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.
Mayer describes a "quiet revival" that has overtaken the Twin Cities, with more than 1,000 new churches since 1996. Even in an area that wears its Scandinavian heritage on its sleeve, nearly 60 percent of those churches are not predominantly white. The trend reflects the changing nature of the area, which has become a leading destination for refugees. The changing service sector makes downtown Minneapolis look more like Little Somalia than Little Norway. During the last election, local voters chose the nation's first Muslim congressman.
But changing demographics are just one major challenge for Twin Cities evangelicals. The Minnesota pastors I interviewed don't just represent different feudal camps claiming a share of the evangelical pie. They lead them. Perhaps never before have so many dynamically different church leaders ministered in the same urban area.
Talking Past Each Other
Like many of their counterparts across America, evangelical churches in Minneapolis and St. Paul have grown by attracting disaffected mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics with European lineages. It has been decades since Bethlehem Baptist Church was known as First Swedish Baptist Church. And it might have gone the way of many Swedish churches, into long-term decline, if the church had not called a fiery Southerner, John Piper, to be the pastor in 1980.
The outspoken Piper has developed an international reputation and a committed local following. Even on a summer Saturday night, the sanctuary is nearly full. Undaunted by the heat, Piper wears a suit and tie. He announces an upcoming outreach event, "Hoops, Hip-Hop, and the Gospel," describing it as a "culturally relevant way to reach this city"—noting that you can pack a lot of theology into rap lyrics. Piper then promotes a six-week beginner's Greek course. Piper enjoys paradox. The church celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January the week before it laments abortion on Sanctity of Life Sunday.
The limits of Piper's flexibility, however, were evident in a meeting with his neighbors Jones and Pagitt. Jones invited Piper to lunch after he saw the promotional material for Piper's 2006 Desiring God National Conference, "The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World." Jones rightly guessed that conference speakers would criticize emergent theology. "My e-mail was an olive branch: an invitation to lunch and an assurance that we both share a commitment to proclaiming Christ," Jones wrote in The New Christians. But the Christ they preach looks quite different. Dining at Olive Garden, Piper struggled to understand how Jones and Pagitt think.
"There are profound epistemological differences—ways of processing reality—that make conversation almost impossible, as if we were just kind of going by each other," Piper explained at the conference. He pressed them to explain their views on Christ's atonement. Jones pressed back, questioning whether the Atonement should be understood as a substitutionary sacrifice. He asked, "What do you tell your congregation about how Christians understood the Atonement for the thousand years prior to Anselm?"
"You should never preach," Jones re-membered Piper saying in response.
Say what you will about Piper, you know where he stands. That was true even before he moved to Minnesota in 1974 to teach at Bethel University. He stands out in a Minnesota culture that prizes moderation.
"The people who are attracted to Bethlehem are people who love their Bibles and want their Bibles to be taught with uncompromising forcefulness," Piper says. "The others go elsewhere, and they have lots to choose from in the Twin Cities."
The four largest churches in Piper's denomination, Converge Worldwide (Baptist General Conference), call the Twin Cities home. One is Anderson's Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. Another is Boyd's Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, across the street from St. Paul. But the largest is Eagle Brook Church, headed by Bob Merritt. Between its three campuses, Eagle Brook claims a weekly attendance of more than 9,000. The church is so large that recently retired Bethel president George Brushaber, a member for 33 years, still gets asked if he is a visitor. With so many large churches in town, pastors seem much more focused on managing growth than looking for ways to cooperate.
Converge Worldwide (CW) traces its roots to Swedish Baptist pietism. While Minnesota is known for its Lutheran influence, the Scandinavians who fled their state churches have contributed to a culture that prefers doing to discussing. Pietism downplays theological differences. The same phenomenon can be seen in another denomination with Scandinavian roots, the Evangelical Free Church of America, which makes its headquarters in Minneapolis. The EFCA takes a firm stance on inerrancy, atonement, and justification. But churches may choose to baptize infants or wait for immersion when believers profess faith.
Evangelical cooperation is most evident at Bethel, which CW sponsors. Anderson has chaired the board of trustees. Bethel's theological spectrum is wide enough to claim both Piper and Boyd as former professors, a point that caused much controversy when Piper took issue with Boyd's open theism, the idea that God does not exhaustively know the future. In typically pietistic fashion, delegates to CW's 2000 national convention rejected open theism but affirmed Bethel for not firing Boyd. That's also typical of the phenomenon called "Minnesota Nice."
"There's an irenic spirit that permeates much of the culture," Anderson says. "That's not to say people in Minnesota aren't sinners like everywhere else. But there is some part of the culture that says respect for other people and finding ways to get along is good."
Bethel hasn't been alone in shaping how evangelicals make nice with each other and their neighbors in the Twin Cities. For decades Billy Graham instructed television viewers to write him at "Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota." The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association only recently relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina. Graham briefly served as president of Northwestern Schools (now Northwestern College) in St. Paul, starting in 1947. During Graham's tenure, Northwestern began broadcasting on KTIS, which still claims a strong market share.
Minnesota Nice has its drawbacks. What people say to your face may not match what they actually think. Cooperation is quick to come by but swift to vanish. Social pressure to conform keeps many churches full. But sometimes pastors such as Piper want to strike a nerve.
"I have often wondered, given my temperament and style, whether I would have had a much more prosperous ministry in the South or Southwest," Piper says. "Here my emotional makeup is upstream from this temperament. These are Scandinavian people who by and large are reticent in their emotional expressions. I'm quite ready to express myself loudly, softly, or bodily." He wonders aloud if he had been a pastor "someplace where people emotionally hang loose," if the church would have grown faster. "But that isn't what the Lord wanted, and that's only a question," he says. "There's a stability here."
Liberal Politics, Conservative Values
It's appropriate that it was an East Coast writer who named the town Eden Prairie, because the indigenous farm folk were rarely so optimistic. You can reach Eden Prairie and its most famous church in less than 30 minutes from downtown Minneapolis on a Sunday morning. Wooddale Church projects an imposing spire against the sparse suburban skyline.
Wooddale doesn't bother to hide its identity, which fits the local culture that by and large still expects churches to resemble churches. If the spire doesn't make that clear, the mammoth organ inside leaves no doubt. The organ prelude for the 8:30 A.M. service concludes with "A Scandinavian Suite." A men's choir dressed in suits is a crowd-pleaser. But this traditional service isn't necessarily typical for Wooddale. Two contemporary services geared toward the boomer crowd will follow. Still another service for young adults that evening promises "extended, experiential worship and prayer." But Anderson preaches every service, following wardrobe changes. He speaks as many as eight times on a Sunday.
The highlight of the morning service is a young couple who share a heart-tugging story of losing their infant shortly after birth. They explain their belief that God glorified himself even in their child's death, that he ordains everything by his will. Comforted to consider the costly sacrifice of God's only Son on the cross, they say the grief helped them focus on their own spiritual condition before God.
The sermon, delivered by Wooddale's outreach pastor, isn't so hard-hitting. It's a topical message about what Christians will do in heaven. One thing they will not do, the pastor quips, is argue over whether Norwegian or Swedish is the most heavenly tongue. Anderson is on study leave, traveling before he retreats to his lake cabin, a Minnesota pastime. Like Piper, Anderson is not from the Twin Cities, but he has put down deep roots. He started at Wooddale on January 1, 1977.
Tony Jones says Anderson has excelled in training younger leaders, including Pagitt: "A lot of the guys who have planted Wooddale's daughter churches have been pretty successful because of the training they got from Leith. Doug's whole ministry is a testament to that, too."
Pagitt served with Anderson for about 12 years as youth pastor. The two remain friends, although Jones writes that Pagitt grew frustrated with the church's "stultifying theology." Still, Anderson invites Pagitt to lecture in his Doctor of Ministry classes at Bethel Seminary. Pagitt told me that Anderson taught him how to understand the local church as an organizational complex. He says Wooddale was an entrepreneurial place that gave him a lot of freedom. According to Pagitt, his theology posed less of a problem than his changing view of how churches should be organized.
"I don't know that other than maybe on a couple of occasions [we] had a pointedly theological conversation. We just didn't do it," Pagitt says. "Leith is generous in his orthodoxy. The place was not and is not now oriented around finding distinction. Probably the greatest gift Leith has given me in pastoral leadership is to not build around distinction but to build around commonality."
With this profile, it's no surprise Anderson got the call to return for another tenure as NAE president, succeeding Ted Haggard. Anderson deflects attention, and no one would confuse him with a stooge for the Religious Right. Nevertheless, he does have one high-profile connection to the Republican Party: Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is a Wooddale member. His wife, Mary, a former district court judge, was raised in the church. A Bethel alumna, she now serves on the school's board of trustees. Anderson married them when they were fresh out of University of Minnesota Law School in 1987.
Pawlenty's national profile grew as an early and avid supporter of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. He was even mentioned as a possible running mate. It made sense for the same reason Republicans chose St. Paul to host their national convention. Minnesota is one nut the Republicans have long wanted to crack.
"Minnesota has historically been a liberal state politically," Anderson says, "but it's a conservative state in terms of values."
I'm not quite sure I'm in the right place as I pull up to Woodland Hills a little after 11 A.M. on Sunday. Next door the Plaza Theater offers $2 shows. Across the street the car wash next to Party Time Liquor promises $0.50 deals on Tuesdays. Yet this parking lot for Shopper City, an abandoned big-box retailer, is nearly full, so I figure this has to be the place.
Inside the spacious, one-level sanctuary, Boyd bounds onto the stage, shirt untucked, wearing jeans but no shoes. His text is Luke 13:1-5, where Jesus responds to concerns about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus also mentions the 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell. "Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?" Jesus asks. "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Boyd explains that we cannot know anything about why bad things happen.
"Everyone say squat," Boyd directs. The congregation dutifully responds. "That's what you don't know. You don't know squat."
Boyd then strings together a series of scenarios: one person is healed and another is not; one nation prospers and the other suffers.
"All we know is that in this unfathomably complex war zone, crap happens," Boyd says. "It hits the fan, sprays everywhere, and once in a while you get hit."
He elaborates to make sure no one misses the point. No one plans to come down with cancer. Nor should we pretend that cancer fits within God's will, he says.
"This wasn't in your daily planner. It wasn't in God's daily planner. This wasn't God's perfect script for your life," Boyd continues. "It's a war zone. There are a lot of wills that affect what comes to pass other than God's. Now of course the sovereign Lord of history is infinitely intelligent. So he anticipates every possible mess from all eternity, and he has a plan in place so that when the mess happens he has something in place to bring good out of it, to redeem it, to use it to his advantage. He doesn't cause messes for a purpose, but he brings purposes to the messes."
The Interstate 35W bridge collapse in August 2007 was one particularly traumatic mess for the Twin Cities. It also reopened Boyd's and Piper's scars from their previous tussle over God's sovereignty. Within hours of the collapse, Piper wrote on his Desiring God blog about putting his daughter to bed. He told 11-year-old Talitha, "But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand."
She responded, "With his pinky."
"Yes," Piper said, "with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills."
Talitha took a stab at interpreting the event. "Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him," she said.
"Yes, Talitha," Piper said, "I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall."
On his own blog, Boyd took issue with the Pipers' interpretation. He objected both exegetically and practically. "How many nonbelievers in Minneapolis do you think interpreted the bridge collapse as an expression of God's wrath?" Boyd asked. "And of these, how many were moved to turn to God out of fear? I'm thinking it's probably close to zero. If God was trying to get people to fear him, it simply didn't work."
Pagitt's criticism was even more dismissive. In a podcast interview he described Piper's counsel as "one of the most disturbed sorts of things a parent could say to a kid." Pagitt went on to say, "Man, there is so much work to do to try to pull many religious people out of the dark ages."
The following Sunday, Anderson steered a middle course, telling his congregation that if we could prevent everything bad from happening, we wouldn't need God. "God does not prevent every calamity from coming our way," he said. "But he is there with amazing mercy and grace."
He, too, cited Jesus' words in Luke 13 and said the bridge collapse was a call to repentance. But Anderson also noted that God can use tragedies for good. He pointed out that the collapse could have been worse. In fact, a Bethel student rescued eight people from the wreckage and was later awarded the "Above and Beyond Citizen" honor from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
Boyd tells me that visitors to Woodland Hills occasionally ask him about open theism, typically after a relative researches him on the Internet and warns them. But open theism is not what makes him especially controversial in the Twin Cities. His church's attendance did not drop by 20 percent because he believes God lacks exhaustive foreknowledge.
"Woodland Hills lost 1,000 people paying the price to become a more multiethnic church," says Efrem Smith, a friend of Boyd's and pastor of the new Sanctuary Covenant Church in north Minneapolis. "Greg preached a sermon series called 'The Cross or the Sword' that purposely downsized his church so they could become what they truly want to be."
Boyd's 2004 sermon series became the basis of his book The Myth of a Christian Nation. He resolved to preach the series after several church members subtly and sometimes overtly encouraged him to promote conservative political candidates. He launched into a full-throated assault on the Religious Right. In the last four years, Boyd has consistently preached on the costly demands of the kingdom of God, such as nonviolence. His church will not pray for soldiers. He has challenged suburban members to tackle the problems of the city. Boyd encourages young adults to live in small communal groups. The Twin Cities, a haven for megachurches, could look quite different if Boyd is correct that the emerging generation prefers more intimate venues like Solomon's Porch.
Minnesota may be known for nice, but its most famous pastors can be pretty provocative. Historically, the Twin Cities have attracted opposites. Middle-class Lutherans gravitated toward Minneapolis, while working-class Catholics settled in St. Paul, creating a rivalry between the two cities. Even the weather conspires to create this climate. City Vision's John Mayer wonders if the extreme shifts between hot and cold impress upon Minnesotans a longing for moderation but a tolerance for extremes.
"Around here we say that if you don't like the weather, wait half an hour," Mayer says. "It works that way with politics. You don't like Jesse Ventura? Then wait for Tim Pawlenty. It even works that way in theology, with Piper and Boyd in the same denomination."
These opposites don't attract; they coexist. Without greater doctrinal unity, meaningful cooperation among Twin Cities Christians is about as likely as a January thaw.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Collin Hansen also writes a weekly Theology in the News column, which are available on our site.
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