I Fell For a “Progressive” Church, and It Was a Mistake

Months later, I quit

(Photo: Alyssa Garrison)
(Photo: Alyssa Garrison)

I was baptized on Easter Sunday last year, at the age of 27. After a lifetime of avoiding organized religion—first because of my atheist family, and later because of my queer identity—I put my fears of bigotry and homophobia aside and fell head over heels (literally, into a tank of water) for C3 Toronto. But by my 28th birthday only a few months later, my relationship with my church had ended in heartbreak.

You know that charming new love interest who sweeps you off your feet with their charisma, compliments and great kisses? They make you feel like their everything, like you’ve finally found where you belong and you don’t ever want to leave? You shout your newfound adoration from the rooftops and spend as much time with them as you can, convinced that this is “the one?”

That’s exactly how I felt when I was introduced to C3 Toronto. It seemed…different. A church that assured me they loved everyone and welcomed anyone. Plus, there was the fun factor—the live band playing catchy pop songs, the stylish and attractive leadership, the infectiously positive energy and the great graphic design. It was just so cool, and so I, like many other young people, fell for the smoke and mirrors of the new hipster megachurch movement.

I say movement, because these churches really have become a global phenomenon that target young people. C3 is a church that hails from Australia, just like the infamous Hillsong Church that has attracted celebrities like Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt. With more than 500 churches in 64 countries, C3’s popularity is growing, and though it’s sometimes labeled as Evangelical and/or Pentecostal, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any denomination listed its official websites.

So why are young, liberal and open-minded millennials, even very skeptical ones like me, falling for these churches? Because so many of these fun, musical, well-designed churches are purposely vague, using language that’s difficult to decipher. Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database and organization that demands transparency from churches, says, “Ambiguity enables those with power to operate without accountability and cause real harm. Many people invest years of their lives into a church community, only to later discover the truth about the church’s policies, and end up feeling betrayed, deceived and “bait-and-switched.”

The red flags were everywhere

My friends and family weren’t so sure about this all-consuming new presence in my life. They recognized the positive change in me—I was more stable and optimistic—but much like a romantic relationship that was moving too fast, it all seemed too good to be true. I brushed off the concerns, but as time went on I started to notice the edges of my newfound relationship fraying. It started with suspicion, a couple unspoken questions that nagged at the back of my mind every Sunday. Still, I held on to the good bits, the big feelings I first felt—but those little worries started to turn into bigger red flags.

Early in my indoctrination, I was told by one of the local church leaders, Pastor Jess Picken, via email that the church’s official stance on the queer community was: “People walk through our doors with many different backgrounds, beliefs and values. We value unity and community, not conformity. We don’t tell people how to live. We tell people who to follow.” It satisfied me at the time, but in the months following my baptism I started to question those vague words. It reminded me of that same too-good-to-be-true new partner, who when confronted three months into dating replies something like “I really like you, but let’s not put a label on things.” Upon closer examination, I still didn’t really feel like I had a proper answer from leadership at C3 on where the church stood and what their policies actually were.

When I came out as a Christian attending C3 on Instagram, I experienced a lot of backlash from friends and strangers alike, many of whom pointed me in the direction of C3 Global’s website where it says outright, “Marriage was instituted by God, ratified by Jesus, and is exclusively between a man and a woman. It is a picture of Christ and his church.” It also states, “Sex is a gift from God for procreation and unity, and it is only appropriate within and designed for marriage.” By this definition, there’s no right way to have a same-sex relationship—if you can’t be married but you also can’t have sex outside of marriage, there is no way to exist within C3 churches unless you repress all your feelings and desires.

I was thrown when I read this link. Why when I had asked about our church’s values had I not been directed to the global website? In part, I was ashamed that I hadn’t done more in-depth research before publicly endorsing C3, but I was also newly pregnant and not ready to give up this new family that had given me so much peace, strength and community. I resolved that though C3 Toronto was a branch of C3 Global, the international site and church headquarters were all based in Australia where LGBTQ rights and marriage equality have always been behind Canadian standards. I mean, they only legalized same-sex marriage in 2017, for heaven’s sake, of course the churches there were still stuck in the dark ages. Instead of admitting my mistake and confronting leadership, I stood behind C3 Toronto, arguing that there was nothing of that nature on our local website, and that our church in Toronto was different. Better. I vowed I would never be a part of something homophobic or bigoted. I couldn’t be.

When I started to voice my concerns to others I could trust within the church, I quickly found I wasn’t the only one who felt like we hadn’t been given the whole story: My friends and I would have guarded conversations here and there, after Sunday services and even at our Connect Group (a modern take on bible study), trying to grasp what C3 Toronto really stood for. It felt almost blasphemous to voice our concerns out loud, and looking back, I think it’s because we were all a bit scared to know the real answers to our questions.

All of my worst fears came to fruition later that summer when John Bevere, a best-selling American author and pastor, came to preach at C3 Toronto. From the moment he walked on stage it was clear his talk would not be one of the positive, inspiring messages I’d come to expect from C3’s local leaders. He launched into a heavy sermon about repentance. The entire speech seemed to overturn everything I’d learned at C3, with a focus on sin, “submitting to the authority of God,” and the importance of following God’s word regardless of what is “acceptable in our culture.” In his sermon, Western churches were equated to sleazy used car salesmen, selling the idea of God with all of the good stuff, leaving out the harder aspects about sexual immorality and sacrifice. Listening to him, I felt my stomach turning.

Near the end of the speech, he read passage 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. After months of wondering what C3 really believed, there it was on screen, projected for all to see, with Bevere reading the words aloud: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” There it was, finally—proof.

Everything changed

I left the auditorium shaking and as soon as I got out of the front doors, the tears started to fall. The words echoed in my head and the panic started to rise. I had stood behind this church and told my community it was a safe and welcoming place for all, and I was wrong. But somehow I still wasn’t ready to give up on something I’d put so much time, energy and heart into, and hearing rumours that the church leader, Pastor Sam Picken (Pastor Jess’s husband), would make an apology at the next service, I showed up to C3 the next week feeling betrayed and hurt but somehow still a little hopeful. Leadership had clearly made a mistake hosting Bevere, and were obviously going to right the situation by assuring our congregation that C3 Toronto did not share his beliefs, or stand behind the biblical translation he had chosen to share. After all, C3 had female leadership throughout the church, and held entire feminist events (called HER) celebrating women in the church, but you can find all sorts of scripture forbidding women from leading, or even speaking in church. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know about this—we’ve all seen The Handmaid’s Tale. So many passages surrounding women’s rights within the church have been re-interpreted to allow for equality in modern times. Surely, I thought, the same adjustments had been made for the LGBTQ community at a church that so openly welcomed them.

So the following week I sat in that same auditorium ready to forgive. But Pastor Sam’s apology, though emotional (even tearful in the particular service that I attended), only solidified my disappointment. He explained that he wanted to “publicly apologize for anybody who was hurt, sincerely,” but that he stood behind Bevere, calling his sermon “a strong but true message.” Pastor Sam then went on to explain, “Our only stance at C3 Toronto is on Jesus,” among other vague statements I had heard before. Then he got a bit more personal. “In deep study of the scripture I believe with full conviction that the identity of being a homosexual is not a sin according to scripture. But I believe that same-sex sexual practices are sinful to God, and do not please him. I am also convicted that the biblical definition of marriage designed by God is between man and woman. I have studied hard on these subjects in every effort to discover that I might be wrong in this theologically, but each time I find myself in the same conclusion. I know that this is not socially cool, but my faith is not based on society, it’s based on God,” he told us. He followed with, “How could I judge something that I personally don’t understand? I’m not gay! I’m not gay. So it’s hard for me to empathize, I can try to sympathize, but I will never understand.”

The non-apology was a step past the red flags in my relationship with C3: It was a deal breaker. After Pastor Sam left the stage that day, everything changed. I felt tricked, like I had been misled and used to promote the church in my capacity as an influencer without knowing the whole truth. Most of my friends at the church walked away from their posts on different teams within the church after that day, and those who stayed were confused and conflicted. I immediately sent in my resignation, explaining I could “not in good conscience give my time and energy to a church whose leadership opposes gay marriage and sexual relations.”

Moving on

(Photo: Alyssa Garrison)
(Photo: Alyssa Garrison)

Much like a breakup, it took me a long time to get over my heartache after leaving C3 Toronto. Sunday mornings felt sad and empty, and where worship music had once made me feel full and excited, the lyrics no longer rang true. I started to heavily research the other churches in Toronto, desperate to find a new place that felt like home and shared my values but every young, hip church here in Toronto (People’s Church, Hillsong, Catch the Fire) was similarly vague about their values. This lack of straight answers is nothing new. In 2017, Hillsong finally made an unequivocal anti-LGBTQ statement when it urged people to vote against same-sex marriage in Australia. Last February, Ellen Page called out fellow actor Chris Pratt on his support of Hillsong, calling the organization “infamously anti LGBTQ”, but no new statements have been made by Pratt or Hillsong re: any shift in values.

I wasn’t the only person who felt duped or “bait-and-switched” by C3 Toronto. Shortly after my first story on C3 was published I connected with Jason Selby, an out gay man who had been attending the church for three years. When he first found C3, Jason asked about the church’s position on LGBTQ people, and was given the same general “everyone is welcome” spiel I was provided. Eventually he met with Pastor Sam, who assured him he was welcome at C3 Toronto, but affirmed that the church doesn’t preform same-sex marriages. Jason became a singer on the worship team, and only once he confirmed to Pastor Sam that he was not in a relationship, he was allowed to perform.

These policies aren’t publicly stated. Jason became a beloved leader and an integral part of the community, but most of the congregation (including me) didn’t know the personal sacrifices he’d made to be there. When he publicly shared his disappointment and hurt following the Bevere sermon on social media, he was told by Pastor Sam that he needed to apologize for being out of unity with his team. “I asked him some very pointed questions including how he would respond to a same-sex married couple attending our church. His response was that culture doesn’t define marriage, the bible does. So when I asked if his desire would be to see them split up and see their family get torn apart as a result, he said that he would never say that to them, but essentially the answer was yes. I then asked if I were to date someone, what would happen to me and he responded…that LGBTQ people in relationships are not welcome to serve on stage or lead a connect group at C3 so I would be asked to step down from both.” Later Selby was removed from the worship team roster and group chats altogether.

Looking back over a year later, my issue is not with church and religion in general, nor with some higher power. My issue is with the lack of transparency, the policies that are only revealed behind closed doors, the unspoken judgements and strategically vague statements, all hiding behind catchy pop songs and well-produced video clips. In a world where Kanye West champions the resurgence of Christianity with his Sunday services, it’s easy to commit to “cool churches,” but it’s more important than ever to clarify values before making it official. C3 Toronto may say that the church’s only official stance is Jesus and that they do not judge, that the church is a safe place for all, but by failing to grant rights and privileges to LGBTQ people within the congregation, such as serving in leadership or affirming same sex marriages, is undeniably systemic inequality and discrimination. It’s hurtful, misleading and ultimately dangerous to members of the queer community.

I’m not sure where my faith stands now. I tried attending a couple of different United Church congregations around the city, both of which were women-led and made a point of being LGBTQ-welcoming. (One had even painted their entry staircase rainbow as a statement!) But after the pain from C3, worship just didn’t fill me up like it once had. Perhaps it was too soon for a rebound. I do believe there’s more to life on this earth and though I don’t claim to know what, or whom or how that is, I do know it shows up every day, all around us, not as hate or judgement or discrimination, but as love.