A small, formerly bi-national Anabaptist denomination has more than doubled in size in Canada over the last 15 years — in an era when most mainline denominations are experiencing decline. The Brethren in Christ (BIC) grew from about 3,500 members to over 10,000 Canadian attendees in the last 15 years. While the numbers are due mostly to the crowds that gather at expanding regional sites of The Meeting House megachurch in southern Ontario, it signals a new day for the denomination — a time of innovation and expansion that has given it a new vitality and hope for its future. The BIC is one example of a denomination that has made some radical changes while continuing to champion its distinctive Christian identity and heritage.
Calvin Seminary professor John Bolt has written that when it comes to denominational differences, there is “none that runs so deep” as the rift between the Reformed and the “detestable” Anabaptist traditions (to quote a word found in the Anglican Church’s Ten Articles and the Belgic Confession). The history between Reformed believers and Anabaptists is soaked in blood, tears and hostility (mostly instigated by the Reformed side). Yet in a country where denominations have been disestablished for decades, and disbelief has become established in the national government, media and academy, all Canadian churches have become “free churches.” Our denominational differences have become less vitriolic, and our relationship more like sisters than rivals. Many Reformed members have even shifted loyalties to the ranks of the Anabaptists. There is much to learn about these transitional times from our Anabaptist brothers and sisters.
The BIC has historically been a collection of mostly rural Ontario churches, and while ethnically tight-knit, with a strong Anabaptist identity reinforced by institutions like Camp Kahquah, Messiah College (Grantham, PA) and the Niagara Christian Community of Schools (the Institute for Christian Studies’ former summer conference grounds), it has been historically characterized by its own people as insular and conservative, if not legalistic. For example, strict codes about plain dress, no musical accompaniment in worship, and non-participation in military and politics have kept the group marginal on the Canadian scene. “We’ve often just kept to ourselves,” said one BIC pastor on a denominational video (a remarkable feat for a denomination without its own seminary). In the last few decades, however, their rapport with broader culture has rather suddenly become friendlier, and particularly missional. For example, the American BIC has also grown in the last two decades, from about 200 congregations and 17,000 members in 2001 to approximately 280 congregations and 25,000 members in 2014.
The BIC church has been in Canada over 230 years. Not to be confused with the Plymouth Brethren churches that came out of the Anglican church, the BIC traces its history back to the Swiss Mennonite tradition in Europe. Specifically, it began as an off-shoot of the Mennonites in the northeastern USA, sometime between 1775 and 1788. Influenced by waves of German pietism and American revivalism, some Mennonites felt their tradition too staid, and formed a new movement, rallying around a more emotional experience of conversion and an insistence on three-times-forward adult immersion as the rule for baptism. Later in the 19th century, the group absorbed some of the holiness teachings from the Wesleyan tradition, creating a distinctive blend of German and English Christian cultures.
While there have been requests to change their name, “the Brethren” — an older English translation of a Greek term common in Paul’s epistles — they were first known as “River Brethren” since they lived along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By 1788, a sub-group of this community, uncomfortable with the revolutionary spirit in the United States, immigrated to Canada and became known as the “Tunkers,” a reference to their practice of immersion (from the German word meaning “to dip”). Like most Anabaptists, separation from the world held special value and this was marked in highly visible ways, such as their dress codes, conscientious objection to military service and their general disdain for card playing and other amusements.
The BIC officially hold to no historical creeds and their ecclesiology is formed by a mixture of Episcopal and congregational polities. Local congregational boards run the day-to-day operations of congregations, but bishops are appointed by denominational leadership to oversee certain regions of the denomination. A bishop can be quite influential in denominational and local church life — for example, they take the role of chair on each congregational search committee. The congregations send two delegates to their bi-annual “General Conferences,” where matters of denominational import —ministry plans and policy — are discussed and voted upon. The denomination has a leadership council (six administrators) who carry out the decisions and policies of the General Conference, under the authority and guidance of the General Conference Board, a national board of trustees.
After World War II, Anabaptists who for generations composed a relatively uniform and rural community began to enter the city and absorb an increasingly modern lifestyle. Leo Driedger’s book Mennonites in the Global Village explains that whereas in the 1940s, 90 percent of Mennonites were farmers, in the late 1990s only 10 percent continued to farm and over a quarter of all Mennonites were involved in professional work. The BIC generally followed a similar shift, and it stimulated a new era of church planting in the larger cities of Ontario. One BIC leader told me that the ministry of Billy Graham was instrumental in inspiring the BIC to evangelism beyond their ethnic walls; another scholar wrote that for the BIC in North America, the key moment was the eighth annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Indianapolis in 1950. It was the first time BIC delegates had gone to an NAE meeting, and the reports of rapid growth and evangelistic success from other, larger denominations opened their imagination for similar possibilities in their own religious group.
The church began to shift its posture towards broader culture. Soon rigid rules about dress, like parting one’s hair down the middle or not wearing neckties or jewelry, were changed from enforced mores to discretionary practice, as long as the principle of modesty was maintained. Ordained ministry was opened to women in the late 1980s. Congregations still vary in their practices, as bi-national meetings bring plain-clothed couples and jean-and-T-shirt brothers and sisters together. If some walls were not coming down, certainly some doors were opening.
Enter Bruxy Cavey
The fortunes of this small denomination changed quite suddenly in Canada in 1996 when the celebrated hippie-like preacher Bruxy Cavey was invited to serve as pastor at a small BIC church plant in Oakville. Within a few years the community of 150 grew to over 1,000 and by 2014 what became called The Meeting House had expanded to include 14 different regional sites with 5,000 weekly attendees and probably about 8,000 people who call it their “home church.”
Not only did this one congregation more than double the number of BIC-associated people in Canada, it sent a ripple of change through the denomination’s culture. This marginal Canadian Christian group was suddenly seeing one of its congregations in national newspapers, and one of its pastors on Christian TV, with a bestseller on Amazon and one of the top “religion and spirituality” podcasts in the nation. People were joining The Meeting House from every Christian denomination in Ontario — from Roman Catholics to Reformed and even the United Church. Almost overnight, the BIC moved from the shadows to the limelight.
The popularity of the St. Jacobs village tourist attraction north of Waterloo, Ontario, suggests that the Anabaptist label in today’s culture is not a detractor but an asset, offering resonance with current counter-cultural trends among the middle class who romanticize the local, authentic, green and organic. Harrison Ford brought attention to their plain-dressed images on the big screen in Witness in 1985; more recently, American Beverly Lewis has penned two-dozen bestselling Amish romance novels. Popular TV shows include Amish in the City, Amish Mafia, Breaking Amish and Return to Amish. Ironically, while Anabaptists historically took separation from the world and plain living as their creed, the world has absorbed them into its most modern, globalized, and spectacle-ridden institution — the entertainment industry.
The combination of megachurch and Anabaptism may seem similarly ironic, but by choosing the nostalgic name “The Meeting House,” and emphasizing their weekly small group gatherings as “Home Church,” Cavey seeks to recreate, or at least symbolize, some Anabaptist touchstones. While embracing electronic media and popular culture as central to its daily operations, Cavey and other leaders teach Anabaptist distinctives like (re)baptizing through immersion, pacifism and simple living. The immediate face of the church, however, is branded to attract the “spiritual but not religious” demographic in Ontario who may be curious about Jesus but remain deeply skeptical about church. They promote themselves as an “irreligious” church, and thus their motto, “a church for people not into church.”
Shift from insularity to Canadian mission
The Meeting House has given an energy, visibility and model to the BIC that is incomparable with the denomination’s previous status on the Canadian religious landscape. Particularly noteworthy is that since Cavey has brought the crowds to The Meeting House, the Canadian Conference has asserted independence from its American parent organization and become a fraternal institution in the global BIC, now called BIC Canada.
Communications about this move emphasize two things: first of all, other BIC churches across the globe are nationally based: that North America should be a bloc is an anomaly. Secondly, Canada’s distinctive culture requires contextualization that is hampered when leadership was centralized south of the border, including issues with Revenue Canada concerning money flows across national boundaries. “BIC Canada” now has a separate website online, its own annual general meetings, and in early 2013 hired an executive director named Rev. Doug Sider, Jr. “It was an encouraging send-off,” said one BIC pastor, commenting on the goodwill that marked the establishment of a national Canadian church.
Not only have vast numbers of people joined the BIC through The Meeting House, but also pastors and whole congregations have joined in the last 10 years. Additionally, BIC Canada has in the last three years been re-configured into three distinct groups — not geographically centred as their regional conferences are, but organized by ministry focus: the Community churches (established BIC churches, numbering 33); the Network churches (church plants, about seven currently); and The Meeting House (with its 14 regional sites and plans to expand by two per year). Each group has its own national leader to coordinate its ministry and communicate its insights to the other groups.
BIC Canada has also embraced a new theme: “We are a growing faith community following Jesus sharing his message and extending his peace around the world.” This new vision came in 2011 with five strategic initiatives:
We will get behind a new wave of young and emerging leaders to move us into the future.
We will renew, innovate and multiply expressions of church locally and across Canada.
We will foster a creative leadership culture that inspires faith-based risks.
We will cultivate mutual, compassionate relationships with those most in need locally and globally.
We will embrace the communication revolution using new ways to connect, communicate and relate.
The tone of the discussions and promotional videos suggests they are moving away from tradition and the past and into mission and the future. There is an apparent culture-clash between the old-style BIC church and this entrepreneurial, youth-centred, technologically-savvy faith venture, but I’m told the shift in vision has been embraced by most church members. Darrell Winger, who has been the Canadian bishop, the Canadian national director, and a Meeting House executive pastor, says there was some envy and suspicion when The Meeting House first burst on the scene, but it has demonstrated to the born-and-bred BIC crowd the possibility of a successful, genuinely Anabaptist, Canadian mission. “The general tone is supportive,” he assured me, “and we are working together through our various perspectives to a general sense of united effort in changing for more effective ministry.”
The problem with change is that it brings change. A cursory reading of BIC literature suggests some leaders are concerned that identification with evangelical missional strategies may threaten their Anabaptist heritage. Significantly, a BIC church member survey done in 2006 shows that while 74 percent of BIC members identify as evangelical, and 47.5 percent identify as “spiritual,” only 38.9 percent identify as Anabaptist (Burwell 2006). American BIC scholars like Keefer (1999), see an evangelical stream of influence merging with the BIC in a dangerously unconscious way, and worry that Calvinistic and charismatic strands of evangelicalism may “dominate” and “domesticate” the BIC (namely with respect to soteriology and church/state relations).
The thinning of Anabaptist values and identity does not require evangelical influence, however. Over half the men in the BIC, for example, served in the military during World War II, suggesting some deep ambivalence regarding the church’s pacifist position (Burwell 2013). Other influences, such as the increased mobility of its members, a pervasive consumer culture, and the diversity of options made available by the internet exacerbate the dissolution of particular identities. This concern for the tribe in the face of globalizing “McDonaldization” is not unique to the BIC — other denominations, as well as the Muslims, Jews and Quebeckers face similar modern homogenizing cultural forces.
Megachurches are especially known to draw fickle consumeristic crowds, who come for the show or their kids but have no institutional loyalty. Counter to popular perception, however, The Meeting House passionately articulates its denominational identity. Bruxy Cavey, a former Pentecostal and Baptist, makes regular reference to the BIC, and has taught specific sermon series centred specifically on Anabaptist distinctives like pacifism and Arminianism. To the press, the leaders have described themselves as “Mennonites with electric guitars” or “Mennonites minus the horse and buggies.” So on the production side of the equation, the Anabaptist identity is certainly not hidden; it is celebrated and even apologetically championed. In fact, the more predominant “irreligious” branding that marks the church specifically distinguishes itself from right-wing evangelicalism, especially the stereotype of angry, high-pressure Republican, dispensationalist America.
On the reception side of this equation, however, there is a significant amount of ambivalence. Almost everyone who attends The Meeting House comes from a background other than BIC. Those who come from Anabaptist traditions (about five percent) naturally appreciate the Anabaptist connections. The vast majority, who come from traditions outside the Anabaptist camp, judging by the interviews I had with attendees, acknowledge the Anabaptist accent at The Meeting House, but do not consider it terribly vital to their own identification with the community. When asked if they would look for a BIC church if they moved to another city, most people, including some board members and staff, clearly said no. Many see it as an ornamental addition to The Meeting House that they appreciate from a distance.
Cavey’s teaching style remains the singular attraction. Still, many attendees have mentioned that Cavey has provoked them to think more deliberately about their views on pacifism, as well as other BIC core values like voluntarism, simplicity, community and generosity. For example, one middle-aged woman I interviewed, while not self-identifying as Anabaptist, decided to downsize to a smaller house as her children left for college; she narrated this as an application of the simplicity teachings she and her husband had absorbed at The Meeting House.
Still, one might ask: what might the future be for an organization that has suddenly inflated due to the charisma of one individual? Time will tell, although changes were brewing in the BIC long before Cavey came on the scene; even though one third of BIC congregations were in decline, an aggressive church planting effort began decades ago which gave Cavey his place. Additionally, a healthy internal skepticism has motivated some pre-emptive planning for succession in The Meeting House and for long-term stability in the BIC. Still, how is Cavey cultivating people and structures for a sustainable community? Calvin, Kuyper, and other charismatic leaders created institutions to carry a Christian vision forward and nurture a legacy for another generation. Cavey demonstrates an aversion to institutionalization, even while he’s located in the nexus of many institutions. He often talks about The Meeting House as a temporary event, precariously positioned for a time. Still, he has many loyal followers, and if he’s not shipwrecked by scandal, adversity, burnout or organizational implosion, there is hope for something more than a fleeting burst of celebrity-centred growth.
In sum, this is a new vision and a new constituency for the BIC tradition, an indication of a new sub-cultural flavour — one that preserves some of the particular gifts of a community but still engages broader culture in a winsome way. A growing evangelical drive gives its members a motivation to risk, compromise and innovate for the sake of outreach. The Anabaptist continuity gives it a distinctive character, a specific history and boundaries, and a rich theological legacy. Like a lobster, the BIC have shed their hard outer shell, and are quickly growing a new one to fit their new size and shape.
Their recent history testifies that denominations need not wither and die; or rather, it suggests denominations need to die to their old self in order to rise with a new body of faith and service. One key strategy, says Darrell Winger, is finding an accessible language that demonstrates to neighbours the positive message embedded in the denomination’s core values about walking with Jesus. Christians do not need to choose between a fortress mentality that protectively guards the family treasures and a blind compromise with consumer culture: one can be attractive to spiritually attentive outsiders and yet be winsomely apologetic about one’s inherited identity.