Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Holy Hipsters

Across Toronto, 20- and 30-somethings are joining trendy evangelical churches, where services feature lasers, confetti cannons and indie bands. Portrait of a religious revolution in the making

By Christina Gonzales and Luc Rinaldi| Photography by Luis Mora
| November 11, 2018

On Sunday mornings in Toronto, most millennials are lining up for brunch, not communion. The city’s steepled brick churches are slowly being converted into condos, and the 6 God has more disciples than, well, actual God. Yet somehow, a cadre of new churches, many from Australia, is luring the under-30 set into the pews—not that there are actual pews, mind you. Mass is often held in rented high school auditoriums, concert halls and other venues that would otherwise be empty on a Sunday morning. The services are like raves for Jesus, starring inked-up pastors, motivational speaker–style sermons, dazzling light shows and stylish parishioners searching for community. It’s mass tailor-made for Instagram.

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

The Concert Hall at Yonge and Davenport, 2,000 congregants

At most churches, mass begins with a hymn. At Hillsong, services start with an EDM beat drop and confetti cannons. A fresh-faced 10-piece band strums the opening chords of a swelling Christian-rock anthem. As the song explodes into a cathartic singalong chorus, 800 worshippers sway and reach for the heavens. Worldwide, the Australian megachurch comprises 130,000 members, dozens of churches and a TV channel. Albums by the church’s legion of touring bands occasionally outsell Taylor Swift. Justin Bieber is a regular patron—superstar NYC pastor Carl Lentz baptized the Biebs in NBA star Tyson Chandler’s bathtub. At the new Toronto chapter, launched this year, pastors and wife-husband duo Julie and Damian Bassett deliver affirmations and scriptural interpretations, armed with the Bible in one hand and an iPad in the other. They founded their own Toronto church, Vantage, in 2009 and became an official Hillsong outpost this year. They suggest members tithe 10 per cent of their total income to the church. At every service, Julie asks attendees to stay up to date by following them on social media. “You’re all on Instagram, right?”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Bukola Walfall, 24, actor

“I first saw Julie and Damian on Instagram five years ago. They were holding services in a Hard Rock Cafe, and I thought, ‘That looks so fun!’ So I went. Since then, I’ve become friends with so many people at the church. I work in the creative industry, and my colleagues ask, ‘Where do you keep meeting all these cool people?’ I’m like, ‘Church.’ And they say, ‘What kind of church do you go to?’ They can’t believe there’s a church where you can wear ripped jeans.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Jonathan Hatto, 32, pastor

“I grew up in England listening to Hillsong albums, and I went to Hillsong College in 2006. I met my wife there, and she is Canadian, so we moved here. Now I’m a pastor at Hillsong Toronto. We help people understand the Gospel, offer them an opportunity to respond and give them their own Bibles. We have fun, too: on Canada Day, we performed a medley of famous Canadian artists. Pastor Damian did Bryan Adams. He owned ‘Summer of ’69.’ ”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Heather Newbury, 39, teacher

“I grew up in Newfoundland, so I got to attend one of Hillsong’s first concerts in Canada. They came on the scene when I was in a youth group. When my family moved to Ontario 11 years ago, we fell in love with the church. We live in Brampton, and we make the trip down every Sunday. It’s not like, ‘I have to do this.’ Instead, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I want to be here at eight in the morning!’ One of my cousins recently said, ‘I still can’t believe how much you love church!’ ”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Dike Aduluso, 20, student

“The first day I went in, I was blown away. I had to come back. Now I do photography and videography for the church. Attending service is one thing, but being able to record it for others to see is amazing. It helps others realize that something cool is going on here. No matter what kind of day I’m having, I walk in and see all the smiling faces and it fills my heart with joy. I live in Waterloo, but I keep making the trip. I took a cab this morning—it was worth it.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Luigi Casagrande, 56, landscaper

“When I first attended the church, I felt very welcome there. I grew up Catholic in Italy, and I found that this church offered a more direct relationship with God. There was no middleman. Last year, we did a performance at the church and I played Father Christmas—except a cool Father Christmas. I wore a jean jacket, tight pants and a hat that said #MeTheNorth. It was hilarious. My friends, even the non-believers, are happy for me. It’s my faith, it’s my life.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Central Technical School at Bloor and Bathurst, 1,500 congregants

Phil and Chris Pringle met as preteens and later lived in a hippie commune in New Zealand. In 1980, they say God called on them to start a Pentecostal church in Sydney. Forty-odd years later, Christian City Church—now rebranded as C3—has some 500 chapters and 112,000 members around the world. It came to Toronto five years ago, when Sam and Jess Picken, two C3 Bible college alumni from Australia, set up shop here. They had never been to Toronto and only visited once before launching the church. The congregation started with six members. The Pickens pay a levy to the mothership in Sydney to license the name and brand and otherwise support themselves with donations and tithes. Church services feature coloured lights, craft coffee and a live band performing catchy folk-pop with pious lyrics—some congregants describe it as a Coldplay concert without Chris Martin. In addition to Sunday services, C3 offers communion and baptism, which are performed on the steps of the school. And for kids, there’s a free Sunday ministry, led by a mascot named Rocco the Raccoon.

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Alesha Spadzinski, 32, stay-at-home mom

“I grew up going to church, but I hadn’t been for a few years. When a friend invited me to check out C3, I was blown away. For the first time, church felt like home, not some place I had to spend my Sundays. Last year, I thought I’d miscarried my daughter. The doctor said there was no sign of life. I asked the community to pray for me and, a few hours later, the ultrasound finally sensed a heartbeat. In February, I took her to her first service at Massey Hall. She was six days old.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Jojo Ariwi, 27, geospatial specialist

“My girlfriend and I met at Impact, a small church in Montreal, and then moved to Toronto and joined C3 in 2016. The first time I went, everyone greeted me. It was so different from most other churches, where you could attend for a year with no one knowing who you are. It was refreshing to see so many young, hip people at church. They fit the Toronto mould: they looked like me and spoke like me and enjoyed living life, but they also loved Jesus.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Mark Bone, 31, film director

“I grew up in Grimsby, and my dad was a Pentecostal pastor. When I heard about Pastor Sam, I was touched that someone would come across the world to plant a church. I quickly realized he wasn’t a traditional pastor. I could be myself around him. He was blunt and direct, challenging me in ways no one else has. My friends and family have seen how much I’ve grown since I joined. It intrigues them to see so many young people passionately pursuing something together.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Alyssa Yuhas, 35, art director

“My husband and I grew up Christian, but we could never find the presence of God in the churches we visited. At C3, we found the Holy Spirit for the first time—our faith felt real and tangible. Everyone wants to be part of each other’s lives: we have dinners together and help each other move house. A couple of years ago, we did an outdoor baptism service on the stoop of our church. People were just declaring their love for Jesus, out in the open. It was beautiful.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Brenden Lee, 29, tech entrepreneur

“I moved from L.A. to Toronto in 2017. I attended service at C3 that month and never left. I’ve worked with billionaires, and their lives always seem unsettled—they don’t know why they’re here. When I looked at Pastor Sam, I saw a man who knew he was created to serve people. A few months after moving to Toronto, I met my girlfriend at a church leadership retreat. I was captivated by her. She was glowing from how much God loved her.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Bickford Centre at Bloor and Christie, 150 congregants

Jeff Pike looks like your average 29-year-old guy from Dundas West: scruffy beard, pompadour fade and wardrobe of worn check and denim button-downs. He’s also a church pastor. After high school, Pike left his London, Ontario, home and enrolled at Hillsong International Leadership College in Australia—an offshoot of Justin Bieber’s favourite megachurch—where he focused on pastoral studies and theology. There, he met his future wife, fellow pastor Mika Pike, and in 2014 they moved back to Toronto, where Jeff had done volunteer work as a teenager. They opened their church, originally called Groundswell, and held their first service at the Mod Club on College Street. This year, they rebranded as a franchise of Chicago’s People Church, though the two branches are financially independent—People relies on donations for facility rentals and events. The clientele? Millennials looking for a place to develop their relationship with God. Sunday services are fronted by an eight-piece indie band, and a dozen small neighbourhood Grow Groups meet weekly for Bible study and socializing.

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Bonnie Salamons, 23, nanny and florist

“My church back home in Alberta is Christian Reformed, so it’s strict and traditional—until recently, women weren’t even allowed to hold church office. Here, it’s all about your personal relationship with God. He isn’t just a deity; He wants to chase you, and he wants you to chase Him. I’ve gone through two heartbreaks during my time at this church and all of the girls are super-supportive. I love having a community of women who lean on one another.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Jason Pike, 26, Apple tech consultant

“I followed my brother, Jeff, to Toronto when he started the church. Our parents wish we’d done something more secure, like medicine or accounting, but they’re proud of us. We used to hold services at the Mod Club, where the manager, George, would work until 4 a.m. Sunday morning and then stay until 8 a.m. to open it for us. Once, we called him on stage and honoured him. In a big city like Toronto, people often try to tear each other down. Here, we try to lift them up.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Jesse Boland, 26, barista

“I come from a large Pentecostal church with hundreds of people: parents, grandparents, kids. People has a younger vibe, and it’s out of my comfort zone. I’ve been playing drums since I was 10, and now I oversee the church musicians and put our set lists together. I’m going through a time in my life where I’m like, ‘Why am I here?’ Even when I’m not working toward a tangible goal, I get to come to church and be part of something greater than myself.”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Chantal Babin, 24, broadcast coordinator

“When I moved from Ottawa to Toronto, the church helped me plug into the city and get to know people. Unlike the Catholic church where I grew up, there’s no judgment if you walk in wearing a miniskirt or are covered in tattoos. I’m a singer, but I’d never performed before. The lead singer of our band encouraged me to audition and I got in. The first time I got on stage, I felt so much peace. I thought, ‘Okay, this is how I can connect with God: through music.’ ”

Yes, this is Sunday Mass in Toronto

Denver Rodrigues, 31, photographer

“I grew up Catholic, and there were a lot of rules and regulations. I just wanted to connect with God. I rocked up to service one day in 2016 and everyone spoke to me as if they’d known me for a long time. Sundays are my time to glorify God. I get a feeling of comfort at church that I don’t get anywhere else. I also love attending Grow Group. We pray for each other and speak about the nature of God, but we also try restaurants, hang out at parks and play arcade games.”

This story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.


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