“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)
As the sun lures rain-weary joggers, walkers, and bikers into the streets of Southeast Portland on a Sunday morning, Franklin High School’s auditorium reverberates with the chatter of hundreds of young singles and couples coaxed inside by the riffs of a four-piece Christian rock band. “If you need a Bible, raise your hand,” says Pastor Rick McKinley over the din, instantly commanding the attention of the eager congregants. “Someone will come and throw one at your head.”
This is Imago Dei, a nondenominational evangelical community and one of the largest manifestations in Portland of the emerging church movement. McKinley, a warmly ebullient pastor, delivers his sermon on the book of Luke with a fluid weave of humor and honesty, urging a return to the simple devotional habits and communal support practiced by Jesus’s disciples.
While McKinley’s preaching is notably free of the high drama and polish of megachurch and TV evangelism, Imago Dei (which takes its name from the Latin for “image of God”) adheres strictly and unabashedly to a literal reading of the Bible as both spiritual and historical truth. But McKinley insists that his church’s fundamentalist interpretation of the gospel actually encourages liberal social action—not to mention harmony with Portland’s prevailing culture. If, as Genesis tells us, humans are all created in God’s image, it follows that we must love them as we do God. In affirmation of this lofty ideal, McKinley notes proudly that his young congregation is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
In 2000, McKinley, a nationally recognized author and speaker, moved from Eastern Oregon to Portland with his family in order to, in the jargon of the emerging church, “plant” Imago Dei, growing it from the ground up by simply talking to people in the city. The church now boasts 20 full-time staff members, more than 2,000 congregants, and a newly renovated, 28,000-square-foot headquarters on NE Flanders Street.
The energy of the congregation, McKinley is quick to point out, is channeled into service, not politics. “The more literally you take the scripture,” he says, “the more you don’t go putting any hope in Jesus reigning through legislation. I don’t think He ever signed up to do that.” In February 2009, for instance, Imago Dei joined evangelist Luis Palau’s Season of Service to raise $100,000 for the city in hopes of bolstering the Portland Public School District’s dismal high school graduation rate.
Eighty percent of church “plants” fail within their first few years. But donning their Sunday best of jeans and untucked shirts and taking communion with local wine and gluten-free crackers, Imago Dei’s members have sunk their roots firmly into Portland’s soil. Despite the church’s success, McKinley says he has no plans to expand Imago Dei beyond the city limits. “Pastoring,” he stresses, “is very local at its core.”