Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Imago Dei Community

One of the major reasons why I decided to come to Portland was to visit Imago Dei Community. Imago Dei is a church with an interesting mix of theology, art, and social engagement. Two of their core values are "authentic community" and "worship and beauty," which is what originally caught my attention. They take very seriously the idea that "the creator God has displayed his wonder for all of us to see..."and have an active arts ministry that occasionally features people actually painting on stage during worship. They combine this with a heavy service emphasis on serving the city of Portland (currently they are major supporters of the Love Portland project and regularly meet to pray for the city). They also root themselves in a verbally inspired and infallible understanding of scripture that leads them to keep women from the highest levels of church leadership.

Within five years of their start in Portland, they've gained a weekly attendance of over 1400, the vast majority of whom are under 40.

I visited their Sunday worship this week and met yesterday with the Pastor of Arts at the church's Art's Loft located in the trendy Pearl District. Here's a few thoughts from my experience:

Imago Dei does not have its own building, instead, it uses a high school on Sundays and a variety of house groups throughout the week. Because they are located literally inside the school, they are aware of its community's needs and choose to actively support it--such support not only creates goodwill and builds relationships, but often also supports the community (for instance, they installed a new sound system in the assembly hall, which the school uses during the week). Also, because they do not have to maintain a building or pay a mortgage, they can channel more of their funds into staff, of which they have a huge amount. This let them build more meaningful relationships with more people than one or two pastors could ever do. Relationships are further strengthened by their network of home communities. These home communities meet on a weekly basis in people's houses; people are encouraged to attend the community in their neighborhood and not divide into demographically homogeneous groups. In these intimate settings people get the opportunity to really share what's happening in their lives and get immediate support, as well as having access to the views and experiences of people from a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. If someone mentions a concern or a crisis in one of the home community meetings that needs to be referred to a pastor, there is a system in place to do so, instead of hoping that somehow the pastor finds out through the grapevine.

In terms of art, Imago has a large mix of professional and amateur artists. The Pastor of Arts talked about both allowing the professional group space to meet and talk as professionals separate from the rest of the community, and finding ways for people of all skill levels to share their art together. One of the ways in which Imago is facilitating the mingling of artists is through their "Grid Show." They made an open invitation to the people in their community to cover a 1ft sq tile with whatever they wanted on the theme of "touch." The pastor was clear that the tiles did not have to be explicitly Christian, but he did encourage people to make the creation a spiritual practice. At first there was some hesitation among people who were not professionals to make a tile, but as more and more tiles were brought in, they inspired other people to try to make their own. Currently 50 tiles are exhibited in the Loft.

Imago also offers classes at their school of theology. Classes can both be for people who want to learn to make art (there was recently a course on Photoshop), as well as for people who are already making art (troubleshooting for Macs). The pastor says that in all of these classes (as well as in occasional sermons) he tries to communicate the idea that our creativity is a gift from God--a gift that when developed, can be given as an offering in service to both the divine and our neighbor.

I was disappointed not to see any active art-making (aside from music) in the service that I attended. When I asked about this, I was told that having someone try to create a painting in 30 minutes on stage often became distracting, and people had a tendency to spend worship critiquing the art. The comment brings up some excellent issues about performance and quality that I will have to contemplate as I try to shape worship around creative expression.

Currently, Imago integrates art into worship in more subtle ways. As people express talent in various areas, the Arts Pastor puts them to work on discrete aspects of the worship to be completed ahead of time. For instance, a graphic designer creates the slides on which the music is projected. Poets write prayers using language and imagery taken from the daily lives of the parishioners (which replaces a lot a pastures and sheep with asphalt and hangovers). It's not a terribly new model for art and worship, but it does allow people to express their art in their own terms, instead of requiring it to fit Roman era aesthetics.

Check out some of the art that members in the community are making.


Elana said...

Seems like one can learn a lot from them on how to create a thriving organization/community (secular or religious). I doubt I will ever be able to wrap my head around their theology (nor do I particularly want to do so), but their views on gay marriage and women in the church (which I imagine are unpopular in Portland, to say the least) actually make their success more surprising to me. Will you be able to attend any of the home meetings?

Ben Colahan said...

Well, it's fascinating in that they embrace Portland culture to its fullest. The theology that you wouldn't expect to resonate (stance on women, etc.) is by no means the focus of their attention. You basically have to go looking for it.

I'm trying to go to a home community in the next few days.