A hipster evangelical church is taking Toronto by storm
Millennials are finding community and purpose at C3, but critics question its messaging and methods.
"I was looking for unconditional love."
Aimee, a 20-something hairstylist living in Toronto, was struggling with addiction and veering down a path of self-destruction. Everything changed after she found C3 Toronto — the hipster evangelical church that has recently taken the city by storm, growing to more than 1,500 members since 2013.
The CBC Docs POV documentary #BLESSED profiles C3 Toronto's charismatic senior pastor Sam Picken as he and his leadership team strive to "expand the Kingdom of God" by planting a church campus in north Toronto.
In 2018, I began conducting research at C3 Toronto for my doctoral project. It's one of a number of field sites that I've studied in an attempt to better understand the changing nature of Canada's religious landscape.
Over the course of a year of fieldwork, I've interviewed multiple members, regularly attended weekly services and intimately familiarized myself with the church's culture.
It has been an enlightening process.
Millennials and religion
One of the most striking aspects of C3 Toronto is the degree to which it attracts millennials.
Studies make clear that, across North America, one of the major drivers of increasing "nonreligion" is generational replacement: Baby boomers tend to be less religious than their parents, and millennials less religious than theirs.
And larger trends seem to indicate that, since the 1960s, Canada has become more and more secular.
Yet while pews are emptying out almost everywhere else, C3 Toronto seems to be thriving — and in downtown Toronto, no less.
How do they do it?
Not religion, a 'relationship'
One reason has to do with C3 Toronto's ability to tap into the millennial mind.
Millennials have grown up in an era of unprecedented focus on self-development. As a result, they tend to seek places where they can pursue authentic self-realization. C3 Toronto, rather than challenging this, channels it. The church preaches that it's only through Jesus that we can fulfil our potential. As one member, Conan, puts it in #Blessed: "I just felt like I could grow here."
Moreover, C3 Toronto services resemble less a traditional Sunday service than a "holy rock concert," to use the description of the church's building manager in the film. All of the conventional markers of Christian religiosity — pews, stained-glass windows of biblical scenes, clerical vestments — are replaced with flashing lights, floating TV monitors, tattoos and skinny jeans. The church is redefining "Sunday best."
Pastor Sam is adamant that C3 Toronto is not about religion so much as developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And being sensitive to the millennial need for autonomy, the church refrains from making explicit demands.
For instance, while C3's theology is socially conservative — conceiving of same-sex relations as unbiblical, for instance — leaders consciously avoid the kind of fire-and-brimstone denunciations typical of American conservative evangelicalism, preferring more subtle means of social influencing.
For some, this is a breath of fresh air. For others, it is both disingenuous and dangerous.
A gospel of prosperity and acceptance of inequality
Critics of the church argue that it's too focused on glitz and glamour, and not sufficiently concerned with doing the biblically mandated work of helping the needy and downtrodden. Though Aimee was a committed member for years, she eventually left because she felt C3 Toronto failed to address the "messy stuff."
There is also the question of whether, in demanding strict obedience to an organizational culture and submission to the chain of command, senior pastors are less shepherds of a flock than CEOs, narrowly focused on the church's (and their own) bottom line.
As the prosperity gospel — which holds that wealth is evidence of God's favour — has become increasingly popular around the globe, dovetailing with a steep rise in economic inequality, onlookers may be right to be concerned. C3 Toronto's message of unrelenting growth and individual responsibility seems all too comfortable with — even condoning of — a world in which a privileged few have far more than the rest.
The search for meaning
But it would be wrong to reduce C3 Toronto's popularity to its appeal to economic self-interest.
Though many are turning away from religion, others continue to struggle with fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Why is there suffering?
Modern life, for all its innovations and conveniences, fails to provide satisfying answers to these perennial concerns. And when faced with hardship, pain or despair, such questions often grow in salience and urgency.
One of the most remarkable features of C3 Toronto is the way it enfolds its members into a meaningful universe, enchanting what can so often feel like a disenchanting world. What's more, in worship services, members experience unmediated access to God in the form of the "Holy Spirit." They feel God's presence in their lives.
For those who are struggling with a sense of aimlessness or a lack of self-esteem, C3 Toronto promises a powerful antidote: a divine purpose and an all-powerful God who loves them unconditionally.
As one member, Jason, shared with the group before getting baptized: "I've found hope in God."
Community in the city
In addition to enchanting the world, C3 Toronto offers what so many millennials in Toronto lack: a robust sense of community.
Social isolation is all too common today — it plagues both the old and the young. But among those who have yet to establish their identities, and whose futures remain uncertain, loneliness can quickly devolve into an existential crisis.
This is why it can be life-altering for newcomers to hear from the pulpit at C3 Toronto that they are no longer alone.
In a world where self-reliance and self-sufficiency are venerated, joining a community, paradoxically, becomes counter-cultural.
Confronting the contradictions
While C3 Toronto members are convinced of the church's personal and social value, its critics charge it with brainwashing, and surreptitiously taking advantage of the psychologically and emotionally vulnerable.
The truth lies, to a large extent, in the eye of the beholder.
But whatever one might think of the church, what cannot be denied is that C3 Toronto's phenomenal success can teach us much about modern life and the challenges it throws out.
We would be wise to pay attention.
Galen Watts is a Ph.D. candidate in the cultural studies graduate program at Queen's University.