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Minneapolis church at the forefront of a cutting-edge religious movement

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No pews here
Members of Solomon's Porch sit on sofas and loveseats that face the middle of the church like a theatre in the round. Pastor Pagitt sits on a stool and slowly spins around to face all parishoners.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Members of Solomon's Porch meet in a former Methodist Church that from the outside looks like a typical brick church. The inside, however, is far from typical.

While a large cross hangs on a wall, there are no stiff, wooden pews lined neatly in horizontal rows. Here, members sit on used sofas and loveseats that face the middle of the church like a theatre in the round. Everyone is on the same level.

Pastor Doug Pagitt sits on a stool that he slowly turns 360 degrees to make eye contact with everyone at the service.

Pastor Doug Pagitt leads service on Sunday night
We differ from some of our Evangelical family in that many of them feel like the world is a deep dark place and they're the only light shining in the darkness. We tend to see ourselves as Kingdom of God horticulturalists -- that the growth of God is active in the world and we will tend to it and participate it in any way we can -- Pastor Doug Pagitt
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

This is by design. Before the service, Pagitt explains there is no hierarchy within this church or with other churches.

"This tendency for Christians to see themselves as the most elite of the spiritual people in the world is not only distasteful to a lot of us but it's sort of maddening, because that image has been well-earned over the last 50 years -- that Christians speak as if they're the elite, they're the believers and everybody else are the non-believers," Pagitt says.

Pagitt helped create what's termed the Emergent Church Network with other pastors around the U.S. The network is a loose affiliation of churches around the nation. Their members defy definition. Although many appear to be in their 20s, there are older members as well.

In general, they're probably more liberal politically. They don't believe evangelical conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speak for them. They DO believe in God, studying the Bible, and trying to live a good life day to day.

Enemy is not those who believe differently
There's a saying around here -- the enemy is not those who believe differently about God; the enemy is those who seek to destroy the good work of God -- Solomon's Porch member, Tom Olson and daughter Charlotte.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Tom Olson is a member of Solomon's Porch. Olson received his undergraduate degree from Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell. He says he found the unpretentiousness of the church refreshing. He says he and other members pride themselves on trying to find common ground with other faiths.

"There's a saying around here, 'The enemy is not those who believe differently about God; the enemy is those who seek to destroy the good work of God,'" says Olson.

Many like Olson consider, or have considered themselves, evangelical Christians. The label evangelical is hard to define because it encompasses a wide range of faiths. It's what one historian termed the evangelical kaleidoscope.

In the past several decades, highly visible leaders such as Falwell and Robertson have intertwined religion with conservative politics. Many scholars credit groups like the Christian Right with electing President Bush and his father.

Just this past month, evangelical leader James Dobson rallied at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center to encourage "values voters" to get to the polls in November.

We tend to see ourselves as Kingdom of God horticulturalists -- that the growth of God is active in the world and we will tend to it and participate it in any way we can.

Dobson wouldn't tell the audience specifically who to vote for, but did list off a number of qualities. Those included a politician who understands the institution of the family, and a politician who understands that the country is at war.

"If you can find a politician who understands that liberal judges are undermining this country ... and if you can find a politician who lives by a strong moral code and believes in Jesus Christ ... it would be a sin not to vote for him," Dobson said.

Solomon's Porch and other emergent churches raise the question, however, whether they're too liberal for even the evangelical kaleidoscope. Pastor Pagitt says he and other church members aren't comfortable with the conservative political bent.

"I have a number of friends who really like the phrase evangelical Christian and want to keep it, but they're working very hard to get it back from the conservative definition of it," says Pagitt. "They want the evangelical impulse to care about the environment, to care about people, to be politically progressive, to be theologically progressive, and they feel like that really represents the evangelical expression."

But one theologian is skeptical about whether the Emergent Church Network even falls under the elastic definition of what it is to be evangelical. Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Washington D.C.-based think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"It's not a settled question yet, but I know there are a lot of evangelical theologians of the first rank who call into question whether they've moved outside of what's known as classical Christian orthodoxy," Cromartie says. "And I think over the months and years ahead, you'll see a lot of books and magazine articles about where is the emerging church theologically and where to put them."

Pagitt and some members of Solomon's Church say they really don't need the evangelical label; they do need to do God's work.

"We differ from some of our evangelical family in that many of them feel like the world is a deep dark place and they're the only light shining in the darkness. We tend to see ourselves as Kingdom of God horticulturalists -- that the growth of God is active in the world and we will tend to it and participate it in any way we can," he says.

Solomon's Porch has a few hundred members. It's unknown how many emergent church members there are nationwide.