One year, a sheep kept bleating during the whole pageant. Another time the donkey got loose. With a cast and crew of about 80 people, and unpredictable animals, the Christmas
nativity play is a challenge for the local Mormon community at its Tzouhalem Road church site. “It’s our gift to the community,” said the pageant’s technical director Kurt Schmidt as he stapled greenery around the manger set before the annual event (Dec. 22 and 23 this year). “After all, we’re the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. If ever there was a time to share the message, it is Christmas.”
It’s that love-thy-neighbour philosophy that has earned Christianity 2.4 billion followers worldwide. Certainly celebrating the religion’s biggest event – the birth of Jesus – by buying gifts at Christmas means the message can get eclipsed by the consumer pressure.
In many homes, Christmas is a cultural event rather than a spiritual one. About three-quarters of Canadians (73%) believe in God, but only 30 per cent say they are religious, says a 2015 Angus Reid study. B.C. has the lowest percentage of Christians in Canada – 44 per cent (2011). About the same number said they are spiritual but not religious.
But walk into any local church this week and you’ll see a strong and varied community with services that might include labyrinths, rock bands playing carols, and poetry from Sufi mystics. Variations in the Cowichan Valley are as diverse as Christianity itself: Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Christian Reformed, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and more.
At the New Life Baptist Church, the two Sunday services sometimes attract a total of 500 people, says one of the greeters. The atmosphere is lively and friendly. Up on stage, a five piece band rocks out
carols before Pastor Ken Nettleton takes the microphone for his informal sermon. No hymn books are in sight – the words are projected on a giant screen. There are padded chairs instead of pews. The vibrant Sunday school – called KidZone – has a sign in station printing out badges so that if parents need to be alerted while the kids are downstairs, the information flashes on the screen behind the minister.
At St. Edward’s Catholic Church, Father Luyen Dau has a congregation of about 500, and he also manages the spiritual teaching at the adjacent Queen of Angels School. Born in Vietnam, Fr. Luyen relocated here last year from Saratoga Springs, New York where his parish had 7,000 members. He wants to help his aging parents here, and he sees this move as an opportunity to evangelize.
The Church of the Nazarene has what seem like the best slogans “Come as you are and leave refreshed,” as well as “we are the church of the lost and found.” Pastor Wayne Lee has a small but committed congregation – about 60 people – attending his Sherman Road church, one of five Nazarene churches on Vancouver Island.
At St. Peter’s Anglican church, which just celebrated its 150th anniversary, the early service (like many Anglican churches) uses the traditional Book of Common Prayer, its poetic language little changed since it was written in the 16th century. The later service uses a modern prayer book that is more modern and more inclusive.
Whatever the language and the ritual, these church communities all have a strong sense of social justice and outreach. Several of the churches sponsored Syrian refugee families; they support food bank drives; they provide space for daycares. And they offer a sense of community for locals as well, whether you come to join the bell ringers club, the choir, or merely stick around for coffee after the service.
Church leaders today face the mounting challenges of maintaining old buildings and attracting new generations to the community. The focus on helping others sometimes leaves churches in difficult financial states as they budget for a new roof or wonder how to replace an old furnace. Automatic bank withdrawals supplement the fistfuls of change in the collection plate, but it still takes plenty of church bake sales and benevolence to balance the books. At Duncan United, contractors are repairing the old roof thanks in part to a benevolent parishioner who offered to match donations. At St. Edward’s, Fr. Luyen wishes he had extra administrative help so he can be out in the community more.
In January, the stressful business of running churches begins anew. Still, at this time of year, all is bright as thousands of local residents walk through the church doors again to enjoy the music and reflect on the seasonal message of hope.