Church After Mars Hill with Joel Kiekintveld
When we examine the far-reaching impact of spiritual abuse, it becomes evident that it transcends isolated incidents, permeating a broader culture, system, and ideology that inflict harm.
In this week’s episode, Rachael engages in a thought-provoking conversation with Joel Kiekintveld, a pastor and Adjunct Professor at The Seattle School, shedding light on the intricate dynamics of systems and cultures that foster spiritually abusive environments.
Joel recently hosted Season 4 of Transforming Engagement, the Podcast, called “Church After Mars Hill,” in response to the widely popular podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Through their series of conversations, Joel and his guests not only examine Mars Hill Church as a case study to identify the systems, cultures, and leadership structures that contributed to its downfall, but they also create a space for introspection and imagination for what can be done with these lessons learned. In the aftermath of the destruction wrought by spiritually abusive church cultures, their dialogues explore the delicate tension between deconstruction and rebuilding.
- Listen to “Church After Mars Hill,” a 9-part podcast series on Transforming Engagement, the Podcast, hosted by Joel Kiekintveld and produced by the Center for Transforming Engagement at The Seattle School for Theology & Psychology.
- Subscribe to Transforming Engagement, The Podcast on Apple, Spotify, or Amazon Music (Audible)
About Our Guest:
Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. a Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. For 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.
Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.
Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.
Rachael: Well, good people. I hope this finds you well loved today. On the Allender Center Podcast today, I am really grateful to be joined by Joel Kiekintveld. Welcome, Joel.
Joel: Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here.
Rachael: Yeah. Joel is an adjunct professor at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, a fellow with Street Psalms and is the co-director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. He has educational background and practical theology and global urban ministry serving as a companion to his many years as a pastor and nonprofit director serving at risk and street involved teens. He currently lives in Alaska with his wife and three daughters in an intentional community at a trailer park. But for the purposes of the Allender Center podcast, Joel most recently hosted a nine episode podcast series on Transforming Engagement, the Podcast, which is a production of the Center for Transforming Engagement. And for those of you who don’t know, that is our sister center here at the Seattle School, and they’re doing incredible work on post-traumatic growth and resilient leaders and how to really equip and build up leaders to be a part of enacting social change and being able to stay in the work in a more flourishing way. But they recently hosted a podcast that Joel was the host of called “Church After Mars Hill”, and it’s a response to the wildly popular series from Christianity Today that you may be familiar with,The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. For one, myself personally, I’ve been really grateful for your labor on Church After Mars Hill, and I’m excited for our listeners to hear more about your work and what you learned and kind of where it intersects with trauma and healing and hope. But it seemed at the core, you were inviting us as listeners to determine whether or not we want to be mere voyeurs driving pleasure through the shock and scandal of the megachurch that was Mars Hill and the celebrity pastor that was Mark Driscoll. Or if we want to take what we are seeing and learning as an opportunity to really look inside and kind of look as you said several times, look in the mirror and see what it can teach us about our own participation in this kind of dysfunctional church system that we have an opportunity to grow and actually be participants in transformation as opposed to just observers of a massive eruption and deconstruction. So at the Allender Center, at our intersection of trauma and abuse and healing, we talk a lot about the impact of spiritual abuse, and I think some of the work that you have done is at that intersection of when there’s a toxic system that does have an impact of harm. But we talk a lot about how what’s so hard about spiritual abuse is because it’s a culture, it’s a system, it’s an ideology. It’s the water that you’re in, even if you’ve been a survivor of it and have experienced explicit and personal harm, you’ve also often been a perpetrator of some of the toxic realities. So again, I think this conversation is going to be really helpful to all of us who are trying to figure out how to move forward and how to kind of pick up some of the pieces. So you talked with several people, many of whom are members of the Seattle School community who were around when a lot of this was happening because Mars Hill Church, the megachurch was actually in Seattle. What were some of the themes that kept coming up as you leaned into this conversation?
Joel: Yeah, I’ll get to the themes in just a second, but I think one thing you were saying there in the intro to that question that I think is really important is how interconnected or how woven almost into the fabric of church culture abuse is. So when we step back to look at the way that we have over the last few decades, certainly, but maybe even longer gone about planting churches or pioneering churches or whatever you want to call that, we’re always looking for kind of charismatic leaders that we can put up front, very cult of personality, kind of approaches to things, and I’m sure your listeners know this, but that leads itself really easily into spiritual abuse when you’re looking for these strong, upfront charismatic leaders who are very authoritative, who then we say are speaking on behalf of God, it sets up this situation where these abuses can happen. Getting more specifically to your question, I think what’s really interesting to me as I listened to different folks talk about particularly the Mars Hill experience was just how everybody had an interaction in one way or another with Mars Hill that was living in Seattle at the time. They may not have been members, they may not have attended a service, they may not have been involved in the ways that we think of, but just because of what was going on in the city, there was interaction with either people that were connected there or the way that it was affecting the city or the way that it was affecting other churches. So the pervasive sort of sense of, I guess the good word you could use is impact the impact Mars Hill was having in the city in good ways and in bad ways. Although I want to be really careful. One of the things that concerned me about the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, even though I think it was so well done, is that it teetered on the line of being so close to doing exactly what the church did, which is, but lots of good things happened. Here’s all these bad things, but lots of good things happened, and I think there’s a danger there. I think they walked the line pretty well, but I still made me nervous at times of like, are we still justifying some of these things? But just that pervasive way that it reached out into so many different places and was so much kind of in the water in Seattle and just the way that it was from a psychological standpoint. I talked with Doug Shirley, he was like, well, people were coming into my practice and we were having to unpack their experience at Mars Hill and Rose Swetman, who you mentioned earlier on, her really needing to help folks interact. How do we become a more egalitarian church in the sense of the way things were being done around gender roles and the abusive ways that that was being handled, and Ron Ruthruff talking about just the ways that it was impacting the city at large and playing off of the changes that were happening in Seattle at the time. So there were so many ways that tentacles of all the different ways that it connected was one of the things that was just fascinating to me. I think that stands out the most in the conversation of how all these little things were connected in so many different ways when it wasn’t just a church kind of off by itself doing this thing with its own culture. It was that, but it was so tied into everything else that was going on throughout the city, whether you wanted it to be or not.
Rachael: I want to go back to something that you said as you started a really honoring caveat that you want to be careful not to justify, and I kind of want to hear more from you because it’s actually rare to hear someone so quickly have that wise kind of pause. I do think especially survivors of abuse, we hear that a lot. Well, and again, I love spending time in Romans 8. People always pull out, well, we know God’s working for the good. I mean, it’s like, yeah, we can say, we can all agree we have a God who has promised to bring beauty from even the worst ashes, but when it’s so close to a more deterministic, well, if you’re the collateral damage in a situation where, yeah, some good things happen, but you are the person whose body is laying on the floor, that’s a terrible feeling. At what cost? Yeah. I would love to hear more from you where some of the conversations around that might’ve gone in the church after Mars Hill.
Joel: Yeah. We didn’t talk so specifically about that, but I know it was something that for me in thinking through even listening initially to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, something I was trying to sort out for myself of, yes, God can use anything like you were just saying, God is able to take whatever disaster that we see as human beings and abuses and those types of things and turn it for good. Absolutely. I think the danger is when it becomes the justification for the way things are done. So what I kept hearing a bit on the podcast was the justification that Mars Hill was using was like, well, yeah, Mark’s kind of a jerk, but look at the great things that are happening. All these people are coming to Christ. So it was sort of a justification for how things were done, and I think that’s where it gets very dangerous.It’s like, of course God can use that. We have all these stories of God using very unlikely things in the Bible. I always think of the Baalam story where it’s like he’s hired to curse and he can’t and his donkey talks. And it’s like, yeah, of course God can use all of those things. I think it’s when it’s the justification, when it becomes the motivator for saying, oh, well, the ends means that we’re using are fine because the ends are turning out. I think that’s where it gets really tricky. And like you said, when you’re the one that’s ended up under the bus to use Mark’s language, it’s not very comforting to say, oh, but look at all the great things that are happening. Meanwhile, you have tire tracks on you and you’re like, it didn’t feel very good for me, and now I’m all messed up. And I think that’s a hard thing for us to weigh out, and that is where you were talking about we can watch or listen to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill or other things. I mean, there’s lots of those types of media out there. You can read Jesus and John Wayne the same way where it’s like way you can read it and just be aghast at this stuff happening. It’s almost like watching a telenovela or a soap opera or something. But I don’t think that gets us far enough into the conversation of then how do we parse out those things of there was some good that happened here, certainly, but then there’s a lots of things that we can learn from that hopefully we won’t repeat of. There’s probably a better way to go about doing this stuff. And that’s really what we’re trying to do with the podcast was I felt like there was an open door with the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. I thought they did a great job in terms of investigative reporting and asking a lot of great questions, but it really left me as a practical theologian as a pastor thinking about, okay, but now what do we do? Where do we go from here? The initial conversation that we had on the series was with Derek McNeil, who’s the president at Seattle School, talking about you can’t just deconstruct for forever. You have to build something. And on that episode, I laid out that I saw the entire series as being a bit of a Marshall Plan for the church. So the Marshall Plan after World War II, all of Europe is in a waste. It’s just been bombed into oblivion. And the Marshall Plan was like, how are we going to rebuild? And I’m kind of using that same metaphor of how do we rebuild the church differently in light of all these abuses? And it isn’t just Mars Hill. I mean, we had Scott McKnight and Laura Behringer on to talk about abuse from their book, A Church Called Tov, and their experiences was with a different church with Willow Creek, with similar things with abuses of power and narcissism and so on, and how do you build kind of a Tov culture. So I think a lot of people are having that experience in one way or another, whether it’s been at their church or a church in their neighborhood or a church that they followed online or whatever. I think they’re seeing that, but how do we move into doing things in a different way, thinking about church in a different way that would avoid some of those things and be healthier for everyone that’s involved?
Rachael: And some of those things, again, you’re putting such good words to this are they’re beyond a certain community, they’re beyond a certain type of person. It’s a system, it’s a culture. What were some of the things that you guys talked about in the series that felt like, okay, we we’re kind excavating here. This is part of what does have to be dismantled? Let’s start with some of those things, because I think sometimes we have to start there so that people trust, okay, you do see this, right? But again, it’s like, well, I know this for myself. I still want you to answer that question, but I just am thinking it’s almost like that becomes overwhelming when you’ve been impacted by it. When you’ve been a participant in it, it’s almost easier. It feels a little safer if you can be like, well, this was just, let’s just scapegoat this person, or let’s just cancel this person. Or let’s just kind of pile it all on this community and not look at the wider, deeper realities that, oh, this is a way we’ve been seduced into something and then we’ve perpetuated it because that feels so much more overwhelming. It feels a little bit more despairing. But what I appreciated about the conversations is it sounds like you guys were able to name, yeah, there’s some real problematic stuff here. I want to talk a little bit more what are some of those problematic things? Obviously we have narcissism, we have kind of this charismatic leader. I think Chuck DeGroat does a great job in his book When Narcissism Comes to Church on highlighting some of those realities. Are there other structures or systems in the water that are toxic that it’s just good for us to extract out and say, okay, that’s there. That’s there. It’s not the final say, but it’s certainly there.
Joel: Well, absolutely. So the podcast actually grew out of some discussions that staff was having at the Seattle School. They do a book club, and I had actually proposed to the Center for Transforming Engagement. Wouldn’t it be fun if we talked about the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, because so many people were listening to it and some of the themes that we ended up talking about on the podcast came directly out of those conversations. So they were ones that kind of rose to the top. Yeah. So one of the things that we talked about was just how gender roles were being used or abused. There was very much this idea that Mark was promoting of calling men to be better, to be strong leaders in the family, subservient wives. I kind of tied it to the movie, Don’t Worry, Darling, that came out in 2022. It’s sort of this male fantasy that takes place in what looks like the 1950s and ends up being, sorry, spoiler alert ends up being like an alternate universe. But this idea of men go off to work, then they come home and they’re pampered by their wives who are sexually available to them and supportive, and it’s very gendered and very much a hierarchy. And that was one of the things that we talked about, Rose Madrid Swetman and I talked a little bit about what was that culture that was promoting this very patriarchal system, and then what’s the effects of that? And then how do we begin to think about an egalitarian approach to church where we’re all, I mean Rose talked about where we’re all equal at the foot of the cross when we all begin to see that in Christ there is no male or female, slave or free. I mean, the things that Paul talks about, if we really take those seriously, even the things that are preached about at Pentecost now, the spirit’s poured out on everybody. That was kind of where that conversation went. How do we move from this very hierarchical, very male dominated kind of approach to things, to a more egalitarian approach? And Joel Aguilar, who’s a friend of mine from Guatemala City, and I talked a little bit about all the violent language that was used. Mars Hill used tons of violent language, the air war, the ground war, the men didn’t go on retreats, they went on advances like Cosper does a whole riff on that, on the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, all this military language and this idea of Mark preaching this MMA sort of macho fighter Jesus. And being really excited about this, right? And this idea that Jesus took a whooping once and he’s never going to take it again, and he’s just this total badass. And Joel and I had a wonderful conversation around what does it look like to be peacemakers? What does it look like to be able to sit down with people that are different than us and hold space? What does it look like to start to remove those violent images even from our atonement theology? I mean, he began to talk about some of our atonement. Theologies really lead us in a violent culture to, it perpetuates our sense of violence and the necessary, the necessity of violence. So we spent some time talking about that. Doug Shirley, who teaches at Seattle School and the psychology department, and I talked a little bit about psychologically healthy congregations. One of the things that really stuck out for me in that conversation with Doug is he began to talk about group and systems theory and how folks tend to operate the way they did in their families and large groups and how churches can tend to infantalize, I always get that word wrong, but turn us into infants when we show up by giving us good coffee and cushy seats and not asking us to do much during the service. And really kind of allowing us to really sink into those roles and not giving us space to speak truth about our soul in those places. And something that was shocking for me is, as Doug talked about how our different roles happen inside groups and group theory and systems theory, I asked him how much of this is taught in seminary. He sits at this interesting intersection where he’s done seminary training and now he’s a psychologist. And he was like, none of it. He’s like, nobody ever talked about any of this when I was in seminary. And I found that fascinating that in a large group dynamic, which is what we’re doing with churches, we’re not talking about all the dynamics that are happening underneath that and how our culture’s in some ways not allowing us to do what we really need to do, which is confess and lament and tell the truth about where we’re at in our souls. So that conversation really stood out. Dwight Friesen and I had a conversation about kind of models of church. What does that look like? How do churches become sort of living embodiments of love in their neighborhood? He talks about shalomic iimagination. What does it mean to bring peace to your neighborhood? So that conversation ended up being less about models and more about the approach. How do you enter into your neighborhood wanting to express the love of Jesus, and where does that take you? And that’s not going to look the same for every congregation, not we often, I know from being a pastor, we get all this information, all these companies wanting to sell us the format for church and the format for Bible study and all these things. And what I appreciated about Dwight was, no, there’s some principles. How do we show up Jesus in our neighborhood? And that’s going to look different for all of us. It’s not a cookie cutter kind of approach to things. Spent some time talking with Chelle Sterns, who’s another professor at Seattle School. And we had a great conversation about art and music and how churches use that because in our contemporary moment, and again, using Mars Hill as an example, but they’re certainly not alone. Art and music is often used in sort of a manipulative way or a advertisement way, and not necessarily to draw us into mystery or transformation. It’s not beauty that transforms us. It’s there to kind of, yeah, manipulation is maybe too strong a word, but it’s sort of transactional, like the images are there to drive the message rather than to draw us into mystery or draw us into a larger reflection. And that episode I introed talking about Henri Nouwen and his experience with the prodigal son painting and how that drew him in over and over and over again and began to speak to him about who he was, who God was, and how God was asking him to be in the world in a different way than we often use art in our services.And then the only person that I talked to, and I’ll get to one more, one guest that actually is a topic that didn’t show up in either our conversation at Seattle School or in the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill that I felt like was important. But we talked with Scott McKnight and Laura Behringer about their book, a Church Called Tov. And Scott’s probably familiar to a number of listeners. He’s written a billion books or something. But they really talked a lot about what they’ve learned. And he said a lot of it boils down to most of the church cultures that he’s looked at. It boils down to a narcissistic male leader for the most part, and they kind of just take what they saw as the negative and then flip to the positive. So they move from sort of well very critical culture to an empathetic culture in those type of moves. They actually have a new book called Pivot that’s coming out in the next couple of weeks that is helping folks if they’re wanting to explore that more in their communities, how do you begin these practices that lead you towards a goodness culture? And then Ron Ruthruff and I talked about Whiteness. Dr. Ron teaches as well at Seattle School. And one of the things that I felt like the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill didn’t really cover, and we also didn’t really get into so much in our conversations with staff at Seattle School, was the idea that Mars Hill was operating in very much a Whiteness model and wasn’t really talking very much about race. And in the model that Ron and I used when we were talking is Willie Jennings model. He says, Whiteness really operates on possession, mastery and control. That’s what White folks want to do. Randy Woodley says it a different way. He says that the original sin of the United States is not racism, and it’s not indigenous genocide. It’s a theology of control. It’s the idea of controlling everything. And I felt like that was a really important conversation because I think it played very well into the way that Mark was leading, at least towards the end. So I think there was a trend. Anybody who’s listened to the podcast knows this, but certainly Dwight talked about this as well when we had our conversation. Certainly there was a change in Mark over time, but at the end, he was definitely somebody who was interested in possession, mastery and control. He was the one running the church. He was the one with the ideas. He was the one in control. And I really felt like that was an important conversation to have. And then we kind of ended with, in that sense, the way that we need to do that is being more in proximity with diversity and share space. And Ron really talked about what does that look like for us to be in spaces where people are different than us and to be able to learn from them this idea that the Jesus in you is greater than the Jesus and me is sort of where we landed with that. Of course, we could all create homogeneous churches where we feel super comfortable because everybody’s like us, but that doesn’t look a whole lot like the kingdom. So how do we begin to share space? So that’s kind of in a nutshell where we went with those episodes with that particular season.
Rachael: And I mean, there’s so many points that I find myself wanting to pause and just have more robust conversation with you. So I’m like, okay, what our listeners want to hear that? One part I want to go back to is just to mention, because I don’t think we often get to think about atonement theology, and I just want to take a brief moment because this is something I’m very passionate about in a lot of my MDiv work was on how do we talk about certain atonement metaphors with people who have experienced domestic violence? So when you are, you said, I loved your language when you’re in a violent framework, and the only thing I want to name is just atonement metaphors. There’s many, many in the text and also many of them are cultural. They’re birthed within cultures where it’s a metaphor that has a saving element to that particular culture. So when I won’t get all theologically nerdy, I know some people do want to hear about that, and some people are like, I don’t care. I just know for me, that question came out of a deep place in my own soul. If there’s something happening in this work of Jesus on the cross that I’m supposed to follow, that has huge implications for discipleship and what is it? And so yeah, I’m really grateful that you mentioned that because I think in some ways the violent – everything you’ve named the gender hierarchies, the narcissism, the transactional and manipulative nature of the way we use things, the power of white supremacy. And I know it’s hard. I know for a lot of us, especially if we’re newer in our work of understanding, we have a racialized identity to begin with. We hear something like Whiteness and we hear just white people. And it’s like we’re talking about a system and a culture and sometimes something we may not even be aware we’ve adopted or we’re living out of. But I especially am grateful for what you’ve named. And I hope if you’re hearing this and you’re thinking, I want to hear more, you will go check out Church After Mars Hill on Transforming Engagement, the Podcast. But that sense of that the original sin is actually a theology of control. And in some ways, this is where I think we have to start to do some of the healing work of looking inward, not under condemnation, not under shame, but under why would we be drawn to something? When you start to parse it out and go, here’s some of the kind of toxic realities. Why do they feel so comfortable to so many? Why do they feel like, well, this is what a pastor is supposed to look like. This is what church is supposed to feel like. I mean, Doug’s conversation on the healthy psychology of a faith community is like, oh yeah, and then you can start to add that to, and pastors and leaders and the whole system, it kind of sets up everyone to have a really dysfunctional psychology because it sets up a leader to be really split and only bring certain parts of themselves, the community, and to be idolized. But you also know if you’re idolized at any moment, you’re going to have your head cut off. You only get to exist in that binary. So there’s just a lot of good stuff there. And I think a lot of us are waking up to these realities of abuse and supremacy and gaslighting in our religious context. And some of the people that maybe we’ve idolized or at one point really felt like this is what a leader should look like. I mean, I am a woman who was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been told you’re not fit for leadership just because of your gender. And I’m looking around going, I see a lot of people not fit for leadership just because of their character. I’d like to see somebody talk about that. And I also had incredible pastors too. So it’s all there together. But I guess I would maybe ask you, with a lot of your experience in the world, the work you currently do, how do we keep showing up to do that rebuilding work when it feels like what is there to rebuild with? When it feels so messed up or we’re taking a look and taking stock of things and it feels so overwhelming? How do we stay? How do we keep showing up? Or maybe what gives you hope for the Church After Mars Hill and Mars Hill as a real thing, but also a placeholder for, as you said, many different churches and contexts?
Joel: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question and it’s a really personal question. So this is not something I talked a whole bunch about on the podcast, but I think my journey, if I look back over the last 20 or something years and what gives me hope, I’ll give you the short answer and then I’ll build to why I think that’s the right answer. But for me right now, it’s actually the faith community that I’m a part of gives me hope. And I’ve been part of this faith community now for over 20 years. This particular church, we’re trying to move away from the word church because we felt like, and the story would become clear when we were rebuilding into something new. We really felt like the word church was loaded and that we were doing some things just because that’s what churches did. And we wanted to move away from that to be able to get to what was the best thing for this community. But I’ve been part of this congregation for, like I said, over 20 years. It was a church plant. It used very much the Willow Creek model of things, banned up upfront. Excellence was a real big buzzword. Make sure that the services are really excellent. And something you came to and as a participant, I’m using the word participant rather loosely, you came, were sort of an audience member. So everything happening upfront and you’re participating mostly by observation, aside from maybe corporate singing, those type of things. And that model worked really, really good for about a decade. The church grew really well. I think things were happening, there was lots of good stuff happening. And then for about 10 years, the church was in sort of a long drawn out decline for lots of reasons. And I think one of the things, and I spent a bunch of that time being really discouraged actually. So I was working with, you mentioned in the intro, working with high risk and street involved youth. And for me, what I wanted the church to do for me on Sunday was just tell me the story. Still true. In the end, Jesus still wins and everything’s going to be okay and everything’s going to be restored. That’s what I need to hear because I’ve been faced with all kinds of stuff all week that doesn’t feel very hopeful. Fast forward, I become the teaching pastor. towards the end of that long series of decline, the churches has gotten rather small, but still running kind of this big program, lots of energy going into the program on Sunday. And at that point, I was trying to kind of move us away from that. Can we do this differently, et cetera, et cetera. We finally got to the point where we can no longer stay in our building, kind of no longer function the way that we were for lots of reasons. We were sharing a building with another church, they were buying a building, it just wasn’t going to work anymore. And we had the choice of either we’re going to close the church or we’re going to try to do something new. And the opportunity there for a number of us was what does this look like to do something new? And so all of that leading up to this, what really gives me hope is that I think we’ve moved so far in our culture of a leader or a group of leaders that are sort of the church, and we think of the church as an institution. So I remember being in a meeting a number of years ago, somebody just kept saying, the church needs this and the church needs that and the church needs the next thing. And I was like, but the church is literally just like this 50 people. This is the church. There is no mythical magical organization. This is it. If we’re going to do it, this is what it’s going to be. And the faith community I’m a part of now really works on this idea of the community, the community running everything, what we would call the priesthood of all believers. So it isn’t just me, I’m the pastor on paper, but really when we come together, and there’s 20 or so of us, 25 of us, so it’s more of like a house, church, small group. We come together. There is no more preaching. I don’t get up and deliver a message – maybe once or twice a year does that happen. Usually at Christmas and Easter. But we get together and we have a discussion. Everything is kind of done in a more mutual way. We take turns with who’s leading the discussion. And that has been life giving in the sense that it removes that dynamic of upfront, upfront watching what’s going on in the program, observers versus participants, one person bringing their interpretation of the text as opposed to a whole bunch of us bringing an interpretation of the text. It looks a lot more like what Paul’s talking about to the Corinthians when he says, when you all get together, a few of you bring a song, a few of you bring a word, somebody bring an interpretation. It feels more like that. And we really talk about liturgy as the work of the people. And I think what that does is some of the things that we talked about in Church After Mars Hill is it diffuses some of that cult of personality, some of that wanting the church to do for you rather than you participating in. We even did really weird things. If there’s a potluck, we don’t provide really anything. It sounds terrible, but you bring your plate, you bring your fork, you bring your beverage, we’re not providing stuff anymore. We’re all coming together and making this happen. And it removes some of those dynamics. And I know that won’t work for every congregation. I don’t mean that to be that. I don’t mean that to be prescriptive for everybody, but for our group of folks that’s been super life-giving to be able to do this just differently. And I think it’s brought us to a much deeper level. When you talk about having space to tell truth about your soul. It took a while. People are not used to it. I remember the first couple of times we tried to do a conversation and people were just like… not wanting to answer. This isn’t what we do at church. Somebody talks and then we maybe have a conversation on the car on the way home. We don’t talk about it with everybody. And it took a while, but I think it has brought us to a place where people can be really honest about what’s going on and people can really help each other in really concrete ways where they know what’s happening. And I think there’s the freedom too, to begin to explore hard questions. One of our members started a conversation a couple of months ago with this might be heresy but… and throughout the question, it was literally, I feel like God has two minds in this passage. On one level he is saying this, and on another level he’s saying that, and which one is it? And we ended up having a beautiful conversation about, okay, let’s talk about this. And there were others in the room who were having the same thing. We were trying to figure out how to wrestle with that. And that kind of stuff just really gives me hope of these. We can begin to think about what church looks differently. And like I said, I don’t think that’s true for every church. I don’t know that every church is called to that. I don’t even know that. I know it wouldn’t work with a whole lot more people. So at some point you can’t be having a conversation with a hundred people in the room. But for me, that makes, it’s been really hopeful because it feels like it diffuses a number of those things that we were talking about as it relates to the way church has been done in a different model.
Rachael: And I think what I hear you saying is also the hope that you actually saw your community, even though it was hard and really disruptive, change, and move somewhere together. And I hear you in that there was also a lot of decline along the way. And I think that’s part of it is how do you find your people who are going to stay in it and stay at the table and keep sewing and keep plowing and keep trying to figure out together. And I am sure there are people listening who have come from, I love how you’ve been very gracious and there are multiple different expressions of church, and this is not a one size fits all, or this is what you need to do. Or if you go to, also, we’re talking primarily about a lot of expressions in evangelical churches, although certain mainline churches probably have similar issues, as you know. Oh, sure, absolutely. Yeah. And I’m just thinking about…
Joel: I would add too, I think we’re in a moment where there’s a lot of question about what the church is going to become. Yes, we’re in this space. I think the pandemic really pushed that forward, not evenly about the pandemic. It just gave us everybody an opportunity to press pause long enough to go, something’s happening here. But I really think we are in a moment where rethinking these modes of church is we need to figure out how are we going to do this now. The modes that we’ve been using are from a different era, and that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to throw out all liturgy. I actually find some really older forms of liturgy, really life giving. But I do think we’re in the era of how do you figure this out? And like you said, there’s some loss involved in that. We had members all along that were part of us that said, the community’s really important, the community’s really important, the community is really important. But when the format changed, the format was still really important. So there’s things inside of us that we don’t even always know, and I don’t fault them. I think the community was really important, but also the format was really important. And when it got too far out of the format,
Rachael: I’ve been a part of a church where we switched from a morning service to an evening dinner church around a small table, let’s feed people, let’s have discussion format. And it blew up the church. It was like, wait, this is the thing that’s going to take us down. I didn’t see this coming. We were a very psychologically minded, human size. I think a lot of people recovering from church hurt and church pain. And it was interesting. There’s still something often that we’re needing from how we perceive what church is supposed to be. And I guess when I think about what gives me hope is really in some ways kind of the fundamental question you started out with in the podcast series and in the conversations of is rebuilding possible? Can we actually be rebuilders? And I think for myself, I don’t know how to hold onto that hope also without entering a lot of lament because I think I’m thinking about these people who didn’t want the format to change. I think about my Italian family, we have a lot of traditions. As my grandfather passed away, as we don’t meet in my grandmother’s at my grandparents’ house anymore because my grandmother moved into assisted living. It’s like trying to hold on to the traditions. This is the way we do it, but the life has gone out of it. But it feels so scary to try something new because to do that new thing, you actually have to acknowledge the old thing has passed away. And so any words you would give people around, because I think part of the ways we move out of being the voyeur is actually acknowledging it’s easy to split off and be like, how ridiculous are they? I mean, I find myself doing this as a White person all the time. I’m not as bad as those other White people. And having to kind of be like, okay, take a step back. You still exist in this world where Whiteness is a reality. And I guess I’m just curious if there’s been things along the way that you’ve had to grieve or that you’ve seen communities grieve in the loss as a part of the rebuilding process or even that movement from deconstruction to rebuilding.
Joel: Yeah. Well, I think there’s sacrifice involved with that. So in order to rebuild something, you have to be able to give something up. And I do think you bring up, lament is a really good word for that. I think that was a hard part for us transitioning as a community is there were strong connections to things that had gone on in the past that were really meaningful for folks. And that’s a beautiful thing to say, this program in the past help make me who I am. And now we’re going to let go of that. That’s a hard process, that’s a death. And in some ways it’s the series of little deaths that have to happen and those aren’t easy to go through. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Andrew Root, the practical theologian, and he talks in faith formation in the secular age. He says, Jesus enters into death so that he can come to us as a minister in all of our little deaths. And I think in the way of rebuilding, we have to sort of deconstruct, we want to use that word. We don’t need to demolish. I think that’s one thing Derek and I talked about is…
Rachael: Yeah, I like that.
Joel: Deconstruction is different than demolition. I think often we talk about demolition, but in deconstruction we do need to look at each piece and really value what’s been there, value, the history value, what was important about that, even if we think it needs to go away. And for me, a really challenging personal thing for me was we made a move to no longer have full-time staff. So for me personally, as that was a little bit of an identity crisis, who am I? I tend to be, I am what I do, right? If you talk about the three things, I am what I do, I am what I have, I am what people say about me. I tend to be, I am what I do. That was a huge transition for me to move to, even though I firmly believed we need to move to this priesthood of all believers model where I’m one of many. But that was hard to say, okay, I think this is the right thing to do. But it wasn’t easy for me on a personal level. There was some lament there. There was some guilt there about if I had been a better preacher or a better charismatic leader or a better whatever, then this still that way of thinking that we’ve been talking about this whole time was running in my head. Even while I knew that the future for us was in something different, that there was life in that there was still part of me that wanted to go back to that old system and say like, oh, if only it had been this and that personal part of having to give up my freedom, my sense of self, not really freedom, but sense of self to move into something new. So I think, and for everybody in the group, I’m sure there were things like that where it was like, I know we had one member, we said, we’re going to keep the kids with us now. We only have a few families with young kids. They’re going to be part of what we do. And for her, it was like, I’ve always been part of the children’s ministry. We’re not going to have a children’s ministry. Then who am I in this body? And I think those are the questions that we begin to ask when we begin to change things is, it starts to stir up inside of us who we think we are, what the church is, what our place is in that, and then what things are we holding onto and what things are we letting go? Those are all really hard decisions and I think lament becomes a huge part of that that you can say, I feel really bad that we’re getting rid of this even though I knew it’s the right decision. So that may or may not answer the question, but that’s sort of the process that I felt like we went through is this sort of sorting out of things.
Rachael: Yeah, no, I think you’re absolutely right. And in many ways, any healing from loss, from death, from trauma, involves a lot of letting go. A lot of acknowledging the little deaths. There may be a moment, I mean, even my work to recover from spiritual abuse has involved so many loss of community, loss of identity, loss of dreams, teams, dislocation, disorientation. And in some ways, where I am in this part of my journey is I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of healing and now I’m having to contend with the places where I am aware I may have brought similar harm to others. And I’m having to kind of think through what does repair look like? What does accountability look like? What does reconciliation look like? Or at the very least, how do I let that inform who I want to be, what kind of communities I want to be a part of? And I think this is a good place to bring things to a close because the reality is so much has changed in our world. So much has been exposed in our world that maybe a lot of people, especially on the margins would say, yeah, that’s been there the whole time and I’ve been acutely aware of it. I’m glad you’re growing an awareness of it. But it’s been felt, it’s been known. And I think we are in a kind of shaking up season as a people of God, especially located here in the United States. And I think we can take hope in the multiple stories we have that we’re a part of a lineage of people, Jewish and Gentile who were in the midst of challenging upheaval, social change, spiritual change, but never alone. And always with something of the Spirit of God that goes before us and goes with us. And I want to say thank you. I’ve found the ways in which you and your guest held such stunning tension, the tension of the moment of deconstruction and rebuilding. And I also thought a lot of tenderness to the real humanity of it, right? Because there’s something of the spectacle that moves towards a lot of dehumanizing, and the reality is we’re always in the midst of what it is to be human. So I want to say thank you, and I do hope if you want to hear more, you can go over to transforming… I think it’s, lemme look this up because I want to make sure I get it right. TransformingEngagement.org and if you click on the resources link, you can locate the podcast. There’s also other podcast series that are really helpful and beneficial. But Joel, thank you so much for your honesty and even for bringing a really personal story, as an example, deeply grateful for you and your work and hope that these conversations continue to kind of manifest in the real world for people and give hope and stir imagination.
Joel: Well, thank you very much, Rachael. It’s always fun to have conversations, not about these topics, but just about what the future can be. And I think the hopeful thing is that we know in scripture when things look like they’re dead is when God shows up. So, in the midst of this, it may feel very lifeless and there’s no hope, and it’s easier to quit, but the spirit’s always at work and we know that it’s in those moments that God shows up and often brings us to something new. That’s exciting for me. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about what the Spirit might be doing and where it might be bringing us in the future.