Fornication ("voluntary sexual intercourse outside marriage") along with adultery ("voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse"), homosexuality ("Sexual orientation to persons of the same sex") and friends with benefits (we'll never have a dictionary definition for that) make the sinful list in Real Marriage, the new book out from Mars Hill founder Mark Driscoll which was also the topic of his hour-long video sermon Sunday at Mars Hill's official grand opening in Portland.
Four new Mars Hill branches officially opened around the country on Sunday, including Portland’s outpost in the castle-like building on SE 32nd and Taylor. Portland’s launch brings the total of Mars Hill churches throughout the west to 14, with 12,000 people attending sermons every week, according to the church. Mars Hill Portland has been having services for several months, but this week marked their official launch. They sent out 5,000 glossy invitations welcoming the entire neighborhood to the event (and reminded attendees to “park like Jesus!”)—since I live in the neighborhood, I got an invite and thought it would be a good chance to see what the church is like after news of its opening caused an uproar in the fall.
The church and I weren't the only ones interested in outreach. As the church’s grand opening approached, Portland’s Q Center Public Relations Manager Logan Lynn and Mars Hill Pastor Tim Smith did something surprising: reached out to each other to find common ground. Whether that friendly soil actually exists, however, remains to be seen.
The church service kicked off right at 10am with a song from the house band, which features roughly as many members as Typhoon, including the church's Pastor Tim Smith on lead guitar. The house was packed—the church seats 800—and I wound up sitting in the balcony, coincidentally right in front of another atheist and blogger, Amanda Westmont. The video sermon focused on Pastor Driscoll's own marriage and stressed a need for honesty and open communication between partners, built on a foundation of Christianity. In conjunction with the book release, Mars Hill branches around the country will be involved in a "Real Marriage" sermon campaign for eleven weeks.
Pastor Smith, 36, sported a faux-hawk and skinny tie for the occasion. While the church caters to a vaguely hipster crowd, its teachings are conservative. In addition to defining sinful sex as anything before marriage or with someone of the same gender, Driscoll reiterated that men must lead families.
In the weeks leading up to the opening, Smith has met regularly with Q Center Public Relations Manager Logan Lynn. The two are planning a series of small discussion groups between conservative faith leaders and members of the queer community.
“The default mode at this point with evangelicals and the greater LGBT community is both sides are pretty content with caricatures of each other,” notes Pastor Smith. “They're definitely not groups that sit down very often, but we're all citizens of a city that we love.”
While the church sees both homosexuality and Portland’s well-known sex industry as problematic, Smith says the local church will stay out of politics. “The issue of marriage is inherently politicized, but we are not politicizing it. How our people vote is up to their conscience,” says Smith, who adds that the church will not advocate to change anything specifically in Portland. “The only change that we see that's worthwhile and lasting is changing hearts to Jesus.”
Lynn extended an olive branch to Pastor Smith in the fall, motivated in part by his own experience growing up in a conservative, religious home. “There are as many reasons to meet together as to not meet,” says Lynn. “Instead of another group talking about gay people in theory, to actually get to know each other as people, rather than caricatures, is valuable.”
Lynn’s decision to organize the meetups has earned him everything from emails calling him a Nazi sympathizer to Facebook messages threatening to spill his “queer blood.” Lynn, who himself grew up in a fundamentalist household, says the pushback convinced him even more of the need to start dialogue with the church.
“We’re both doing radical things in our communities and that’s going to come under scrutiny,” says Lynn. “But we have to have some things in common, like that we want the community to be safe and we don’t want kids to be killing themselves.”