I have read a few dissertations and am happy that most were never released into the general population. Such scholarly scribblings might discourage many readers from ever thinking about graduate school.
Then along came Peter Schuurman’s revamped dissertation, The Subversive Evangelical. Many in Canadian churches have awaited this book for some time. Its subjects – Rev. Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House (TMH) – have been confounding church observers for years. Finally, the welcome fruits of Schuurman’s personal and academic research have landed in the public sphere for, I hope, a long community conversation.
For two years, Schuurman observed and interviewed Cavey, staff and congregation in worship and in “Home Churches.” Then he synthesized that information into readable, informative, sometimes eloquent prose. For anyone who has read Schuurman’s pieces in Christian Courier, that evaluation comes as no surprise.
A fine book too bound by dissertation form
Yet I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t note that, although this was a dissertation edited for wide public readership, it still reads “dissertationy,” as a friend put it. That is, it plods along for a page or two in each chapter, beginning with a pro forma section of “This is what this chapter is about” and ending with a repetitive summary of “This is what this chapter was about.”
Such a format is de rigeur for dissertations and university press publications, but in an otherwise extremely cool book each chapter starts out like a rookie water skier trying to get out of the water and ends with an awkward splash back in. Thankfully, between that ascent from and descent back into that thick element, Schuurman jumps and pirouettes in and out of the metaphorical wake like a ballet dancer who is not merely surviving a wild ride, but is exceedingly good at analytical word-skiing, thriving and delighting in the work of his hands that the Lord continues to establish.
There; got that off my chest. Had to, though, because this is such a fine book. Soon after publication it was selling well; I hope it still is. Perhaps future editions can scour those academically hidebound chapter introductions and conclusions and let Schuurman’s words dance freely.
TMH as uniquely Canadian
From the start Schuurman shows readers that TMH is a unique Canadian ecclesiastical phenomenon. Without claiming Canadian evangelical purity, he boldly names the “morally infected form of Christianity generally perceived to be American [as] the antithesis of Canadian identity”, because that profession was so compromised by the high percentage of white evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump in 2016. Schuurman sees TMH and Cavey offering a “third way” that is theologically conservative, but broadly welcoming to make it “the kind of church to which I invite my non-Christian friends.”
Early on Schuurman calls TMH life “nothing less than a compelling culture and religious production uniquely fitted to a secular age.” That is a fair assessment; yet Schuurman recognizes TMH is limited geographically to southern Ontario, attracting a largely white middle class demographic. Thus, while TMH is indeed a megachurch, it is not nearly as mega as the recently humbled Willow Creek Association. Nor does Cavey or TMH seem to harbour ambition to aim for international growth and influence.
For many a last try at church
Middle class and white or not, TMH definitely attracts people dissatisfied with other Christian expressions. These folks are willing to give this church one hearty last try because it is intentionally counter-cultural, honest in its presentation of Christ, while also encouraging deep questioning from adherents – 96 percent of whom had abandoned other Christian traditions. Questioning is OK and TMH staff intentionally deal with doubt by what Schuurman analyzes as a complex “dramatic web” in worship production and educational materials.
Throughout Schuurman develops this “web,” revealing the extensive teamwork and planning required for every Sunday service and education program. Having come to know Bruxy Cavey well during his research – including visits to his home over meals – Schuurman reveals the process of Cavey’s own intentional, somewhat reluctant, and self-critical participation in the high-profile position of Teaching Pastor in streamed worship that reaches more than 5000 people weekly.
Yet that personal modesty works well because it plays off Cavey’s odd charisma with a nearly omnipresent winking irony in every element of media production. That is, in his personal life Cavey is exactly the opposite of everything our show-all culture expects of a celebrity, whether pastor, actor, star athlete, or game show host. Deeply shy and incurably casual – almost messy in jeans, t-shirt, runners on- or off-stage – Cavey would much prefer reading books and preparing sermons than stand in front of large audiences. Yet what drives him profoundly is the call to preach and live the Gospel in a “church for people who aren’t into church”, expanding the reach of the small Brethren in Christ denomination of which TMH is the largest congregation. By the way, his Leviticus 19:28 (look it up) tattoo lends smart-alecky panache to his odd charisma and also appears in various places on the bodies of not a few followers. It’s tempting to wonder whom they follow with such imitation.
Church as serious fun
Many people aren’t “into church” because religious leaders have taken themselves so seriously and assumed an arrogant posture that prevents the slightest drop of Gospel Joy from leaking out of three-piece suits and corporate culture. Pride and arrogance find no place in TMH’s transparent world. Instead a frequent hallmark of TMH’s public presence are “Iftobums” – “It’s fun to be us moments.”
For example, a TMH “Spring Report” sports mugshots of Cavey wearing amateurishly drawn spectacles, and normally clean-shaven Senior Pastor Tim Day adorned with a moustache that looks like the work of a petty vandal. As I read such examples, it struck me that this ironic, self-deprecating presence could be an effective 21st century way of being John the Baptist becoming less so Jesus becomes greater.
TMH, megachurches and the future
Such playfulness could be construed as frivolity of self-promotion that distracts from Christ, an eventuality into which Schuurman digs in Chapter 8, “Dramaturgical Trouble and the End of the Show.” While not dismissing the possibility of TMH’s collapse, Schuurman recognizes that Cavey knows his weaknesses as a leader, who intentionally depends on shared leadership. Cavey’s own introversion off-stage, even when responding to post-service questions, contrasts with his dynamic public presence, adding uncertainty to succession and TMH’s future.
In the “Epilogue” Schuurman doesn’t predict how Cavey and TMH will face such issues. Instead he shifts from his micro-view to a wide angle look at how several megachurches have faced succession. That final chapter seemed at first to delve into areas not necessarily warranted by the previous analysis. Still, I have come to hope that perhaps Schuurman was offering a hint where he might go in future writing projects. I would welcome a comprehensive study on the future of megachurches, using this document of TMH’s uniqueness as a backstory and foil to a phenomenon that has covered the earth.