Church 35 – Barrie Kingdom Hall

Another first for me; I’ve never visited a Kingdom Hall before.  I received a flyer through my door for a special service to be held on Tuesday night, so I jumped at the chance to add another checkmark to my church crawl.

It’s probably impossible for me to be truly objective about my visit, given the lectures that I’ve sat through on ‘Debating with Jehovah’s Witnesses’, and the strong antagonism between Evangelicals and JWs that I’ve observed.  But I’ll do my best.

First, my initial impressions.  Like most Kingdom Halls, this one was a squat, windowless building, definitely built for function rather than for decoration.  It was full to capacity, but I got the feeling that this was the JW equivalent of the ‘Christmas and Easter’ crowd. I estimated around 150 to 200 people present, but we were informed at the end of the service that there were 181 in attendance.

So, lesson one about Jehovah’s Witnesses: they really like accurate headcounts.

In general, the folks there were very friendly, and I was taken aback by how many knew my name. I would also guess that this was the most demographically diverse congregation I’ve visited so far; a wide range of ages and ethnicities were represented.

In many ways the service felt like a conservative Baptist or Brethren church. There was an opening song, a prayer, and then a talky bit of around 45 minutes.  Because this service was one of the highlights of the JW year, the talk was designed to give an overview of their theological distinctives.  To me, it felt like the first two thirds of the sermon would not be out of place in a church in the Reformed tradition.  We needed to have our Bibles on hair-trigger responses, as the speaker jumped from reference to reference.  I’d say at least once every minute I heard ‘friends, let’s open our Bibles to…

I’m beginning to think of this approach as ‘Lego Hermeneutics’ – dip into a big bucket of bible verses, pull out a selection,  stick them together end to end, and call the resulting contraption a formal theology.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if we took this approach to other forms of literature.  What would the underlying message of, say, War and Peace, be if we took 10 random sentences from it and strung it together?

Be that as it may, the first two thirds of the sermon would be familiar territory for anyone in a Reformed6a00e54fd89cec88340147e155b94d970b-800wi tradition, with lots of talk about sin, sacrifice and ransom.  But around the 30-minute mark, we got the JW theological distinctives.   In this system, ‘heaven’ is a reward for only 144000 specially chosen individuals, and is seen as very distinct from an ‘earthly paradise’ available to a greater number.

What fascinated me most about this unique reading of Revelation 7 was how it affected the manner in which the congregation took Communion.  When it came time, a plate with bread on it was passed solemnly along the pews, and then returned to the front.  Likewise, glasses of wine were passed around the congregation and then returned.


Seriously, four glasses went out, and four glasses came back, without a sip having been taken.

This is the only time that I have ever been invited to a meal, had the food laid out in front of me, and then watched as the host and all the guests carefully refused to eat.

Also, this is one of the few places I’ve attended that didn’t have coffee available after the service, too.

I’m a passionate believer in the value of eating together.  Tonight, 40 of my friends will be invading my kitchen to eat and to to talk and to remember the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.  And I can assure you that when bread or wine arrives at my table, I’ll enjoy it, not pass it back silently to the kitchen.



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  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.


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

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.

Church 31 – St. Andrew’s Presbyterian

Last week I got to visit St. Andrew’s church, located in the heart of Barrie at Owen and Worsley. I was glad to visit the day they were celebrating “Healing and Reconciliation Sunday.”

Reconciliation is a concept that is very close to my heart.  It’s hard to  work your way around the churches of Barrie without realizing that there are some deep divisions on the family of God.   Some of these are recent rifts,  and some are centuries old conflicts that successive waves of immigrants have brought with them from the Old World.  Very often I’ll encounter groups who define themselves not so much by who they are, but by who they are not.

So it’s fitting to have a day set aside to think about reconciliation.  This is, after all, at the heart of the gospel we claim to follow: reconciliation between God and humanity, but also between fractured groups and individuals.   In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds us that God has both reconciled us to himself, but also given us a ministry of reconciliation.  In 1 Corinthians 13, he highlights the primacy of love – something that has greater importance than any knowledge, gift or ability.   These and other verses framed the discussion of reconciliation presented at St. Andrew’s last week.

This was not purely a theoretical discussion.   The speaker admitted that the Presbyterian Church had suffered deep divisions in its recent past.  In 1925 the denomination split apart, with 60% joining the newly formed United church.  Congregations, missions, colleges and residential schools had to decide on which side of the divide they would belong. The speaker also took the opportunity to delve fearlessly into the church’s recent history with the residential school system.  This is obviously a large topic, and one which as a newcomer to Canada I’m still learning about.  It was good to hear the church recognize that in choosing to become an instrument of government policy in ‘civilizing’ aboriginal people, she had lost sight of her calling to love, understand and cherish the communities in which she worked.  It was also encouraging to hear about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, and the various attempts that are being made to bring healing to past hurts.

I didn’t have much time to meet folks afterwards, but I did find it a friendly and welcoming congregation.  Lots of people greeted me on the way in and out.

All in all a good morning.  Reconciliation is not an easy topic.  It involves digging up past hurts and taking a long, painful look at our own behaviors and prejudices etc.   But despite that I’m convinced that it lies at the heart of the gospel, and I’m very glad to see a congregation deal honestly with the challenge of reconciliation.

Church 30 – First Baptist Church

Continuing with the Baptist stream, I attended First Baptist this morning.  This is located at the far east end of the city, and I understand that it has been around for about 12 years.

In short, I really liked it.  It reminded me of Erindale Bible Chapel, the church we attended when we were living in Mississauga.  The architecture, the relaxed, warm feel to the service, and the sense of family that the congregation exhibited all seemed pleasantly familiar.  I get the feeling that this is a group of people who genuinely enjoy getting together for worship on a Sunday.

Musically, the service was a mix – we sung some hymns to the accompaniment of an organ, interspersed with a couple of songs led by an enthusiastic praise band.

It’s no secret that I don’t usually enjoy sitting through sermons, but I did appreciate this one.  Not least, because the topic of the sermon was grace.  For some reason, this is a subject that we talk about surprisingly infrequently.

The speaker took half an hour or so to talk about several of the people that Jesus showed grace to: Zaccheus, the woman caught in adultery, the Roman centurion, and Simon Peter after his rejection of Jesus. It’s interesting to me how Christ’s grace to these people both challenges the assumptions of those around him, but also led directly to transformation in the lives of the recipients.

In the words of the song we sang at the end of the sermon, “your grace has found me just as I am…, forever I am changed by your love.”

I liked this church, and I’d be happy to recommend it to anyone living in that part of town.

Church 29 – Heritage Baptist Church

I gave the Anglican church a bit of a break this week and tried out Heritage, which is apparently a ‘Fundamental Independent Baptist’ church.

My first impression was the outside of the building, which is a striking piece of antebellum architecture on Ardagh Road.  My second impression was how good the music was.  Heritage has an excellent pianist and and exceptionally strong choir.  The dynamics were expressive, the harmonies were tight, and the arrangements very well executed.

My third impression was that I was probably the only guy in the building not wearing a suit.  These places really ought to post a dress-code on their websites!

Things went a bit downhill when we got to the sermon, unfortunately. It began with the standard evangelical nonsense about how God demands that we give 10% of our income to the local church.  It bugs me when a church claims to hold the Bible in the highest regard and then jump through all sorts of hermeneutical hoops to arrive at this frankly untenable position.

The rest of the sermon was about the importance of giving money to missionaries.  However, it was based on 2 Corinthians chapter 8.  This chapter, of course, is  where Paul encourages the Corinthians to donate money to poor Christians in Jerusalem.   To claim that this passage is about missionaries, rather than the poor, is once again regrettably bad exegesis.

I don’t know why we do this, to be honest.  I’m all in favour of people hearing about Jesus, but I don’t know why we need to resort to guilt manipulation and a deeply flawed reading of the New Testament to make it happen.

After the service, a very intense gentleman decided to make me his personal evangelism project.  This happens to me quite a lot, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe I have some mannerisms that make evangelicals think that I’m not a ‘Real True Christian’, and decide that they have to convert me.  I try to listen politely, but I do find myself wishing that people would take the time to get to know me before they feel they can make sweeping judgements about the state of my soul.

So, another ambiguous experience.  I will say that I appreciate the passion and focus on telling others about Jesus that Heritage has.  I’m less comfortable with the sense of exclusivity that I got.  For example, during a short presentation by one of their missionaries we were told that the country of Poland is 90% Catholic – but only 0.1% Christian.

If I have any Catholic readers, I’d love to know how they feel about statements like that.  Heritage may not be as obsessively exclusive as, say, the Gospel Hall, but it’s attitudes like this that make me feel I have a long way to go in working towards reconciliation, understanding and co-operation among the churches in the city.



Church 27 – St. George’s

I spent last Sunday morning at St. George’s, another Anglican church.   As well as being Palm Sunday, the service was lead in part by Bishop George Elliot, the area bishop for York-Simcoe.

I liked the liturgical nature of the service.   Rather than listening to a lecture where the point of the talk is pushed in your face and reinforced with bullet points on the screen, the approach taken on Sunday gave us space to reflect on the Palm Sunday story.  Bishop George noted that most of us present were very familiar with the passion week narrative, and suggested that rather than rushing ahead, we take some time during the week to ‘dwell’ in the story, for example by contemplating the thoughts and actions of the minor characters.

We also had an opportunity to do this during the service by participating in a responsive reading.  Being part of a crowd yelling ‘crucify’ made me think about why we would be saying that.  I suspect that it’s very easy for us to see someone that society has condemned as a loser, as a criminal, or as an undesirable, and adopt that perception ourselves.  Even though the crowds in Jerusalem must have suffered under the unjust Roman regime, they were quick to accept the authorities’ condemnation of Christ.  It’s much easier to sidle up to power than to stand with the outcast.

One thing that concerns me about St. George’s is the demographic.  It seemed to me that the vast majority of congregants were retirees.  There is a lot I like about Anglicanism, and I think the Anglican approach to doing church has a several aspects that the postmodern, emerging generation may be looking for, but in Barrie at least it seems that they are not finding it here.