(Photo: Vintage Faith Church)
Dan Kimball remembered sitting in shock as the pastor told him to cut his pompadour hair. He had just been asked to help lead the youth ministry at the church but the problem was, he didn't look like a Christian leader.
"Here. This haircut is on me," the pastor told an embarrassed Kimball as he slid a $20 bill across the desk.
To be an example for the youth at the northern California church, Kimball was also told to change his clothes and shoes – basically ditch his entire rockabilly and punk-inspired look.
As a fairly new Christian, Kimball complied, thinking God was really displeased with his vintage style. So he went to the barber and cut off his high hairdo.
That was the last time he said goodbye to his pompadour.
Today, Kimball continues to sport the hairstyle that was popular in the 1950s (think Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash) as he preaches to hundreds of congregants at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif. It partly serves as a reminder to him to not judge people wrongly.
The California pastor has been serving in ministry for 21 years now and he's well aware of the criticisms people have against the church – that it is judgmental and nothing more than organized religion.
He can empathize with that sentiment. As someone who did not grow up in the church, he's had more than his share of odd and bad experiences with various churches and Christians, which he details in his new book Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion.
The complaints he had about the church decades ago – that the church was "a mess of judgmentalism, dogma, contradiction, and hypocrisy" – during his youth are the same complaints being made today.
A 2007 study by The Barna Group found that most young non-Christians considered present-day Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned and too involved in politics. The list of negative perceptions was "horrifying" for Kimball to read as someone who has now been ministering for over two decades.
"I talked to so many wounded Christians who were judged and so often it was conformity to the systems of the church rather than a doctrine or theology and that's when they're, I believe, judged incorrectly on 'Churchland' kind of stuff," he told The Christian Post.
The former punk-rock musician decided to use the term "Churchland" to describe the "strange world of the evangelical, Christian church." It's a subculture where anyone from the "outside" would feel awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes clueless, or worse, judged.
Kimball himself wanted to give up on church a few times in his life. After all, why join a community that doesn't allow critical thinking or creativity, judges you and makes you assimilate? Those are the views his college friends held of church and that is what he experienced as he began exploring Christianity.
Some of the criticisms are valid, he admitted. But he wants Christians and non-Christians alike to give church a chance – or another chance, in some cases. He did.
Though he didn't really like the church, the New Jersey native was being drawn closer to Jesus as he studied the Bible. And he couldn't ignore what Jesus said about the importance of church.
Jesus loves the church and "metaphorically thinks of his community of followers as his beautiful bride," he wrote in his book.
"I had read enough of the New Testament to know that being a follower of Jesus means being connected to a community of other Christians," he added.
And this doesn't mean simply stepping into a building for an hour once a week. That's not what Jesus intended church to be, Kimball stressed. Unfortunately, that's what many Christians today experience.
"You have thousands of young people ... that come for the music and the charismatic speaker and it's kind of a program that they go to which is very wonderful but then it's so easy to just check out of that program – [whether] they have a bad experience or maybe they get too busy," he told CP.
"They're like 'I'm just leaving the church because it's something I go to.' And there's a big difference between going to church and being the church. And unless you understand that difference, I think that's why you have church hopping, people are part of two or three different ones, and they say 'it's me and Jesus, I don't need the church.'"
"I think for most Christians, we've made it very easy," he added.
Kimball's plea is not simply to not give up on church, but to also experience the vibrancy of a true church community – what he calls Graceland.
That starts with the right theology.
"When we think of church as a place or an event we simply go to, we minimize the theologically rich identity of the church as the people of God," Kimball wrote.
"[W]hen we understand that we are called to be the church, not just go to church, it changes our identity. No longer do we go to a building where religious activities happen and that is 'church.' We now are the church all week long.
"The church is people who represent Jesus to the world."
By getting that right, the Santa Cruz pastor is hoping the church will move into a new time period where it can really be the beautiful bride Jesus described.
Kimball, whose church has grown to nearly 1,000 people, many of them college-aged, is currently working on a follow-up book, titled Do You Like Jesus but Not the Church?, where he will tackle questions that Christians and non-Christians struggle with such as whether Christianity is anti-gay, whether the Bible is oppressive toward women and if believing in Scripture means one has to reject the theory of evolution, among others.