Pastor Dan Kimball's first encounter with an evangelical Christian consisted of a talk about death, heaven and hell, the lake of fire and praying for salvation. He was only in eighth grade at the time and didn't know anything about Christianity or the Bible. All he knew was that he didn't want to be thrown in the "lake of fire."
Kimball, who leads teaching and mission at Vintage Faith Church, recounts his many amusing experiences with Christians and the church in his new book Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion. Through his personal stories about his journey to becoming a Christian, the northern California pastor makes the case for the church – despite the messiness people find there.
CP: The title Adventures in Churchland, it almost sounds like an unrealistic place or a world of its own kind of like Disneyland. Is that what you were trying to get at with the term "Churchland?"
Kimball: Originally, the story behind this book was that it was two books and it got too long. I turned in a book to Zondervan that was – the introduction was kind of my personal entry into church, then the middle section was some of the key theological questions that young people are asking today and then the ending was don't give up on church because church is very important. It was so long we ended up taking the beginning and the ending and fusing that into this book. The irony was I ended up adding to it and it almost became as long as the first one.
But that name came from we were sitting around with some people in our church and I'm like "what can I call this whole thing?" And then one young woman said "what about Churchland?" And we all started laughing because the name of our ministry used to be Graceland when I was a young adult pastor and so to kind of play off that, the land of evangelical subculture – Churchland. When you understand Jesus and his grace … that was Graceland.
CP: With all of your books (previous one They Like Jesus But Not the Church, Adventures in Churchland, and upcoming one Do You Like Jesus But Not the Church?) it seems like you're trying to help people give church a chance.
Kimball: This is the first trade book; this is my first non-church leaders book. All of the other ones I've written, the audience has been if you're on church staff or you're voluntarily leading over an area of ministry … so this is the first one that I wrote for a general audience. I think you're right with the theme. Because I didn't grow up in a church or understand what Christianity was and you read from my experiences coming in from the outside of how sometimes amusing, sometimes not very amusing, sometimes hurtful … experiences [I had] entering into the land of church. I know that I struggled through that and I think a lot of other people do too or have. My passion has been following Jesus, and being part of a church is a beautiful, wonderful thing. Unfortunately, so many people don't understand that if they only see the outside, surface layer of it.
CP: Given the numerous times you wanted to give up on church, you can probably empathize with people who have given up on it.
Kimball: Yes, I understand. There was probably two points – one before I was even part of a church – when I did give up on it. I didn't really get involved with one because the more I explored it from the outside I'm like it's not what I want to be a part of with the judgmental, sort of organized religion aspects to it. But then there was a time when I was, actually once or twice, when I was pretty wounded in a local church context – judged for my outer appearance and my haircut (I was working with youth). And another time with the leadership, kind of a control issue. I really wanted to give up on it and really considered it but then I also realized "you know what we're all messy human beings, we all make mistakes, I make my own mistakes and church is bigger than just me and church is also what Jesus told us, it's what he uses on this earth to represent him and it's individual Christians yes, but following Jesus is meant to be in community". I believe even in a structured community with leadership appointed. It can be a house church, it can be a megachurch. But I don't believe we are meant to exist – just me and Jesus – without being part of a local church of some sort. That's why I never gave up on it because I realized the local church is critical in God's plan and the mission on earth.
CP: So this is not really a new issue where the church is viewed as judgmental and where organized religion is not viewed favorably since you experienced it decades ago. Today, it's the same problem but do you think it has escalated?
Kimball: I think it's escalating more. I think it's the same problem but how we're responding to it is escalating more. I think there's more of an anti-church, anti-organized religion sentiment than there has been in the past and I also think that makes it easier to say "who needs church" and I also think that we have, the church itself has neglected … it's hard to make generality statements, some churches have, some haven't, but I think in the broader picture we have not taught what church is theologically. You have teenagers growing up in youth group and when they graduate from youth group they were never taught what is church, how do they fit in that? Or you'll have thousands of young people in the young adult ministry 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 – they have a bad experience or maybe they get too busy. 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." Those are all incorrect theological beliefs that people have which I don't think we've taught on it well. We're guilty of causing this.
CP: You said it's more like a program that they participate in, so it seems like they're given less responsibility or feel less responsibility in that church community.
Kimball: Yes, totally. I think you're actually correct. I say this in our church all the time. If you are gone three or four weeks in a row and nobody notices you (our church we planted eight years ago and we're in a small beach community in northern California and so we're around 1,000 people now, 35 percent college students), then you're probably not experiencing true church community because somebody should notice that you're not around whether you're in a midweek committee group, whether you're serving in a media team or ministry, somehow you have a connection on there. I understand for some seasons of life I've had people that said "I'm burnt or I'm at such a time in my life that I can't be involved in anything." I totally understand that. And sometimes you do just need to be more receiving and more passive in your activity but I think for most Christians, we've made it very easy. But I don't want to complain, it's just my life has changed when I understood the concept of you're a connective part of it, not just a spectator.
CP: So you're saying this for the benefit of the Christian, right?
Kimball: Yes. No wonder it just gets tiring, [people] just get burned, same old thing every Sunday – of course you would. You're not experiencing the vibrancy of being in community. Sunday is part of your week but that's just simply an encouragement for what it means to be the church the rest of the week and you have to be connected in some sort of smaller context or you will not, I don't believe, experience New Testament church. You'll experience a good teacher maybe from up in the front and then you leave. I feel just bad for Christians that don't experience that vibrancy and I think they don't understand the biblical understanding of what church is.
The two issues that I covered in this book were ones that I hear over and over again – the church is organized religion and the church is judgmental. That's why they don't want anything to do with it.
CP: You talk about Christians creating a bubble or subculture and how you even got sucked into it at one point in your life. But there's also concern that some churches are doing the opposite and becoming too much like the world – not just in methodology or styles but in beliefs as well. Can you comment on that?
Kimball: I would agree with that fully. It all depends on what church, obviously. The hope that I have in church right now, I tell you this from not theory, this is from experience with serving in a university town for 21 years with young people overall and I believe that there's a hunger and a desire to have hardcore biblical truths taught, no holding back on the hard issues of faith. If anything, I think there is a reversal – you don't have to soften things up and water truth down for this next generation. I believe we need to up it and be all the more up front with doctrine now. People may not agree with them but there's a respect, I believe, that you're not hiding something.
I'm excited about these days because of the hunger for doctrine and being very upfront about your beliefs. But it's how you do it and it's the tone and it's obviously, prayer. Are you listening people also? You tell them your viewpoints but are you listening to theirs as well? I think we must in this culture because we've lost our voice. I think there's just a different dynamic of how we go about it. Our attendance in our church goes up on our Sunday meetings when we teach difficult theological questions. We did a 13-week doctrine series (covering the difficult questions like human sexuality, is Jesus the only way amidst other religions?) and it's not just that Christians are coming, non-Christians are coming out for this because I think there's interest in what do these Christians believe?
CP: I saw a recent tweet of yours where you were commenting on an article on progressive/liberal Christianity and its decline. You mentioned that the mainline churches you know of that are thriving with young people are evangelical ones.
Kimball: A couple weeks ago, someone that was more on the progressive/liberal spectrum of things said if we don't align with, I forget the wording, but basically if we don't change some of the historical views of Christianity on some critical topics then we will lose the next generation because the next generation may have differing views. To that, all I can say is, I am familiar the city of San Francisco and all the churches there – that's a very progressive/liberal city; I'm also familiar with Portland, Ore., I go up there all the time; and in our little pocket of Santa Cruz, what I can say is that's the opposite of what is happening. The churches that you're seeing younger people, God drawing them to these churches, growing, baptisms happening (so it's not just transfer growth), these are the ones that are remaining historically orthodox, not compromising truth and on mission. So I would say anyone that thinks that culture's changing so our theology must shift for this, I would say show me churches – they might be out there but they're rare – that I can go to.
I was at a denominational meeting recently and there was a debate which ones are on the liberal/progressive side and which ones are on the evangelical/conservative and you can just look at it. The top 10 growing, thriving churches are the ones that have remained teaching the truth, learned lessons about how to do it more … not pulling into the political realm of things and respecting human beings more instead of just using rhetoric about them.
I have so much hope for the church.
CP: Part of the reason you wrote the book was to respond to the criticism that Christians are judgmental. But do you think that in today's culture where many of the beliefs Christians hold are increasingly being viewed as intolerant and hateful that it's hard to escape the judgmental label no matter how kind and loving they try to be?
Kimball: I think for some extremes if you will take any beliefs that are different than someone else's then they could accuse you of being hateful or judgmental. Again this is not theory, this is from personal experience, this is from talking to people that I know, that I can have absolutely opposed, theological beliefs about Jesus claims about being the only way of salvation to God amidst a very pluralistic culture or the whole sexuality debate, I can have very strong disagreements with people who hold the other maybe opposite opinion of me based on Scripture … they may look at me or people that I know and say I absolutely disagree with you but they're not hateful, they're not judging me for my beliefs.
There are some extremes though; they'll just shout "judgmental, hateful" no matter what you do. If we are respecting people as human beings, treating people with other viewpoints with love whether we agree or disagree, I don't think that's the issue. But the bigger issue I think is that the church has been judging people we have no business judging. And we see this in the Bible where in 1 Cor. 5 where Paul instructs the church there you judge each other in your church, don't judge those that are outside the church because … they're not following Jesus so therefore why are you judging them, that's not your business. It says God will judge those outside the church, you take care of business within the church. So my opinion is that the church … the church should be judging Christians in their churches more who are judgmental so we aren't known as judgmental Christians. They're the ones who are non-biblically judging people and gives the rest of us a bad name. I've gotten judged myself as for my haircut once. They didn't trust me with their youth.
CP: I was actually shocked that you did go and cut your hair.
Kimball: I did because that was right when I was brand new and I'm like "maybe God wants this." I really didn't know. I thought I was conforming to what would be … maybe what was right and that's the danger. I was just beginning to read the Bible more and studying more and I was embarrassed when they told me that. That happens all the time. 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 vs. they should be judged if they're in a sin pattern. When I say judged, I mean you approach them lovingly one on one after you examine yourself, take the plank out of your own eye. There's a whole process leading up to it.
CP: You say this isn't about "rebranding" Christianity or the church but it's about following Jesus. Why do you think churches and Christians in general have done such a poor job of following Jesus?
Kimball: I think some have done a poor job of representing Jesus publicly and what occurs is that ends up being the ones that get attention and more vocal. Therefore, the rest of us get branded as "all evangelicals are like this" and we're not. And so I think there's been a poor job done by some people that then end up misrepresenting the rest of us. What I'm trying to make a passionate claim about is you know what, there's a lot of Christians out there who are not like the ones you may think of when you say Christians. That hardline study of it done in 2007, 16- to 30-year-olds, what are the top things they think of when they think of the word Christian – judgmental, hypocritical, the list is just horrifying to read. I wish that, I believe that survey [results] should be loving, kind, … they totally disagree that Jesus rose from the dead and that he's the only way of salvation, they may totally disagree with that, but we should be represented in a sense of loving, kind, intelligent, passionate, caring, that's what we should be known for. I believe there has been those who misrepresented the rest of us and I believe there's a good change going on out there but it doesn't mean theologically conforming to culture.
CP: Are you convinced that if the church followed Jesus that it would have a better reputation today? Jesus in his day was considered quite radical with his teachings.
Kimball: You're raising up an issue that I've heard multiple times. They say Jesus said the world will hate you if you follow me. But to me that's like a self-fulfilling prophecy because what I believe when Jesus was talking about that even in the Jewish context, it was him claiming as messiah vs. the one that the Jews maybe were expecting at that time. I think we're hated for things but most of it doesn't have to do with our doctrine as much as how we go about our business and life and our attitudes. Yes, there are doctrines that absolutely people don't like and some people will hate it and maybe hate us, there is a percentage. I do agree with that fully but I think a lot of it has been because of Christians that have not necessarily even with their beliefs acted lovingly. The weird part of it is some say "I am being loving, I'm telling the truth." Right, but did you stop to listen to what their beliefs are, build trust so that your voice can be even more powerful in their lives? After they trust you rather than you slamming your own beliefs at them first.
We're in a different culture today. Fifty years ago, 70 years ago, that approach might have been more effective. Today we're in an absolute missionary culture. We better be aware of these things. And it doesn't mean compromising doctrine or truth ever. It just means how we go about communicating it and also that we need to take more time, I believe, to listen so that we can then build trust and they will then listen to us.
CP: How would you describe your church, Vintage Faith? How are you helping make your church look more like Graceland than Churchland?
Kimball: For one, over and over again we consistently teach a theology of what church is. After our belief in Jesus and we put our faith in him and who Jesus is, next thing is what kind of life do you then live and what kind of community are you in. A theology of church I think is important so we teach that pretty regularly. Then we say our church is on mission. So therefore being on mission in community then starts, it's then the framework for how everything else happens. That's why the thing about the Graceland feel of things is based on the mission that you're one. If it stems from a correct theology of who Jesus is and salvation to then what the church is theologically and that we are the church, we don't go to church and if we are the church what happens through the week matters.
I don't call myself pastor anymore. I don't want to confuse people to think they don't have pastoring gifts either … I think it's breaking down some of the … if the church is on mission how is that going to affect everything. If the church is the church all week long … it just starts affecting big things and little and as a church leader that's what we should be doing in our context.
CP: When did you remove the pastor title?
Kimball: It happened little by little. It actually stemmed from about when I was actually leading Graceland, a young adult ministry – 1,000 college age young adults. I was at a street corner, I'm getting into my car and a car honked. These college-aged girls were looking over and waving. I'm looking up and I'm like "I don't know who they are." Then the light turns green and they yell in unison "you're our pastor!" as they're driving away. I'm just like, "I'm their pastor? I don't even know who they are." A pastor who shepherds knows their sheep, knows if one is missing. Then I started looking into what is theologically a pastor. It's only written once in the New Testament, the book of Ephesians. It wasn't even a title or an office. It was a spiritual gift of shepherding. And I'm just like "you know, I don't want to mislead people in our church to have them feel like I'm their pastor simply because they come and listen to me teach on a Sunday." There's people in this church that are really pastoring, according to what the Bible says what pastoring is. It's got to be relational, if one sheep is missing, [see] how they're doing. So I just stopped using that term; I don't know if there's anyone on our staff that uses it anymore. It's not that we don't shepherd [or] pastor but we just stopped using the title as to try to really function what I believe is more biblically without that title and to allow people who have pastoring gifts to be exercising those and feel just as valid and important as the person who gets up.
That first incident was nine years ago. We do use that term if I have to define it for someone to understand but in our church context I don't use it. That's probably over the past four years I stopped using that as a label. All my bios say I'm on staff, I oversee the teaching and mission of the church. I could say I'm lead pastor but I just don't want someone to feel like they have a pastor and yet I don't even know their name. I'm not saying that should be everybody but it's kind of the culture we set up in the church.
CP: When is your next book Do You Like Jesus But Not the Church? coming out?
Kimball: That one is going to come out, I believe, in the fall of 2013 as long as I finish it up and that one is going to [be] sort of part two of this book. This one hits more of the questions that may keep people from church and Christianity in general – the organized religion and judgmental question. The next one I hit the questions of science, evolution and the Bible which is one that gets asked a lot, some of the typical contemporary questions about faith. We survey our church a lot and from that I get to listen to what are the questions that both Christians and non-Christians have of faith. It's not just me and what my own interest is. I want to hear as a missionary what are the questions being asked. We base teaching off of it. I'm addressing some of the most frequently asked questions that Christians and non-Christians may struggle with. There are so many great apologetic books out there. But I'm writing this one that I can give both a Christian and a non-Christian and they'd understand it. The apologetic books are brilliant but it's [for] the "already, I'm already in, I'm strong in my faith." I'm writing to someone that's either brand new in the faith or a Christian that wants [to know] how do I respond to someone who is non-Christian.
CP: Do you have anything you'd like to add?
Kimball: My message with this season right now is just that yes the church is messy, we have made mistakes, I believe that the evangelical church has learned from mistakes and is now moving into this hopeful new time period. And there are answers to the questions of judgmentalism and organized religion but I think there are ways to respond. But my plea is don't give up on church, Jesus created us to be on mission. There's a huge difference between being a church and going and a lot of people never experienced it which I might understand why they might give up on it more easily.
I'm so excited to see what's going on in cities like San Francisco and Portland that are progressive. They say an evangelical church can't make it there and I'm just watching God doing these great things with young people at these churches because they're not compromising truth that's why I have great hope that despite all these surveys being done I think give us 10 years and we're going to see big change, I believe.