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An oldster among hipsters

We're finding new ways to connect with people beyond the traditional boundaries of church

By David Wilson

On a warm evening last fall, two colleagues and I ventured out far beyond our comfort zone, to a sweaty hotspot in Toronto’s club district.

The place oozed hip — about 300 people were crammed inside, quaffing imported beers, downing lamb sliders and shouting at each other over the pounding of techno pop. I scanned the room for familiar faces and saw none. It took about five seconds to realize I was quite possibly the oldest person there.

We had come to the club because it was hosting the Canadian Online Publishing Awards, and one of The Observer’s short documentaries was a finalist. Age wasn’t the only reason to feel out of our element. We represented a church magazine at a decidedly secular event, and certainly none of the other finalists had roots like ours dating back to the 1820s. We found a friendly piece of wall to lean against and tried to look nonchalant.

The nominated video, Reconciling to a Hard Truth, looks at the United Church’s involvement in the Indian residential school system. It was produced by Kevin Spurgaitis, our online editor and the creative force behind ObserverDocs, which has also made videos on subjects as wide-ranging as the polar ice caps, urban agriculture, the faith life of United Church members, and euthanasia and assisted dying. Two new documentaries — one linked to last month’s cover story on wind energy, the other tied to this month’s feature on a writer’s journey of atonement ("Making amends with Malawi") — were recently added to our website. You can see all the ObserverDocs videos at www.ucobserver.org/video.

The range of ObserverDocs is wide because the range of subjects in the magazine is wide. Over the past few years, we have broadened the scope of the magazine because we believe the issues that matter to people of faith today extend well beyond the traditional boundaries of church. Put another way, the faith is bigger than the church. ObserverDocs takes it one step further by using a new medium to connect with people who may not have a formal relationship with a church but share an interest in issues of faith, justice and ethical living.

Make no mistake — these online documentaries are meant to be seen by churchgoers too. They’re an excellent (and free) way for non-subscribers to get a taste of the magazine. And they’re great discussion starters for study groups.

When the finalists for the 2012 online publishing awards were announced last September, we were pleased to have caught the eye of judges from outside our normal sphere. We went to the awards event with a sense of mission already accomplished. It was a bonus to hear our name called as a gold medal winner.

I admit I rather enjoyed elbowing my way through the throng of hipsters to accept the award on behalf of Kevin, who was out of town. It was not lost on me that a 183-year-old church magazine had made its mark in a new and evolving medium. I could also see that a lot of people I can confidently describe as “unchurched” were taking notice.

As time goes by and secularism grows, churches and their offshoots will have to get used to venturing outside their comfort zones; churches need to go to the culture rather than expect the culture to come to them. Yes, it can be disorienting and awkward at times. But it can also be exciting. You never know until you try.

• Speaking of reaching beyond our traditional borders, I’m pleased to announce that our January 2012 cover story on Roma refugees in Canada has won an Amnesty International Canada 2012 media award. Congratulations to journalist Cory Ruf of Burlington, Ont., who was an Observer summer intern in 2011 and now works as an online reporter for CBC Hamilton. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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