"See you on the other side."
This greeting was offered to the young men and women huddled in the cold on Kits Beach Easter Sunday afternoon by members of the crowd who had gathered in support.
Moments later, the first young woman entered the frigid waters of English Bay heading for the waiting arms of Westside Church pastor Jer Adrian who was waist deep in the waves dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. As the woman reached Adrian, he turned and introduced her to the joyous crowd gathered on the sand. And with that, the pastor leaned her backwards into the water symbolically washing away her sins and the group baptism was under way. Halfway through the group of about a dozen men and women, Adrian was replaced by Westside elder Casey Wickham. Pastor Norm Funk, who founded the increasingly popular Westside Church in 2005, was also in attendance.
Ocean baptisms are performed several times a year by Westside Church, which rents the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage theatre for its Sunday services. Westside declined to provide details about its lease agreement with the Arts Club, but did welcome the Courier to visit the church, interview members of the congregation and take photos at any time.
At a time when many churches are struggling to survive, Westside is drawing record crowds to its three Sunday services. On this Easter Sunday, more than 1,000 people attended the hour-long services, the majority 30-years-old or younger. The following Sunday, the 10:45 a.m. service was also packed despite the fact the annual Vancouver Sun Run was in full swing and access to Granville Island was extremely limited for drivers, walkers and cyclists.
The church recently expanded to North Vancouver where it began offering services at the Park and Tilford Cineplex Odeon Theatre. The two locations are dubbed "campuses," with Funk leading the Vancouver location and pastor James Bonney heading up the North Shore campus. The Ontario-born Bonney is a "church plant apprentice" who trained under Funk's tutelage for two-and-a-half years before leading his own campus. Church planting is an evangelical practice to set up churches that dates back to the 18th century. According to the Church Planting B.C. website, an affiliate of Westside, in recent years God has directed a "huge number" of planters specifically to Vancouver. At Westside, a church planter must complete at two-year apprenticeship, but Bonney also studied at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago before he said God "called him" to Vancouver almost three years ago. Funk was out of the country at the time of the Courier's request for an interview, but the 28-year-old Bonney agreed to answer questions about the church, which describes itself as "forward thinking."
And it certainly looks the part on this Sunday. Much of the congregation has a look that can only be described as "hipster." Classic Ray-Ban Wayfarers are the sunglasses of choice for many of the men, a majority who also sport tattoos, rolled-up jeans, plaid shirts and straw fedoras. Many of the women also wear jeans, but of the skinny variety. And on this April Sunday, runners are the footwear of choice for both men and women. One young man completed his skater/punk look with a hot pink skateboard sticker plastered across one side of his well-worn Bible. The Courier spoke with several men and women of the congregation, most of whom said they'd been raised in religious homes.
Calgary transplant Rob Trendiak, a 23-year-old freelance photographer, was raised in a religious home. He appreciates what he calls the relevance of the lessons he hears during services at Westside.
"They aren't oblivious to the community," says Trendiak. "They don't live under a Christian bubble."
Like many members of the congregation the Courier spoke with, Trendiak also likes the church's efforts in embracing new technology and its use of social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook to spread its beliefs. On the day of the Courier's April 15 visit to Westside, when Funk asked the congregation to turn to a verse in the Bible, it wasn't just leather-bound tomes pulled out of purses, murses and backpacks. Much of the congregation also scrolled through smartphones and iPads.
Bonney says that modern, casual approach to religion is filling the seats Sunday mornings. Westside Church is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, but describes itself as small "m" Mennonite. It was the Burnaby-based Mennonite Brethren Willingdon Church congregation that helped Funk launch the church.
The Courier asked Bonney how he reconciles the laid-back atmosphere of Westside with the conservative teachings of the Mennonite church.
"It's not in the Bible that you have to wear a suit to church," says Bonney. "But we want to be faithful to God and do his work. We want to be relevant, but still hold onto tradition."
On this Sunday, a Christian "praise" band is rocking out songs before and after each service. The words to each song are projected on a large screen at the back of the stage karaoke style. Many members of the congregation sing along to songs such as "Beautiful Jesus." Waving one and sometimes two hands in the air, the crowd sings, "Beautiful Jesus, beautiful Saviour, Nothing is greater, brilliant Creator_"
Coffee is sold by donation at a kiosk before each service so many members of the congregation sip hot java during sermons. In the theatre's lobby, debit machines are set up to accept offerings so no cash is needed.
"It's about teaching the Bible in a way that's relevant," says Bonney.
That said, Bonney confirms Westside Church teaches that according to God's plan, men must lead the family. While giving a sermon at Westside last month, Bonney quoted from the New Testament Book of Ephesians: "Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife." Women can perform most jobs at Westside but are not allowed to act as pastors or elders.
"We believe that men and women are created equal," says Bonney. "But they have different roles and functions as is God's desire for family and church."
Bonney adds taken in the right context, the message of Ephesians encourages equality between men and women.
"We teach men to idealize and love their wife as they would the church and to give them everything," says Bonney. "There is no greater love."
While attending a second service, May 6, the Courier interviewed two young women, separately, about that interpretation.
Katherine Mintz has no issues with that message. Mintz sports several tattoos as well as multiple piercings, including numerous rings adorning the length of her earlobes and a silver post in her bottom lip. The Courier first noticed Mintz as she sang along with the band prior to the service, lifting her arms in the air and swaying in time with the praise music.
Mintz says she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction several years ago and joined a 12-step program that often made references to giving your life over to a greater power. As an atheist at the time, Mintz couldn't relate to that message so she decided to check out a church to see if she could make sense of the 12-step program. Her sister suggested Westside "just to listen to the music."
"So I started attending and basically tuned out the sermons and just started listening to the music," says Mintz. "I was four months into coming and was singing the words to a song called 'Enough.' And all of a sudden I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I just started bawling my eyes out."
Mintz, who was later baptized at Kits Beach wearing her Canucks T-shirt, says from that day forward she put her life in God's hands and credits God for keeping her drug-free for more than two years. "So now I accept God's word as it is written," she says.
Robyn Plenert isn't so sure. The 25-year-old has been attending Westside for six months and says she has never taken away the message that women are anything but equal to men. When told the church teaches men should rule the household and women can't be pastors or elders, Plenert expresses surprise.
"I don't agree, but that's not the message I'm getting," says Plenert, who adds she's drawn to Westside for its casual approach to religion and use of technology.
Westside Church preaches against abortion, pre-marital sex and divorce and offers pre-marriage classes to counsel young people. Westside also offers numerous courses, including Biblical Parenting and Film and Theology.
As for gays and lesbians, Bonney says it is wrong for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to respond with hatred or disdain to anyone based on their sexuality, religion or beliefs. Last year, some members of Westside's affiliate, the Mennonite Brethren Willingdon Church, pressured the Burnaby school board against accepting anti-homophobia programs. "We are called to love our neighbour and everyone is our neighbor," Bonney wrote to the Courier in an email. "However, we do see the Bible as unambiguous, from beginning to end, in teaching that sexual practices are reserved for marriage and that marriage is reserved for the joining together of a man and a woman."
He notes Westside often counsels gays and lesbians who've been hurt by the rejection of other churches, but still have faith. "We help them deal with some of the hard parts about having a same-sex attraction," says Bonney.
John Stackhouse, who teaches theology and culture at Regent College, is one of Canada's experts on the history of Christianity in North America. Stackhouse is not convinced the leaders of Westside Church are as "forward thinking" as they claim to be. Regent College is an international graduate school of Christian Studies located at the University of B.C.
Stackhouse says evangelical church-planters are remarkably flexible and creative when it comes to techniques such as how to structure a church, how to acquire resources, how to market the message, how to attract congregants and how to enthuse their membership.
"Westside is just doing what evangelical churches have been doing for a long time now," says Stackhouse in an email to the Courier.
He adds flexibility and creativity almost never extend to their theology and ethics.
"So they have real trouble even recognizing certain kinds of intellectual issues, let alone resolving them," he says. "A stranger comes in and says, 'Why do you treat women this way when no one else does in Canada today?' And they seem to be able only to say, 'Because the Bible says so,' rather than thinking, 'Hmm, that is a good question. Why DO we read the Bible that way when, in fact, lots of our fellow Christians-even many of our fellow evangelicals-read the Bible as in fact supporting the full status of women in our churches and families, as well as in society at large?'" Stackhouse calls the hip atmosphere adopted by the church "illusory," though he adds that's not necessarily a bad thing. He believes Westside's clergy members don't examine key metaphysical and ethical issues the way other pastors typically do.
"They have taken on the colouring of their environment, so to speak, without deeply engaging with the thought of the culture that produces it," says Stackhouse. "Instead, they simply note all the ways that contemporary culture disagrees with their tradition, they pronounce it wrong, they present their traditional alternative, and they claim it's all about obeying God-end of discussion."
Stackhouse agrees many churches, whole denominations as well as particular congregations, have been declining particularly since the 1960s. He says the United and Anglican churches have been the most conspicuous in this regard, but adds some smaller denominations have held their own, such as Baptists, Pentecostals and some Mennonite groups. He says the popularity Westside Church is experiencing is a kind of "evangelicalism" or "evangelical Protestantism."
"And that form of Christianity is typically rather soft on denominational identity, so the Mennonite part of this church recedes into the background and they're strong on unity around doctrinal and ethical essentials," says Stack. "It is an ecumenism of evangelicalism, as I call it."
He adds much of Canada and the United States was initially "churched" in the 18th and 19th centuries by minimally trained, enthusiastic pastors willing to fan out over the frontier and draw people into new congregations where there weren't any before.
"What's strange now, however, is that this same minimal training is being asked of pastors who are supposed to be serving highly educated, sophisticated clientele," says Stackhouse. "Not their fellow farmers on the prairies in the 1860s. I have no idea why these people think that a pastor doesn't need to be as extensively and rigorously trained as, say, a physician or a lawyer. Helping Vancouverites with their intellectual and moral challenges is at least as complex as helping them with their medical or legal challenges."
Meanwhile, Mintz says it's reassuring to belong to a church where her piercings and tattoos aren't frowned upon.
"When I first came to Westside I thought, wow there are people here who look just like me," says Mintz. "Westside really does welcome everyone."