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'#Blessed' doc looks at millennial appeal of C3 Church in Toronto

TORONTO — With a trendy vibe, slick marketing and celebrity members, some Christian churches like Hillsong and C3 are preaching to a new generation of parishioners.

TORONTO — With a trendy vibe, slick marketing and celebrity members, some Christian churches like Hillsong and C3 are preaching to a new generation of parishioners.

But what is it about contemporary culture that has made these evangelical movements so appealing to some millennials, resulting in so-called megachurches offering a social-media-savvy type of spirituality?

It's a question Toronto director Ali Weinstein explores in her new documentary "#Blessed," which is screening in Hot Docs Festival Online from June 4 to 14.

"I think it's a few things that are actually quite simple at the end of the day — about community, about a sense of belonging and purpose when we just feel overall really isolated and disconnected in our society today," Weinstein said in a phone interview.

"Obviously well before (the novel) coronavirus — I'm talking about feeling really isolated in our homes and on social media and all that kind of stuff."

"#Blessed" focuses on the C3 Church in Toronto, which opened in 2013 and now has three locations in the city with a large demographic of younger followers.

Its website says it has a total of 25 locations in Canada, stemming from the main C3 Church Global started by pastors Phil and Christine Pringle in Sydney, Australia, in 1980. 

C3 now has about 500 churches in 64 countries. The name evolved from its original title of Christian City Church.

Weinstein, who is an atheist, said she first read about C3 in an article and was "blown away" by photos of its Instagrammable gatherings and large congregation of young followers "looking really cool and hip."

"It's just not what I expect when I think about people who go to church," said the 34-year-old. "I grew up in Toronto, perhaps I live in a little bubble, I'm not sure. But I feel like people my age in this city are not attending church or synagogue or organized religion religiously, so to speak."

She and producer Cornelia Principe met with C3 Toronto head pastor Sam Picken about doing a film and he was immediately onboard, giving them a lot of access behind the scenes, said Weinstein.

"I didn't take that for granted, because they did put a lot of trust in me, and I definitely explained from the outset that I wasn't trying to make an expose about the church," she added.

"I also wasn't trying to make a promotional piece. They knew that I was an atheist, they knew that I didn't have any interest in bringing more people to their church through this film."

Cameras follow Picken and other C3 employees and members of the congregation at various meetings and events — from sermons with rock concerts to social events complete with trendy ice coffee stations.

"I was constantly impressed by the production quality at church," Weinstein said.

"I think for a young person who is interested in going to church, but then might feel embarrassed or shy about it, to walk into a church that looks like you walked into like an Instagram photo feels so comforting and validating or something like that."

Some C3 members talk on camera about feeling like they're a part of a family. The church fosters that sense of bonding by getting members to join a team to help with various aspects of running the church.

"The church is running with a lot of volunteer power," Weinstein said. "At first when I was going, I was like, 'Wow, that is a good business model. If only it could be transferred to other startups.'"

Galen Watts, a PhD candidate in religious studies at Queen's University, interviews members of C3 on camera.

He says the church gives some people a sense that they matter, like a kind of Christianized version of self-help. But others have felt the pressure is too intense and have left.

Watts also says the church has an opaqueness on politics and some social issues like same-sex marriage, which has left some concerned about whether they'll be welcomed given their identities.

Picken says in the film that his personal belief is that "God intended for a man to marry a woman."

But he adds that in church, "the message is Jesus, the message is you can have a relationship with him no matter who you are, no matter what you believe."

C3 bears many similarities to Hillsong, another Christian megachurch that counts Justin Bieber among its members.

Both have similar branding and locations around the world, both began in Australia in the early '80s, and both have founders who were born in New Zealand.

"According to Hillsong and C3, it's coincidence," Weinstein said.

"I still believe there is some kind of a connection, even if it's just some hidden cultural thing that I don't know about. But no one that I spoke to give me a real answer.

"I think Hillsong and C3, as far as I understand it, they would consider themselves sort of like sister churches in an unofficial way. I think they recognize that they have the same values and are preaching very similar if not the same things."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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