Science, heavy metal and — of course — God: How this church plans to change worship in Calgary
'There aren't any churches there that are going to be like the kind of church we're planning'
Pastor John van Sloten was called a heretic once, in seminary.
His sermons cover topics ranging from the X-Files to CERN's Large Hadron Collider.
And a group of 25 Calgary congregrants, most over age 70, have brought him on to create a new church.
"There aren't any churches there that are going to be like the kind of church we're planning," van Sloten says.
"Feb. 2, at 9:30 a.m., I'll be pacing the sidewalk in front of the church going please, will somebody come."
That's the date of his first sermon at what is tentatively being called Marda Loop Church, at 1638 30th Avenue in southwest Calgary. It's part of the Reformed Church in America, a mainline Protestant denomination.
The topic of that first sermon will be on the parable of the sower, from Matthew 13:3-23, and van Sloten has already emailed a soil scientist at Guelph University to better understand soil fertility. Upcoming topics include supernovas, emergency room physicians and the art of Vincent van Gogh.
Interviewing a scientist is not exactly how most pastors usually prepare for Sunday morning.
Some of van Sloten's sermons are available on his website. In one recording, he speaks as a double helix DNA structure is projected on the screen.
Watch John van Sloten's sermon on DNA below, or click here:
"Today the DNA in each of your estimated 37.2 trillion cells will undergo up to one million repairs.
"Right now the DNA in your body is being repaired at a rate of 425 trillion repairs per second."
He pauses, and you can hear a slight smile when his voice resumes.
"This second. This. Second.
"Can you feel the power in all of that? The sheer scope of God's amazing, restoring grace?" he asks.
For that sermon, van Sloten said he spoke to Dustin Pearson, a University of Calgary researcher who studies DNA repair after radiation and uses CRISPR genome editing to alter human cells.
Church attendance declining
Fifty-five per cent of Canadians identify as Christian, according to a 2018 survey from Pew Research, and a rising number identify with other faiths or religiously unaffiliated.
Roughly two-thirds said religion has a less important role in the country than it did 20 years ago, and in 2013, when Pew last asked, one-in-five said they attend some form of weekly religious services while a third said they never pray.
Members of the Reformed Church in America have declined from around 217,000 in 2015 to 196,000 in 2019, according to the church's website.
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van Sloten hopes his unconventional sermons will draw in a new audience — but said that's not the primary motivation for doing what he does.
"I really do believe theologically that God has something to do with everything that happens in people's lives in all of those spheres," he said.
"I think it stands out as a unique way of engaging people's faith in a more holistic, all of life, kind of way."
This isn't the first time van Sloten has started a new church in the city. He's also written books on how God can speak through heavy metal, R-rated movies or the way we work.
…it's connected with a lot of people who aren't interested in church. So I'm going to trust that that can happen again.- John van Sloten
His methods aren't popular with everyone.
"With science, you get some pushback from more fundamentalist Christians who believe in a young earth … the science gets me in trouble when you start to talk about evolution," he said. When he talked about Metallica he said he got some unpleasant phone calls.
"But to be honest I don't care about pissing off fundamentalist Christians. I care a lot about people who are good people who are out there looking for something more," he said.
"In the 20 years that I've been diving into it it's connected with a lot of people who aren't interested in church. So I'm going to trust that that can happen again."
van Sloten has also brought in Michelle Gritter, a trained family therapist, who will cover 13 Sundays out of the year and preach about psychology to give him time to work on his writing.
"People are going, 'Oh, this will be great for our community, just to get healthy and get to know each other,'" he said. "I kind of joked with her — people might want to come to you [for counselling] after the service."
Word of mouth is key to church-building — people are pretty leery of receiving mailers, or having someone knock on their door to spread the good word, van Sloten said.
So instead, he's aiming for a holistic approach — sermons that connect with what's already going on in people's lives.
But will people come? Well, van Sloten has faith.
With files from Daybreak Alberta with Russell Bowers