A Missional Church in Exile: An Interview with Rick McKinley

A Missional Church in Exile: An Interview with Rick McKinley February 6, 2019

Rick McKinley is the founder and lead pastor of Imago Dei Community. His most recent book is Faith for This Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God (Baker, 2018). It presents the church as a community in exile that moves missionally between divisive extremes. I reached out to Rick to be interviewed on his latest work. The book overview at Baker’s website reads:

Today, many Christians in America feel like exiles within their own country. Some yearn to return to the Christendom of an idealized past. Others seek to assimilate the values of our culture into the church. In between are those uncomfortable with either extreme–exiles looking for a new way of understanding what faith looks like in a polarized, pluralistic, post-Christian culture. In Faith for This Moment, Rick McKinley comforts and equips the spiritually homeless. He shares how people of faith from other times and places lived faithfully, prophetically, and imaginatively, compromising neither their principles nor their compassion and never giving in to despair. For those searching for a better way to live out their faith in our complex cultural moment, this is it.

Here is the interview.

Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): Rick, what inspired you to write this particular book for “for this moment,” as the title reads?

Rick McKinley (RM): We’ve been really striving to live in the tension of the Gospel between church and culture for a long time. More specifically, we’ve been seeking to make disciples who can navigate faithfulness to Jesus in an increasingly secular culture for 20 years. Portland has changed dramatically during that time, and with those changes comes the need to adapt the ways in which we contextualize the Gospel to culture. But during the run-up to the 2016 election and after, it seemed that a clear dividing line was created within the larger culture. Also, it was a time when the church at large really wrestled with what faithfulness means. I was personally asking what it means to be the people of God now. For probably the last five years we have been on a journey to answer that question. Post-election the polarization in our culture became even more pronounced and many followers of Jesus were uncomfortable with the binary options of progressive Christianity (liberal) or a culturally co-opted “evangelicalism,” which was becoming synonymous with Pro-Trump ideals. Christians at Imago Dei Community and other churches were feeling a bit lost in what it meant for them now to be followers of Jesus. So, the book really came out of living on mission in the midst of these tensions.

PLM: The two extremes mentioned above in Baker’s book overview may call to mind for some readers two of H. Richard Niebuhr’s types in Christ and Culture: “Christ against culture” (a return to an idealized past) and “Christ of culture” (assimilation of culture’s values into the church). How does your own perspective emphasizing the exile theme point the way forward, navigating between these extremes?

RM: Well, as much as I appreciate Niebuhr’s writing, I have to say I think his Christ and Culture work severely damaged the missional imagination of the church because he assumed a Christ that is distinct from culture, which then requires us to place Christ in some juxtaposition to culture. In reality, the incarnation needs to saturate our missiology and places Christ within cultures. There is never a time when the Gospel is not incarnated into language spoken by a people group in a certain place. If we can let go of our assumptions that Christ is “either” for or against, then we can begin to see the things in each culture that are true, good and beautiful, as well at things that are opposed to Christ and his Kingdom. No culture is void of Christ, or goodness, and no culture is void of sin. I think that is very hopeful news, but which Niebuhr got wrong. Therefore, we can quit trying to figure out the position Christ sits in relation to culoture and we can discern where He is within our particular culture and participate with Him in his redemptive work.

Sorry for the tangent, Paul, but when I started wrestling with the question of what it means to be the people of God now, I looked at the different conditions that the people of God found themselves in through the Old and New Testaments. What I discovered was God’s people have always been in polarized cultures and found a way to be faithful.

Exile, which is both literal and metaphorical in the Bible, is a beautiful way of understanding how we are to navigate faithfulness now. In the Babylonian exile, Israel lost literally everything. The temple was gone. The king was gone. They were no longer in their homeland. Their language, calendar, festivals, sacrifices and everything else of significance was gone in a moment. How are you supposed to be faithful to Yahweh when you have no temple, no way to make sacrifice for atonement, no calendar pointing to your worship festivals, nor the priesthood, nor the holy of holies?

By every stretch of most people’s imaginations, the Jewish people should have assimilated to the Babylonian culture. Babylon was exceptional at the time. It had exceptional military power, economic power, prosperity, and pleasure. The intent of Nebuchadnezzar was not to oppress them like Pharaoh, but to assimilate them. In a few generations they should have disappeared. But they didn’t! They imagined a way to be faithful, discerned where they could bless the culture they were taken to, and were willing to resist and suffer the consequences when the culture tried to pressure them to participate in sinful practices.

So, I find exile to be a perfect picture of what the church in America needs to practice. And ours is a Victorious exile, because our King has conquered death, sin and hell, and is currently reigning. So, we are not ashamed of our exile, but joyful exiles announcing the inbreaking of Christ into the world.

PLM: Scripture gives significant attention to the “exile” motif. How has the exile theme in Scripture influenced your own missional perspective and prophetic imagination as a pastor in a city like Portland as you seek to navigate between the two extremes highlighted in the volume?

RM: What we have imagined at Imago Dei Community is a way to practice our faith that will move us towards Christ for our own transformation, move us outward into the city to bless the city and be the faithful presence of Christ, but also guard us against assimilating to our cultural values that are far from Christ. Portland makes disciples a lot more successfully than the church does, and to remain faithful our discipleship needs feet to it. So, most of our discipleship is practice-based.

We are finding that practicing biblical commands that Jesus gave us, such as hospitality, generosity, and others that I talk about in the book, is transformational. We are all consumers, for instance, and so generosity goes against the natural bent of our own hearts. So, in order to practice generosity, we really need Jesus to change our hearts towards money, time, and resources. Simultaneously, when we practice generosity, it’s a massive blessing to the people on the receiving end. At the same time, it is prophetic. Radical generosity in a consumer culture is abnormal, which means that most people are not doing it. Money is an idol, and so generosity is counter-intuitive to our cultural values.

A great example of this happened last summer. The Q Center of Portland, which is one of the key organizations the provides services to the LGBTQ community, reached out to us. We had given them a gift after the Orlando shooting, knowing that their community was terrified and mourning. The Center was being flooded with people needing counseling and care. We hold to the biblical traditional view of marriage, but at the same time recognize the church has failed to faithfully show the love of Christ to the LGBTQ community. That small token of concern after the Orlando shooting created a relationship. The center reached out to us this last summer because their air conditioning unit broke down and we were in the middle of an unusually hot summer. The cost was 15,000 dollars and they “didn’t know who to reach out to,” which is a direct quote.

Someone on our staff rallied about 7 other churches and each kicked in 1500-2000 dollars. In four hours, we raised the money. When the check was delivered, Ken on our staff said, “This money is coming from churches you probably think are against you or even hate you and that’s not true!”  There were no dry eyes around the table and our relationship was furthered.

What strikes me about that story is how practicing generosity is so powerful in our culture. It changed us. Churches had to wrestle with giving a gift to the Q center. It was good for us to wrestle over what to do and it resulted in a compassionate extension of Jesus’ love. It changed the perception of the churches in Portland that some in the LGBTQ community may have had because it was a faithful expression of Jesus’ concern and care. But it was also prophetic. Imagine being in a progressive city like Portland, leading the largest community center dedicated to the needs of the LGBTQ community, and realizing that you have a large financial need. And yet, you can’t think of anyone who will step in and help meet that need. Tons of folks believe in their mission, but when it comes to our money, we all vote for ourselves and our own interests most of the time. So, the fact that their director thought he could reach out to us is a testimony to the reality that there are people in Portland who love God and use money to love people. That is prophetic witness in this city.

PLM: No doubt, your congregation, like so many others, includes people of very diverse demographic positions. Those who are more nostalgic, on the one hand, and those who are more willing to assimilate, on the other hand, may mistakenly view your alternative position to be a sell-out to the other side. Unfortunately, given how much confirmation bias is in play in our society today, simply going to Scripture in support of your position may not be all that convincing to some. So, what other resources do you draw from in your pastoral work to make your case?

RM: Scripture has to be the basis and so we are always thinking about how to faithfully live out this story that saturates our lives. Moving to a practice-based discipleship has really shaped us, or I should say, is shaping us. We all love a good message on the Sabbath. But turning off our phone for a day is a huge challenge. So, by honestly wrestling with how do we do what we say we believe is a big deal. It also limits the scope of how much time we spend arguing and disagreeing. There’s no shortage of that, but our energies are really moving to put the Gospel into practice and participating with the Father, Son and Spirit in this mystery.

PLM: What are some particular takeaways that readers will find in this book, which will help them on their way, no matter where they reside, as they seek to navigate a polarized world as God’s missional people in exile?

RM: My hope and prayer are that it will give readers a framework for understanding what it means to follow Jesus faithfully in this moment in which we live, and the tools for actually living kingdom lives in the places Christ has called them to inhabit.

PLM: Rick, what closing thoughts do you have for our readers?

RM: I guess my one thought would be that despite the polarization that blasts through our social media channels on a daily basis, this really is an incredible time to be a Christ follower. God is doing such amazing work, and it’s in moments like this with the pressures of culture more pronounced that we have the chance to become a more faithful church in this country. A faithful church looks less like a political party on the left or right, and more like a peculiar people, as Rodney Clapp has said. Such a church is a people who are living as strangers and foreigners here and now, waiting for a heavenly city that we can glimpse in the distance but is coming a little bit closer every day.

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