CBC documentary on popular Toronto evangelical youth church features Queen’s alum

Documentary #BLESSED shows how Toronto’s loudest church, C3, remains silent on regressive gay rights stance while being space for youth expression

The lights and music at C3 Toronto's services give religion the rock-and-roll treatment.
Credit: 
Screenshot from #BLESSED

C3 Toronto’s rock-and-roll atmosphere is attracting a lot of young people, but its lead pastor’s anti-gay attitude may be driving some away.

Ali Weinstein’s documentary “#BLESSED” follows C3 Toronto, an evangelical youth church. The film, which aired on CBC on July 18, is an effort to understand what attracts some Toronto youth to C3’s religious services.

C3 is an evangelical church that was founded in Australia in 1980. The Toronto sect is one of more than 500 C3 churches that operate worldwide. Church services include a sermon given by a pastor and several brightly lit musical performances by its members in a large auditorium.

Galen Watts, a Cultural Studies PhD candidate at Queen’s, is featured in the film examining the unique features of C3 Toronto for the field work component of his dissertation. Together, Watts and Weinstein explore young Canadians’ unprecedented attraction to C3 in #BLESSED.        ­

In an interview with The Journal, Weinstein and Watts cited C3 Toronto’s exciting musical sermons as one of the features of the church that made it appear so successful.

“From the first time I went, [C3] just felt like this huge, spectacular rock show with many band members on stage and a packed audience…it felt really large and spectacular,” Weinstein said. 

Watts arrived at C3 in 2017 to research contemporary spirituality and attended services for a year.

“[C3] is a very unique place…you just don’t see that kind of religious energy or excitement, especially among young people, anywhere [else] that I’m aware of,” he said.

“Even though it’s a film about C3, in many ways, it’s more a film about the young people who go to C3 rather than the institution,” Weinstein added.

Her intention with #BLESSED was to show interest and empathy for the young people attending C3 and to keep the documentary’s message neutral. 

“Everyone has their own experiences with religion and everyone would come to a film like this with their own biases—myself included,” Weinstein said. “People want this to be either a teardown of the church or want it to be an ad for the church. Trying to create a balanced portrait of [C3] was challenging.”

In the film, Sam Picken, the lead pastor of C3 Toronto, said the spectacular nature of C3 services is important because young Torontonians expect glamour.

Watts told The Journal that despite C3’s popularity, the church has a high turnover rate among its followers.

“C3 boasts about 1500 members,” Watts said. “That number might be quite stable, but the people that make up those numbers are not consistent because there are people coming and going all the time.”

Weinstein also recalled an instance where someone left C3 upon discovering Picken’s stance against homosexuality. “[This individual] felt deceived by the church when she saw [C3’s] true colours in that regard.”

Both Weinstein and Watts suggested that Picken is careful to keep attention away from his church’s stance on same-sex relationships.

“I think their beliefs are that [homosexuality] is not morally right and not what God would want,” Weinstein said. “Sam says clearly in the film that [homosexuality being wrong] is his own personal belief, but he is a preacher at a church, so his personal belief is what he is preaching to his congregation.”

Weinstein added that, based on her observations going to C3, the church doesn’t advertise its stance on homosexuality.

“It’s not something I heard being talked about onstage at the many different services I went to. I think […] it’s something that gets imparted to people slowly, and in private situations.”

Watts believes C3’s negative stance on homosexuality is intentionally kept quiet.

“Sam is hyper-aware that [LGBTQ+ rights] are an important issue in a place like Toronto, and so he has purposefully taken the tact to not talk about [the church’s position on LGBTQ+ rights] publicly as much as he possibly can,” Watts said.

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