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Knox United’s rock band, Khrysalis, on Highway 289 in Brookfield, N.S. From left: Rev. Keith Gale, Beth O’Connell, Shelb-e Ryan, Julia Hamilton, Anna Hamilton, Jacob Smith, Kyle Henderson and Peter Betts. Photo by Merna Ryan

Young, smart and into Jesus

Millennial ministers are embracing Christ, spiritual practice and the Bible. Is a return to theological roots the wave of the future?

By Pieta Woolley

On his wedding day, something startling happened to Keith Gale: an unexpected brush with the Holy Spirit.

Until that moment, Gale’s wedding ceremony at Greenock Presbyterian Church in St. Andrew’s, N.B., was going along as planned. Wearing his grandfather’s kilt, he stood mesmerized at the front of a church he’d chosen only because his friend’s dad was the minister. The place didn’t hold much meaning for him.

In fact, prior to his wedding day the 24-year-old hadn’t been to church in seven years. Raised in a New Brunswick United Church congregation, he’d done his time in Sunday school and was confirmed at age 13. In his teenage years, he hung around the edges of his parents’ church: the board paid him to mow lawns, shovel snow and ring the bell. When he left for university, he ditched the church altogether. Religion was for weak people, he thought. He didn’t want to be weak.

By the time Gale got married, he was a hard-drinking, pleasure-seeking computer programmer — getting high daily, sometimes at work. Estranged from God, he recalls, he had “embraced Adam Smith’s vile maxim: all for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” He was terrible at relationships, self-hating and purposeless.  

Then came his wedding.

There he was, saying his vows beside the imposing three-tier pulpit, when he felt God’s presence. “There was something sacred in it — the vows, the space,” says Gale, now Rev. Keith Gale, 39, minister at the Brookfield pastoral charge in Nova Scotia. “My marriage was a key piece of being evangelized back in. It was a long path back, through the Pentecostal church, the Church of Christ, a number of independent churches. My number one reason for not wanting to go back to the United Church is I remember it being so boring. And when I came back, it was still boring. It was all in the head, not in the heart.”

Today, Gale is driven by his heart. He calls himself a “Jesus freak,” a reference to the progressive and passionate 1960s alt-Christian movement. His ministry with youth includes a rock band, where teens rewrite lyrics to pop songs using religious language. But it’s not the guitars that are drawing 25 youth and six band members out each week, he says. Instead, it’s the Gospel — a living text that can save this young generation from the ennui, isolation and purposelessness of secular, comfortable, smartphone-addicted 21st-century Canada.

“I love Jesus,” he says. “I believe Jesus is God — God with flesh that humanity can understand. I believe in the continuing presence of Jesus with whom I can have a real relationship.”

If Gale sounds a little more evangelical than your average fair-trade coffee-drinking, potluck-organizing United Church member, he is. But in his scripture-centredness, he’s not alone.

Gale is part of a cohort of millennial and Gen X ministers — mostly under 40 — who are in it for Jesus, spiritual practice and the Bible. Many grew up in atheist homes. Some grew up in the United Church but, like Gale, have reinvented their faith. I interviewed seven for this piece, from coast to coast. When I asked each who else I should speak with, more than 30 names emerged. 

I’m confident, had I asked those 30, my list would have grown.

These leaders aren’t rejecting the church’s left-leaning identity — most are pro-LGBT and engaged in social justice work. It’s often why they chose the United Church over other denominations. But faith comes before fair trade. And, they’re not afraid of institutional change.

This trend isn’t unique to the United Church, according to Justin Tse, a Canadian who teaches religious geography at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In Roman Catholicism, he says, the boomer generation grew up during Vatican II, which did away with the Latin mass and introduced a host of other modernizing reforms. Now, he says, many young Catholics are “getting into liturgical revival,” and are attracted to older expressions of faith.

“It’s driving the Vatican II people nuts!” Tse says.

Protestant denominations have followed a similar pattern, Tse says. Starting 20 years ago, theology has ricocheted from the free-ranging social gospel of the 1970s toward a re-emphasis on scripture.

If churches are interested in their future, Tse contends, they should listen to their young leaders.

A decade ago in Calgary, Ryan Slifka attended a concert at a downtown church. The church’s brochure had a rainbow flag on it — that’s what drew him in. Never having been to church, he assumed gay-friendly faith wasn’t possible. He started hanging around the congregation, but he nearly left. The social justice-driven community wasn’t doing it for him.

“There was a time I thought, ‘If church is all about loving gay people and voting NDP, I can do those things without church,’” says Slifka, now 30. “I don’t need to spend my time here. That’s just the fact of it. My deeper issues were not being addressed.”

Then, he says, a friend handed him a book by the theologian Walter Brueggemann. “I saw a reclaiming of tradition with the things that I loved,” Slifka says, noting that he named his son Walter. Martin Luther King, too, helped move the English literature grad into church. “There’s that sense of justice — but God is alive and active in the world. The ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’” he says, quoting King.

Slifka, now the minister at St. George’s United in Courtenay, B.C., says he was drawn to serve this congregation because of its justice leanings. It has a soup kitchen, a drop-in and a food pantry. His sense of mission, he says, “is rooted in the ideal that it’s not just structures that need to change, but that human beings need to change: human transformations.”

And that’s where Jesus comes in. “Basically, it’s all we’ve got” as a church, Slifka says. “Jesus. Tradition. Strip it away, and we’ve got Rotary. It’s fine, though it’s not worth giving life to or dying for — although Rotarians may disagree.”

Many young, tradition-minded ministers are connected to Cruxifusion, an online community and annual conference “supporting, inspiring and connecting Christ-centred leaders and congregations within The United Church of Canada.” In 2011, a grant from the Community of Concern started the mission. Cruxifusion has since received support from the National Alliance of Covenanting Congregations and Fellowship Magazine — all groups that didn’t support General Council’s 1988 decision to ordain gay and lesbian ministers, but chose to stay in the denomination. Interestingly, Cruxifusion’s 2016 conference featured speakers Tony Campolo, an American evangelical who recently announced his acceptance of same-sex marriage, and Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, who is married to another woman. Both were there to talk about Jesus. Cruxifusion’s Facebook group has 194 members.

At Cruxifusion’s conferences, Rev. Heather Joy James co-leads the worship. The 34-year-old is the minister at Cambie Village Church in Vancouver, a neighbourhood-based ministry of Chown Memorial and Chinese United.

James is working with others in Vancouver to set up an Emmaus Community, part of a new monastic movement. Spiritual practices — prayer, meditation and traditional liturgies — are what drew James to God, and what she wants to share. First, she says, the Emmaus Community will start its life together. Then it will listen for God’s word for direction on what kind of work it should do.

“In the United Church, it’s like, ‘Let’s do outreach! Let’s do mission!’ Yet often people don’t feel cared for by their pastor or by God. No one is praying with them. No one is sharing the scripture with them. There’s a lot of loneliness in churches. Outreach is one way to fill the void of having no people in the pews.” 

In Moncton, N.B., Rev. Aaron Billard is wary of extremism. He, too, identifies as part of this new wave of young, Christ-centred clergy, but the 42-year-old says he’s lonely in the middle.

“It seems like there are lines being drawn in the sand,” he reflects. “Cruxifusion is too far to the right for me. The [Rev.] Gretta Vosper movement is too far to the left for me,” he says, referring to the atheist United Church minister in Toronto. “There used to be a middle somewhere, and we’re starting to lose it in the church.”

He’s found his tribe with alt-Lutheran super-pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom the Washington Post calls “a champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.” Billard is attracted to her message that “grace is real. Redemption is real. All these things that I’ve been formed [in the progressive church] to dismiss, she reactivated in me.”

He also meets the middle in his humorous Christian Facebook page and Twitter account, Unvirtuous Abbey, which has close to 35,000 followers.

“People are either there because they’re one step away from leaving the church, or they’re dipping their toes back in. People are always surprised that you can have funny, sarcastic conversations that are still faithful. For most people, the church was never that.”

What should the institution make of these young voices? Are they the future? A sign that the church is swinging to the right? Or yet another symptom of decline — a last gasp of religious zeal?

Retired United Church minister and baby boomer Rev. David Ewart found himself drifting back toward scripture-centredness two decades ago. For him, it was reading theologians Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan that triggered his transformation.

It’s a trend, says Ewart, 71, who teaches at the Vancouver School of Theology and blogs about the church. Being scripture-centred, he argues, “is not generational. The social gospel [as whole identity] is generational.”

In other words, the church is returning to its theological origins. 

“There has been a lot of good, deconstructive work done, but now we’re in an era of putting things back together. An era of, let’s be for something, and speak with affirmation and positivity about who we believe God to be and who Jesus is.”

Will this return to Jesus save the church? “No. The challenge in front of the church is, we’ve given up the project of offering eternal salvation, which you can only get from church, and we haven’t replaced it with anything.”

Yet. In Nova Scotia, Keith Gale believes the future lies with scripture, Jesus and evangelism.

“The responsibility isn’t mine to save the church. The responsibility is mine to tell people about Jesus. Are we going to spend our remaining resources on a comfortable grave? Or are we going to get into some good holy trouble?”

 Pieta Woolley is a journalist in Powell River, B.C.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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