Sunday, December 11, 2016

Giving Church One More Chance

The Evolving Christian Landscape of the Twin Cities

Illustration by Sarah DeYoung.
Illustration by Sarah DeYoung.
“When you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
Cormac McCarthy

Alt-Country Agnus Dei

It’s Sunday afternoon in Northeast Minneapolis and people are gathering in a converted school cafeteria for worship at Mercy Seat Lutheran Church. Folding chairs are set up on the tile and there’s a table in front bearing the words “Do This in Remembrance of Me.” The congregants skew young, many wearing blue jeans or hoodies with nary a sport coat or necktie in sight. Over in the corner is Ben Kyle, lead singer of the local band Romantica. He’s got a guitar in his hands and he’s singing something about the “lamb of God” and the “sins of the world.”

Kyle’s presence here is no fluke. Since its inception in 2004, Mercy Seat has been perhaps best known for what they call the “third option” for church music—the first and second options being traditional hymns or contemporary praise music. Instead, pastors Kae Evensen and Mark Stenburg have opted to have the church’s tried and true liturgies newly set to music by local artists. Their list of composers has included, in addition to Ben Kyle, Zoo Animal’s Holly Newsom, Chris Koza, and Scott Munson.

Mercy Seat’s musical approach may seem like a cynical marketing ploy—using indie musicians as bait for church-averse twenty- and thirtysomethings—but though there are many words that could be used to describe the church, “cynical” isn’t one of them. Evensen and Stenburg open the service playfully, with a few minutes of unrehearsed banter. The Scripture text for the day, taken from Matthew, is read reverently, the assembly’s “Thanks be to God” intoned without a hint of irony. Evensen’s treatment of the text in her sermon is a wry, probing affair, expanding the acceptable range of responses to the Bible from mindless acceptance to include confusion, affectionate mockery, and even outright anger.

After the sermon comes communion, the pinnacle of any liturgical worship service. Before the assembly rises to take the sacrament, Stenberg joins Evensen at the front and calls out, “This is the Lord’s table, and all are welcome.” He leans on “all,” and under the spell of that word’s inclusivity regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, I rise with thirty or so strangers and file to the front to eat a bite and drink a shot of Christ.

Kyle’s music is peppered throughout the service, and in context it’s no cheap gimmick. The experience of hearing and singing along with Kyle’s alt-country liturgy is at once pleasurable, dislocating, and, undoubtedly for some, intensely spiritual. At one point, when Kyle asks Christ to “heal our hearts so the girl can walk right in,” it’s all I can do to stifle a surprised, delighted laugh. An oblique reference to the progressive tradition of referring to the Holy Spirit as female? A bit of lyrical provocation, a pastiche of sacred and secular? I don’t know, but it’s fun. Later, as an offering is being taken, Kyle sings a beautiful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and there’s a small transgressive thrill as he launches into what I’ve always thought of as the sexy verse:

remember when I moved in you
the holy dove was moving too
and every breath we drew was “Hallelujah”

The song is pitched a little too high so that Kyle’s voice cracks just a bit when the melody soars, as if he’s barely holding back tears. I look around me and notice that several of my fellow congregants have their eyes closed, privately communing with the music, or—who knows?—with God.

When Posters about Footprints Aren’t Quite Enough

What are you doing here?
Someone asks me this question after the service, a woman whose name I don’t quite catch. She doesn’t mean it how it sounds. What she wants to do is welcome me, and find out what brought me here in the first place.

This question is more complicated than you might think. It’s a husk, containing the kernel of another, deeper question—a question about faith and religion and church in the 21st century, in an age of science and new atheists, churches in decline, the Tea Party in ascendance, and pastors burning Qurans and waving signs that say “God Hates Fags”: Why bother? Why church, why now? What’s the point? Just what in God’s name are you doing here?

I’m wondering the same thing myself. Though raised in the church, I have the misfortune to possess both an interest in all things theological and a tendency to overanalyze, a pairing that results in periodic bouts of existential anxiety. Why bother? is a question I ask myself frequently.

It also happens that much of my generation, my friends and peers and scads of people just like them, have already answered this question in the negative: Don’t bother. This is as true across North America as it is in Minneapolis, backed up by both anecdotal evidence by pastors as well as studies by such organizations as the Barna Group, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Faith Communities Today. Churches (and their budgets) are shrinking, the average age of those still in the pews is rising, and religious observance—particularly among demographics that skew young, urban, educated, and progressive—is on the wane.

Mercy Seat, in many ways, exists in response to these trends. It’s trying, with its alt-country liturgy and cockeyed approach toward the Bible, to give me—and many others—a reason to bother.

“What are you doing here?”

I don’t say any of this. I tell her I discovered Mercy Seat on the internet (where else?) and thought it sounded interesting.

“Oh,” she says, and with that, the conversation is over.

Passing the Peace Among the Couches

Solomon’s Porch looks innocuous enough from the outside. Housed in what was once a Methodist church, its stone façade and peaked roof signal normality, a church not much different than the many mainline Protestant churches in South Minneapolis. It’s when you walk inside that the Porch begins, like Mercy Seat, to challenge conventional assumptions about what a church can and should be.

“We started this community because a bunch of us wanted to give church one more chance,” says Doug Pagitt, pastor at Solomon’s Porch. Formerly a youth pastor at Wooddale, a megachurch in Eden Prairie, Pagitt left in the late ’90s to start the Porch, which opened its doors in 2000. “We were frustrated with church, but we wanted to stay Christian, and we didn’t want to be the kind of people who just complained.”

The worship space is more coffee shop than sanctuary. Instead of pews, couches and chairs are set up in the round; rather than a pulpit, there’s a stool in the center set on a swivel so whoever’s speaking can rotate to address the reclining congregants. There’s art everywhere, one wall dominated by portraits of church members rendered in a variety of styles and palettes. The gathering was scheduled for 5:00, but it’s already ten minutes after and things haven’t started yet. People trickle in slowly and ease into the couches. There are people of all ages, but the crowd, again, skews young—the average age brought down significantly by the gaggle of kids clambering over armrests and the infants propped on people’s hips.

What follows isn’t a worship service in the traditional sense of the term. When the band starts playing, participation in congregational singing varies to the extent that it’s difficult to tell if the service has started or not. Later, a time of mutual greeting—a Christian convention sometimes called “passing the peace,” at most churches limited to a few handshakes and pleasantries—here goes more than five minutes as people chat and wrap each other up in hugs. The sermon is less sermon than it is conversation, pastor Doug Pagitt exploring a passage from the book of Galatians and opening up the floor for comments and reactions from all those gathered.

After a few more songs, communion is—well, it’s appropriately communal, as the people rise and serve one another bread and wine in a sort of impromptu, sacramental picnic. The noise in the gathering space rises as people talk to their friends or greet newcomers through bites of Christ’s body and sips of his blood, waiting for the service to wind down. Finally, the bread eaten, the wine drunk, everyone joins hands to read a blessing, and then, with a squeeze of the fingers, the service is over.

“In my thinking, community is inseparable from gospel,” says Pagitt, explaining the ethos that motivates Solomon’s Porch. “What I’ve wanted is for our community to reflect the fullness of what the gospel is. That means including as many people as want to be part of it.”

Solomon’s Porch is, to use a Minnesota word, nice—and a welcome alternative to the not-so-nice homophobia, intolerance, and science denialism so often on display in people like Bradlee Dean, Michelle Bachmann, or the other religious crazies who tend to dominate the public conversation about faith. Stay long enough, it’s hard not to catch the Porch’s vision of a Christianity that’s less about escaping the wrath of an angry God than it is about living a grace-filled life, about loving the person sitting next to you, and existing, to borrow a phrase popular at the Porch, “for the benefit and blessing of all the world.”

“I Don’t Think You’re Going to Hell”

What are you doing here?

I shouldn’t go too much further without clearing up a couple of things. First: I am a Christian, but I’m a deeply conflicted one.

Take those four words, for instance: “I am a Christian.” They were hard for me to write, not at all the kind of full-throated, defiant testimony that some might have wanted me to give. No, for me, those words feel, in some contexts, like a coming out, a raw, howling, and slightly embarrassing confession from the depths of my secret self. As an identity, the label “Christian” often brings with it associations of aggressive ignorance, aggressive lameness, or both. As such, my admissions of faith often come with a “but,” as in “I’m a Christian, but don’t worry, I believe in evolution,” or “I support marriage equality,” or “I don’t think you’re going to hell,” or “I’m not going to try to convert you,” or “I think the Bible is mostly really weird,” or “sometimes I think the whole God thing is absurd and don’t believe in any of it.”

In other words: I believe, but only occasionally, and not particularly proudly.

My journey to this point was a fairly conventional one. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, one of those ethno-religious enclaves you sometimes hear about where cleanliness is next to godliness and godliness is next to voting Republican. Politically, my family was not particularly conservative. In fact, had they stayed put, I’m sure my parents would have come to be known as a couple of those token liberals who sometimes crop up and manage to hold on in conservative communities. I was mostly oblivious—Mom and Dad never talked politics, and I had my head buried in one book or another for most of my childhood. But I inherited the contrarian gene nonetheless, and spent much of my adolescence questioning the political viewpoints espoused by my teachers and friends. Eventually, my questions drifted from politics to religion, and as I entered adulthood many of the theological assumptions I had taken for granted as a child began to fall away.

This is all pretty standard fare. It’s not unusual that I became disillusioned with the faith I grew up in—that’s a well-worn genre, the story of half the people I know. What’s unusual is that I stayed, that I kept going to church so long after what I was hearing there stopped making sense to me. It wasn’t easy. Toward the end, it became a matter of simply getting by, of biting my tongue through the Republican talking points coming from the pulpit (the Bush years were particularly bad) and doing my best to ignore the platitudes and blithe certainty about life’s biggest questions. I also repeated to myself, as a kind of mantra, that it didn’t have to be this way, that there was something good here under all the noise—that a religion based on a man who healed the sick, blessed the poor, and spoke truth to powerful people who didn’t want to hear it couldn’t be all bad. Eventually, though, getting by gets old. You need to get on with your life, or get down to business, or whatever the bumper sticker would say.

So here I am. To give church one more chance. To find a way of being a Christian that I can live with.

Becoming Emergent: The Changing Definition of Local Christian Churches

One of the things you pick up on when you visit a lot of churches is the extent to which Christianity is a form of tribalism, a way for the human animal to determine who is, and who is not, part of the herd. For some Christians, of course, this is exactly the point—separating the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned. Even Christians who wouldn’t put the matter so starkly rely on their own tribal markers: practices, ceremonies, jargon, and beliefs that mark them as Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc. For those on the inside, these tribal markers can be comforting; for the visitor, isolating. The message seems to be: We’re glad you’re here! Now change.

It’s refreshing, then, to find churches that are interrogating categories of “in” and “out” and taking seriously the injunction of St. Paul (the apostle, not the city) that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer male or female, there is no longer slave or free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Scrambling up or even throwing out the tribal markers that usually who identify who’s in and who’s out, communities like Mercy Seat and Solomon’s Porch feel refreshingly inclusive—non-tribal tribes.

They’re not alone. Mercy Seat and Solomon’s Porch, along with a handful of other churches in the area and nationwide, are part of a broader conversation about how the church can evolve to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. This movement has been variously termed “emergent” and “emerging” Christianity. Notoriously indefinable, emergent Christianity lacks the commonality of practice or belief that would normally characterize a coherent Christian tribe. Instead, the movement seems to be defined by its indefinability, by its non-tribalism, and a host of associated characteristics: experimentation, dynamism, and an approach to doctrine that seeks to find truth in conversation and community rather than from traditional sources of authority like church hierarchy.

“Basically, it’s Facebook,” Pagitt says of emergent Christianity. “It’s a social network. The main thing that’s held in common is the belief that there’s something about faith that’s always dynamic, and wanting to live in that constant dynamic of change.”

This commitment to leaving things up for grabs hasn’t endeared emergent churches to everybody. Trinity City Church, for instance, a new church in St. Paul (the city this time), bears many superficial resemblances to emergent communities—including a younger-than-average membership, worship style that appeals to young adults, emphasis on social justice in an urban context, and a vibrant church community. Church members even have their own social network, called The Table. In spite of these similarities, Pastor Bryan Lair is hesitant to claim the label of “emergent.”

“The main thing the emerging church has brought to the table is asking good questions about the Christian faith in light of a changing culture,” says Lair. “But although we ask many of the same questions as the emerging church, and also have similar critiques of evangelicalism, we have differences in theology. We are extremely cautious about challenging the broad historic consensus of Christian theology.”

For churchgoers who like the emerging church’s innovations in worship but don’t care for a conversational approach to truth and authority, Trinity City Church and other communities like it are appealing alternatives. Trinity’s website contains a long list of accepted doctrines, and its slogan—“New Church. Vintage Jesus.”—signals an approach that pushes the envelope without departing from old-time religion. As Lair puts it, “We are philosophically progressive and theologically conservative.”

Though some Christians remain concerned about perceived theological relativism in emerging churches, there does appear to be a growing theological consensus in some quarters of the movement, perhaps best encapsulated in the writings of Maryland’s Brian McLaren. McLaren and other emergent and progressive theologians are essentially moving away from “afterlife thinking” that holds the purpose of religion to be getting to heaven when you die. Instead, they’re moving toward a worldview in which what God’s up to in Jesus is igniting a movement of peace, justice, and compassion in the here-and-now.

Though this perspective is one that resonates with Pagitt, the prospect of consensus isn’t one he relishes. “Human beings have a tendency to move toward consensus and sameness,” he says. “It’s not necessarily a good thing. People want a community where they are part of the whole, but don’t have to give up their identity to the collective.”

Consensus may be on the horizon—and with it, the end of the emergent conversation and the beginning of tribe. But if it’s true that there’s something about faith that’s constantly changing, consensus can’t last long. That assault on the status quo and the resulting diversity in local churches is understandably unnerving for those Christians who feel their cherished beliefs are under attack. But it’s good news—gospel, you might say—for the visitors, the exiles, the doubters, iconoclasts, and everyone else who’s been marginalized by the tribe.

The Picture Keeps Changing

It’s a sunny Sunday morning at Lyn-Lake, and a sign outside Intermedia Arts advertises “spirited worship.” I step through the door into the sounds of a jazz trio, three men off to the right playing an electric guitar, string bass, and alto sax as people take their seats. Toward the back of the building, there’s another congregation gathering in the theater, led by a pastor wearing a white robe and rainbow-colored stole.

The congregation gathering for “jazz worship” is Salem English Lutheran Church; the one in the theater, Lyndale United Church of Christ (UCC).  The unconventional locale might seem to place these two congregations in the same company as other new, entrepreneurial churches cropping up in public schools and storefronts around the Twin Cities. But that’s not quite the case. Founded in 1884 and 1890, respectively, Lyndale and Salem are anything but new. In 2005, facing declining membership and saddled with large buildings that were expensive to maintain, the two churches began meeting together to discuss a partnership for a more sustainable future. As a result of those initial conversations, in 2009 Lyndale sold its building on the corner of 29th Street and Aldrich Avenue in South Minneapolis and joined Salem at Intermedia Arts, as Salem renovated their own space to become a ministry center accomodating multiple churches. Early in 2011, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, joined the partnership. Completion of the building project is anticipated in December 2011, at which point all three churches will share the ministry center on the corner of 28th Street and Garfield Avenue.

The decline of urban mainline churches is a phenomenon that has been well-documented, if little understood. A contested narrative popular among conservatives holds progressive politics and weak theology responsible for the trend. Theology aside, Salem and Lyndale fit half of the stereotype. The churches are nothing if not progressive.

This morning at Lyndale UCC, a yearly Blessing of the Animals gives the service an environmentalist flavor. Members have brought their pets, dogs and cats and at least one chicken. Early in the service, these animals are brought forward one by one to receive a blessing from pastor Don Portwood. As the service proceeds, the pets occasionally bark, howl, or meow along with congregational singing. Worship for the day culminates in a hymn with verses addressed to Mother Earth, Brother Air, and Sister Water, and ending with the repeated line, “God has joined the web of life.”

The cover of Salem’s worship bulletin features a type treatment of different identities—single, brown, queer, young, recovering, and so on—paired with the promise, “All Are Welcome at Salem—Really.” Opportunities for community action are advertised among both congregations, among them a chance to help OutFront Minnesota defeat an upcoming constitutional amendment denying same-sex couples the right to marry, as well as an opportunity to stand with low-wage workers with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos in la Lucha (CTUL, Center for Workers United in Struggle).

It’s perhaps this activist ethos that is driving both congregations to hold on at Lyn-Lake, to keep doing ministry in an urban context no matter how difficult. Hopes for the newly renovated sanctuary and ministry center are high. “Our wish is to be a hub for all sorts of different things,” says Salem’s Pastor Jen Nagel. “We want to be a place that can foster community in the neighborhood. We’re just so excited to see where this has gone.”

Describing that excitement and the challenges that lay ahead, Nagel echoes the call from some emerging church leaders for Christianity to change and adapt for a new era. “What does it mean to be Christians in this time and place, with what we now know about the Bible and the world?” she asks. “A long time ago, Salem decided to be an English-speaking congregation, to speak the language of the neighborhood rather than German or Norwegian. Today, we still want to speak the language of the neighborhood, to speak the gospel in that language in a culturally relevant way.”

It’s hard to know what you’re looking at with Lyndale UCC and Salem Lutheran, the specter of a certain type of American Christianity’s inexorable decline, or of its imminent rebirth into something newer and more effective. It’s like one of those optical illusions where you can’t tell if you’re seeing a vase or two faces—the picture keeps changing. In fact, the same could be said of many churches in the Twin Cities, emergent or traditional, old or new. Mercy Seat, Solomon’s Porch, and Trinity City Church, unconventional though they may be, aren’t immune to the cruel arithmetic of church membership and budgets. Thriving now, they’re all just a few handfuls of people who decide to do something else with their Sundays away from closing their doors forever.

But on this Sunday, with these people, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is the way it should be, that all those centuries of cultural dominance were just a fluke, and that true religion always thrives at the margins, on the brink of death or rebirth.

I’m Still Here

What are you doing here?

That question again. I haven’t really answered it. “Looking for a new way to be Christian,” yes, but that’s a dodge. If that were really what I was looking for I’d have found it by now, many times over—the church landscape in the Twin Cities, as in the rest of entrepreneurial America, offers a faith for every taste, a robust religious marketplace with gods keyed perfectly to every human need.

But why go to the trouble? Why, when there are so many better things to do with a Sunday morning, like reading the paper or going for a run? When science already provides compelling answers to most of life’s biggest questions? When faith seems so inadequate to meet the challenges of modern life, and religion is seemingly more often a tool of ignorance and arrogance than a force for good?

That’s a bit tougher to answer.

What are you doing here?

Some hypotheses: Faith is an edifice I’ve built between myself and the brute fact that one day I will die. I’m looking for a community, for meaningful relationships in a world where people don’t know their neighbors. I’m trying to feel a connection to something larger than myself, even if that something is the product of mass delusion. There’s a kind of short circuit in my animal brain, an evolutionary accident that has me believing in an imaginary being who lives in the sky. I’m like an addict, smoking in the alley—religion is my personal weakness, and church my secret vice. I’m trying to escape the pain of the world, the wars and disease and poverty, by indulging once a week in the fiction that once upon a man lived, and died, and lived again, and that because he did everything, somehow, is going to be all right.

Or: God exists. My spiritual yearning, or whatever, is real. It has a source, and a direction.

Take your pick.

What are you doing here?

It’s possible, when we people of faith ask this question of each other, we’re really asking it of ourselves. Maybe the question contains anguish. Or hope.

Maybe it’s the question of someone who has made it against the odds, someone who’s held on to hope in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, finding a kindred spirit. The question contains laughter. Joyful laughter. You too? I thought I was the only one!

What are you doing here?

I don’t know, but I’m here. After everything, I’m still here.

Isn’t that a lot? Isn’t it enough?

Andrew and Sarah DeYoung live in Minneapolis. Andrew works in publishing, and Sarah is a graphic designer.