A group of long-haired girls hurriedly passes the counter, as a band begins to strum the melodic notes of Nirvana's “Heart Shaped Box.”
The room is packed, the Ledge Café's chairs and tables replaced with tight jeans and kicks. Under neon lights and a web of glowing strings, a sea of chatty teenagers pool around a small stage.
The band's frontman grabs the mic. He rocks back and forth as he slowly sings Kurt Cobain's melancholy lyrics. His loose, sleeveless shirt sways with him. The drums kick in. He begins to jump. Everything on him except his John Lennon-style glasses whips into a frenzy.
“Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint,” he belts out.
Like a wave, the glowing crowd follows his lead, starting with the teens in front and trickling to the more timid at the sides of the dance floor. There's a buzz, a sense of excitement. With no parents around, this is their night. Welcome to Young Life.
Started last year in Squamish, the Christian-based youth outreach organization grew from a handful of participants to approximately 100 teenagers at its weekly gatherings. Up the Sea to Sky Corridor, Pemberton's numbers followed suit. The groups mark two of the newest branches in the non-denominational club — an international association reaching 70 countries and attracting more than 1 million youth worldwide. This is the fresh face of Christianity, 17-year-old Niclas Lompe says, taking time out from the dance floor. It's informal, fun and the music's great, he says. Jesus's message of love and peace is intertwined with Whistler snowboarding trips, surfing in Tofino and weekly, game-packed get-togethers.
“We are not just goodie-goodies,” he jokes, poking fun at stereotypes. “We have fun.”
Niclas comes from a non-Christian family. In his homeland, Germany, Niclas signed up for religious studies in high school. The class sparked his interest.
Niclas was introduced to Young Life last February, after moving to Squamish as an exchange student. It's different from anything Niclas has ever experienced, he says with a smile.
“Germany is a bit more old-school.”
Niclas says he sees a budding interest among youth wanting to learn about religion. Most of his classmates' parents don't discuss the topic, he says. With a growing social acceptance across the board, youth are starting to ask questions; they're hungry for knowledge, Niclas says.
“Kids our age don't know much about Christianity,” he says.
The ebb and rise in religion seems to be cyclical, says Paul Burns, a former Quest University professor of religion and humanities. A degree of separation from people's lives is historically followed by a resurgence, he says. And North America is in the midst of an upswing.
“There are signs of renewed interest and engagement with a number of young people,” Burns says, noting the surge in religious university clubs.
The current flow of religious exploration isn't limited to Christianity, he adds. While at Quest, an interfaith group was established, with students visiting Squamish's Sikh temple and a Buddhist retreat.
Matt Chamberlain, who leads Squamish's Young Life, says he's seeing the result of the next generation's search for answers. Armed with the cool factor — Chamberlain snowboards, surfs and became an entrepreneur straight out of high school — he has 10 youth volunteers who help make connections and organize events throughout the community.
“Relationship is key,” Chamberlain says.
Those quality friendships are one of Young Life's winning ingredients to fulfilling the human need of “something deeper,” says Leonard George, a Capilano University professor who focuses on the psychology of religion and spirituality.
Research suggests we're healthier mentally and physically and live longer if we're connected to a community and view our lives as meaningful, George says. Virtual interactions aren't cutting it. Youth are growing up in a world in which “friends” can be obtained by the click of a button. Chats increasingly take place through cyber networks.
“Merely having a connection with a name on a screen doesn't seem to do it,” he says.
British Columbia is the least religious province in Canada, according to surveys. But what's missed in the research is varying degrees between the non-religious and atheists, George says.
“In fact, a huge majority of British Columbians describe themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious,” he says, noting many B.C. residents look to the great outdoors to gain their sense of being a part of a bigger tapestry — the mountains are my church, as the old adage goes.
Young Life dishes out the whole package, George says. And it's efficient, providing community and meaning in a time where citizens hunt out one-stop shops.
For Chamberlain it's about sharing his passion. After leaving his activewear company, he was in search of something deeper. At Region College, Chamberlain is studying toward a master's in youth ministry. He feels called to work with youth and serve a great purpose. It's not always easy, he admits. Some parents are leery of Young Life. Chamberlain sees his role as answering questions when they're asked.
“We have to earn the right to be heard,” Chamberlain says.
As the controlled party at the Ledge wraps up, Chamberlain sits the youth down. The crowd of boys, girls, jocks, nerds and believers and non-believers hush. Chamberlain briefly talks about never being alone after starting a relationship with Jesus. He knows some of the teens hang onto every word. Others view the talk as payment to attend the party. But what Chamberlain hopes is that at the very least, they'll understand they have a friend in him.
“Whether you believe this or not, we are not going to write you off.”