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Theologian Tony Jones helps churches reach their young, restless and wired flocks

Besides his work in social media, Jones is the theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch, an author, and the former national coordinator of Emergent Village.

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

The green, paint-flaking arched doorway of Solomon’s Porch in South Minneapolis opens to a hallway filled with the usual church effects: dark wood, an etching of the 23rd Psalm, a sign marking the entrance to the Great Room.

Further along the wall, however, hangs a painting of blurry heads hovering over a beach. In the Great Room, a large replica of a goose hangs from the ceiling and two dozen chairs and loveseats fill the floor space where pews once stood. One mural on the wall pictures a duck with the words, “You Rock my World.”

interior of solomon's porch
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
“There is no wall between the church and the culture.”

“This place isn’t a sanctuary,” Tony Jones says to a group of pastors who have gathered in what was most certainly, back when Solomon’s Porch was a United Methodist Church, a sanctuary. “There is no wall between the church and the culture.”

Social media ‘boot camp’

Bearded, in black-rimmed glasses, brown striped shirt and cargo pants, Jones is co-leading a three-day social media “boot camp” intended to help pastors learn how to effectively use websites, Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools to engage their modern congregations.

The presentation is light on dogma; the pastors in the group, after all, represent many denominations, and some of the participants are from nonprofit groups or small businesses. But the discussion often returns to ways in which technology can affect congregations and spur new ways of thinking about theology.

James Henry has traveled from Alexandria, Va., to see if he can come up with new ways to interact with his congregation at St. James United Methodist Church, where the average age of the parishioners is the early 30s. He had heard about Jones and the social-media workshops through ministry networks and decided to come and see for himself.

“It’s important to communicate the good news of Jesus in a variety of ways, and I want to develop the tools to do that,” he says. “I don’t have to change the good news – just the way it is delivered.”

A wooden cross hanging on the wall where there was once an altar is bordered by perhaps 60 sketches and paintings of people’s faces. The big goose, it turns out, is a Celtic Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit. Asked if the aesthetic feel of Solomon’s Porch would fly in his congregation, Henry pauses and then says: “You know, for most of my congregation, this wouldn’t be stretching it.”

New tools of the trade

Jones, along with Doug Pagitt, the pastor at Solomon’s Porch, has run dozens of social media workshops, some in Minnesota and others across the country. The workshops are just one part of a Christian ecosystem, inhabited by Jones and other young Minnesota pastors and theologians, like Pagitt and Senior Pastor Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, that seeks to challenge the way both mainstream and evangelical churches are plying their trade.

exterior of solomon's porch
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Solomon’s Porch is housed in a former United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis.

Besides his work in social media (his Twitter handle, @jonestony, has 7,000 followers), Jones is the theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch; the former national coordinator of an organization called Emergent Village; the author, co-author or editor of a dozen books on theology; a blogger (whose “Theoblogy” posts are occasionally picked up by MinnPost); and an adjunct instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary and other schools. He also recently rolled out “Ordain Thyself,” an iPhone app for the religiously curious who want to know a bit about other faiths and see what they would look like in various religious outfits. reported on the app, including the thoughts of a Lutheran pastor who was not amused. (Said Jones: “I think it’s kind of fun.”)

Jones’ writing often fits under the banner of post-modernism, a philosophy of skepticism that has drawn criticism from more traditional theologians and pastors. (His books, blog posts and tweets can be found on his website.)

Yet the common theme running through much of Jones’ work is more practical than controversial: the belief that churches of all stripes can do more to connect with their congregations, especially younger members who are comfortable with technology, skeptical of authority and hungry for a transcendent spiritual experience. Through his varied work, Jones hopes to equip all kinds of churches with the language, sensibility and technological savvy that can help them stay relevant in an era, as he puts it, in which more and more people are self-taught.

Questions assumptions

“What Tony is good at is being willing to call into question people’s assumptions about how the church should be,” said David Lose, a professor at Luther Seminary who knows Jones and invited him to speak this summer at a conference in Atlanta. “He does that outside a denomination and has a certain freedom or willingness to see things that you can’t perhaps from within. And he is also tremendously interested in making sense of the media environment we are in.”

The emerging church – basically a decentralized, denomination-free model of Christian worship and expression – remains central to Jones’ work. The Twin Cities are home to several emerging churches or offshoots of mainstream churches that borrow from the emerging church style, such as Jacob’s Well (a branch of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis), and the Upper Room, now located in St. Louis Park (it was developed by Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina). Others have such unorthodox names as Spirit Garage, Mercy Seat and House of Mercy.

‘The Church Is Flat’

The Church is Flat

Jones’ book, “The Church Is Flat”a play on New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book on globalization, “The World is Flat”is a study of the emerging church (and served as his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University). In the book’s conclusion, he writes that the emerging church has raised several important questions for the broader church to consider, such as “the ever-changing relationship between clergy and laity, especially in a time when new media are flattening hierarchies across our culture,” and the “use of pastiche worship practices from across confessional boundaries.”

Lose, who teaches what is known as homiletics (essentially the art of preaching), says there is great value in that kind of skepticism and reimagining, especially at a time when American culture is less dominated by Christianity.

“If you are not gaining practice on how to think about your faith on Sunday and then not thinking about it at all during the week, sooner or later you will decide that you can do something else on Sunday,” Lose said. “Before, it was OK to have the pastor do the thinking for you, but now part of Sunday has to be about helping people to think about what it means to be a Christian.”

Solomon’s Porch draws as many as 300 people for its Sunday evening worship services. Pagitt is Jones’ friend, theologian-in-arms and business partner; the two run the “boot camps” for both pastors and leaders in other realms, charging $125 for one-day sessions and $245 for three-day summer sessions.

Pagitt, a rangy former Bethel University basketball player who was a youth pastor at Wooddale Church, a prominent evangelical church in Eden Prairie, before starting Solomon’s Porch in 2000, said Jones is “a public voice in expressing a new way of Christianity.”  He said Jones does that through two roles: as a social networker who provides guidance on new media tools that can bring like-minded people together and as an idea-generator who sheds light on new practices.

“Tony is quite bright, first of all, and he has the ability to see through an issue to those deeper issues behind a topic. I think he can tap into that kind of thing,” Pagitt said. “And he’s really a hard worker.”

In search of new ways to worship

Jones grew up attending Colonial Church, a Congregational church in Edina, and graduated from Edina High School in 1990, a time when the mega-church movement was gaining steam and emerging churches were, for the most part, an experiment. He had wanted to be a pastor since the seventh grade.

An experience at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, foreshadowed his future role as an outsider within the church.

“I grew up in the Congregational tradition where free thought and higher education is valued, and then I got into a conservative evangelical group on campus where questioning the canon of belief was not desired,” he recalled. “I was asked to leave, and that kind of led to a crisis.”

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He paused and then added, with a laugh, “I wanted to be a pastor and got kicked out of a Christian group.”

Nonetheless, Jones stayed on his path, attending Fuller Theological Seminary after he graduated from Dartmouth. He then joined the staff at Colonial, where he worked as a youth pastor for seven years. He loved running camps and mission trips and “taking kids out of their Edina comfort zone,” though he felt something was missing.

He left Colonial to attend Princeton. In the author’s note in “The Church Is Flat,” Jones writes that when he returned to Minnesota he knew he “could not return to the church of my youth and of my former employment.” Instead, he began attending Solomon’s Porch and became the national coordinator of Emergent Village in 2005.

“It wasn’t so much my time at Princeton as it was the emerging church movement,” he explained. “I was going to conferences and listening to different ways to do church – some really innovative stuff. I had kind of been the one guy at Colonial who was arguing that an established, conventional church could make the cultural shift to be a postmodern church, with new forms of worship and a 21st century understanding of the Gospel.”

Combining the old with the new

The emerging church movement stands at an interesting intersection of modern church life – one that combines the casual, expressional worship style of modern evangelicalism with the more interpretational theology of mainstream Christianity.

Modernity, Jones believes, promises a more interactive and relational worship style in which congregants are expected to be part of the worship service rather than passive receivers of knowledge. (Jones likes to tell the story of being interrupted by a worshipper who had looked up something Jones had just said on the Web and wanted to challenge him.)

“I don’t believe in the trickle-down model of education, which has been the model since the Council of Trent” in the mid-1500s, he said. “That is the way we have educated people theologically, but we live in a Wikipedia world.”

Pagitt adds this: While ethnic and denominational distinctions were very important 100 years ago (think Norwegians and Lutheranism and the Irish and Catholicism), they are much less important today. And nearly everybody is wired and connected – in other words, primed for an immediate and immersive spiritual experience.

“These days you have other forces at work,” Pagitt said. “Similar people that are part of a group – say, for instance, urban-living people, with some education, who are literate, who love technology. They have all of these commonalities.”

“What Tony is doing is communicating with and creating social networks for people.”

A good place for innovation

Jones has, perhaps surprisingly, found Minnesota – home to a million Catholics and nearly as many Lutherans – to be a prime place for re-thinking how churches function.

“My theory is that it’s because we have a latent Christianity here. It’s in the water,” said Jones, who is married and has three children. “Most people were confirmed Lutheran or Catholic, but the latent Christianity we have is a fairly progressive German-Catholic, Scandinavian-Lutheran kind.”

He went on: “And then you combine that with the progressive politics here and the rich art and music and cultural scene. It’s a beautiful synergy of progressive culture and latent Christianity and the result is some interesting church innovation.”

Many mainstream churches have borrowed from the emerging church playbook, combining the traditions favored by older congregants with a more relaxed style favored by the young. But as Jones says, “we have to do better than mix hymns with the Carpenters.”

At the Solomon’s Porch “boot camp,” Gretchen Lord Anderson, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Lodi, Wis., took notes on her laptop. She had also attended a social media workshop near Chicago. Her church has a decent Facebook page but “little conversation going on” among her congregants, she said, and she hoped the boot camp would help her to change that.

Among the ideas discussed at the workshop: increasingly popular practices, such as posting sermons online, and more edgy ideas, such as generating feedback from parishioners via Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

‘I want to get them involved’

“I don’t want to just stand up there and preach,” Anderson says. “I want to get them involved.”

And that is what Jones is hoping for – enthusiastic involvement by worshipers who are armed with technology and high expectations for an immersive experience.

“You know, if I have an idea – say, about how I want people to rethink the atonement – I will write about it, blog about it, speak about it and tweet about it,” he says as the boot-campers begin to return from their lunch break. “I want to equip people with those tools so that they can self-educate and broadcast what they know.”

Raising his voice just a bit, he adds: “If you’re a Methodist and you believe your message is attractive, for God’s sake, tell people why you believe so!”