BLESSED

Hot Docs 2020: #BLESSED

In her previous documentary, Mermaids, director Ali Weinstein explored the subculture of women who found community and strength in their shared love for dressing up as mermaids. That sense of longing to be a part of something that is bigger than oneself is also prevalent in her new work #BLESSED. This time around, Weinstein turns her gaze to the C3 church, an evangelical church that has become an unexpected beacon for Toronto millennials seeking salvation.

While youth ministry is an important part of any church’s mandate, C3 has managed to crack the lucrative and elusive millennial code where other established religious sects have failed. Unlike, for example, the Catholic Church ,which has the advantage of school boards and “Catholic guilt” to keep its numbers strong, C3 has had to rely on creative methods to expand its community. Established in Australia in 1980, the Toronto chapter has become one of the church’s most successful operations.

Led by t-shirt clad Pastor Sam Picken and his wife Jess, the church has managed to connect with a wide demographic of people including those who would usually be cynical about the idea of organized religion. With services that more resemble a Christian rock concert than the typical practice of religious rituals it is easy to see why many are drawn to C3.

As Weinstein’s film documents, if one wants a church to be successful you must treat it both as a spiritual endeavour and a business one. Even Pastor Sam himself, when wanting to expand to a third ministry known as the North Campus, compares his church start-up to that of a tech start-up. One needs to find the right location and identify who your ideal consumer base will be.

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While the business model seems sound, Weinstein’s film forces one to ponder if the product is as spiritually filling as advertised. As some current and past members confess, the familial bonds formed have not translated into the religious nourishment they seek. Part of this is due to C3’s rather ambiguous stance on certain issues, such as LGBTQ+ relationships and abortion, that other churches have been more decisive on. All may be welcome at C3, but the come as you are mantra takes on a slightly different meaning for some.

It is this contradiction that makes #BLESSED an intriguing work. On one hand, it could easily play like an advertisement for those seeking a sense of community in a world full of uncertainty. On the flip side, the film poses intriguing questions about whether the slick marketing of the product – where everything from the seating placement to the stage lightening is meticulously crafted – is overshadowing the product itself.

In an era where millennials are far more progressive in their thoughts and values than previous generations, churches have no choice but to evolve with the times. However, can churches such as C3 truly penetrate the soul if they are constantly tiptoeing around issues that impact the daily lives of those they seek to help?

As is the case with faith in general, #BLESSED leaves it up to each individual viewer to decide whether C3 is a place of spiritual growth, a savvy corporation or something in between. What it does capture is that there is a large void that many millennials are seeking to fill. That sense of community that can come from shared interests or perhaps believing in a higher power.

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#BLESSED is available to stream June 4 to 14 – Includes Q&A

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