Starting from Scratch in Montreal

The food is delicious and the wine is even better as we enjoy a great dinner with our new friends Jean-Sebastien and Noémie. They live down the street from us in the Plateau, the famed bohemian neighbourhood that is home to the artists, students, thinkers, and bars which help create Montréal’s image of a cultural and party destination.

They’re your quintessential Plateau couple: Francophones in their mid-thirties, with two kids but not married, and both have very influential jobs: he is a film director and she is a college professor.

When the inevitable question “So what do you do for a living?” is asked, the course of the conversation follows a predictable path. After I explain that we’re starting a church in the neighbourhood – the first of its kind for a population of 100,000 – Jean-Sebastien stops me.

“I don’t understand. So you’re a priest – but you’re married?”

Like most people in Quebec, his only religious point of reference is the Catholic church, which oppressively dominated the province until the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, a period when seemingly overnight the people turned away from the church. Attendance at Mass plummeted from 90% to near 10% in just a few years, and sociologists believe it is one of the fastest periods of religious upheaval in history. Since that time, Quebec has become proudly and profoundly secular.

As I clear up the confusion regarding my marital status, Jean-Sebastien’s curiosity is piqued. He’s never had a Christian friend before, much less one his own age. His second question is pretty standard too: “Why do you want to start a church?” It’s pretty simple, I reply. Christians are called to love their neighbours as themselves, and to put others’ interests ahead of their own. So we think that a group of people committed to living like that who band together to love and serve their neighbourhood is the best thing that could ever happen to it.

It’s clear our new friends like what they’re hearing, but it’s equally clear that it doesn’t quite compute. The idea of a church that wants to work for the peace and prosperity of the neighbourhood is counter-intuitive in most cultures, but in this one, given its history, it’s downright preposterous.

The subject matter never fails to induce a measure of self-reflection. Unprompted, Jean-Sebastien begins outlining his own spiritual beliefs – or, as in the case of most Québecois, the lack thereof. He begins by recalling an experience during his catéchèse, the now-defunct Catholic religious education program that was mandatory in every public school in Quebec.

“I remember when I was in grade 5, the teacher was telling us that Jesus walked on water. I raised my hand, and asked how that was possible. The teacher yelled at me for questioning the Church and kicked me out of class. It’s been 20 years and I’ve still never got a decent answer to my question.” He ends his summary with an oft-heard refrain: “I believe in science, not God.”

It’s at this point that the conversation takes an amusing twist. Jean-Sebastien’s long-term girlfriend, or conjointe, looks stunned. “What do you mean you don’t believe in God?” Noémie exclaims. “I don’t believe in the God of any particular religion, but there has to be some kind of force or energy that created and sustains everything.” She then uses another equally popular self-designation in explaining that she’s spiritual but not religious.

The significance of this interaction was not lost on my wife and I. Here was a couple who have been living together for ten years, who have two children, and yet who have never, throughout the entire course of their relationship, had a discussion about their spiritual beliefs.

The conversation that follows is animated, convivial, and earnest, as Jean-Sebastien and Noémie take turns asking my wife and I questions about our beliefs and try to understand these strange new ideas. Fifteen minutes in, something dawns on Noémie and she interrupts us.

“This is the longest I’ve ever talked about religion with anyone before in my life.”

“Do you want us to stop? We can change the subject if you’d like.”

“No, not at all! I just find that weird.”

Us too.

All over the Plateau, this scenario plays out over and over as the 25 or so Christians in our core group do the same thing. Because this is what it looks like to plant a church: a group of believers all committed to embedding themselves in the neighbourhood and in the culture as a community of missionaries and servants, intentionally looking for ways to both proclaim and demonstrate the gospel to our neighbours. The building, the band, the programs...those will come later.

For now, it’s all about the 100,000 Jean-Sebastiens and Noémies.