‘Church for people who aren’t into church’: Protestant mega-congregations packing the pews in Canada

Vancouver — On a typical Sunday morning, as many as 2,000 people will cycle through the pews at Vancouver’s Broadway Church for what Pastor Darin Latham calls the church’s “one hour, scripted, themed — but inspired — presentations.”

There, amid six screens surrounding an 1,800-seat sanctuary — the neighbourhood’s largest public venue — the casually dressed pastor preaches pithily titled (“Cracking the Bible Code”) services punctuated by movie clips, on-stage performances and, of course, the church’s full-sized rock band.

For those newcomers still learning English, there are United Nations-style headsets plugged into volunteer-staffed translation booths, allowing congregants to hear the sermon in Korean, Mandarin or Cantonese. And if congregants can’t make it to the church’s East Broadway location, they can always tune in to the official sermon podcast.

That’s just Sunday. Wednesdays see the 85,000-square-foot Pentecostal church hopping with classes on everything from “Divorce Care” to “Freed-Up Financial Living.” The rest of the week sees full schedules of Christian sports teams, ethnic ministries, youth programs and a small empire of charitable endeavours, from food banks to seniors’ housing. In the days before Christmas alone, as many as 20,000 locals filed in to see the church’s no-charge performances of the Singing Christmas Tree.

And all this is happening in Vancouver, a city where almost half the citizenry checked “No Religion” on their 2011 census forms. East Vancouver is where organized Christianity goes to die, not to thrive, but Broadway does not seem to have noticed. In the past few years, its congregation has only grown.

“We’re just entrepreneurial here, incredibly entrepreneurial,” said Pastor Latham. “If you’re not contextualizing, you’re going backwards.”

Times have rarely been worse for churches in Canada. As secularism skyrockets and Sunday attendance plummets, the grim task of shutting down once-thriving congregations is now an almost weekly reality for every denomination from Anglican to Catholic to the United Church of Canada.

But as Quebec’s soaring Catholic Churches go condo and Atlantic Canada’s picturesque community churches are sold off as scrap timber, one style of Canadian church seems to be surging ahead where all others falter: Large-congregation Protestant “megachurches.”

Dazzling, modern and offering a menu of practical, applied religion, the megachurch may well be the future face of worship in a secularized Canada.

According to the U.S.-based Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Canada hosts a total of 22 megachurches, which the institute defines as churches with a “sustained average weekly attendance of 2,000 persons or more.”

The list includes Calgary’s First Alliance Church, a recently constructed, $25.7-million campus that has seen weekend attendance spike by 75%. Or Red Deer’s CrossRoads Church, which has just moved forward on plans to build a $5-million youth wing.

They represent a variety of faiths, from Evangelical to non-denominational. Some are brand new and look more like rec centres, while others have their origins as tiny neighbourhood church houses. Burnaby, B.C.’s Willingdon Church, for instance, started in 1961 with only 112 German-speaking congregants, but now hosts Canada’s second-largest Protestant congregation with more than 4,000 regular weekly attendees.

What the “megachurches” all seem to share is accessibility, be that through podcasts, modern websites or massive facilities equipped with ample parking, gymnasiums, commercial kitchens, candy shops, coffee bars and sprawling networks of prayer, childcare and meeting rooms.

“These churches offer, to put it bluntly, good reasons to bother going to church,” said John Stackhouse, a professor of theology at Vancouver’s Regent College, in an email to the National Post.

They have hobby groups, “problem-centred preaching,” easy-to-follow Bible study, and all of it made “extremely user-friendly,” said Mr. Stackhouse. “There’s no strange religious code-language to decipher [or be alienated by], no strange music to learn to like … not even strange clothes to wear,” he wrote.

Indeed, although Broadway Church and other megachurches continue to hold a conservative line on issues such as homosexuality, no part of its presentation is beholden to tradition.

Broadway church used to offer a more traditional liturgical service, but suspended it due to lack of attendance. Communion, meanwhile, is specifically performed outside regular service so as not to alienate the uninitiated.

“I don’t want it to be awkward,” said Pastor Latham.

Oakville, Ont.’s The Meeting House, meanwhile, carries the motto “a church for people who aren’t into church. Others maintain homepages in which the first image seen is not a crucifix or a Bible, but an image of the church’s latest rock concert or spring fair.

Purists, though, dismiss the model as shallow and watered down; a “church lite” or a “McChurch” appealing to the lowest common denominator.

As far back as 2006, the head of the World Council of Churches, Samuel Kobia, dismissed megachurches as selling a “corporate” Christianity that is “two miles long and one inch deep.”

Perhaps tellingly, the megachurch model may not even need religion at all.

Last January, London, England, was witness to the world’s first “Sunday Assembly,” a church-like gathering of atheists. Founded in all seriousness by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the assembly has spawned spin-offs in Australia and the United States and features songs, prayer-like moments of contemplation and sermon-style secular talks.

“We come from nothing and we go to nothing,” the bearded Mr. Jones told the BBC last month. “Compared to the big zero that awaits, a cup of coffee can be transcendental.”

‘You can have a fantastic delivery method, but if your product sucks … then [people are] going to go with something else’

Other critics assert that the megachurch is simply too large and unwielding to work.

In a 2010 blog post, Sarah Bessey, a Christian author now living in Metro Vancouver, reflected on the surprisingly high number of cases in which the leadership at her church were caught in sex scandals, and blamed the immense amount of stress a megachurch places on senior staff.

“No one can maintain that type of pressure and pace without something breaking,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, many of Canada’s mainstream churches can only dream of a world in which they were stressed out by overwork rather than the exact opposite.

In slightly more than one generation, according to a June study by the Pew Research Centre, the percentage of Canadians identifying as Catholic has dropped to 39% from 47%. Protestants have dropped to 27% from 41% and the “religiously unaffiliated” have climbed from a negligible 4% to nearly a quarter of the entire country.

These statistics have translated into dozens of churches with boards over the windows and the near-death congregations of only a few dozen who can hardly pay their heating bills. At times in recent years, the United Church of Canada has been closing one church a week.

Amid all this, the likes of University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby still maintains that there is hope for a Christian renaissance. Mr. Bibby’s own research of churchgoing trends, published in the 2011 book Beyond the Gods and Back, asserts that for every devoted Canadian of faith, there is another who is “ambivalent but receptive.”

Things are “anything but over,” Mr. Bibby assured the Mennonite Brethren Herald last year. For any church ready to preach with “new enthusiasm and energy,” he said, an “ambivalent middle” of would-be Christians is waiting in the wings.

According to Pastor Latham, it won’t work if churches simply install a few lasers and hang some coloured banners.

“You can have a fantastic delivery method, but if your product sucks … then [people are] going to go with something else.”