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Hip to be Holy

Branding God for the tech-savvy generation.

Allison Cross 19 Sep

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Crucipod: medium or message?

Felt nativity scenes, religious colouring books, prayer songs and warnings against accidental fornication: enduring Canadian Sunday school experiences. But whether worshippers congregate at an Anglican church in Shaughnessy or at an outdoor prayer circle, chances are they've never prayed in the church of the iPod.

At the Revolution One website's vintage-styled pages for teens and young adults, worshippers can download a video clip and watch a concert complete with lights, music and enthralled participants. They can surf a popular Internet film portal, join an online community and talk about God.

Canada's youth churches have new digs.

Like Revolution One, the youth sector of the Christian Life Assembly in Maple Ridge and Langley, which boasts virtual elements and a young, hip youth pastor. Or Freedomize Toronto, a budding alternative urban church run for and by youth, where sermons are regularly augmented by electric guitar rifts and spoken word presentations. Several Canadian churches are marketing their messages to youth by embracing technology and pop culture, instead of shunning it -- and if recruitment is the goal, it seems to be working.

Remote control spirituality

"We have a fair bit of a community that takes place online. A lot of our people are in touch that way," says Justin Reimer, the 24-year-old youth pastor for Revolution One.

Their online presence offers a graphic-heavy website, with downloadable videos and audio files. They don’t offer podcasts yet, but several of their videos (like the Cheese Rap) have appeared on YouTube a widely popular net portal for budding videographers to post their creations. (See video at bottom of story).

Reimer supports and encourages the use of technology as a means to communicate with the teens and young adults in his ministry, and is convinced it has changed the cultural dynamic of the average youth group.

"Twenty years ago, someone with an acoustic guitar and board games ran a youth group, but now that's just not going to cut it," says Reimer. "For us, in the past, the mentality was, 'let's provide something so that our kids don't get into trouble.' It developed a lot of people who didn't make sense in the world.

"I don't want to just create a safe place for kids to be; we want to be setting cultural trends."

Of course, if youth never get out from behind their computers, they don't have much of a chance of communicating with pastors, and setting those cultural trends.

Tell God I left him a text message

"Technology might also be one of the most disturbing aspects of this generation," says Reimer. "We have young people who literally have no friends that aren't online. They don't know how to express themselves face-to-face or in their written work in a way that makes sense. Youth want depth, but they don't know how to get there themselves."

Technology serves as a bridge to Revolution One, Reimer says. Interested youth can check them out online, watch a video, come to a large meeting and stand in the back, and if sufficiently drawn in, attend smaller groups.

"We see technology as a gateway," he says. "But if that's all we've got, it's not enough."

With sites like Cyber Pastor popping up everywhere, any Jesus Christ devotee can worship from the comfort of his or her own living room, even though some say that won't get them very far. For others, it is more a matter of maintaining their identities, going to church and appreciating the messages.

Cool Christ

"We're cool, Toronto hipsters," says Felicity Alexander, a 25-year-old whose membership with Freedomize Toronto has spanned almost eight months. "We're doing something almost no one else is doing."

Freedomizers say they attempt to emulate Christ while nurturing their urban personas and personal brands. It's not uncommon for youth to speak back to their pastor during his sermons, then go out for beer and chicken wings afterwards. And to stay connected between meetings? The Freedomize website offers podcasts of recent sermons, links to F-Net, a members-only online network for posting and discussion, and online curriculum notes about religious studies texts like C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.

They don't necessarily align themselves entirely with the emerging church or post-modern Christianity movements, however, says Alexander. "Freedomizers," average age 27, pride themselves in offering an open, honest environment in their church and in their city.

"This is where we live. It's a mix between the reality of living in Toronto and having that 'I'm so cool' attitude with the traditions of Christian values and learning," she says. "It makes it a delightfully refreshing church. You don't have to give up your views, if God's working in your life."

For Alexander, the technological features are not a novelty, but a key part of what she calls a relaxed church atmosphere, just like its "BS-free" attitude and its eclectic members. "We're very artsy people. We are people who like having podcasts, people who are into film. Church is very much in and about modern culture." She says the pastor even talks about having sex with his wife -- and liking it.

Multimedia scripture

For Freedomize, "A huge part of getting the message across is being relevant," says Karl E. Richter, a 24-year-old Freedomize convert who works in television. "Fortunately, you can't stay in the dark ages, but you have to be careful with how far you go."

Richter says he first attended Freedomize on a Sunday night because of the crazy stories he'd heard about it, and because of a pretty girl (he reluctantly admits), but stayed because of its fresh approach. Like Alexander, he enjoys the church's immersion in techno-culture, but doesn't think it can replace the fundamental teachings about Christ.

"As with a lot of the newer churches that pop up, we have projectors and we have multimedia, but we have many times when that stuff fails," Richter says. "Either the laptop isn't working or the projector fails, but it's still worship, and it's still understanding the word of God."

But unlike Richter, a young adult, certain teens won't even consider coming to church if they can't take a test drive from the safety of their home computer, and that might impede their experience.

"Sermons by podcast...can substitute for people who cannot get to church because of illness or disability," says John G. Stackhouse Jr., a professor of theology at Regent College.

"They can supplement the spiritual food of those who do go to church and they can be 'advertisements' and entry points for those who do not attend church but might like to go. What they cannot do is substitute for the sermon itself as if it doesn't matter whether we hear a sermon on our own in some odd situation or hear it together with God's people in a dedicated space. The situation affects the reception."

'Feel-good party time'

Stackhouse says new media is a powerful tool for churches, but one that can be misused.

"New technologies always offer us something but also take something away, so one should have one's eyes wide open about whatever exchange one is making," he says.

Stackhouse says he isn't sure how much theological insight or soul-searching can occur while listening to a "three-chord rock chorus" or enjoying "feel-good party time."

"Rock choruses and celebrations are a genuine part of life, and so they can be a genuine part of church -- but only a part, and probably not the most important part," he says.

Stackhouse says that churches can properly try to remove unnecessary impediments to people but can never effectively remove the "genuine strangeness, power and demand of Christian discipleship."

If a church party gets too out of hand, youth might forget why they came to the party in the first place. Nor should the church bend their traditions too greatly to attract a new crowd.

"Churches need to be careful not to make the stupid mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s when churches desperately tried to ape the cultures of rock and flower power to attract young people," he says.

For Alexander, nothing about her membership with Freedomize is fickle. The church is member oriented, and interested individuals must navigate an extensive list of joining requirements. Once they're in, Freedomizers can join Living Rooms, gatherings of small groups for food, talk and prayer.

Cuss words and prayers

Living Rooms are "church outside of church and they really put focus on helping each other, and holding each other accountable," she says. "We're very modern and accepting but without letting you get away with anything. Young people are sick of the bullshit."

With a pastor who swears at the pulpit while preaching about scripture and the odd congregational pot smoker, Alexander is convinced they've got it right.

"It's not what you would typically perceive in a church," she says. "But there's nothing that says we're not serious about it."

Allison Cross is a Vancouver writer with a vested interest in youth culture.


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