Fire and Nice
Walking inside Solomon's Porch in a south Minneapolis neighborhood, I receive a stack of freebies. On this sweltering summer Friday night, the people in attendance make good use of hand fans with shepherd Jesus on the front and the Web address for Wesley Theological Seminary on the back. A flier touts The Great Emergence, published by Baker Books and Emergent Village, in which Phyllis Tickle observes that massive church transitions come every 500 years, and that we are in one now. Before the event begins, a video screen promotes Zondervan's The Bible Experience audio Bible.
We are in for a show, a book tour disguised as an old-fashioned tent revival set in 1908. Only the marketing methods are modern: a form on each seat solicits e-mail addresses on behalf of major evangelical sponsors in return for a chance to win an iPod.
Solomon's Porch is the church of Tony Jones, national coordinator of Emergent Village and author of The New Christians. He lives in Edina, the nearby affluent suburb where he grew up. Sporting mutton-chop sideburns and dressed in period clothes, Jones leads the audience in the tour's theme song. "Jesus, Jesus, kingdom of God revealed," he sings while strumming the guitar. "Love is the way, we follow each day, and in him all is healed." Later in the show Jones puts down his guitar and rails against the church's Platonic captivity.
Church founder Doug Pagitt reads from his new book, A Christianity Worth Believing. He talks about growing up in Golden Valley, a working-class, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. He experienced conversion while watching a Passion play in high school. Pagitt, who now lives in Edina, was drawn to the hero Jesus, who took on corrupt religious leaders. In true revival fashion, Pagitt leads an altar call, but with an emergent twist. Following a video promotion, Pagitt asks people to raise their hands if they would consider sponsoring a child with Compassion International.
Pagitt and Jones have attracted national attention for calling on Christians to re-consider their theological assumptions. Solomon's Porch is the laboratory for their experiment. Pagitt started the church in 2000 after a stint as the youth pastor at Wooddale Church, a suburban megachurch led by National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson. Before moving to its current location, Solomon's Porch gathered in a downtown neighborhood near John Piper and Bethlehem Baptist Church. Piper has publicly criticized emergent, as he earlier had criticized St. Paul pastor Greg Boyd, a controversial advocate of open theism.
Together, Minneapolis and St. Paul are big enough to sustain diverse expressions of Christian theology, but small enough to bring those expressions into contact. In many ways, the Twin Cities are a microcosm of the current tensions in American evangelicalism.
Smorgasbord of Churches
With a little more than 3.5 million residents, Minneapolis/St. Paul is the 15th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. That makes the Twin Cities big enough to host major corporations, including headquarters for Best Buy, General Mills, Dairy Queen, and 3M. But the area is small enough that you wouldn't be surprised to bump into a local television news anchor at Target.
You have to really work to avoid bumping into megachurch pastors. The Twin Cities are home to the most Protestant megachurches per capita in the United States, according to John Mayer, executive director of City Vision, a Minneapolis ministry that researches demographic trends. Only the Atlanta and Dallas metro areas boast more megachurches. Maybe the Twin Cities' ranking should not be surprising, given their penchant for "big." The nation's first mall, Southdale Center, opened in 1956 in Edina. Nearby Bloomington boasts the 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America.