The Embassy isn’t your grandma’s church

Graphic by Fani Hsieh
Graphic by Fani Hsieh

Even for non-believers, there’s often an odd magnetism surrounding the idea of church. The concept of a weekly ritual consisting of a series of hymns, prayers and scripture readings devoted to the praise of a mysterious, yet supposedly life-affirming entity can attract some and strongly repel others.

While the structure of services and interpretation of biblical texts have changed over time, leading to the emergence of different denominations within Christianity, the core elements of hymns, prayers and scripture have remained the same.

The element of Christianity that has perhaps experienced the most change over the past millennia is the physical structure of the Church.

The word “church” itself can conjure visions of grand, bellowing structures with intricately painted interiors and steeples stretching into the heavens, aiming to act as antenna to signal God.

Alternatively, it can be visualized as a smaller, community-focused venue with minimal frills, only pews and a pulpit. There are many variations in between and though the scope and scale of a church is as varied as the dogma, it’s safe to say that very few people have experienced church in the same way as the group that meets on Monday nights at Maxwell’s Concerts and Events venue.

Currently led by the pastoral team of Brandon and Emma Richardson, the Embassy began its ministry 17 years ago with the mission of bringing God to students. After graduating from Redeemer University College, the husband and wife duo took over pastoral duties in June 2014 and have managed to grow the congregation from 10 to the approximately 200 that attend service each Monday. Traditional approaches to service venues for worship have largely been discarded.

In its place, the Richardsons have managed to grow a thoroughly modern church, one tailored to address the realities of common perceptions of the Church and it’s decreasing influence as the centre of society.

“In an age where young adults are leaving the church, what does it look like to show people this isn’t a dead religion?” asked Brandon Richardson. “We’re going to meet at a bar because people are used to going to a bar. It’s an easy place for people to go. We’re going to have church at night because people are hungover in the morning.”

Although cynicism has done an adequate job replacing the role of religion in my life, it’s hard to deny the buzz in the atmosphere before the start of service. Stage lighting cut through the fog in the air, highlighting the presence of a young seven-piece band. Gone were the trappings of a choir dressed in traditional garments, belting their hymns from a book laid open in their palm.

Led by a man wearing a fedora, gold necklace and a cardigan, worship here could have easily been mistaken for a Lumineers concert. The predominantly female crowd joined in unison, singing along with the refrain promising to “give everything” to a God.

After worship ended, Brandon Richardson emerged to deliver the sermon and it immediately became clear how the church has managed to grow exponentially in such a small amount of time.

Delivering his sermon complete with frantic movements, exaggerated body language and lengthy asides about topics ranging from hockey to condoms, Richardson has a charisma and presence more commonly associated with stand-up comedians than ministers. Unabashedly modern, prayer requests are read from a cellphone, a MacBook Pro rests on the pulpit and to the side of the venue there is a “merch” table complete with a debit machine ready to accept donations.

Traditionally, pastors are supposed to lead the congregation and provide an exemplar to follow, but the Embassy is consciously reversing this.

“We’re trying to reach people where they’re at, and show them that faith is still relevant today … We need to use tools that everyone is using today,” said Brandon Richardson. “I want to interact with people, and I want people to break down barriers that they may have seen between them and the Church.”

The Embassy is part of Christianity’s continuing evolution and exists as the Church is undergoing a drastic change. Young, hip, charismatic individuals are becoming the focal point of the Church and the line between religious leader and celebrity is becoming increasingly blurred. Ministers like Carl Lentz of Hillsong Church share stories of baptism featuring megastars like Justin Bieber and Tyson Chandler.

In fact, Hillsong is becoming increasingly synonymous with Christian music.

Many religious commenters, including D.H. Williams writing in Christianity Today, don’t see this shift towards modernity as harmless, and question the outcome of adapting the messages of scripture and trying to tailor them to suit a broader audience.

“Our consumerist culture has co-opted many churches, creating a mall-like environment marked by splashiness and simplistic messages,” wrote Williams in 2011. “When the Church becomes essentially a purveyor of religious goods and services, it reinforces the believer’s own consumerist habits, allowing him to pick and choose according to taste or functionality.”

Richardson makes no secret of his attempts to appeal to a broader audience in an attempt to draw more people towards God, and he views it as essential for the survival of the Church. He is very aware of the decreased interest in scripture, and breaks biblical concepts down to their most basic elements — even stopping at one point in his sermon to explain the differences between the old and new testament.

“We have a generation of people who don’t go to church, their parents didn’t go to church,” said Richardson. “We’re consciously aware of the fact that [instead of] speaking jargon that makes the good news we believe in so inaccessible, [we have to] make the gospel accessible and we’re going to speak in normal, every day language.”

More than anything however, Richardson rejected the premise that the success of the Embassy is not rooted in faith, but centred on his charismatic persona.

“There are no superstars in the kingdom of God … The Church isn’t built on the talents of the few, but the sacrifices of the many.”

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