The Fifth Gospel

With the proliferation of home theatres, Web-delivered films, and organic microwave popcorn, it’s no wonder movie attendance is tanking. Why would you leave the comfort of your couch to confront pushy crowds, dicey parking, and interruptions from someone else’s cellphone? But here at the Fifth Avenue, the lobby is full—all with the hip iPhone-flashing congregation of the Westside Church.

The Fifth Avenue has been renting itself out Sunday mornings to Westside for over three years now, and this packed gathering suggests that if movies’ call to assembly is waning, the church’s is not. I meet a youth pastor, a volunteer child minder, a 20-something baker ready for a new profession—”I mean, now’s the time, right? While I’m young?” The coffee and pastries are by donation; posters for an upcoming mission to India request donations of clothing, cash, umbrellas—monsoon season is coming. There are boxes for prayer cards and newcomer cards.

The 9 a.m. gathering lets out. There’s good-natured chaos as our second wave slips through the exiting worshippers. We pass beneath the sign advertising Cinema 3’s regular feature: Bill Maher’s scathing Religulous, an incongruity commented on by exactly nobody. Inside, your standard indie-rock quartet in skinny jeans and message Ts gears up for its second set. We sing “Saviour King” and “God of This City.” The lyrics are PowerPointed on the screen. (This is a church that requires not one but two laptops.) It’s a happy vibe, a vibe of goodwill and connection. Around me, shaggy-haired youngsters raise a hand in testimony.

Pastor Norm Funk—”the main teaching guy here”—takes the mike. His style is casual, confident. He knows how to pitch a message to a room full of cultural creatives, how to throw out conversational signposts to guide us through a close reading of scripture. “This is kind of a prelim statement,” he says at one point. “Just want to hammer this home” at another. “Let’s keep on walking through this.” “This should free you up.”

Housekeeping includes a reminder that Westside, a freewheeling riff on Mennonite Brethren doctrine, needs money. (The theatre rental is $920 a week.) “If you’re a guest here,” says Funk, “or you’re on a journey of faith and you don’t know what you believe, we don’t want your money. In fact, if you’re on a journey of faith, it is wrong of the church to take your money. Because it gives you the idea that God just wants your money. Makes you feel safe. We don’t want you safe. This is not a safe place. I know a lot of churches want to be safe places. I couldn’t care less about safety. When you read scriptures, do you look at certain passages and say, ‘That would scare me to death if I were to live that out?’ That’s a good thing. God doesn’t want your money. He wants your heart, your life.

“Westsiders? We need your money.” Laughter. “You think I’m joking! I better stop here before I get into trouble.”

Today’s sermon, gearing up for Thanksgiving, concerns giving in its broadest sense. We touch on II Corinthians 9:11, then I Peter 4. “You have people over to your house?” Funk says. “Don’t grumble about it. Hospitality, by the way, is different from fellowship. Hospitality is having people over to your house that you don’t know. As the writer of Hebrews knows, ‘angels unaware.’ If all you do is have friends and neighbours over, day after day, week after week, that’s great fellowship but it’s not technically hospitality in its totality. You have people in your house that you don’t know, people who’re hurting—that’s hospitality.”

Christians aren’t Lone Rangers, Funk reminds us, but neither should they huddle. Christians shouldn’t stick to the known, the safe, the herd. They gather not for comfort, not for fellowship, not to assuage the loneliness of urban life. “Why do we teach the word? So that when you scatter, you have something to preach.” The room is a seed ball packed to bursting. Westside is considering a move to a larger venue; a second church called Reality Vancouver is scouting locations on Cambie and Main.

Each congregant, Funk says, eyeing the studentish crowd taking notes, has gifts to pass on. “If you’re a spirit person, if you’ve been born again, if you said yes to Jesus, if you believe and confess that Jesus is lord and has been raised from the dead, if you follow Him—whatever wording you want to use, however you want to define it, if you are a follower of Jesus, you have received at least one spiritual gift.”

(Know what your gift is, he urges, and what it isn’t. “I’m not a very good teacher outside of scriptures. There are way better teachers out there. You’re getting ripped off. Just so you know.” Laughter. “I’m also not a good small-group community leader.” His wife, he says, made that clear. “I’m a C+ administrator.”)

Thanksgiving is a time to count blessings, but with the theatre’s physical comfort, the sense of fellowship and safe haven (no matter what Funk exhorts), it’s easy to turn a collar against the outside, the less fortunate. “Soon after we planted, especially in the first year, I got the question from many people: ‘What are you doing at Westside to reach the city?’ For the first year, I thought it was a trick question. The greatest program that we have in reaching the city that so desperately needs Jesus happens when we say at a quarter to 12, ‘Great having you, have a great week, see you next time.’ And you and I go back to our spheres of influence—our friends, our family, our neighbours, our jobs, our baristas, our teams, our coaches, our players—and we take Jesus to them. The question comes from a place that says, ‘Churches are in the job of putting together programs to reach out to the city so that I don’t need to.’ We can’t do a better program than you loving on people that you know. Why would we want to? Why would we want to?”