Church After Mars Hill with Dr. Dwight Friesen | Podcast Season 04, Episode 06

by Jul 18, 2023Transforming Engagement: the Podcast


In this episode, we explore a new perspective on church with Dr. Dwight Friesen, who asks us: “How do I start where I am? Wherever I am, how do I discover being church here?” Instead of viewing church as a megachurch attracting distant members, we shift our focus to being church in our own context.

We’re honored to be joined by Dr. Dwight Friesen, an Associate Professor of practical theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, who is dedicated to rediscovering the true essence of being a church within a specific place and neighborhood.

To provide some context, Dwight shares his initial connection with Mark Driscoll, the founder of Mars Hill, during the mid-1990s when they were both starting as pastors in Seattle. They even considered merging their churches at one point, but theological differences and subsequent events led them to go their separate ways.

While Mark Driscoll went on to build a megachurch at Mars Hill, Dwight and his partner Lynette took a different approach. They emphasized the significance of community, proximity, and actively listening to the needs of their neighborhood. Instead of imposing a predetermined “church model,” Dwight deliberately focused on understanding and addressing the specific needs of their immediate community.

This conversation challenges the traditional megachurch model, which often relies heavily on attracting new members for economic prosperity. Instead, it encourages us to explore how to be church in our current contexts and locations. By paying attention to the culture and listening to the needs of people in our own neighborhoods, we can bear witness to systemic forms of oppression and transformation. This awareness calls for a different kind of faithfulness—an active presence that engages with the realities of the moment.

Dwight raises a thought-provoking question: “How do we discover what it means to participate in what God is doing here without assuming what the good news should look like, but rather being open to discovery?”

About our guest:

Dwight J. Friesen, DMin, is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.  Although Dwight is an anabaptist, he is currently serving as the part-time pastor of an ELCA congregation.  He is a founding board member of Parish Collective and active with the Urban Shalom Society in service of UN-Habitat.  Dwight has served as a pastor, bi-vocational church-planter, and consultant with more than 30 years combined experience within these realms of ecclesial leadership, and is a sought-after speaker and thought leader.  Dwight has authored or co-authored numerous books, including The New Parish, Thy Kingdom Connected, and 2020s Foresight: Three Vital Practices for Thriving in a Decade of Accelerating Change

About this season’s host:

Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and PsychologyFor 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.  

Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.

Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.

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Episode Transcript:

Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast, where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and a higher good. 

This season we are discussing Church After Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld.

I don’t just host podcasts, I listen to them. One I pop into from time to time is Mega which warns its listeners that it is an “improvised satire from the staff of a fictional mega church.” Mega is a satirical look at the modern evangelical culture. Currently they are doing a satirical take on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill called The Rise and Fall of Twin Hills. As someone who spent part of his life in evangelicalism, the show sometime hits a little too close to home. Hosted by Hally LaBonte  – a weekend producer for the church (voiced by Holly Laurent)  and Gray Hoss – the youth pastor (played by Greg Hess), in each episode listeners learn more about the Twin Hills Community Church and its programs. One episode from 2019 has stayed with me. That episode is a recap of the church’s 64 Easter services, which were called The Rising

In particular it is a discussion of the stunning visual elements of those services including banners, VR headsets, holograms, projections, and installations. Hally and Gray interview the churches full-time graphic designer Erick Bardley (voiced by Barak Hardley) about the images and what it takes to make a production like The Rising. There are lots of references to how much time and effort it takes to run this model of church including how exhausted the staff is. One moment stands out for me: when asked if he had attended any of the 64 Easter services, the graphic designer responds, “No, I had to start working on Christmas.” I realize that Mega is farcical, but aside from all the over-the-top ridiculous comments, there were elements that rang true. For years I was part of an attractional model church that spent a lot of time on the production of the Sunday service. 

What rung true was the grind of creating a weekly program, the intense focus on holiday services, and the exhaustion of that cycle. Fast forward, and I am now part of a different type of church. My current faith community is more like a small group and is much more simple. The services strive to be a work-of-the-people – which is the original definition of the word liturgy. We rely on the priesthood of all believers and incorporating everyone into the discussion of the text and leading of the service.

There are a lot of models and ways of doing church. On this episode we are considering ways of being the Church with Dr. Dwight Friesen as we continue to explore what it means to be Church After Mars Hill.  Here’s our conversation. 

Welcome to the podcast, Dwight. The first question that I always ask is just to have folks introduce themselves, however they would like. So I’ll just turn it over to you to introduce yourself to listeners.

Dwight Friesen: Joel, it’s great to be with you. Dwight. Dwight Friesen. I teach at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, where I’m a practical theologian. The focus of my life and my work really is about rediscovering what it is to be the church in a place and a neighborhood. Long before I was at The Seattle School, I was also a pastor. I pastored in Canada, United States. My primary work has been pioneering churches, and I spent the last number of years really trying to listen and discover churches that are seeking to rediscover what it is to follow Christ into the ordinary, sort of operationalizing Christ’s invitation to love God, love neighbor, and love self, and have that be the operating principle to discover what church might look like in a given location. Somehow or not, I don’t know exactly how this all happened, but through my focus on church in neighborhood and in parish or place, that’s also taken me to connect with United Nations Habitat, and I’ve been working on a international level with UN Habitat to help mobilize people of faith to engage in the sustainable development goals that the UN has rolled out as a faithful expression of their religious tradition and not seen somehow in competition with it.

And largely that has to do with what it means to be grassroots in the neighborhood as a faith community seeking to seeking the flourishing of every, for flourishing for all and for everyone who happens to be there. And so that’s kind of who I am. It’s kind of what I do, and it’s great to be with you, man.

Joel Kiekintveld: Great. Thanks for getting us up to speed on that. I know one place that you were pioneering churches was in Seattle before you became faculty at Seattle School. And in that context, you kind of knew Mark Driscoll for a number of years. I know on your website it talks about that over the years your relationship changed and I believe my sense is that Mars Hill as well changed. So would you be willing to speak to that context? What was your relationship with Mark? How did that change over the years and how did you see Mars Hill church change over the years as well?

Dwight Friesen: Yeah, sure. Well, yeah, it’s, I mean, it’s a fun story in a lot of ways. I mean, to be honest, Mark and I met as a couple of 20-somethings who were both pioneering churches in the greater Seattle area. I mean we were, he was not Mark Driscoll at that point. He wasn’t the legend that he is today. We were both young and we both started our church, we both pioneered our churches beginning in 1996, and we were part of a group of area planters who would get together and on a monthly basis, pray together, dream together, talk about the needs of our city, what we were seeing happening in our churches. And so in a lot of ways we were just part of a little network like support, in a support group, helping each other engage in the ministries that we felt called to do.

And somewhere along the line, we, he, Mark and I even explored the possibility of merging our churches. He was kind of the big upfront speaker, demanding, inviting a large following. I was kind of a more missional communal guy. And so we actually entertained that idea pretty seriously for a while. We both came to each other’s faith communities, listened to each other preach. One night just to give next a story around –one night when Mark and his partner, Grace, and myself and Lynette, my partner, the four of us went out for dinner to just talk about what might it look like if we did something like this together. We had a lovely evening, parked my car, they drove us to a restaurant, had a lovely evening together, and it was when Mark was driving us back to our car, literally, I had the door open and I had one foot on the curb and one foot was still in the car.

And he leans over and he was like, “So Dwight, just so we can be clear on the role of women in ministry.” And he went on to describe his stance, which was not an affirming stance at that point. And immediately I knew that there was not a future in us collaborating at that point. But, so we were involved in each other’s lives and some pretty, pretty significant ways as colleagues in the city, and that–we were fairly consistently supportive of one another and listening to each other, even through some rough times, even as he began to become Mark Driscoll in the way he’s been sort of legendarily or cast. And certainly as the way The Rise and Fall has chronicled that narrative. In fact, actually it was in probably the pivot that took place in our relationship was what was highlighted in, I think it was episode nine in the story.

And that was around the time when Mark made those sort of disparaging comments around in response to, oh, I’m blanking on his name. All of a sudden, oh, he made that comment about the, I’ll come back to me. But he made some nasty comments about a pastor’s wife and had she not let herself go, there wouldn’t have been an affair or there wouldn’t have been a scandal. And in a sense, kind of all hell broke loose here in Seattle. A protest was being arranged from by some people of faith to come and protest Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll over what he had said during the time of worship. And myself and a handful of other leaders in Seattle wrote a letter to the board or to the elders board at Mars Hill Church at the time, and we invited the elders and Pastor Mark to come together for a conversation together with the organizers of the protest. And we had a number of folks there, had an amazing conversation, a great evening connecting, sort of attending to what was happening and the impact it might be having on our city and far beyond by this point.

And I mean, that story’s told beautifully in The Rise and Fall, but really the character and the relationship that he and I had was transformed after that moment. Until then, even though we weren’t as tight as we had been when we were first starting out, he would still take calls from me. I could get together with him. I could, was outside enough outside of his circle enough that I could kind of speak some level of truth in our relationship. But after the confrontation that night where we kind of sought to intervene in something that was becoming very disruptive in our city, I could no longer get through and connect with Mark in any personal way. And so I really have not talked to him interpersonally since that night.

And it’s funny because although he and I disagreed on a lot of stuff theologically, man, I was grateful for the role he played in my life. He pushed me to study. He dared me to think about stuff that I wasn’t thinking about at the time. And it’s like there was something really compelling about aspects of what he was doing. The harshness, the judgmental, the “I’ve got it figured out, get yourself together,” did not resonate with me. I mean, shoot, I’m an Anabaptist, right? I’m a pacifist. I’m a lover, not a fighter. I’m more likely to blubber and cry than I am to yell and pound my fist. And we don’t have to be the same, right? Like I don’t need him to be the way I was, and I don’t need to be the way he is. And I felt like in some ways we sharpened each other until that was no longer an option. And I really, I grieve that. I want to believe that I was, that our relationship had some substance to it. I don’t know if I’m being helpful at all in what I’m talking about. But

Joel Kiekintveld: No, I mean it helps set the context. A question I have maybe to follow up is, in those days when you were planting or pioneering a church alongside at the same time Mars Hill was being kind of formed at the same time, what model of church, what was it looking like for you? How was that looking in the community that you were seeking to pioneer? And then did that look different than Mars Hill? I mean, we all know now kind of the Mars Hill, the way that it’s been told by The Rise and Fall of a megachurch at attractional type model. But yeah, I’m curious what model at that point in time you were investigating or that you were using in the way that you were planting?

Dwight Friesen: Well, I have to confess, I don’t think I was very reflective or intentional about what I was doing at the time. I was almost acting more instinctively. Now when I was like 16 years old, I think I went to a leadership conference at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, mega, one of the founders of the Seeker Movement. That shaped my imagination significantly for what church could or should look like. And so much so that when I went to seminary, I chose a seminary that was close enough to Willow that I could attend there for a number of years. And I happened to be at Willow and sort of participate to some degree with Dieter Zander and the launching of the first Gen X Ministry at Willow Creek. It was called Access at the time. And so when my partner and I left the Chicago area to come to Seattle to pioneer new work, my working model was sort of a quasi-seeker, megachurch kind of environment, sort of Gen X-focused.

The lifesaver for me though, was that when I was in seminary, Dr. Paul Hebert had been a huge influence in my life. He was a contextual missiologist, and he was always inviting us as his students to be sociologists, to be anthropologists, to listen deeply, to be curious. And the first year that Lynette and I were in Seattle, we just committed ourselves to getting out into the city. And we were out. I mean, we’re talking four or five, six nights a week. We went to every restaurant, every bar, open mic, every club we could find, every party that we’d get invited to. We went to all the cool coffee shops in the first year. I kid you not. We visited 50 churches in the first year. [JK: Wow.] We visited the big ones, the historic ones, the significant ones of all different races and ethnicities.

And then once every few weeks we would lay out all of the clippings of newspaper articles we had found that we thought were speaking to the character or the soul of the city. And we would pray over those things kind of in Lectio Divina fashion, which is the Benedictine practice of listening with the ears of your heart. And we were just inviting the spirit to teach us, like what’s happening here, what are the values? What’s this? What’s, who are the villains? Who are the heroes? What’s the dream of this place? What are the systemic oppressions? What are– just trying to listen for what is the good news that’s waiting to be birthed here, or waiting to be fanned into flame that truly is liberative for this community? Cause we didn’t know. Like, again, that was one of the beauties of Paul Hebert’s teaching. He always, like, don’t assume that you know what the good news is going to be.

It’s like our job is really to more listen and join with what the spirit is doing rather than to assume. And I have to say that that was probably the saving grace for me in terms of my model of ministry. What evolved for our faith community was really initially was sort of a coffee house kind of church field. We actually met in a series of pubs and literal coffee houses. That’s kind of what we, those were our meeting spaces. And that all emerged out of listening to the people who we were connecting with. And it was funny, I tried preaching the way I was taught in seminary once or twice, and the people we were connecting with were like, what did you just do to us? That’s not how we were talking a few minutes ago. That’s not the way human beings talk to each other. And we began to explore, like how do we actually gather it as a faith community in a way that actually is humanizing, helps us to actually practice a way of being together by the very way that we are together so that we’re more likely by gathering to become open and vulnerable and curious and discover a way of love together.

And yet, still in the back of my mind, my dream was still to be the pastor of a Gen X megachurch. So even though we would be listening, I still had this thing in the back of my heart telling me in some ways that I was a failure cause I wasn’t doing that. And then I saw Mark thriving, doing what he was doing. The turning point for me, or one of the really significant turning points– I’m not saying it was a once and done kind of deal–but we had been meeting in this amazing little bistro and the owners let us know one Sunday night that they had sold the business and we were going to have to be out in two weeks. And so the next day we scrambled together with our leaders and we were sitting in a coffee shop. Actually, it was Victor’s over on the east side.

And I remember specifically Donna at one point said, you know what? Maybe this is exactly the invitation of the spirit that we need. She was like, ever since we’ve started doing services in the coffee house, we’ve been so busy connecting with new people and covering songs by the Pumpkins or U2 or whoever we were playing or splicing videos. It’s like, we’re not becoming the kind of community that we’ve always talked about. And oh, that was a heartbreaker for me in some respects because like we were booming, packing out the coffee shop most nights. And it was, may have been young, but it was the dream coming into fruition. And what was being birthed instead, through Donna’s comment and the conversations that emerged over time, was what does it actually look like for us to become a community that’s actually seeking to embody the way of Christ as we become a community?

And how by doing so are we actually loving our neighbors? And that’s really what I would, I’m not sure if you’re answering the question very well about in terms of the model that we were using, but it was profoundly listening, I would say. Even though there was a resistance to it.I wouldn’t say I was any, I was one who, although I wanted to listen, it was hard sometimes to respond openly, to stay open to what I was hearing. And I would say ultimately I’m really glad I did, and I’m really glad I had leaders around me, people like Donna who could say things that weren’t just what I wanted to hear. And I’m also grateful for the grace of the God and the spirit who kind of just said, what, maybe there’s something there. Hold your vision a little more loosely. And yeah, I’m really grateful for that.

Joel Kiekintveld: In listening to you, it occurs to me that our histories in some ways have some overlap. So when I first moved to Anchorage, I was part of a new church startup here that was very much influenced by Willow Creek. And some of the things you were saying, even around like music and the way that we’re using video and those type of things feel really familiar. And that church over the years has gone through a lot of different changes, but worked with that sort of attractional model that was very, very prevalent at that point in time. So I guess I would wonder if, because we’re using Mars Hill as a bit of a case study, for us to think through things like what you’re describing, how to missionally develop a church, like a different way of doing, which is what I hear in your story of, you’re doing this deep listening that brought us to this different place.

But as far as background, before we get into those models, like, if you would be able to explain kind of what’s the history, where did the sort of seeker model, that kind of model of church, where did that evolve from? And then, I know now, there’s often the tendency to kind of bash that model. And I don’t necessarily want to do that, but there does seem to be some pitfalls with it. I mean, I’ve noticed over the years, like really a desire to find a charismatic upfront leader and a really good band. And like throw ’em in a room and hope everything great happens, which is maybe too overly simplified, but [DF: it’s pretty close]. So, yeah,  if you could just speak a little to the history of that and maybe what sort of some of the dangers are with that model. Not that churches haven’t used that model to great effect, but just a little of that context.

Dwight Friesen: Well, there’s probably a lot of different ways that a person could approach the answer, that history. I would locate that history primarily, this might sound odd, but with the advent of the automobile, at least in its as a ubiquitous form of transportation. Until we had cars readily accessible and the road systems to be able to support them, most people walked or biked to church, mostly walked or took a horse and buggy. So you were not going, so a church wasn’t so much a consumer choice, it was more of a what’s in what, what’s within proximity. And so that’s why we had a church of every denomination within walking distance because that’s how we got to and from church. Once the car comes along, all of a sudden everything becomes a consumer choice. I can drive past the church where I had that little squabble with my pastor or the person who’s been stealing and they’re sitting on my pew when clearly I’ve been sitting there for years.

I can drive past that church and go to something where I like the music a little better, or I like the sermon a little better, or whatever the factor, whatever floats my boat. So I think the advent of the automobile is the starting place to begin thinking about the ways in which consumer choice really flipped the script on how church functioned in this country. I mean, clearly there have been big churches as long as there’s been cathedrals. It’s not so much about the scale, it’s more about the mentality of seeking to attract people and doing whatever it takes to get new people there. That’s at the heart of what makes an attractional church the attractional church. The American context. I mean, I would say post-War II once the car really has taken root and the freeways are being built in earnest, the cities are being redlined and divided up, and all of that’s going down.


There’s a couple of people who are really the–Norman Vincent Peale was probably the first one to really and very strategically find a message that was, could be easily sold and packaged, and went after an attraction audience. Robert Schuler built off of that. Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, well, Bill Hybels was discipled specifically by Robert Schuler into that movement. And, you know, we were off to the races. I do love, I mean, the thing that really attracted me about Willow Creek when I was young, when I mentioned that when I was 16, when I went for the first time. I mean, yes, there was the marketing piece, but they were asking serious questions about what does it look like to listen to people who are not part, who are not following, who are not actively seeking to follow in the way of Christ, and how do you proactively remove barriers that might be keeping them from better understanding or hearing the gospel or whatever?

And I found that to be really compelling. So that part of it I really liked. There was a part of it that had a curiosity and a wonder.  I think this might sound really, okay, work with me here. If this doesn’t make sense, I walk you back and I can try to unpack it a little better. So one of the ways I sometimes think about Christendom, so Christendom being the culture of church that emerged in the wake of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, we’re talking Roman Empire, fourth century, all of that stuff. So like Christendom is the western Christianity that we think of as being sort of the dominant Christian culture that reigned for a couple of, I mean, pretty much reigned for a couple thousand years. I think that in some ways, if we understand Christendom as the collusion of religion with political power, if that’s kind of a relatively fair assessment, I mean it’s more complicated than that,

Joel Kiekintveld: Certainly. Yeah.

Dwight Friesen: I think in part, the megachurch can be understood as the collusion of free market economy and religion because all of a sudden consumer choice is the most important thing. The entire enterprise of the megachurch, the attraction model church, is predicated on the economics of getting more people, more giving units–is actually how they talk about them– into the seats. And in fact, they project their buildings and their staffing all based on anticipated growth numbers. And the second they dip below that. So anytime there’s a scandal that happens and you can’t guarantee that income, the whole thing collapses, just like Mars Hill Church did. I mean within just a couple of weeks of the scandal all breaking, the enterprise was broken up, and that was it. Because the economic structures design on that free market model that just says more is always better. In fact, more is the only way we stay alive. And so that to me is a problematic philosophical base. So the economics make, the economics make it untenable. So, what do you think of that? 

Joel Kiekintveld: No, I think that was really helpful ‘cause I mean, I would see some of the pitfalls maybe naturally as this cult of personality and those type of things, which we’ve also talked about. But the idea of the always more is maybe not one that comes up, like the first thing that pops into our mind when we think about that model.

Dwight Friesen: Well, and the reason why the always more is so important is because you have to, you’ll–the speaker, the musician, the leadership team, whatever it is that the audience is attracted to, you’re going to give them more of that. So if the audience responds to misogynistic yelling and telling a white man to get their butts in gear and act like a man, and the audience seems to respond to that, then you double down on it and you go further. It’s not very prophetic. It’s not attending to the Dare of God as seen in the person of Jesus Christ, which is not in any way chasing relevance. The way of Jesus is a counter-cultural realm. The way of the megachurch tends to be chasing after relevance, chasing after the, well, now it’s not necessarily chasing after dominant culture, but it’s chasing after the culture that seems to be responding to the message of that given community.

Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I know your work over the last years, at least, this is how I think about it, and correct me if I have the wrong impression, cause we don’t know each other super well, but has been developing models that are different than that, not sort of market-driven models, not necessarily this consumer-sort of regional church where people are driving in from a hundred miles away on Sunday or whatever, like that you see in some places. So I would love to hear you speak a little bit about where, what directions have you been going the last number of years and decades in your work? What do those models look like for church that functions in a different way than what we were just talking about?

Dwight Friesen: There’s part of me that isn’t sure if model is the right word. [JK: Yeah. ] And so I, I definitely understand that there are ways of looking at what I’m describing, what I’m seeing, that that can sound like models. But I think honestly the things that I find most compelling could actually be happening in a church that’s more at attractional. And it could happen be happening in a small house church or a smaller, I don’t know, like a denominational church, First Baptist on the corner or something like that. [JK: Sure. Yeah.] I think that’s possible. The pivot that I am seeing, the thing that is I find most compelling, and I’m not saying that now, I have to say this is not something that I’ve dreamt up, but what I’m beginning to, what I’m going to bear witness to is things that I’ve been observing from walking neighborhoods with leaders all over, not only this country but Canada, down in Mexico, all over parts of Europe.

I’ve been in just parts of Asia and parts of Africa, and together with a few of my colleagues in Parish Collective and the Urban Shalom Society and some of the UN folks, we literally have walked hundreds, maybe even thousands of neighborhoods with local leaders who are really seeking to prioritize what does it mean for us to be here now and what does it look like for us to faithfully follow the invitations of the spirit to discover and bear witness to what God Shalom might be inviting. And so it’s more like a priority or a valuing of the operation. I mean, the language I often use is shalomic imagination. What’s the shalomic imagination? What’s the sense that the spirit might be doing something? Or sometimes I talk about it as the operationalization of love of God, love of neighbor and love of self, and love of creation as well.

And so communities that are prioritizing that, that’s what I am most interested in. Communities that are seeking to interrogate the collusion of church with economic systems, dominant economic systems and dominant political systems, and rather discover what it is to sacrificially serve one another and open up to the possibility of discovering what’s needed rather than assuming that we know what’s needed is the primary thing that I’ve been looking for. And so, okay, so stepping back from that. So the kind of churches that I see on the ground are, I mean for the most part, I mean there are megachurch models of this Overlake Christian Church. I mean, one of the things, here it is, here you have this megachurch that was founded way back in the day, had some challenges over time, but you know what, they’ve now got a whole network of leaders inside their faith community who are functioning as neighborhood pastors, not just small group leaders.

But here you’ve got this megachurch that said, we’re too big to care for people in the everyday stuff of life. Let’s reimagine how we do neighborhood ministry. And they’ve, last time I was, did a, spent some time over there, they had like, I’m going to say nine or 11 distinct neighborhood churches with no expectation that those folks were going to participate in the big house. And yet that’s an amazing thing. It’s a megachurch that’s saying, how do we operationalize the love of God and love of neighbors and love of self within in a local real place where we’re more likely to run into each other and do life together than not. And so we’re seeing those kind of things happen on a megachurch level, but for the most part, they’re smaller communities, communities that are faith communities that are gathering in place in relative proximity to one another, where they’re again, where they’re prioritizing what does it mean to, here’s the three things that I often talk about:

What does it mean to, how do I start where I am? Wherever I am, how do I discover being church here? How do I discover who’s already here? How do I join with the folks who are the neighbors, also attending to who was here and who’s been forced out while also attending to who’s coming and who’s come, and how the neighborhood is changing?  Because all of that tends to and bears witness to some of the systemic forms of oppression and transformation that are taking place. That’s that all invite a different kind of faithfulness in being present at this point and at this time with who’s there. And then also the third piece then, is to explore how, given who we are and where we are, how do we seek the peace? How do we discover what it is to participate and what God’s doing here without an assumptive, an assumption of what the good news looks like, but with an openness to discover?

And that’s where that shalomic imagination comes into being. How do we foster that kind of an imagination that says, I’ve tasted enough of the goodness of God, of the grace of God, of the shalom of God, to have a sense as to what it’s like. I don’t assume to know perfectly what it is, but that I’ve tasted enough to say, okay, I can head in this direction. I know better what it’s not than I know what it is, but there’s something that I’m search, seek seeking to move toward and communities that are helping us do that is kind of what I’m searching for

JoeKiekintveld: As I’m listening to you. I like the idea of moving away from the word “model.” So I would say that right off the bat, you mentioned that earlier because my experience was often that we were taking what worked in one place and trying to drop it into another place and hoping for the same results without the kind of questioning that you’re talking about. And I like what you’re talking about as far as there are principles here at work that can work in lots of different forms of lots of different expressions of church, lots of different expressions of faith community. So I guess it feels to me, and maybe correct me if I’m wrong, this is a move to return to the missional roots of what you see like the Apostle Paul doing, or other missionaries historically that go into a place and begin using their decoder ring to kind of figure out the neighborhood. Can you speak a little bit more to that, like this move? It feels like a move towards, I mean, not that it’s new, but almost like going back to that way of doing things instead of sort of a disembodied way of just setting up shop and hoping people will come on Sunday.

Dwight Friesen: Yeah, no, I like that a lot. Yeah, I think that’s right. I love the idea of contextual theology and I’m very concerned by the notion of contextualization, if that makes sense. So what I love about the contextual or the particular is that, I mean, all theology is born out of a particular place with particular questions in particular people trying to say, how do we find the least inadequate language to describe God or our experience of God given who we are and where we are and so on. That’s contextual theology, something that’s birthed out of the particularity of our experience. Contextualization often takes our experience of the good news and then says, how do I make it relevant there? So it assumes that we already know what it is as opposed to discovering what’s being invited. I think that’s a really important piece of this. And so I think we hear that in Paul in Acts 17. I mean, there’s something about how do we bear witness to the charism of the particular, somewhere, the spirit of a place. And it’s more like a journey of discovery for us than a planting. I mean, even the idea of church planting, I don’t use that language anymore cause it makes an assumption that I know what needs to be planted over there. [JK: Yeah.] So that would be part of it for me. Oh, what was I thinking just there? Yeah, I think I lost my train of thought.

Joel Kiekintveld: It reminds me of what I hear is there’s a practical theologian in Pretoria, Julie Mueller, that talks about all practical theology as concrete, local, and specific, and as soon as you try to universalize it, it becomes systematics. [DF: Exactly.] But she’s not saying systematics in a very positive way in that at that moment. But this universalization, and the other thing I hear there is the experience I’ve had in some church contexts where churches tend to, will make decisions based on “this is what churches do.” So churches have a youth group, churches have whatever, fill in the blank. And what I hear you, what I hear when I hear you say some of the things that we’ve been talking about here around this journey of discovery, which I really like that language, is what does this place need? What does it look like for us to be the people of God in this place? [DF: Exactly. Exactly.] And it may be completely different than even the next neighborhood over definitely. And I find that really attractive–speaking of attractional–I’m attracted to that idea because it feels really genuine that the expression would be different in each place.

Dwight Friesen: Well, okay, so I am a practical theology, theo theologian, and what that means, at least for me at least in part, and there’s a lot, obviously there’s a lot of ways we can think about that. But part of what that means is I always try to begin my thinking about what do I think about who God is, and how do I understand Jesus? So at the core of my theology, there is this understanding that God is understood as multiplicity and oneness. Our classic language is the trinity, right, three-ness and oneness, which means that God is, there’s a kind of relationality potentially, and that can be framed different ways. I mean, I know that’s complicated language sometimes theologically speaking, but there is multiplicity and yet oneness. The very fact that there is difference already existing in the person of God suggests that difference is good. That being the same is not what the goal is.

In fact, it’s actually in difference when there’s difference, real difference, that that’s the only place we discover love. So what makes the oneness of God so amazing is that God is three. And so when we say God is love, it’s not just that God is loving. God actually is love because God is relating in that kind of a way within God’s self. Which invites us, invites me then as a practical theologian to say is, okay, so if we’re created Imago Dei, if we’re created in the image and likeness of God, if somehow our difference is actually the gift that invites us to discover a way of love, then the goal in part then is to actually tap into the radical particularity, the uniqueness that is you, the uniqueness that is me and fan into flame the joy of the difference between us, because the greater we understand the difference between us, the greater the opportunity for us to discover a way of love and thus sort of discover the very life of God in our own relationship.

And to me, that’s so core to what church is meant to be, that the church is this place, not where we’re trying to collapse people into sameness, whether that’s ideologically or worship style. How do we actually bring the difference together in a particular place in order to discover a way of love together? Now, second piece to that is this notion of God as revealed to revealing God’s self to us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The incarnation shows us as distinctly as anything, maybe more distinctly than anything, that the way the universal is revealed is through the particular. It’s never the other way around, never. If you start with this universal notion, you never land in particular application. We see Jesus as this,  I mean, he’s known to us as Jesus of Nazareth. And so the question for each of us is, what does it mean? The longing of my heart is to become Dwight of Lake Hills. I don’t know what it will look like for me to actually, if I can ever actually become that. I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t raised here. I’ve only lived here for since, well, since 1996 when I moved here to pioneer a church.

But the work that I’m seeking to do. I’m not called to save the world. I’m not called to save Seattle. I’m not called to save anything. I’m called to bear witness, but I’m called to bear witness from the particularity of where I am, and where I am is in this Lake Hills neighborhood. To me, that, one of the reasons why I’ve come to love the neighborhood or the parish is precisely because in our culture that’s so transient, that we move, we treat place like another commodity. There’s something about physical proximity that feels like a kind of spiritual discipline that has us locate ourselves. When we focus on it and make it a central piece, it has us locate and limit the scope of our lives. So rather than drive across town to go to a coffee shop, go to the one that I can walk to. And set up my life in such a way that I’m more likely to bump into people on a regular basis so that, not so that I can convince them of something or get them to join my church, but so that I can actually feel in my own body, the real almost-real time implications of the choices I make.

I can see how my reputation is carried. I can see how my relationships are, how they’re functioning in the world, and there’s something about proximity. If I’m always moving from place to place to place and no one knows me, then no one knows me, and my life is, it’s not at the core or this relational way of being. It’s discovering a way of love. People just become commodities and they become, everything becomes a transactional relationship. There’s something about saying yes to place, yes to particularity that opens up the possibility of relationships that are more likely to be transformational for both, for all parties involved. And so it’s not like there’s anything magical about place. It just feels like a corrective in light of the way our culture has adopted a hovering above place treated like a consumer and just another consumer choice. So I hope that makes some sense.

Joel Kiekintveld: No, it fits well with how I often describe practical theology works from the bottom up, starts at the ground level, and then begins to construct from there. Or in some cases, deconstruct. Whereas often, often we worked, we think we need to work from the very general, and then that will somehow inform the specific. But what I hear you saying that I really like is that idea of being right on the ground, being literally grounded in the place that we’re in. And that changes the way that we think about how we interact with each other and how the church interacts with the area around them, or if they interact with the area around them. If we’re always parachuting in. I was just in Montreal last week and a number of churches in neighborhoods where nobody lives in the neighborhood, they just come in on Sunday and then they leave. There’s no connection whatsoever. And if we’re always parachuting in, then we begin to just universalize [DF: exactly] everything. Yeah. 

Dwight Friesen: Yeah. And that is one of the drawbacks of the megachurch model that we saw in Mars Hill Church, right? It no longer, it ceases to be about actually helping a community discern their faithful presence. And it becomes about pontificating ideal ideology, because that’s what you can sell to the masses. Right now, the faith community that I’m currently serving– in our basement, we have a 23-unit short term housing, housing units for women who have been housing insecure. And in our back property, we have a 64-unit, low income housing high-rise.

Right now, there’s a tension between some of us and some of our neighbors that we’re trying to work through and we’re trying to listen for. A major part of our discernment is how, what’s the invitation for us in light of these very real, very real relationships, human beings who have stories and lives and friendships and families and lots of complications. And in what way is that the invitation for us to discover presence? This is not an abstracted thing. This is like, we walk to church and we see so-and-so, and we have a history, and that history is our invitation to discover and practice all those things that we talk about as theological essentials. What does it mean to bear witness? What does it mean to confess? What does it mean to repent? What does it mean to open up to the other? All of these things that we talk about as being these theological ideas, when they’re grounded in the real, all of a sudden they become the what’s most necessary to have a life that works, a life that is connective.

Joel Kiekintveld: So I want to ask one final question, or maybe two, because I always have an open-ended one at the end, but what about where do you see the church headed? I had a friend that was sort of a regional missions person, and our, the denomination that I’ve been connected to for years, who, for a while, long time was saying, in the future, churches will either be these really, really big kind of megachurch, program-driven sort of entities, or they’ll be really, really small. There won’t be much in between. And I know that’s only talking about size, so that’s not really, in some ways, not a fair thing. But all of that to ask, as you’ve been thinking about this, what direction do you see the church heading in the future? Not that I’m going to come back in 10 years and hold you to [DF: Yeah], but what do you see in your crystal ball, so to speak?

Dwight Friesen: Yeah. Well, I kind of do resonate with that, the bigger and the two extremes and size-wise at least. I mean, this is a lame example, but these days, if you’re going to watch a show or stream a movie or something, you’re either going to do it on your phone or on probably a home theater system. [JK: Yeah], the 27- inch TV’s gone. There’s something about the mid-size thing that’s less economically viable. And I think that there’s something there. There’s no question, part of the future, there’s a reckoning that we’re dealing with in the next decades generation about Whiteness Christianity that’s emerged to us through the Christendom structures. So we also talk about that as the decline in mainline denominations. But that collusion that we alluded to earlier between church and power that then got located in or further linked with national identities and so on, that form of Whiteness Christianity is going to–there’s a reason why those churches are in decline, and it’s not because they’re not having enough of a cult of personality, enough ripped jeans, and rock bands and worship. That’s not the primary issue. There’s some embedded dominance that hasn’t been attended to yet, and that’s going to be some serious work that the Western Church is going to have to lean into one way or another in the next number of years.

I do think that the rise of the artisanal church, what does it mean for us to bear witness to their particular–the last number of years we’ve seen just a huge, the fastest growing church or the fastest growing religious community in America, North America for the last 30 years has been the rise of the Nones and the Dones and the Youngs. People who have left their Christian religious heritage and show no signs of coming back. What I’m keeping my eye on is especially the people who call themselves the Dones or they or who sociologists call the Dones. So just as for our listeners here, I’m using Nones to refer to the people when there, there’s a survey and it says, what religion are you? They’re the ones who say “none of the above.” So they self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. There’s a subset of the Nones who go, who are increasingly called spiritual but not religious. And in some cases people who are still seeking to follow the way of Jesus, but can no longer in good faith stomach the church. They’ve been, they’ve, Josh Packard is a sociologist. He, he’s called them, he’s called them Dones because they’re done with religion or they’re done with the church, but they are not done with Jesus and the quest to discover a way of shalom.

So I say all that to say is I’m really keeping my eye out for the way those Dones get together with their friends who are also Done and support each other in following Christ as they seek to live outside of the church system. In a lot of ways, those people who have had an irreducible existential experience of Jesus that has transformed their life and they’ve done the best that they could to stay in the system of church as they’ve known it, in fact, on average, most Dones, they don’t just change churches three times. They’ll change denominations three times before they finally walk away and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” These are people who do not want to leave the church. This is what they, they’re experienced something of the divine. And here, they come to the point where the only thing that they can do in good conscience is to leave a structure that they believe is harming people in order to protect themselves and their children and to do good in the world.

And there, Packard also refers to these folks sometimes as church refugees because they did not want to leave, but they have no other choice in order to be healthy and pursue life. And again, to me, I’m very curious about how those people sustain their faith over time. That to me, is the church, one of the churches, one of the ways of looking for the church that might be emerging after Christendom. And I’m, to me, so anytime I, I heard the other day about a person who is a Done and she has created a business, it’s a theater troupe, and essentially it’s a church. They wouldn’t call themselves that, but the way they work, the way, even the productions they choose to tell, they are gospel-oriented. I mean, in a sense, again, would never, no one would ever go and say, oh, I was just at church.

And yet they would go and they would say that was real. And so I’m really curious about the non-traditional sense in which people are finding communal expressions that sustain their ability to open up to a way of love as seen in Jesus. And that’s why I walk the neighborhoods. That’s when I hear about churches or faith communities that are trying something new, I want to get on the ground with them. I want to sleep on someone’s couch and hear the story of why they’re doing that, what broke their heart in the past and what hope calls them forward. Because I am convinced that when Jesus says, I’m going to build my church, and the gate to Hell will not prevail against it, I believe that. But I don’t believe that God is necessarily all that thrilled about our systems and our institutions. I’m not anti-institution, don’t hear me that. I mean, I believe that we need all, we need structures and systems and all that kind of thing too. I’m not anti- that. But what I’m concerned about is when our communities exist to further those things, when it’s their primary reason for existence. So yeah, I’m very curious. I’m repeating myself, but I’m very curious to see how those Dones find each other and support each other. I think that’s the church emerging.

Joel Kiekintveld: That’s encouraging to me, the church or the community that I’m a part of, faith community that I’m a part of, we’re trying to move away from actually even using the word church because of some of the things we were talking about, because of the expectations there are, that people have around that word. But when we transitioned from being sort of the model that we’d used for a long time, that was very attractional, we ended up now in a model that is very group-run, looks more like a small church or like a–small church is redundant–but looks more like a house church or a small group in some ways than it does a traditional expression of church. We don’t, it’s mostly discussion-driven, those type of things. Because of some of what you’re saying, wanting to undo some of structures that were not helpful or that we found made it difficult for us to pursue what it means to follow Jesus together in community.

Dwight Friesen: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to do this in community, but there’s something about just like how do we genuinely bear witness to one another about what we need or what we sense we might need, and then how do we have a conversation around that that helps us sharpen that thinking a little bit more so that we’re not just running off of our emotive space, but we bring that emotive desire. There’s something that I want and there’s something that I am trying to get away from, and I thought somehow we can bring those desires to one another and listen for what’s underneath them. I believe that the spirit is wanting to guide us toward the kind of flourishing that Jesus promised in John 10: I’ve come to give life and life to abundance. That’s what I’m shepherding you toward, not towards perpetuating systems that have you locked inside the walls of the, in that case, the sheep pen or whatever. [JK: Right]. In this case the church. 

Joel Kiekintveld: So my final question, Dwight, is there anything I missed or is there anything you would want listeners to know ar around what we’ve been talking about, how we think about church, how we build faith communities in the way of Jesus, or as you use with the shalomic imagination? Is there anything you’d want to add to the conversation before we finish?

Dwight Friesen: I think I would just want to underscore probably the great hope that we serve a God who is a God of resurrection. And resurrection hope is not an escapist imagination. It’s not an escapist hope. It doesn’t avoid pain or suffering. Rather, resurrection hope is the kind of courage that dares us to move toward the very thing that scares the crap out of us. Maybe that’s the closing of our church. Maybe it’s the financial imploding of the system that we have loved or something like that. I don’t know. I think resurrection hope looks more like Jesus in the garden praying, “My God, if there’s a way to let this cup pass me by, please, but not my will, but thine be done.” I guess what I’m trying to say with all that is as we look at the churches that are emerging and some of the suffering that we’re going to endure as some of our systems collapse in coming years, we do not grieve as those without hope. But God is doing a new thing and part of what we get, I think in the person of Jesus Christ is this dare to move toward the thing because moving to like Jesus, I mean, he refuses to give in to the systems of Rome.

He doesn’t strike back violence with violence. He strikes, he comes back to violence with forgiveness in his heart. And it’s like we don’t need to double down, and I just wonder what it is to actually move with love toward the things that scare the life out of us, and maybe just maybe the spirit of God will meet us there and do what God does and actually call forth from the grave new life and say, unbind that one, be free. Unity and freedom. I think that’s at the heart of what the church is being wooed to, and it’s going to cost us something to get there, but for the joy I set before us, I say let’s, let’s press on. I hope conversations like this can continue and that I hope our listeners will attend to the thing that scares them. I know it’s real. I see it in the eyes of some of the people in my church. I hear it in some of our stories, and there’s no easy answer to it, but we are not alone. God is with us. The spirit will not abandon us, and God is doing a new thing.

Joel Kiekintveld: It makes me think about the, Paul talking about resurrection hope is a hope that doesn’t disappoint. I think it’s a good place for us to end. Dwight, thank you so much for sharing your experience, your thoughts with us about what the church can look like if we begin to think about it a little bit differently.

Dwight Friesen: Oh, thanks so much, Joel. Again, thank you for all that you’re doing. Appreciate you.

Joel Kiekintveld: No, thank you. My thanks to Dwight Friesen for joining me on this episode and sharing his expertise of different ways of thinking about church. I hope that it’s helpful for you as you think about your church community. If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the low-residency Master of Arts in Theology & Culture (MATC) programs at The Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at:

I also invite you to check out the Center For Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that 1 in 3 pastors is at risk for burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local contexts – and in the process, to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach at

Until Next Time, I’m Joel Kiekintveld. Grace & Peace.