Churches without “Selective Baffles”: The Cases of Two Evangelical Congregations in Québec
Frédéric Dejean is Professor in Religious Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
It is a Sunday morning in Montreal, Québec, and people from diverse origins are entering a theatre located in the Mile End, a vibrant and trendy neighborhood. They are greeted in the lobby by young, casual, and smiling volunteers who help them to find a seat. People gathered in the theatre belong to different generations, even if young adults and families are the most numerous. Light slowly fades out and the band on the stage starts the church meeting with a swinging song, its lyrics displayed on giant screens on each side of the stage. Some people raise their hands, eyes wide open, while others are just singing, keeping their eyes closed. In my fieldwork notebook I wrote that “the religious experience is both collective and individual, the group doesn’t hinder the intimacy of a relationship with God”.
The two congregations I am studying perfectly epitomize a current trend within the Quebecker evangelical landscape: the creation by young pastors, between 30 and 40 years old, of what is sometimes called “églises urbaines” (“urban churches”). Many of them are in Montreal, but in medium-size cities as well: for instance, if we consider the two churches I am investigating, one has two locations, in Sherbrooke and Magog, and the other opened a new church in Québec City less than one year ago.
Speaking of “urban churches” doesn’t mean that they are only in cities. If that was the case, most churches could be called “urban churches”. In fact, with this expression, religious leaders mean two things: first, their desire to (re)connect with a downtown area, whereas a lot of churches chose to be in suburban areas; second, and this is probably the most important point, they want to incorporate “urban culture” (for instance, the positive appreciation of diversity) in their daily activities and their discourse. Following the young pastors we met for the research, “urban churches” are the key element to connect with students, young professionals, and young families. To say it bluntly: the Church must stick to the original message – the Bible – while offering religious practices that fit with the cultural environment people live in. Church is not a world apart!
Regarding these practices, church meetings on Sunday morning are interesting to analyze. In the two churches, liturgies were simplified in such a way that a person attending the church for the first time doesn’t feel uncomfortable with rituals they are not familiar with. The structure of the service is very simple: 20 minutes of worship music, between 30 and 40 minutes of message, and 10 minutes of worship music. Members of the two churches we interviewed agreed to say that contemporary worship music and messages were elements they particularly appreciate. Even if the music and the message are two different domains, they are both closely connected to the daily life of people: worship music uses musical styles from current types of popular music (Lim and Ruth, 2017), and the message seeks to be relevant to people (Sargeant, 2001).
In an article published in a French journal (Dejean, 2020) I use the expression of “selective baffles” coined by the French semiologist Roland Barthes (1975). He contends that a text, for instance a novel, chooses its readers through “selective baffles” (vocabulary, references, readability…). Some religious traditions include such “selective baffles” (specific vocabulary, complex rituals, artefacts, and garments…). Studying these two churches, I observed that they got rid of “selective baffles”, making church accessible to people who are not familiar with Christian traditions, or who are looking for a more authentic Christianity.
Barthes, R. (1975). The Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang
Dejean, F. (2020). It was a cinema; it is now the house of God! Les Églises sans église ou le renversement des contraintes spatiales en opportunités. Annales de géographie, N° 731(1), 113133.
Lim, S.-H., and Ruth, L. (2017). Lovin’ on Jesus : A concise history of contemporary worship. Abingdon Press.
Sargeant, K. H. (2000). Seeker churches : Promoting traditional religion in a nontraditional way. Rutgers University Press.
Frédéric Dejean is Professor in Religious Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). One of his fields of expertise is the recent evolution of the evangelical landscape in Quebec. He recently edited Se faire une place dans la cité. La participation des groupes religieux à la vie urbaine (Presses de l’Université de Montréal) with Annick Germain.
What We're Reading
I recently read through the 2022 National Survey, The Next Normal: The Future of Christian Ministries and Churches in Canada from WayBase that surveyed just over 2000 leaders of Christian organizations/churches. Although Quebec was underrepresented and there was a lack of Catholic respondents, the survey covered six areas: finances, church operations, ministry operations, health protocols, change and technology, and leaders. The national survey showed a number of key insights from these six areas. These are a few snapshots of what the data revealed:
When asked about revenue at the end of 2021 compared to the end of 2020, year-over-year changes from the prior year were similar. Two positive exceptions that tended to fare better: 1.) camps and retreat ministries and 2.) evangelism and discipleship.
Table 1. Finances: How was your organization’s revenue at the end of the 2021 calendar year compared to the end of the 2020 calendar year?
It seems that a higher number of people were likely to re-engage with a congregation that offered programs for children and youth. If this is the case, recruiting and equipping volunteers would seem to be crucial to restart these programs.
Table 2. Church Operations: Percentage of people returning to churches based on the status of their children’s and youth programs
Another interesting data point is that ministry leaders see new ways that technology can be used to support ministry. When asked about the role of technology and its value to ministry, 2 out of 3 ministry leaders see technology as an important discipleship opportunity, a way to better engage with the community, and a way to engage others who don’t attend worship service.
Table 3. Change and Technology: To what extent do you agree or disagree with these statements about the role of technology in ministry
The national survey report concludes with a Challenges and Opportunities section. These are some of the key insights:
In the coming year, most churches plan to focus on re-engaging their people and ministries as well as strengthening their ministry operations.
Leaders across the Christian movement are unified about the need for unity. In fact, they agree on the priorities of rebuilding unity and re-engaging their people and the need for outreach and evangelism.
The key opportunity now is to set aside past perspectives that have caused division and rally around the values and key convictions that unite the Church in its mission to share and live the message of Jesus in our neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and world.
The National Survey Report can be found at: https://www.waybase.com/research/reports
Dr. Arch Wong is Professor of Practical Theology at Ambrose University and Associate Director of the Flourishing Congregations Institute
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The Next Normal: The Future of Christian Ministries and Churches in Canada
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