A friend recently passed on an article from the Toronto Star published on December 26, 2018 entitled “A New Type of Church for the Community”. This kind of article turns up infrequently – usually in a slow news period – in which the reporter presumably tries to find a new thread of hope in what is generally seen as a declining religious presence. In this case, it’s a storefront church, with white plastic chairs, a row of computers against a wall lined with Bible verses – an example of a concept called a church plant. Interestingly the concept is supported and funded by existing denominations as the answer to their failing numbers and impact.
The writer goes on predictably to report the decline in numbers in religious affiliation and the storefront pastor’s seeing this as an opportunity to meet local needs for faith in a neighborhood setting. Like more conventional denominations, the storefront already has programs, services at times other than Sunday, and responses to other immediate social needs. We also learn that this plant is supported by an organization called Church Planting Canada which is using modern marketing methodology with Facebook video ads and expensively designed websites free from denominational affiliation. All this is totally predicable based on what the late writer Phyllis Tickle told the book publishing industry and the traditional denominations twenty years ago. Her book, The Great Emergence outlined the cultural changes affecting religious life in Europe and the United States that were happening decades earlier.
Among these changes is the reality that science and technology are the primary cultural forces - but there are others. The doubts of Albert Schweitzer that the Jesus of Nazareth was the the Christ of history led to new scholarship. Pentecostalism is a new and growing religion – and incidentally forms the base of Church Planting Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous is a strong healing ministry that calls on a nameless higher power and anticipated the rebirth of the small group movement – and more often than not meets in Church basements. Self-help dominates as a literary form. While immigration is front-and-centre of the news today – with the misguided narrative that immigrants are all terrorists - except that we ourselves are mostly descendants of immigrants who destroyed the habitats and spirituality of our native people. We now live in multicultural environments where the teachings of other religions have seeped into our consciousness. And I find it fascinating that most of these profound changes have occurred in my own lifetime since the end of the second world war.
While the planters are hopeful, it is instructive that their projects cost $50, 000 to $100,000 in grants in their initial year and considerable additional ones in the years following – ending up with exactly the same challenges that conventional churches face. Leaders often burn out quickly like those of any start-up in the arts or technology and the next set of leaders institutionalize the project.
Tickle in her essay also talks about the three strands of any religion – the approach to spirituality and recognition of the divine - the institutional framework and how it deals with leadership, formation, property, statutes, governance - and the approach to morality. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer Donna Freitas notes an interesting feature of formation that I should pay more attention to – the fact that writers are discouraged by their editors for writing on the subject of religion for their young adult readers. Sex is fine – and so are LGBTQ topics - but faith is off limits unless you lampoon it. And I find in my own experience of working with young people from toddlers to teens - from learning to be nice, to learning the intricacies of liturgy, denominational history and pretty literal reading of scripture - that the one thing we hardly ever talk about is spirituality.
Donna Frietas talks about her own reading as a young Catholic and my own mirrors it to some extent. God talk at this stage and later in the early years of University were informed by books we read – more often metaphorical readings of authors like Lewis and Tolkien which also helped us deal with the stories of religion and how to ground their truth. I have to wonder whether Bible verses on a wall above computers is going to do the job. But what Ms Frietas does point out is that spirituality is immensely important to young people. How many meaningful articles about religious traditions of spirituality do we see in the press about that? Understanding that, of course takes much more preparatory work and research than interviewing a storefront pastor.
Someone I met at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions does get it. In response to the young people interested in spirituality and wanting to know more, he has created a very impressive website, What he said when we met was, “I’m not an expert on spirituality, but I know who some of the experts are – and I am trying to direct young people to them – and I try to help them avoid the too many quick fix answers that are out there.”
If mainstream denominations took this quest for spirituality more seriously, they might focus on their spiritual traditions rather than their historic denominational ones. That culture leaves them fighting old battles wearing new clothes. The old stories have frequently lost their context, leaving the young adrift on a planet with its own cosmology that is not being addressed for them. The young know that and they want better answers than the ones we are giving them.