted me before and after the service, and I had a pleasant chat with the pastor and other members of the the congregation.   And I’m actually very much in favour of the charismatic movement: some of my most formative Christian experiences have been in charismatic churches, and I find that they bring a dimension to our shared faith that is frequently missing in other churches.

On reflection, I suspect that the main problem here is dis-connectedness.  Other churches in Barrie could benefit from Victory’s expectation that the Holy Spirit is tangibly active in our community today.  Likewise, Victory could perhaps benefit from  a Christian Reformed approach to vigorous exegesis, or the Salvation Army’s practical approach to serving the local community.

By her own admission, Victory is not particularly connected to the other churches in the city, and this is unfortunate.  I’d love to see the mutual benefits that would happen if our charismatic churches engaged more fully with those whose emphasis is liturgy, social action, or theological reflection.

 

Church 32 – The Church at My Place

I love the idea of house church.   I expect that house churches tend to get less attention than they deserve.  By their very nature they tend to fly under our radars; they have no buildings, no staff, no marketing and no billboards.  But so far the house church experiences that I’ve had in Barrie have been very positive.

This Sunday at ‘The Church at My Place’ was no exception.  Just a handful of people meeting in a pleasant, upscale home to drink coffee, sing, discuss a passage from the bible, and take communion together.

I was warmly welcomed, and indeed my only real criticism would be the use of ‘iWorship‘ videos.  I’m not a big fan of these, whether in a mega-church or a living room, because they feel too much like a crutch.  I’m worried that we use multimedia technology because it is easier and safer than doing the work of liturgy ourselves.

Creating our own music might not sound so polished, and might take more work, and it might take time for us to become comfortable with it, but that’s kind of the point.

You see I believe that church,  just like childhood, should be about a process of growing and working towards maturity.

In fact, I have an interesting thought experiment to help you see how well your church might be doing in this area.

Imagine what would happen if one Sunday I walked into your church and pulled 20 people at random from the congregation.  No-one from the platform, just regular churchgoers.

And then imagine that I took them to a different city, and asked them to plant a church.

Could they do it?  Would they have the necessary ministry gifts?  Would they be able to learn, to pray, to grow?  What challenges would they face?  Would they be able to do it at all?

And if not, does that mean that our churches are not expecting people to reach maturity?


The Church at My Place has chosen to follow the lectionary for its readings, which I think is a nice touch.  It provides a sense of connection with the broader church, which could easily be a challenge for a very small group like this one.

Interestingly enough, the passage for this week was 1 Samuel 8, one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.  This is a  passage about the failure of civic institutions, and the universal human tendency to look for strong leader-figures to follow.

Samuel warns the people of Israel who are demanding a strong ruler that a king will mistreat them, tax them, send them to war, and ultimately enslave them.  The people, however, reply “No! We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Most of us want to know that we belong to a tribe, and that we have a leader we can look up to who will ‘go out before us and fight our battles’.
It might be the country we live in, or the company we work for, or the church we belong to, but this human need for identity and safety within a group is very strong.

However, on Sunday we also read the words of St. Paul where he reminds us that there is ‘One body, one hope, one Lord‘.  That as Christians, we look ultimately to Christ for leadership, rather than human authority figures.

These are words that are very close to my heart.  As I visit the different expressions of the church in the city, I have to keep reminding myself that there is, indeed, ‘one body’.

What would this mean in practice?  What would it look like for the churches in Barrie to relate to each other as parts of the same body?  Will it ever be possible for a Catholic priest and a Baptist pastor and an Orthodox lay-person and a Gospel Hall member to break bread and pray together?

We might have to bend some rules.  And we might need to take some risks.  And we might need to step out of our comfort zone a bit.  But I am convinced that this is what we are called to do.