ON SUNDAY, January 15, Tim Smith took the stage in front of 800 people. With his faux-hawk, skinny tie, and guitar, he could be mistaken for a dime-a-dozen indie rocker. But Smith is a pastor, and his audience members are the devout of Mars Hill, Portland's controversial new evangelical megachurch.
News that Mars Hill planned to plant a church in the heart of the liberal Sunnyside neighborhood caused waves last September, but it specifically divided Portland's queer community ["Welcome to Mars," News, Sept 8, 2011]. The church has a reputation for being virulently anti-gay; founder Mark Driscoll once described gayness as a cancer. A hardy contingent of Portland's LGBT residents think the church should be fought tooth and nail, even organizing a protest outside the church's first services in the fall.
But as the church's grand opening approached, Smith and Portland's Q Center did something surprising: They reached out to each other to find common ground. Whether any friendly soil actually exists, however, remains to be seen.
Across the country on Sunday, four new Mars Hill branches officially opened, including Portland's outpost in a castle-like building on SE 32nd and Taylor. Mars Hill sent out 5,000 glossy invitations welcoming the entire neighborhood to the event, reminding attendees to "park like Jesus." Portland's launch brings the total number of Mars Hill Churches throughout the West to 14, with 12,000 people attending sermons every week, according to the church.
"Everything that goes on here has a local context as well as a global implication," Smith told the congregation on Sunday, before ceding the stage to an hour-long video sermon from Driscoll. The topic of the sermon, "Real Marriage," shares the title of Driscoll's newest book, which is the basis of an 11-week series of sermons at the church and was snatched up by many congregants after the service at the church's in-house bookstore.
While the church caters to a vaguely hipster crowd—with 36-year-old Smith playing lead guitar in the church band and Sunday's sermon openly discussing sex—its teachings are deeply conservative. The Real Marriage book lumps premarital sex, homosexuality, and "friends with benefits" relationships into the category of "sinful sex"—along with bestiality, rape, and incest. Driscoll stressed a patriarchal approach to families. "Men are to lovingly, humbly lead families. Women are to respect their husbands," he preached.
Yet Smith and the Q Center aim to become not exactly allies, but at least acquaintances. Over the past several months, Smith and Logan Lynn, the Q Center's public relations manager, have met periodically for coffee and are planning a small-group discussion series that will bring faith leaders and members of the queer community face to face.
"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 meet-ups has earned him everything from emails calling him a Nazi sympathizer to Facebook messages threatening to spill his "queer blood." Lynn, who 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."
"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 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 for changing anything specifically in Portland. "The only change that we see that's worthwhile and lasting is changing hearts to Jesus."