They’re young, involved and socially aware — and think being gay is a sin. How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas?
PHOTOS BY SCOTT McINTYRE
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
’Til He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!
We can all read the words on the flat-screen monitors that hang before us, although it appears most don’t need to. A five-piece band commands the stage-cum-pulpit, tickled by fingers of morning light refracted in the four-panel stained glass rendering of a tree behind it. Amid a refrain, the singer-guitarist, who looks like he just stepped out of one of those fragrance ads where the guys in artificially faded jeans pose with instruments they can’t play, bays for the crowd to repeat the last verse.
He steps back, chops a few chords out on his acoustic guitar, then lays down that last verse again, thick and
heavy, eyes closed with reverence. Like any good performer, he won’t let go of the moment. Neither will anyone else.
Judging solely by crowd response, this could be the house band at the Checkerboard Lounge. They are flawless and inventive, tight like a band that’s been on tour for months, trading in some variant of alternative rock that could better be described as a young, white attempt at gutbucket blues. It’s done well. The woman singing, Rebecca Dennison, has a breathy, seductive delivery.
When lead guitarist Mike Cosper works into a slide solo, two twenty-something women in the row in front of me bob their heads with joyous animation.
It is in that last line of “In Christ Alone” — delivered here as a declaration, a defiant mass voice from a room of raised arms — that you begin to understand this ritual, which to an outsider may look more like a pseudo-Christian orgy of self-conscious hipness than an actual church service.
There is warmth here, yes, and an element of persuasion that’s surprising. Although this place, during this particular Sunday morning service, is about as vanilla as a public radio play list, I feel connected. To something. I cannot intellectualize it, because to do so would ruin it. So I just give myself over to its inventive conceit: conservative Christianity paraded as hip youth culture.
This is the shrewd brilliance of Sojourn Community Church, a youth-oriented church and ministry that began in Louisville in 2000 and, in the fall of 2006, moved into the former Isaac Shelby Elementary School at 930 Mary St. in Germantown. It is a three-level, 57,000-square-foot stack you probably know as The 930, the church’s art and music wing, which has hosted myriad secular events in its brief life.
Sojourn moved there because it needed the space: Over the past two years its congregation (average age range: 20-45) has quadrupled in size, from 300 or so to more than 1,200 over the four Sunday services, which members call “Sojourn Gathered.” That’s one of several details with a significance that can only present itself once you’ve spent some time talking with Sojourners: As much as they want to provide a safe place for young people to actively question and interpret their faith, as their pastors say, they are also trying to create a new church model, one a little lighter on the whole sacred/secular dichotomy. So, to start, they’ve changed the image. There are no pews, only cushy chairs, nor is there an altar. There is live, loud rock music at every gathering; in fact, with the exception of the sermon, music is the dominating component of a Sojourn service. The gathering place looks more like a heartily-financed listening room than a hall of God.
The Sojourn universe is impressive: Under its brand is Sojourn Music, a members-only effort to make Christian music better than half-wit nu metal or milquetoast alt-country, as well as Sojourn Arts, which applies a similar goal. Fifty community groups meet during the week, usually at members’ homes — some 70 percent of members engage in this. They have a full-time Christian counselor on staff, as well as children’s ministries.
The church also has its own urban renewal division. Seed, as it’s called, has partnered with Metro agencies, neighbors and the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association on more than 80 projects since March 2007, including beautification efforts and the winterizing of homes for local elderly. It goes without saying that swamped city workers and volunteer neighborhood association members welcome the extra hands.
But these are also many of the reasons Sojourn has attracted controversy amid its booming profile. In a neighborhood made up of shotgun houses, camelbacks and bungalows, the massive brick building is a looming physical presence, and its relatively sudden emergence as a cultural and political force has caused some unease among those who either disagree with or aren’t entirely sure of what they preach. In its purest form, Sojourn is a Southern Baptist church, and the message here is not a particularly progressive one. Pastors counsel a strict adherence to scripture, which means abortion is murder, men are the natural-order leaders and homosexuality is a sin from which gays need to be converted and redeemed.
That doesn’t usually go with pearloid buttons and horn-rimmed glasses.
Sojourn’s nascent days were a heady time for Cosper and Daniel Montgomery, the lead pastor and church co-founder who delivers many of the Sunday sermons. Montgomery is 33, with a square frame and cropped, lightly gelled dark hair. In casual conversation, he reveals an affinity for the word “dude.” Montgomery arrived in Louisville from Orange County, Calif., in 1998 with a head full of righteous curiosity to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Lexington Road, at the time amid its own internal philosophical debate, between what could be considered a more liberal interpretation of scripture and, what ultimately prevailed, a reform-based conservative one.
As a teen, Montgomery had gotten into sex, drinking and drugs — living like a “fratboy,” he said.
His mother, who raised him on her own, had a religious experience when he was 5 years old, and the pair attended a church that practiced an adaptation of Quaker tradition he called “evangelical Quaker.” In his mid-teens he moved to Georgia, where he had what believers call a “conversion experience,” and became a Southern Baptist. Still, when he arrived here, Montgomery was more academic than Bible-thumper. He was considering a degree in rhetoric. He had no plans to become a pastor.
Soon after, there was chatter at the seminary about starting a church in the Smoketown neighborhood. Montgomery was offered the opportunity to be pastor, and he and his wife — who, like her husband, was on full academic scholarship at SBTS — jumped at the chance. It is called “church planting”: find a neighborhood in need of redemption and open a church there.
Montgomery was working under an umbrella organization called Acts 29, a national network whose mission is to plant 1,000 new churches in the United States in the next two decades. Like Sojourn, Acts 29 occupies an intellectual middle ground where a literal interpretation of the Bible is socially defensible solely on the force of its own righteousness. “We won’t water down our theology to reach more people and we won’t attack the culture in the name of Christianity,” writes Scott Thomas, director of Acts 29, on the group’s homepage.
Smoketown didn’t work out, but the brief experience left Montgomery hard-wired. He began knocking on doors, campaign-style, looking to start something with a simple concept: a fundamental interpretation of scripture without the institutional trappings of the church. This new model would be decentralized to a fault, resulting in a local network of small churches and ministries spread throughout the city. It never came to pass, though, as such decentralization proved unwieldy. There is only one Sojourn offshoot, Crossing, located in East Louisville.
Still, frustration over churches that didn’t meet congregants where they were — and the hypocrisy therein — was paramount. “Even in talking to people, pastors even in this city, they would say, ‘No, people with mohawks, people with rough backgrounds, people that had whatever, they’re welcome here,’” Montgomery said. “And we would challenge them and say, ‘Are they welcome to be pastors? Are they welcome to lead?’”
Around the same time, Cosper was watching most of his friends move away from the church, both physically and spiritually. Raised on nondenominational Christian services in Southern Indiana, he’d always been involved in youth ministries, and although he wasn’t alienated from his beliefs, Cosper found himself removed from the church — he acquired no challenge there, a place where even basic questions about faith were discouraged. There wasn’t much room for an 18-year-old guitar player for whom a major source of wonderment was finding new ways to approach Christian music. So for six months, Cosper and a small group of friends met every Wednesday in a Highlands apartment. They didn’t break bread or give sermons. They just talked about spirituality, lamented the hole in the fabric of organized religion in Louisville, prayed that something better come along.
A pastor friend introduced Cosper and Montgomery. In January 2000, Sojourn began meeting at Highland Baptist Church, where the pastor, the Rev. Joe Phelps, was eager to welcome young people into the fold. For a year Phelps let Sojourn meet in the church’s sanctuary on Sunday nights for basically nothing. During the week, Sojourners met in small groups at members’ houses or apartments. The congregation was modest at first, but grew quickly through word of mouth and with the opening of Aslans How, a short-lived, church-sponsored art gallery and music venue on Bardstown Road near Speed Avenue.
Some people called Sojourn a “goth church.” Others called it a cult. And still others found it quite approachable, its facade of progressivism and openness more tantalizing than any other church in the city.
Phelps had been skeptical of Sojourn’s affiliation with SBTS. His church espouses a liberal Baptist interpretation: For instance, it does not condemn homosexuality, nor does it say that strict Protestant Christianity is the only way to know God. He said Montgomery and the other planters told him they weren’t like Al Mohler, the arch-conservative SBTS president. Phelps assumed that meant they didn’t adhere to Mohler’s wooden ideology.
“I would say their message is the more conservative, fundamentalist approach to Bible and church — men only in leadership, only Christians really know God,” Phelps said. “And so those underpinnings affect their teachings, control who teaches and what’s taught, and in some ways it has the danger of having a hidden agenda to what they do. I’m not accusing them of that. I want to be clear about that. I don’t think they’re trying to be duplicitous. I think they are very hip and progressive people, but their message is the conservative, fundamentalist brand of Protestant Christianity.”
Realizing the two churches were philosophically incompatible, the parties agreed to end their arrangement. Sojourn would bounce around a couple more times before landing in its current home.
The old Isaac Shelby Elementary School was falling apart, and the city decided that returning it to a reasonable standard was too much work for not enough reward, so it put the place up for auction. Two bidders showed up, and Sojourn won, paying $300,000 for the property, which the city’s property valuation administrator tagged at $485,100 on Jan. 1 of this year. That money, along with another $200,000 to begin renovations, came from an anonymous donor, Montgomery said. At the time, Sojourn — a nonprofit corporation — had about $2,000 in its bank account.
All told, Sojourn has spent about $1.6 million renovating the building, not all that much when you consider what’s inside of it. The first floor is The 930 listening room, art gallery and the church gathering site, where 400-something chairs surround three-quarters of a well-lit stage adorned with musical instruments native to a rock band. Both rooms are equipped with enough high-quality sound equipment to accommodate just about any show — whether it’s the loud indie rock band Yo La Tengo, the folksy singer-songwriter Tara Jane O’Neil, or all manner of Louisville rock bands in between. Both rooms have been used for shows, while the vestibule in between serves as the art gallery, featuring mostly secular work.
Before reaching the chic church offices on the second floor — laid atop rich, century-old hardwood floors — you pass through a hallway that functions as another gallery, this one featuring religious-themed pieces created both by church members and outsiders. Artists and musicians are accommodated here: There are several studios where member-artists work, and a finishing piece of the renovation will be a recording studio. There is also a gymnasium, rec room with ping-pong, billiards and foosball, and several large kids rooms — a massive jungle gym comprises about half of the main kids’ hall.
Sojourn pays for all of this, as well as a 17-member staff, through weekly tithing and donations. From the March 23 services, for instance, they raised $23,484.67 — the product of 149 donors. Their weekly need is just over $30,000, to come from only about 500 members. Sojourn discourages non-Christians from giving.
The master plan, once renovations here are finished — they said by the end of the year — is for The 930 to be a one-stop shop for all things creative in Louisville, and not just for Sojourners, the pastors said. The renovation of this dilapidated building is consistent with another message Sojourn is trying to push, a message intended for all 70 urban neighborhoods in Louisville: renewal.
Through its Seed initiative, Sojourn has extended both its hand and influence into this central-city neighborhood, a working-class place that has foundered of late. In the last five years or so, this area — divided by the train tracks paralleling Logan Street are predominantly white and black neighborhoods of similar economy — has begun to gentrify, with young people moving in and renovating houses, opening businesses and generally breathing a new sort of optimism into the air. That has led to some tension among the older, more traditional set inhabiting the German-Paristown and Shelby Park neighborhoods, which Sojourn has helped mitigate by positioning itself as the equivalent of the nice youngster down the street who comes by once a week to mow your lawn, free of charge.
Historically, the church as an institution has been involved in all manner of community activism — works concomitant to faith has long been a Christian clarion call. Sojourn’s model is a somewhat modified version.
They are operating what professional organizers would call a direct service model, teaching people to become activists and speak for themselves before politicians, community leaders and fellow neighbors — but not necessarily bringing them into their own modes of involvement. In other words, they are amassing an army of volunteers without having to expand their own internal structure.
Their motivation is general and twofold: “From a citywide perspective, we think that because of the presence of the church in this city, this city should be different,” Montgomery said, adding that manifesting their beliefs in their neighborhood is a cardinal value.
At the moment, Seed is conducting a yearlong analysis of all the city’s financial assets. This summer, they want to bring together focus groups — including politicians, community organizers, clergy, medical leaders and so forth — to work through the data.
“What we’re trying to get to is, what are the real needs and where do the resources need to be put?” Montgomery said. They even have a consultant coming in a few times a month to develop new ways to approach this goodness they’re talking about.
Nathan Ivey is the 30-year-old director of Seed. He is also vice president of the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association. He came to Louisville from Atlanta to study at SBTS, where he spent three years. Ivey said his initiative is simply to listen to people and try to act on what they say. In other words, the church is not pursuing its own agenda.
“We don’t just create projects,” he said. “We listen first to make sure that the energies we put forth in this community are meeting actual needs.” Seed usually gets a mention during Sunday services, when congregants are urged to visit its website and sign up for one of a host of ongoing projects — there are around 40 now. The group has completed more than 80 so far.
According to a recent report by Interfaith Funders, Catholics are the most active denomination in America in terms of congregation-based community organizing, followed by Baptists. In the South, however, Baptists are in the overwhelming majority, making up about a quarter of all religious-affiliated activism.
Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together is a group of religious and neighborhood institutions operating in a mode of community work more customary to churches. Rather than volunteer with Brightside, for instance, CLOUT would look for ways to hold Brightside accountable for more beautification programs in a particular neighborhood. As well, CLOUT uses face-to-face meetings with leaders who can effect change rather than engaging broader protest efforts.
Sojourn is certainly not alone in its shrewd, modernized brand of church-related community organizing. Redeemer Presbyterian Church — there are two, one in New York City and another in Indianapolis — engages in similar outreach activities. In fact, the Indianapolis Redeemer — whose urban renewal effort is called (Re)Purpose — shares Sojourn’s tagline: “In the city. For the city.”
This sort of church activism resembles social justice groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth more than traditional faith-based community organizing.
Steve Magre, a member of the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association board, said the influx of young people connected with Sojourn has helped revitalize both the neighborhood and the association.
“Churches are very influential, and this new church has been extremely influential with its membership being involved with us,” he said.
Magre said the association’s membership doubled between 2006 and 2007, and Sojourn is not the only church with direct ties: St. Therese, a Catholic church, and Vine Street Baptist Church have also been involved over the years.
It is the nature of evangelism that has led churches to join with neighborhood associations, Magre — a practicing Christian — said. Evangelicals are compelled to spread the Word, and can be counted on to do so in myriad ways. But young people are becoming more skeptical of religious involvement in the public sphere and, according to a recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, less connected with religion in general: Americans unaffiliated with any religion are now 16 percent of the population. Meanwhile, Protestants may soon lose their majority in this country: The report found significant fragmenting among Protestants, about half of whom consider themselves “evangelical.”
Sojourn has been open about its religious affiliation within the neighborhood association, Magre said, adding that most people who engage with them are aware that Sojourn is, in fact, a church. He said he hasn’t seen Sojourners overtly attempting to convert partners on neighborhood projects, and the association has not received any complaints to that effect.
Mary Byrne, Brightside’s volunteer coordinator, said Sojourn has been “a great partner of ours.” She said they hold volunteer cleanups almost monthly, and that they’ve never mentioned religion around her.
But with everything they do bearing some variant of the Sojourn name, the appropriate question is not whether they’re actively trying to convert people — it’s whether they have to.
It was around five years ago that Sarah — a pseudonym — finally left Sojourn. She had been a part of the church in one of its early incarnations, starting as a high schooler who’d become estranged from the Greek Orthodox congregation under which she’d been raised. Sarah said she saw in Sojourn a group of people around her age who seemed more confident and coherent than she felt at the time.
The day she decided to leave, Montgomery delivered a sermon about homosexuality. Sarah hadn’t heard the matter discussed openly by church leaders before. “I didn’t comprehend completely what Daniel was saying, since he was only alluding to, at first, general sinful behavior,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “The sermon didn’t come out rightly saying ‘homosexuality is a sin,’ I think because queer folks were (and still do) attending Sojourn, but by the end of the hour-long lecture you realized what he was saying, and most uncomfortably, who he was talking about.”
Fast forward to Feb. 10, when Montgomery gave a sermon entitled “God’s Wrath Revealed and Deserved.” In his sermons, Montgomery “unpacks” scripture, deconstructing brief passages sentence-by-sentence, sometimes word-by-word — it’s largely an academic performance. In this sermon, he talked about the confluence of sin and anger, and the importance of being honest and upfront about your faith. About three-quarters through, he said this, referring to God’s righteous anger about sin:
“There’s something about pushing away the truth of God, exchanging the truth of God for a lie that not only leads to sexual perversion but a loss of sexual identity. A loss of what it means to be a man, and a loss of what it means to be a woman. And Sojourn has always been a church that has sought to have a balance. We want clarity and strong conviction regarding homosexuality and all sexual immorality outside a marriage — that’s what sexual immorality is — as sin. We try to set that forth very plainly. And yet, at the same time, we want radical compassion to those that have same-sex desires and attraction, we want to have radical compassion to those that are homosexuals that want to explore the truth of the Bible, that have questions about the God of the Bible. We want that balance. My hope, and the reason that personally I have such strong conviction about being clear about homosexuality, it’s not a conservative issue for me at all, it’s a Biblical issue. And listen, it’s a Biblical issue and it’s a gospel issue, because I believe that God can change anyone. I believe He can change anyone. I believe He’s making all things new, and that includes our sexuality.”
The pastors hold fundamentalist views about topics like homosexuality and male leadership — all of Sojourn’s leaders are men — and such facts distort the easy perceptions: These gregarious, sincere guys don’t look like weird mutant-children of Billy Graham.
But Sojourn is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that waited until 1995 to formally apologize for its endorsement of slavery. And while in some respects the SBC has come to view the world more inclusively — just last month, the president of the 16,000-member organization declared global warming a cause worthy of Baptists’ attention — most are fundamentalist when it comes to the big three: abortion, gender roles and homosexuality.
Aletha Fields is a co-coordinator of the Fairness Campaign, a grassroots group that works for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. She’s also an ordained minister and founder of Genesis Ministries, the first African-American, openly gay-affirming church in Louisville. She said Sojourn’s pastors are stashing bigotry at God’s feet rather than their own, and lamented that these discussions are still happening in the American South, while other parts of the country — the coasts, for example — have largely moved on.
“That would be like gay people trying to reform heterosexuals. If you don’t display a certain set of characteristics or you suppress what is natural to you, you can walk in the light of Christ,” she said. “That is not Biblical classification, that is human classification.”
Phelps, the Highland Baptist pastor, said that in some ways the message doesn’t appear to fit the messenger.
“It’s not intentionally disguised, but it’s surprising to discover that such a contemporary, progressive context has such a conservative underpinning to it,” he said. “That’s an observation, not a criticism.”
I asked a group of four Sojourn pastors — Montgomery, Cosper, Ivey and Kevin Janes, who handles booking for the listening room — how they square the idea that their church is open and community-centric with their belief that homosexuality is a sin and gay people can be “changed.” That is, whether they think they can have it both ways: Gays are free to come to Sojourn, but only after they acknowledge that they need to be saved from the sinfulness of being gay.
“We don’t see them as antithetical to one another,” Montgomery said. “It’s all people walking the earth — gay people, people who are gay are welcome at our services, are welcome to partner with us on urban renewal initiatives. There’s no barrier in any of the ministries we offer and so forth.”
At the same time, he said, they also believe humanity has been marred by sin, “and one of the expressions of that fallenness, of what is shattered, is intimate relations in same-sex relationships. But all people are fallen sexually and in need of redemption.” Montgomery said they’re not calling out gays specifically, although he and the other pastors acknowledged that it appears that way to some. Over the last year or so, on balance, Montgomery has preached with the same ferocity on issues of pride, atonement and lust, for example.
Cosper said their unapologetic views on homosexuality should be taken on balance with those beliefs. “I think part of what’s important for the church is to be faithful,” he said. “Again, it’s been made into the issue, the conversational issue. I think that what’s important for us as the church — and part of our effort is to be upfront and honest, this is where we stand, but to realize and to be faithful to call out other sins, you know, to call out other things that the scripture calls sinful with the same intensity, with the same weight. So somebody who’s greedy should hopefully be every bit as offended by the way we talk about greed.”
There is a lot to chew with a complex situation like Sojourn’s, but the most pertinent questions — based on a mountain of anecdotal evidence I attribute to a string of conversations about the subject in bars, restaurants and coffee shops, at shows and openings and even sporting events in the last year or so — are whether the church is using its new cultural and political cachet to recruit new members and, ultimately, whether this kind of religious-political-cultural amalgamation should be troubling to a city in need.
“No,” Montgomery said bluntly about the recruiting aspect. Then he laughed.
The brands of Sojourn and The 930 — a sleek, attractive and artistic design — are irrevocably entwined, and Sojourn isn’t exactly creating distance between the two. One could be forgiven for confusing Sojourn with The 930, even though nobody gets on stage during a setbreak and says, “Come to church on Sunday.” There is some ambivalence about that.
“I don’t agree with many, many views and perspectives Sojourn as a collective has — they are anti-gay, pro-life conservatives, basically the opposite of me,” Tracy Heightchew, a Germantown resident and Shotgun Festival chair in the neighborhood association, wrote via e-mail. “But I do appreciate the individuals there and that they try to actually follow Jesus when it comes to poor people, the elderly and community building. They work very, very hard on neighborhood projects. I don’t have a problem with the fact they are in my neighborhood, and I’ve worked on lots of projects with Sojourn people outside of the church and find them enthusiastic and helpful.”
At Sojourn, there is a supreme aspiration to meld Christian and non-Christian life, which to churchgoers seems to tie back to the whole faith and works message. And while that’s also a palatable enough notion to those whose lives are compartmentalized into Sunday church and weekday work, the ambition for such transcendence may also be a signal to non-Christians that fundamentalism is simply part of the package, whether you choose to ignore or embrace it. Some of Sojourn’s members — mostly high-ranking keepers of the church’s vision — are buying up real estate nearby. Also, two neighborhood coffeeshops — Quills and Sunergos — are owned by members, although the shops display no overt religious affiliation. It is part of a strategy Montgomery talks about openly that may ultimately change the complexion of the neighborhood.
“Yeah, dude, unapologetically what’s driving everything we’re doing is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Montgomery tells me.
If but we were all so driven.
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