It’s a video to make your hair stand on end. Creepy sounds and whispers lend an eerie feeling to dizzyingly quick shots of a church interior—stained glass, an ornately carved baptismal font.
“In 1856…they first gathered…and to this place they still return,” we’re told as images appear of mysterious personages peering from an old photograph, a church building and an ominous shadow on the grass.
You might be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a trailer for a horror movie about some nightmarish cult, and the chilling warning that next flashes across the screen, “This Sunday…say your prayers,” might not help.
But this video isn’t about a horror film. It’s actually a tongue-in-cheek invitation to worship at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, in Russell, Ont., and it ends on a friendly note: “Won’t you join us?”
The video is one of three created since August 2017 by the Rev. Lee Lambert, priest at St. Mary’s. Lambert, who has a background in comedy and film, says he came up with the idea partly in the hope of countering what he says is a common misconception about churchgoing Christians.
“I think one of the reputations Christians have overall is of not being particularly funny, or not liking humour, and this kind of dispels that for anybody who might be slightly intimidated,” he says.
In another video, a man (played by Lambert himself), attempts to parallel park his car, only to discover he has run over a gleaming motorcycle. A physically imposing, leather vest-clad man appears on the scene.
It seems he is the bike’s owner. And he doesn’t look happy.
The words, “Need to pray?” then show up on the screen, followed by the name and address of the church.
A third video spoofs drug ads, while touting the benefits of baptism. “Christian baptism is a non-invasive procedure requiring a single commitment. There is no need for a second dose,” a calm voice intones. “Lowered anxiety levels and a pervasive sense of well-being have been reported. In rare cases, people have experienced euphoria.”
Lambert says he hopes the humour in the videos will also help counter the at-times unfavourable way that organized religion is depicted in the media.
“People see the buildings from the outside, and what they know of Christianity or organized religion is from movies and shows, and that’s often a negative depiction,” he says. “It’s to take the hex off…It’s just to say ‘Look, it’s not a cult—it’s a community of really nice people, and we do some good work, and here it is.’ ”
Lambert says the videos have resulted in a few extra people visiting his church.
“The best part of it is, you get an introduction to people,” he says. “People will come up and…they’ll say, ‘I saw the videos online,’ or [they] heard about the videos, and then you have a conversation you never would have had.”
He says he hasn’t encountered any unfavourable reactions to the videos.
The YouTube project isn’t Lambert’s first foray into the worlds of comedy and film. For about three years, starting during his last year of high school, he began doing sketch and improvisational comedy with a now-defunct Ottawa troupe called Skit Row. He then acted in commercials and had minor roles in a number of movies, including the 1990 film Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In the late 1990s, he wrote Canvas of Conflict, a documentary on the art of the First World War, which aired on the CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson Presents.
Lambert has also written articles for the Anglican Journal.
Lambert had always been a churchgoer, and while working in film he also felt a calling to the priesthood. He eventually entered divinity school and was ordained when he was in his early 30s.
It wasn’t as dramatic a career change as it might sound, he says.
“You’d think, ‘Well, that’s quite the change,’ but…the liturgy on Sunday morning is a type of drama,” he says, the Eucharist, for example, being a re-enactment of the Last Supper. “It is a play, in a way…and I think it’s important to bring the natural drama out in that, so it is effective on a spiritual level.”
Lambert made the videos, each of which runs about a minute, with some help from volunteers, including his 10-year-old daughter. The Halloween- and baptism-themed videos were shot and edited entirely using an iPhone, he says; the video with the motorcycle was filmed using a video camera. It took half a day or less to shoot each one; editing took up to a week.
The Internet has become so dominant in people’s lives now that the church has to make good use of it if it wants to attract people, he says. It’s also important for the church to get online because misconceptions about organized religion seem especially predominant on the Internet, he adds.
“You can’t keep using the same approaches if those approaches have failed to work in the last 40 years. You simply need to change them,” he says. “I think online is so powerful now that you ignore it at your peril.”
This article first appeared on February 20, 2018.