I’ve been in St. Paul, MN for a little while taking an intensive class for my M.A. degree at Luther Seminary. Last night a few of us decided to go to Solomon’s Porch for our Sunday church experience. I mean, if you don’t have a home congregation you might as well go somewhere “hip,” right?
As a somewhat distant, though very interested, observer of the emerging church, I have read plenty of blogs and magazine articles about Solomon’s Porch and their lead pastor (not sure what his real title is) Doug Pagitt. I thought this would be a cool opportunity to see in real life all that I had been reading and hearing about, and it was honestly pretty much what I expected: quite anticlimactic and ordinary. And I mean that truly in the best way possible.
Obviously when I say ordinary I don’t mean mainstream. When you walk into the Great Room (think sanctuary) and see it filled with tons of couches all arranged pointing towards a couple of stools sitting in the middle of the room you realize that the environment is anything but typical church fare.
When I say that the Sunday Gathering is ordinary and anticlimactic I mean that the community and leadership embrace a super-flat ecclesiology. Lines between staff and laity seem blurred, and there is no such thing as a celebrity. You’ll see what I mean in a second.
So, here’s the play-by-play. There are about 12 or so of us from the seminary who decide to go to Solomon’s Porch, and of course we don’t want to be late, so we arrive obscenely early. We walk into the Great Room and walk right past Doug Pagitt, who is sitting on a couch chatting with someone. We all sit down together in a little corner, and are pretty much the only ones in the room besides those who are preparing for some part in the gathering. Yeah, we don’t stand out at all.
Doug finishes his conversation and comes over to us and introduces himself, “Hi, I’m Doug.” I think to myself, Wow, he is really big. He acts like your typical guy and does the whole small talk thing, asking us what brings us there, where we’re from, yada yada yada. We give him the brief seminary shtick. He welcomes us and tells us to make ourselves at home and feel free to participate as if this place were our own, but tells us we can’t all sit together.
So we all spread out around the room and meander as we try and kill some time before the gathering is supposed to start. Thankfully most of our group tries to maintain our level of inconspicuousness by whipping out their phones and cameras and taking pictures as they walk around. I wonder to myself what communities like Solomon’s Porch think about being a Christian tourist spot. It seems so antithetical to their ecclesiology, but I’m not sure how you avoid it (especially when you write a book about your church).
According to the website, the Sunday Gathering Starts at 5:00 PM, but at 5:00 the room is still quite sparse. Some music is playing and people are mingling, and the room starts to fill and get louder, but the Gathering proper doesn’t seem to start until sometime after 5:15. Or does it? I know everything (okay, well maybe not everything, but almost) at Solomon’s Porch is done with theological intentionality behind it, so maybe the 15-25 minutes of mingling is an essential part of the worship experience. The start of the worship gathering is not initiated by a single person or a call to worship, but by the organic gathering of this Christian community.
Or maybe they are just undisciplined and can’t start anything on time. Not quite sure, but I hope it’s all the theological mumbo-jumbo I just spouted.
A little after 5:15 someone gets up to initiate what seems to be a call to worship, although she doesn’t call it that (I forget what it was called), and a responsive reading is used to initiate what would typically be thought of as the worship service. We sing a song, Doug gets up and says something about it being Epiphany, and the younger children (under 5 years old I think) are dismissed. We greet the people sitting around us and then sing some more songs. All the songs, by the way, are unique and original to Solomon’s Porch. Since I have no taste or expertise in music, I will not even try to describe the genre, other than I liked it.
As a regular part of their Gatherings a member of their community often shares from their own life how they are connecting their faith to what they do on a regular basis. This week was unique in that Doug was the person-of-the-week, so we not only got to meet Doug and hear him “preach” but also heard a little bit about what makes him tick personally. Really cool.
Then came the sermon (yes, he actually calls it a sermon), which covered Matthew 19:1-20:17. Yup, that’s a lot! And yes, it did seem kind of rushed, but he tried to tie together a lot of passages that often get isolated from their context, which was fresh. I wish he would have closed a little bit better and tied up the implications of the ending of the passage with the beginning. I don’t know if he was crunched for time or designed it that way, but it seemed to be missing a little bit.
After a song we had communion, which seemed almost like another short opportunity for fellowship. People were walking around and mingling in the midst of communion, which had a surprisingly natural feel to it, which surprised me. Should communion look more like that? In many churches I’ve been to people tend to use the down time after they’ve taken communion to whisper and write notes anyways; maybe we should just make all that stuff explicit and a part of the liturgical act of communion rather than trying to hide it all and maintain a certain level of piety.
Another song later and it was all over. I wish I could observe some of the other things that go on during the week that are integral parts of the community. It’s hard to judge a church like that simply by a couple of hours on Sunday night, but it was a fairly profound experience.
As I stated earlier, it was very ordinary. You walk up to the church and there are no flashy signs saying “As Seen in Christianity Today!” or “A Church on the Cutting-Edge!” Instead, you get the feeling they don’t want to be the tourist destination that we had made it that evening. Though their pastor is a “big deal” in emerging (and anti-emerging) church circles, you get the feeling that most people in the church don’t know or care about that. And Doug doesn’t project himself as someone more important than anyone else. In addition to Doug, Tony Jones was also there, again with no fanfare. In the same room are two of the leading, most well-known, influential voices in the emerging church, but here they’re just Doug and Tony. This is so different from the cult of Christian celebrity that seems to be pandered about in most mainstream churches. We need more of this in the church today.
A few things were peculiar. There was very little female leadership. I assume that is not by design, but I just found it odd that a progressive church like that doesn’t intentionally try and get women up front. Maybe they don’t feel they have to push things one way or the other but simply allow people to serve as they feel called. If that means that they are led mostly by men, so be it.
And, as youth ministers, at seminary studying youth ministry, most of us noticed there were very few in the middle and high school age range. Maybe there were more present at the 7:00 PM Gathering. Youth ministry in the emerging church is a topic that would be interesting to explore.
If you ever get a chance to go to Solomon’s Porch, it’s obviously worth your time if you are familiar with the emerging church, if for no other reason that to realize that the heavens do not open when Doug sits on his stool. It’s amazing how anticlimactic innovation appears. Maybe the everyday and the extraordinary are anything but.
Maybe there’s hope for your church after all.
Brit Windel says
That is a really cool man. Glad you had a great experience. It would be fun to see and participate in worship with them. Yeah I was reading how Tony is now a full member… that is kinda celebrity like….like Greg from XXXchurch moving his family and particularly going to MarsHill Seattle with Driscoll
thats cool though. give me a call when you get a free chance brother
Jake Belder says
Good post, Matt (oh, and kudos on some great phrases, like “obscenely early”). I went to Rob Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI a few times and had a similar experience to what you describe here, although from the sounds of it Mars Hill is significantly larger than Solomon’s Porch. But even though they have far more seats and use standard church-type chairs, they are all arranged in a giant circle pointed at the middle. Nonetheless, I identify with what you mean when you say ordinary and anticlimactic.
@Brit – I never knew Tony was a half-member.
@Jake – Thanks. I think great leaders and writers of the church have a great sense of sensitivity to the deeper things at work in their communities and are able to articulate it well. They can explain why a seemingly unspectacular church is anything but. We’d do well to discover the goldmine of gifts and passion already in our own midst.
wish i could have joined you for the experience.
Rusty, if you were in the program with me it would be uh-maz-ing.
Scott Lenger says
Thanks for the extended review, you’ve saved me a trip to MN 🙂
I visited Emmaus Way in Durham, NC once . It was similar to what you described, though on a smaller scale and probably a bit more “open” to the extent that during “communion” people were given extended time to move around, talk, and even paint. Also worship that particular evening was a guest musician on sitar which everyone just kind of sat around and absorbed. Hearing the sitar was probably the most memorable part of my limited exposure to Emmaus Way as the unusual sounds it produces to my western ears really helped me to image the biblical world more separated from my own cultural context.
@Scott – Thanks! I could write even more about my experience, but figured it was already getting a bit long.
Interesting comments on Emmaus Way. It would be interesting, though probably not very beneficial, to drop people from a traditional congregation into such a unique worship experience and hear their feedback.