Dan Kimball is a 43-year-old pastor who has helped launch a national conversation about the “emerging church.” For a number of years he led an alternative worship service (“Graceland”) for Santa Cruz Bible Church, and since February has been pastor of a newly-created church that is seeking to offer new models for ministry to younger adults in that community. He is the author of The Emerging Church, and his newest book is Emerging Worship. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Dan.
Preaching: What is an “emerging church”?
Kimball: The frustrating answer is there’s no definition. There are so many variations of what we’re seeing emerging churches are like. Every so often in history – in American history and church history – there seems to be a rethinking of what we’re about as culture changes. What I think is going on right now is a pretty widespread rethinking of church as a whole, primarily among younger leaders – many of whom have grown up and have been on staff at contemporary or traditional evangelical churches. They are rethinking, “Is this the way that we’re connecting with our culture for the gospel?” So that’s probably the common denominator – that most of them are rethinking the church.
Preaching: Why is it important to rethink the church right now?
Kimball: To me, it’s extremely important. It’s hard to make a general blanket statement – because there are churches that God’s doing things in all over the place. But when you take a general look around at most churches – even the mega-churches – what you find is a drastic dropout rate from teenagers. As George Barna said in a recent book (Real Teens), something like two-thirds of the teenagers will be dropping out, which is a lot higher trend than normal.
We’re seeing more people growing up – younger people in particular – growing up outside of church culture, and we’re not seeing that many churches significantly making a difference in the emerging culture. So even successful mega-churches are responding. Willow Creek does their Access service, Saddleback’s doing some sort of video café with candlelight and acoustic music. Even large churches are realizing we need to do something different if we’re serious about reaching and preaching to emerging generations.
Preaching: Rather than talk about the emerging church in terms of characteristics, why not just describe what I might see if I came to your church some Sunday. What would that experience be like?
Kimball: One difference is even in using the word “go to church” to describe what we’re trying to do. I actually have a chapter in The Emerging Church book on this. When you say, “I go to church,” we are trying to reframe it and say something like, “When the church gathers on Sunday.” We’re trying to break out of some of the subtle, consumerist kind of thinking by trying to watch our terminology. So I’d say, “When the church gathers.” We’re trying to build the church out of home communities, but then we all meet together on Sunday nights.
We started the new church in February and we have been going verse-by-verse through the Sermon on the Mount since then. A major part of what we do in worship is a kind of verse-by-verse teaching. We’re then going to go through highlights of the book of Acts.
What you’d experience when you walk in. We start off thinking about what would create an environment for worship – that would really focus on the risen Jesus being the predominant reason we’re there. We pay attention to aesthetics, not for an emotional trick. Every church, whether they are Southern Baptist or Lutheran, pays attention to aesthetics, so we’re just looking at it through a different lens. And we create a space – we have a team called the sacred space team – and we try to say this is a sacred, set-apart space for worship. Last week we were teaching on the wide gate and the narrow gate in the sermon on the mount. So you walk in and we actually set up the entry way as a narrow gate, so as people walked in they recognized the entry way was even communicating what we were teaching about. At the end of the entry we had the Scriptures from Matthew 7 there up on the screens, you can’t miss it. You walk in and there’s Scripture – that’s what we’re talking about tonight.
Then the room is set up. We said: how can we have the cross the predominant thing in this room? So we built a different cross and put it dead center in the front of the room. right now we’re using the facilities of Santa Cruz Bible Church, and we put a cross, right where the pastor or preacher would stand there – we put the cross right in that center spot. So that is a dominant visual when you walk in.
Whatever we’re teaching about, the series, we have artists who paint paintings that are all about the passages of Scripture. What we generally do is give the passages out a month or five weeks in advance, and the artists will then paint various sections of the Scripture. And so around the room you’ll see people painting their expressions of what the teaching’s about. One week we did a sermon on heaven and we had someone do a huge canvas – a really kind of glorious light, a scene of light. And the next week we talked on hell; they took a roller and actually rolled all the bright to total black on this painting that’s up on the stage.
The room is set up to have everyone looking up at the screens and not at the music band; the music leaders are off to the side, so that they aren’t coming across like a rock concert. They’re not the focal point, though we still do music.
We are always thinking, “How are we communicating the Scriptures through speaking, through visuals, through people’s lives.” When we were talking about heaven, we brought up a man who was just given six months to live – he’s 79 years old and he has cancer. And basically he is so weak, but he has been coming and hangs out in the back and prays for me when I speak. And so we brought him up – even though it’s predominantly a crowd in their twenties who are there – and he talked about what it’s like facing the reality of heaven and the perspective he has. He also challenged everyone there, saying most of you are in your twenties, heaven isn’t just when you die you’re going to go there, you need to be living out the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven – we have a mission here. He was trying to break the stereotype of “you said the prayer and now live however you want, cause you got your ticket.”
When we gather we might have a couple of songs, some visuals. Every week we have a report from one of our home communities, because every week we have one of our home communities host the night. We’re constantly reminding everybody the church meeting is not about the big meeting – it’s about smaller communities that are gathering together. They’ll give a report of what God is doing in their groups, how are they experiencing community and how God’s changing one of them. They read the scriptures for the night, they’ll host in different ways, they’ll pray for the offering. So they’re involved in the larger meeting.
I’m the primary person who does the preaching. What I’m noticing with the whole emerging church movement – at least what we’re doing in our context – is that we are getting deeper in the Scriptures. There are no three point outlines with acronym words – I’m not saying that’s negative, I’m just saying for our context. One week I talked about what was death in the Old Testament, what did that mean, what was the word “grave,” how did that change with the intertestmental viewpoint of the afterlife, what was becoming more clear when Jesus came about, what did Paul say about it, what did Revelation say about it. It’s somewhat like teaching a theology class. We’re specifically going into word studies, we are hitting a lot of historical context.
I think what people are looking for in our culture is depth, We talked about hell an entire night, so that’s almost like the total anti-seeker model, you might say – though we’re being sensitive to seekers. We walked through what different world religions and world faiths believe about hell and the afterlife – the accusation that Christianity alone has this sense of hell, is actually not true. Mostly every world faith has some sort of punishment in an afterlife. So I’m trying to also connect with culture, because you can’t just assume that everyone’s thinking in just a Christian worldview. I know there are people coming who have different beliefs, therefore I want them to understand that I am aware of other world faiths, other ways of looking at the world, because that’s the way our culture is raising people. Then I use that to move to the biblical explanation of things.
I teach 30-40 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes. In my opinion I have to study all the harder, because we do not water things down – if anything we are simply giving it more depth. After the preaching we have about a 30 minute response time. Services are about 1 hour and 45 minutes. We have about a half an hour where it’s more contemplative music that is being played – some people choose to sing to the songs and some people just sit.
We set up a prayer path on the side of the room, behind the curtains, and prayer stations that were interactive prayers about the scriptures that we’re teaching. One was like a table set up – and I have nothing to do with this, this is a 21-year-old girl who designs these and volunteers to do this. They set up a table and they created kind of a fork in the road and it went it two different directions; one side was a wider road and the other side was a narrower road. And there are little push pins and so they’re saying: “Will you take out a push pin and be praying, not saying the name of the person out loud because they might be with you, but just moving a pin over to the narrow road. Ask God to please bring them to the point of conviction where they need Jesus and choose to be on the narrow road.” There’s another interactive table, but they’re all based around the scripture and people. Not everybody goes to those, but people can choose to go over and have some sort of interactive prayer that is based out of the scriptures. Scriptures are on the table. So we’re teaching and giving people the opportunity to respond to it.
We set up a prayer cove and we have a Jewish prayer shawl we set up over this little archway that you go in. We have people, a prayer team who are trained, to then pray for people at any time during that half an hour. We quite often have times when we might read; last week the music worship leader had everybody recite a passage of Scripture together that tied into the message as one of the last things they did, so everybody’s all saying the Scripture together. And then we’ll sometimes have open prayer.
We have about 400 or 450 people that are there right now and we try the best we can keep to communicate, “How do you try to break down a larger meeting to feel a sense of community?” It’s not the best logistically, but people can be praying more in community.
Preaching: Since you only gather on Sunday evenings, is this the only worship experience for most of your participants or do many go other places on Sunday morning?
Kimball: I was at Santa Cruz Bible Church for 13 years on staff. I was doing kind of an alternative worship gathering called Graceland, then we decided let’s actually start a sister church, so we started this church plant in February. We call the new church Vintage Faith Church and we look at it like a sister church of Santa Cruz Bible Church. And we’re now actually paying rent for the building!
Preaching: Is Graceland still going on?
Kimball: No. When we decided that we were going to start a new church, Graceland folded into Santa Cruz Bible Church. We had about 5 months or so where we didn’t do anything Sunday nights, and then we launched Vintage Faith in February.
Preaching: As you look down the road, do you anticipate, at some point, being in a separate facility and having a different kind of schedule?
Kimball: Downtown Santa Cruz is kind of a cultural hub; it’s not a downtown, run-down district – it’s actually a higher-end area. We’re looking at purchasing a building that will be too small for our larger worship gatherings, but we want it to be a coffee house, art gallery, have midsize meetings there, a student kind of study center, and we’re looking for that right now. That would be our first step, versus looking for a property to meet in for the larger meetings. We do a lot of set up, that’s the only hassle – it’s more than just the chairs. In the future I could see two or three or four meetings of 400 or 500 people and each of the meetings at different locations around Santa Cruz County, with different leaders.
Preaching: Since you began writing and thinking and working on the idea of the emergent church, and since your first book came out, have you changed some of your thinking about this movement?
Kimball: Yes. I think one of the big things is that there is such a wide variety of theological thinking, so when you hear the words “emerging church,” there’s great diversity in what they look like, how they think, how they express their faith and what they believe theologically. So it isn’t like it’s a denomination, or it isn’t like in a purpose-driven church, though they’re probably somewhat the same. But there’s a great diversity among them. The more I’ve spoken around and do things, the broader I see that. So that makes it all the more hard to categorize.
I’ve also seen a lot of sadness in the relationships between senior leaders in churches and the emerging leaders who have different values and different ways of thinking. I’ve heard such horrible stories, to me, of how leadership in churches function with one another, not allowing new things to emerge because of control issues, or different things. And I’ve seen sad responses from emerging leaders and how they go about dealing with this. A sad part of it to me, is a lot of tension that is caused in the body of Christ in local churches, generally due to control issues and confusion: it doesn’t all fit into a nice system or nice package, or this is what a church is supposed to be or this is how a senior pastor is supposed to function. That caught me off guard more, seeing how widespread that is.
I think what is really refreshing is this interest in theology again, the discussion about it, the desire for depth. I think that’s a very refreshing thing that’s going on right now.
Preaching: Your comment about leadership conflicts leads to the question: does an emerging church need to be a new church, or can the things you describe be done within the context of an existing congregation?
Kimball: I mean I believe it generally depends on the senior pastor. I think there are senior pastors in existing churches who don’t recognize this as kind of like starting a Korean church within your church or a Korean worship gathering and ministry. If you look at it like you’re just starting a college group and one day they’ll grow up and then become like you – those are the ones that end up having a lot of conflict.
Where it works, the senior pastors see this kind of like a mission. It’s not just changing the music or adding candles; it’s really a rethinking holistically. Like in The Emerging Church book where a chapter talked about it affects evangelism, it affects preaching, it affects how you view worship gatherings, it affects spiritual formation, and how you go about even small groups. For the senior pastors that have done that – there are some – I think it’s great. If you’re a senior pastor and you have more of a traditional view of the church and you can’t get out of that, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Preaching: In The Emerging Church book, you said this really isn’t a generational issue, so much as it is more of a philosophical or worldview approach.
Kimball: When I first started, I thought it was generational. I just thought it was an 18-30 year old thing or a Gen-X thing at that time period. And then the more I was listening to people and watching who became part of the community that we were starting, I recognized that there is a difference. Most of the emerging churches are generally people who are under the age of 40, but it isn’t like when you like hit 30 . . .
I know a church where, when you hit 30 you have to change to the other part of the church. Or I know churches that still start an age-specific worship gathering and say: well, when you hit age 30, you now have to shift out of to how you have found yourself accustomed to wanting to worship when you’re in the community and express your love and worship to God in a certain way. If I’m in my 20s and hit 30, how I learn is already ingrained in me and I may not want to have a business presentation of four application points to these two verses – that may totally go against my whole concept of what preaching should be. So making a big shift, I would say most of the time, won’t work. And that’s what I think we all realized. It is more than just an age thing.
Preaching: What can a traditional church learn from the things emerging churches are doing, even as they continue to have a traditional style?
Kimball: See, this is an interesting observation because my only experience – I didn’t grow up in a church, so my only experience really was a conservative Baptist Bible Church. We were never taught the worship practices throughout church history. You’d only light a candle at Christmas Eve or something. I think that there is a desire to not go back and be the church of medieval times, but to appreciate different forms of worship. I was never even taught the liturgical calendar year. I couldn’t have told you what lent was. They never taught me in seminary, it was never mentioned in the church that I was taught in, so I’m like, “Boy, I’ve missed out on that richness.” So if you’re coming from a Baptist, conservative type church like I was, I’d say to learn to not just think in your own particular denomination or your own particular form of ministry but to search church history.
The ironic part is then I’ve talked to people who are coming from Episcopal churches and some Methodist churches who may be doing some totally liturgical things, but they’re saying all the young people are leaving, they want to do all the pop music and break out. And for them it’s like reintroducing these forms of worship, but doing it with life and meaning and not ritual so that it becomes almost lifeless and routine. It’s become so dry that many younger people are just saying this is not connecting at all with me. But I think there are opportunities to reintroduce it.
And I’ll just say to be thinking past your denomination – respecting your denomination, honoring your denomination, but not thinking that your denomination and particular form of worship or preaching is what heaven is going to be. And I think that when we start looking outside of our own particular microcosm of church experience, it really starts changing our hearts. We should be open to different ways and approaches of how we think of our worship and church and preaching. As long as we’re sticking with the Scriptures – that is the important part.
Preaching: Are there some things you’re learning about preaching and communication as you go through this process?
Kimball: I would say almost everything I was taught in seminary I don’t use. I do use the Bible classes and the theology, so I don’t want to knock that. But breaking preaching down into an academic outline – you know, point 1a, point 2b . . . You can almost go two directions. One is to go so academic, historical that it doesn’t mean anything in your life today. But then on the other hand, how most many churches go so “felt-need” applicational, that we are then basically throwing out so much of the content and depth and history. Then we’re training people in our churches to think of Christianity, like one girl told me, “It feels like Tony Robbins with a Bible verse thrown in.” And that’s their viewpoint of Christianity and what Christian teaching is.
I think you get into some interesting dynamics of those that grew up within a church context so they just assume this is the way it is. As preachers, we have lost our voice in our culture.
I’m right now writing another book called I Like Jesus But Not the Church, and I’m interviewing eight non-Christians, all in their 20s and one in their 30s. And I’m just listening. They’re all open to Jesus. They respect Him; they haven’t read the whole New Testament, but there’s a respect. Almost all of them have no problem believing He was raised from the dead, which is so fascinating. If you think about this, that changes our apologetics. You don’t have to say, “Here are five reasons why Jesus rose from the dead,” because they all believe that already practically.
And they find it almost amusing that we argue about evolution. Because they’re saying, “You know, I want to experience God and find out about Him.” They don’t care if He created the world in six days or in six million years. It’s more like, “I want to experience and know this God, and if Jesus is this teacher, what did he have to say?” But preachers are so negatively thought about because most of their exposure is TV preachers, radio preachers; depending on who you happen to watch or listen to, it’s a mixed bag of what you’re going to experience.
But what they really desire is dialogue. And for me, in our context you can’t dialogue too well with 400+ people in the room. So we’re setting up an open forum once a month right after the worship gathering ends. If you disagreed with me, if you have questions, if you want to challenge me on something – and I may not even have an answer, because some of this is so mysterious. But if you show that you are open to talking, to having questions asked, you don’t just give your presentation and hustle off or not listen . . .
I’m amazed at how many of these younger people I’m talking to right now for this book, are all saying, “Christianity from preachers is a one way thing. They don’t care what I think, all they care about is dispensing their information and forcing their belief on me, not caring what I am personally believing at this time or wanting to dialogue and interact with me.” That’s common. Every single person is saying that. And if we’re serious, then that changes how we go about preaching, how we set up our church to be more interactive. Maybe not in the big meeting, but somehow we need to be doing this.
How do we have more trust built in us who are up on the platform? Generally – and if you’re from outside the church in particular – all they know, for the most part, is abuses of power and authority. And they think people are mindless who just sit there and listen to somebody and don’t challenge their thinking. I’ve already sensed most of this, but it’s been fascinating listening.
And here’s the other thing: they want to learn, I’ve heard this many times – if they come to church, they don’t want to sit and have like a kindergarten explanation. They want to be digging deep, to know in depth; they want to be respected for their intelligence. So it isn’t like you have to dumb things down at all. I don’t know how that’s going to impact the future of the church as a whole in our culture, but these are really fascinating observations that preachers need to pay attention to.
Preaching: Some observers have said that in order to talk to people in a postmodern environment, it requires the use of narrative and story. It sounds as if your preaching is, if not propositional, at least pretty heavy in content.
Kimball: When I talk about narrative and story, I try to set it up. When I talked about heaven, I didn’t jump in and start talking about “here are the facts about heaven.” I go to try to say, “We talked last week about how God created the garden of Eden and it was this paradise.” And I go back there and tell some of the story of what occurred there and then thread through to when the thief on the cross used the word “paradise.” Look in Revelation 22 and possibly could heaven be a garden? What I try to do, in a narrative sense, is to be constantly piecing in wherewhat we’re talking about fits in with the grand narrative of the biblical story. So it isn’t “here’s how to have a happy family and here’s three principles with three Bible verses to back up each principle.” I listen to some sermons, and they’re so helpful, but it’s pretty much just the pastor’s opinion about things.
When we did the Sermon on the Mount, we set up a great story of what was going on. We actually even projected on the walls the hills of Northern Galilee, trying to get people in this setting, to really try to say see who Jesus was as a Rabbi. We talked about what a Rabbi meant at that time, and how Rabbis would find disciples. Then we talked about what was a disciple back in that particular time period and that history, and how intense they were in imitating the Rabbi they followed. It colors the whole story of what’s going on so it isn’t just Jesus telling the facts. It was a colorful story, the narrative way of presenting this so it made more sense, I hope, to people.
Preaching: Where do you see the emerging church going over the next decade or so?
Kimball: It’s very difficult to say. I hope what will occur is that we will see a change in our culture as a result. And to me, the great test of the church is: are we seeing local towns having a climate change in their spiritual and kingdom living? I would say that where I hope it will go, that no matter what form and expression emerging church communities take, is that we will see people being drawn to know Jesus as a result of Christians really living out their faith. Not that we have better preaching or not that we have better music – all that stuff is so non-important if we’re not seeing any actual change in people’s lives and in our towns and cities. And what I’m saying now I believe is what most emerging church leaders I know are focusing on. That’s what I keep hearing over and over again.
I think it’ll be non-denominational, but not a denominational itself – post-denominational in many ways – still very much attached to various denominational histories, but not focusing on that. I just see us being very passionate about mission and I think very passionate about the Scriptures.
I think God has us all in different roles and ministries and there isn’t one that’s better than another or more hip than another, or anything. The men that have made a difference, that God’s used in my life, you know they had almost nothing in common with me culturally. Except they were Jesus to me.