I don’t often get butterflies in my stomach when I head out the door to church. But this time I did.
I wasn’t going to my own church or to another Anglican church, where I pretty much know what to expect and what to wear. I was going up the street to C3 Church, which holds its services at the local high school.
Because I live next door in the rectory, I had only heard from my parishioners on their way to church about the prominent signs (“C3 TORONTO Sundays 9:30 & 11:30) that pop up outside Central Tech every week. C3 (which stands for Christian City Church) is part of a global Pentecostal movement that began in Australia in 1980 and has been creating a buzz in Toronto since opening here in 2012. “Why are millennials flocking to Toronto’s C3 Church?” the Toronto Star asks. “I’ve never seen so many young people in a church before,” someone wrote in Toronto Life. And so, being on sabbatical and finding myself home on a Sunday morning, I decided it was time to check it out, butterflies and all. What was I getting myself in for? Was I wearing the right thing? Was I even cool enough to show up?
After confidently telling my wife I didn’t think there would be an offering so I wasn’t bringing any cash, I headed up the street. With all the signs, there was no way I had to do the Anglican thing of guessing which door would be unlocked. While still on the sidewalk, a host met me. Admitting to her that it was my first time, she pointed the way up the steps and let me know that an usher would help me find a seat. On the way into the auditorium, I grabbed a coffee (being assured that, despite the “no food or drinks” sign, it was okay) and noticed two “INFO & GIVING” booths. Maybe I should have stuffed that $10 bill in my pocket.
The count-down clock on the screen didn’t leave any doubt about when the service would begin and, sure enough, right on the dot of 11:30, the lights went down, people stood, and the band began their set. Just like my own church, there was a kind of “liturgy” about it. Most people seemed to know what to do and expect, and there was “smoke and lights” (although, at C3, this means a fog machine and strobes). At first, I stayed sitting in my aisle seat until, having to keep standing up to let latecomers past me, I gave in and stood up. And yes, by the fourth song of the opening set of catchy tunes, I did join in. “When in Rome,” as they say.
By this time, the auditorium was jammed and we were invited to hug the person next to us. Before I could figure out what to do, the woman to my left gave me a huge smile and a warm hug. And then it was time to talk about money. No Anglican reticence here. Each row got its own large, deep bucket to pass (no shallow plates to be seen) and we were reminded that we could use the credit card machines at the back or pull out our phones and give on-the-spot through PayPal. The assistant pastor laid it on the line: if we withheld any of ourselves from the Lord, we would limp.
And then the main event: the sermon, where Pastor Sam Picken assured us that, like Noah, if we build our ark in faith and in obedience to God, we will never sink. Mixing self-deprecating humour and fiery rhetoric with lots of talk about relationships (with God, with one another, with the city and the world), he assured us that God has put everything into our life to succeed – at a great marriage, at getting that promotion, and fixing whatever messes we are in. “God rewards those who earnestly seek him” was the message, and he pointed out that this was good news for C3 as it prepares for a church plant this fall in Toronto’s east end. The congregation was with him with their applause and um-hum’s, although things got a bit more tepid among the almost exclusively millennial crowd when he urged them to forego sex before marriage
And then, after almost an hour and 40 minutes (long even by Anglican standards), it was over. But if we wanted to know more, we were invited to follow the big “What’s Next” sign over the door next to the stage, where a home-cooked lunch and conversation with the C3 team was on offer.
Why are millennials flocking to C3? I don’t pretend to have the full answer. But I do know that they are being invited, that they know exactly where to go, and that they are being welcomed into a relationship with God and a clear vision of what that relationship entails, including hard personal and financial sacrifices. The music wasn’t “my” music but it was really good. The welcome was well-organized and genuine and the coffee was great. I didn’t mind so much being hugged by a stranger, and if I had decided to find out “what’s next,” I knew which door to go through.
And yes, those butterflies. As soon as the host on the sidewalk said “welcome” and showed me the way, they were gone. Next time I’d wear the same thing. And bring my wallet.