Cracks in the concrete: church planting in Vancouver’s core

Frank Stirk has written a book that should be read by anyone who believes – or would like to believe – that the church can have a positive future in this city. He has carefully chronicled how the church is growing rather than dying in the downtown core.

Streams in the Negev tells ‘stories of how God is starting to redeem Vancouver.’ He told some of that story in the May 2019 issue of the International Journal of Urban Transformation. It is re-posted on Church for Vancouver (in two parts) with the author’s permission.

“Evangelism in Downtown Vancouver is like plowing concrete,” Harry Robinson, the rector of St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church in South Vancouver, is said to remarked in the late 1980s.[1] As the founder of Faith in the Marketplace, a weekly lunch-hour ministry to the downtown’s Christian business community, Robinson knew what he was talking about.

Now fast-forward about 25 years. Alastair Sterne is the rector of St. Peter’s Fireside[2], a church plant of the Anglican Network in Canada[3] in downtown Vancouver. He recently recalled that even before they began holding services in 2012, “someone on our launch team shared a prophetic word with me that has stuck. He saw God plant a seed in downtown Vancouver, and it grew roots beneath the streets, and it slowly expanded under the city. But eventually, what started as a small seed blossomed and grew and broke through the ground, the concrete, and filled every crack; what blossomed was seen all throughout the city.[4]

While that prophecy still awaits fulfilment, there is no question that in the oldest part of Vancouver, the peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean from Burrard Inlet, some cracks in that concrete have begun to appear. From its origins in the 1860s until today, churches in Vancouver have always struggled to make progress against the headwinds of a highly secular society. Yet, as this article will show, there are more churches and church plants ministering in the peninsula’s four communities – the downtown, the West End, Coal Harbour and Yaletown, between Main Street and Stanley Park – than at any time in the city’s history.

Of course, that’s all relative as population growth has always far outpaced the number of churches and new church plants. Since the 1980s, the entire peninsula has experienced a population boom as the construction of new residential towers drew tens of thousands of people there.

In 1971, only about 6,600 people called the peninsula home; by 2011, that figure had soared to 54,690[5], making the area the most densely populated neighborhood in Vancouver and one of the densest in North America.[6] According to federal census data, a total of 99,233 people lived in the downtown peninsula in 2011. By 2021, that figure is projected to reach 105,000.[7]

“You need God”

One constant feature of Vancouver from those earliest days until now has been its secular mindset. As Bob Stewart, the archivist of the BC Conference of the United Church of Canada, noted in 1983:

Our first immigrants were gold-seekers, and they set the pattern: we came to this region seeking our fortunes in the resource industries, exploiting the land and the seas rather than coming as families of “settlers.” With our exploitation of the staple resources, we came to live in single-industry towns, mining camps, bush camps and fishing villages.

There were few things that would make us want to settle down, and without the prerequisites for establishing deep religious roots, the transient population has always had a strong secular spirit.[8]

Even among people who came and stayed, that mindset remained much the same. As Hugh Keenleyside, the future university professor, diplomat and senior civil servant, later recalled from his childhood at the turn of the 20th century, “The newspapers confined their columns to records of growth and their opinions to essays in positive thinking. Critics were denounced as pessimists: God was in His Heaven and so long as He came down only on Sunday, business could flourish and right-thinking citizens could make money.”[9]

Outsiders were surprised by this general disinterest in organized religion. In 1911, Ontario resident Grace Morris confided to her diary during a visit to Vancouver, “I did not go to church at all just because I did not want to go. The Vancouver churches are not terribly exciting anyway. People don’t seem to worry much about churches out here.”[10]

That last sentence still applies today. In 2005, a survey by University of Lethbridge, Alberta, sociologist of religion Reginald Bibby found that 37 percent of B.C. residents indicated that they never attend religious services, versus only 17 percent who said they go weekly. No other province comes even close in the never-attend category, and it comes a very close second to Quebec in terms of fewest weekly attenders. British Columbia, Bibby concluded, “is without question the most secular province in the country.”[11]

The result has been a marginal church presence in Vancouver throughout most of the city’s history. In 1888, when the city was only two years old and comprised basically the downtown peninsula, Vancouver had six churches to serve 8,000 people.[12] By 1988, despite the tens of thousands of people who by then called the peninsula home, there were nine churches in essentially the same geographic area – for a net increase of only three in a hundred years.[13]

Even Billy Graham seemed to grasp the city’s spiritual malaise when he came to Vancouver in 1984 for a week-long crusade. “If ever a group of people in North America needed the help of God . . . it’s the people in Vancouver and British Columbia,” he told a pre-crusade event. “If all the statistics and the things that I’ve read that they sent me ahead of time are true, you need help. You need God.”[14]

Immigration and the church

But while much about Vancouver has remained the same since its inception, there is also much that has changed and keeps changing. One of the most obvious drivers of change is the large influx of mostly Asian immigrants.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, 48.9 percent of Metro Vancouver’s population belonged to a “visible minority” – primarily of Chinese, South Asian and Filipino origin – up from 45.2 percent in the 2011 census. The rest (51.1 percent) belonged to a “non-visible minority,” that is, either Caucasian (48.6 per cent) or Aboriginal (2.5 percent). In Vancouver itself, Caucasians and Aboriginals comprised 48.4 per cent of the population.[15]

To historian Philip Jenkins, writing in 2007, the presence of so many Asian Christians in Metro Vancouver is “powerfully evident”:

Inevitably, the city has its quota of Asian temples and holy places, including sumptuous Buddhist and Hindu temples, and some evocative and cherished Taoist sites. . . . Yet the greater Vancouver area also has around 50 Christian congregations labeled with some ethnic title, such as Chinese Pentecostals or Korean Baptist, and that figure does not count distinct services in ethnic languages offered by mainstream Catholic or Protestant churches.

Roughly half of those Christian congregations and special services cater to the Chinese community, while the remainder are directed toward Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos. In addition, thousands of Vancouver residents of Asian descent attend mainstream Christian services in the English language.[16]

The city’s Roman Catholic churches have been especially impacted by these waves of immigrants. Stanley Galvon, the rector of Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver, says within the Archdiocese of Vancouver, immigrants now make up the “vast majority” of most parishes, and many of those are recent arrivals. “I’d say a third came here to Holy Rosary in the last three years or so, and they seem not to move around too much,” he says.[17]

“We have a lot of Italians and a few Germans and Spaniards and eastern Europeans, and a lot of Mexicans and Latin Americans,” adds Rudolph D’Souza, the rector of Guardian Angels Church in the West End. But in keeping with the neighborhood’s highly transient nature, many of them leave within one or two years. “Once they get settled in Canada, they get cheaper accommodation, and they go away from here,” he says.[18]

The unaffordable city

In fact, the soaring cost of housing impacts all but the very wealthiest Vancouverites. It is so prohibitively expensive that most residents cannot afford to own their own home and even the cost to rent is getting out of reach. In 2017, Vancouver’s housing market was for the third year in a row the third most unaffordable in the world after Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia, according to Demographia’s annual international survey of housing affordability.[19]

The impact of this costly reality on the members of the Mennonite Brethren’s Westside Church in downtown Vancouver has been to make them “more transient,” says senior pastor Norm Funk.

“The city is so expensive that when you start having one or two kids and you want to upgrade in terms of size, you move to the suburbs. Now we’re hearing people are moving all the way to the [Fraser] Valley, to Chilliwack, or moving out of province. That’s happening more and more.”[20]

Loneliness and social isolation

Yet for many Vancouver residents, overriding even the predictable major urban problems such as the cost of housing, traffic gridlock and environmental issues, is the blight of loneliness and social isolation. In 2012, the Vancouver Foundation released a survey examining how well Metro Vancouverites belonged to and engaged in their communities.[21] Thirty-one percent of the nearly 4,000 people surveyed said they found it difficult to make new friends, and 25 percent said they felt “alone more than they would like.” Only 52 percent could say with certainty they did not feel lonely while 24 percent couldn’t answer either way.

The survey found on closer analysis that loneliness is not just somebody’s personal problem; it actually “has negative consequences for the entire community. When people feel lonely, they are also more likely to feel unwelcome in their neighbourhood [sic] and skeptical about community trust. As well, these residents are less likely to participate in activities that make their community a better place to live.”[22]

This sense of disengagement also spills over into people’s personal relationships. Seventy percent said they had neither visited the home of a neighbor nor had they invited a neighbor into their home. And while 46 percent said that was because they seldom ever saw each other, 32 percent said they either had little interest in their neighbors or they preferred to keep to themselves.

“Irrelevance clouded in respect”

The daunting challenge facing churches and church plants is how to offer a meaningful life in community to a secular society where so many are predisposed to be at best deeply suspicious of Christians.

Between 2004 and 2009, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada tried to penetrate Yaletown’s burgeoning high-rise community with an experimental vehicle called the Living Room Church. It was initiated by two young families who lived in adjacent high-rises. The hope was to share the gospel with their neighbors over a meal, followed by some singing and a Bible study.

Co-leader Paul Moores says some of those who showed up responded to the Christian content more with indifference than with any outward signs of hostility. “Nobody ever got up against us or said, ‘That was stupid.’ They might have thought it was stupid but they never said it. It was more a feeling of irrelevance clouded in respect. ‘Okay, that’s interesting, but I can’t believe people still do that,’” Moores says.[23] The church disbanded as changing personal circumstances and new ministry opportunities drew both families away from the downtown core.

“We tried so many different things,” says Mary-Lee Bouma, a Christian Reformed urban missionary who leads downtown friends [sic], a cluster of home-based “simple” churches also in Yaletown. “We’d stand in the lobby when people were getting off work and invite them to a potluck or whatever. Half the people would ignore you or sneer at you, and the other half were like ‘This is amazing! Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ And we’d start something. We’d build community for a while and then people would move.”[24]

Cracks in the concrete

All that said, the fact remains that for these and other obstacles, a new and never-before-seen Christian presence has taken root in the peninsula. When Bouma launched downtown friends in 2006, there were 12 churches and plants – a further net increase of only three since 1988 – in the peninsula.[25] While several no longer exist and the numbers will always fluctuate, by mid 2015, that total had more than doubled to 28.

These were: Anchor of Hope Community Church (Salvation Army), Artisan Church (Mennonite Brethren), Awake Vancouver (Calvary Chapel), C3 Church Vancouver, Central Presbyterian Church, Christ Alive Community Church (Independent), Christ Church Cathedral (Anglican Church of Canada), Coastal Church (Independent), The Crossings Church (Canadian National Baptist Convention), downtown friends (Christian Reformed Church), First Baptist Church (Canadian Baptists of Western Canada), Galilee Korean Presbyterian Church, Guardian Angels Church (Roman Catholic), Holy Rosary Cathedral (RC), House for All Nations Vancouver Campus (MB), Meta Communities (MB), Restoration Church (Independent), St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, St. Brigid Community (ACC), St. Paul’s Anglican Church (ACC), St. Peter’s Fireside Anglican Church (Anglican Network in Canada), The Point Church (CNBC), Trinity Central Church (Newfrontiers), Urban Community Baptist Church (Independent), Vancouver Christian Center (Independent), The Vancouver Project (Independent), Vancouver West Church (United Pentecostal), and Westside Church (MB).

By early 2018, that tally had fallen by three while four more had relocated outside the peninsula.[26] But even more recently, these losses were partially offset by the relocation of two existing churches from East Vancouver to the peninsula – Coastal’s new Crosstown campus (formerly its Strathcona campus) and Vivid Church, launched in 2016.[27]

[1] As recalled by Edie Rittinger, interviewed on October 26, 2015. Rittinger has been ministering for decades to Vancouver’s businesswomen.
[2] The name is derived from the two contrasting firesides in the gospel of John. The first was where Peter denied Jesus three times (18:18, 25-27), and the second was where Jesus extends to Peter grace and forgiveness (21:9-19).
[3] The network comprises many of the theologically conservative churches that had left the Anglican Church of Canada in protest over its stance on same-sex marriage and other controversial social issues.
[4] Alastair Sterne. “Remembering Jesus in Fog-Land.” St. Peter’s Fireside Blog. February 19, 2018.
[5] “Vancouver Neighbourhood Population Census 2011.” Vancity Buzz. May 7, 2013.
[6] Jonathan Bird and Flyn Ritchie. “Vancouver neighbourhoods: Downtown.” Church for Vancouver. February 11, 2016.
[7] Lance Berelowitz. Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2005, p. 218.
[8] Bob Stewart. “‘That’s the BC Spirit!’: Religion and Secularity in Lotus Land.” Canadian Society of Church History Papers (1983), p. 33.
[9] Hugh Keenleyside. Memoirs of Hugh L. Keenleyside. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 1981. Vol. 1, Hammer the Golden Day, p. 44.
[10] Grace Morris Craig. But This is Our War. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press 1981, p. 15.
[11] Reginald W. Bibby. Beyond the Gods & Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why it Matters. Lethbridge, AB: Project Canada Books 2011, p. 53.
[12] Lisa Smedman, Vancouver. Stories of a City: A History of Vancouver’s Neighbourhoods and the People Who Built Them. Vancouver: The Vancouver Courier 2008, p. 8; Norbert MacDonald. “The Canadian Pacific Railway and Vancouver’s Development to 1900.” B.C. Studies. No. 35, Autumn 1977, p. 23.
[13] City of Vancouver Archives. Downtown Church Directory, Vancouver, B.C. PAM 1988-72. Source unknown.
[14] Billy Graham. Transcribed audioclip from 11 October 1984. A Legacy of Hope. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada.
[15] Douglas Todd. “‘Visible minority’ now meaningless term in Metro Vancouver, Toronto.” Vancouver Sun. October 27, 2017.
[16] Philip Jenkins. The New Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2007, p. 121.
[17] Stanley Galvon, interviewed on March 5, 2016.
[18] Rudolph V. D’Souza, interviewed on May 17, 2016.
[19] Emma Crawford Hampel. “Vancouver remains third least affordable global city: Demographia.” Business Vancouver. January 22, 2018.
[20] Norm Funk, interviewed on March 27, 2015, and May 27, 2016.
[21] Vancouver Foundation. Connections and Engagement: A survey of Metro Vancouver.
[22] Vancouver Foundation. “The Consequences of Loneliness.” Connections and Engagement: A Closer Look.
[23] Paul Moores, interviewed on June 15, 2015.
[24] Mary-Lee Bouma, interviewed on June 16, 2016.
[25] Ibid.
[26] The Crossings Church, The Vancouver Project and Restoration Church have disbanded, while Artisan Church has relocated to the Downtown Eastside, Awake Vancouver to South Vancouver, and House for All Nations and C3 Vancouver Church to East Vancouver. Coastal Church opened two campuses in East Vancouver and one in Pitt Meadows [and in Richmond, beginning September 15 2019], as well as an online campus. Westside launched a North Vancouver campus plus churches in East and South Vancouver and is partners in a church plant in Coquitlam. And Trinity Central has a Sunday evening service on the UBC Point Grey campus.
[27] David Koop and James Fam, emails received on 15 June and 21 June 2018; http://www.vivid.church.

The conclusion of the article will appear on Church for Vancouver next week.

The B.C. Catholic interviewed Frank Stirk about Streams in the Negev: ‘Very secular’ Vancouver opening more churches than ever: author.

Three earlier stories by Frank (here, here and here) on Church for Vancouver also relate directly to themes in the book.

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