Monday, January 18, 2010

Tale of Two Portland Churches

The Portland Tribune has an article on two mainline churches in the Portland area.

One has attenders with an average age of 79. The other's average age is 40. Both are Presbyterian. One went from an attendance of 20 to 2,000. Both pastors point to theology as the difference.

Eastminster Presbyterian Church in the Gateway district in northeast Portland has mostly very senior attenders--average age 79. Pastor Ron Kincaid of Sunset Presbyterian Church in the Cedar Mill area took a "counterintuitive" step and
"began preaching a more orthodox Protestant message - the evangelical message that takes the Bible as the word of God, no if, ands or buts.

"Portland and Oregon may be among the least-churched cities and states in the country, but a liberal dogma doesn't necessarily work here, says Kincaid.

"'There's not too many churches that have a liberal theology that are growing,' Kincaid says.

"In fact, Sunset under Kincaid has switched its affiliation, from the mainline Presbyterian to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church."
Pastor Brian Heron of Eastminster agrees with Kinkaid even while preaching a more liberal message.
"A questioning theology is almost impossible for a mainstream church to practice here if it wants to grow, he says."
But, there's a price to pay in taking any firm stand:
"'If we became a church that said we’re going to ordain gays and lesbians, we would probably lose 20 percent of our church,' Heron says. 'And if we were to take a stand to not ordain gays and lesbians, we might lose 30 or 40 percent of our church.'

"As a result, Heron says, mainstream churches such as Eastminster, just hoping to stay together, have avoided many of the most controversial spiritual issues, and end up not being attractive to many new congregants at all."
Though admitting that lack of a clear message has hurt Eastminster, Pastor Heron thinks a clear conservative message will eventually fail in the Portland area:
"Kincaid's more orthodox theology has been successful in attracting new congregants who find comfort in an unambiguous dogma, Heron says, but it might not continue doing so, especially in liberal Portland. Eventually, he says, a conservative message runs out of potential congregants in liberal-dominated Portland.

"'To continue to say 'We’re the one way,’ leads to less tolerance, and fighting, and I just don’t see how historically that’s going to be able to last,' Heron says."
Taking an unpopular, but clear, stand on truth may not seem like a good organizational move, but if the power in a message depends on whether it comes from God or not, "potential congregants" isn't the key question.

A critical difference in the two churches seems to hinge on the view of whether the church is a divinely instituted body that needs to follow a singular message or more like other human organizations that need to take marketing into account.


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Melinda said...

I enjoyed reading your post!

Having attended both churches, I can tell that both churches love the communities they are in. Churches are, after all, defined/identified by the attributes of the people who attend them. Perhaps even more than who the teaching pastors are and what they have to say. Though, certainly that is distinguishing, as well.

T. D. said...

Thanks for your comment, Melinda! It's great to hear from someone who has attended both churches.

I think both pastors teach what they truly believe even though Pastor Heron is quoted as saying that more direct teaching on his part would alienate part of his congregation no matter what position he took on hard issues.

An important fact not clearly addressed is where both congregations started in 1981. The reporter notes that Sunset had about 20 in attendance. No figures are given for Eastminster. I'm betting that Eastminster had more in attendance than that, but was close enough to the same "small church" league that a comparison between the two was fair. (It also seems that there is no liberal theology Presbyterian church in the Portland area that has seen Sunset's phenomenal growth. Otherwise, the main issue in the article, the practical consequences of conservative vs. liberal theology, would not be fairly addressed.)

The key question is why are the congregations so different now almost three decades later?

It was interesting to me that both Pastor Kincaid and Pastor Heron thought it was due to Kincaid's evangelical preaching.

Kincaid said that there are not too many churches with "'a liberal theology that are growing.'" Heron agreed that "[a] questioning theology is almost impossible for a mainstream church to practice here if it wants to grow."

So the question arises: Why in "liberal-dominated" Portland has conservative, evangelical theology found so many "potential congregants" missed by liberal theology?

It could be due to the audience. Perhaps Portland liberals are not interested in any theology, even a compatible one--at least not enough to attend a church. Thus, Eastminster has seen almost no growth and maybe even significant loss.

It could also be due to the power in the message itself. That's the issue this article raises in focusing on theology.