Dan Kimball lives in the same world the rest of us live in. He sees the enormous gulf that has developed between the religious and the secular in this culture, just like we all do.
But Kimball isn’t content to stand on one side of that gulf and look disapprovingly at the other side, as many of us are. He still believes there is a middle ground where nobody draws distinctions between Christians and humanists.
Kimball is the pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, though he doesn’t use the title. He is also the author of a new book titled “Adventures in Churchland” (Zordervan), a kind of memoir/manifesto of a Christian living in the modern world.
Vintage Faith, known by many unchurched coffee lovers as the owner/operator of The Abbey coffeehouse on Mission Street, is in many ways a ministry tailored to the unique environment of Santa Cruz. Kimball cited a study his church conducted last year that found that 36 percent of his congregation were college students. And he has developed credibility with that demographic with a stance at once devoted the message of Jesus Christ, yet frank about the failings of Christianity.
Early on in “Adventures,” Kimball writes, “I saw the church mainly as a mess of judgmentalism, dogma, contradiction and hypocrisy.” The book’s subtitle is, in fact, “Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion.”
In a discussion in his office at Vintage Faith, next door to The Abbey, Kimball cited a 2007 study that found for young people between the ages of 16 and 30, the top three impressions they had of Christians were “1) judgmental, 2) negative and 3) anti-gay. Even if you have genuine theological differences in belief, to be known like that is just not good.”
To say that Christians suffer from an image problem is, to Kimball, an understatement. One of his chapter titles, in fact, is “I Wouldn’t Like Christians If I Weren’t One.”
“There are a lot of us who don’t like being defined by the loudest voices out there. But the more I talk to younger people outside the church, the more I understand that all they’re hearing is the loudest voices and the most controversial voices, so their definition and understanding of the church becomes shaped by these things.”
Kimball himself did not grow up in a religious household. In fact, he came to his faith as a musician in a punk rock band. He had developed an intense curiosity about faith and Christianity as a college student, but didn’t act on it until he was living in the U.K., and happened upon a group of elderly Christians whose only vice was a love for Ovaltine. When he met them, he looked like the typical punk rocker of the period, as he described it, “a kind of Stray Cats, neo-rockabilly, post-Sex Pistols punk look.” (To underscore his musical street-cred, Kimball was able to get rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson to write the book’s foreword.)
The elderly Brits were not at all fazed by his clothes or hairdo, he said. “They never judged me for any of that. They were intelligent. They allowed me to ask questions and they never thought anything about my dress or looks, just, ‘Are you learning about Jesus’?”
When he returned to Santa Cruz, it was a different story. At the church that he joined, he began hearing complaints from parents about the way he dressed and his haircut. The pastor of the church gave him money to get his haircut.
“So, I got my hair cut,” he said. “I thought, well, I guess this is what it means to be a good Christian.” He said he went through a “season of conformity.” He tried to like contemporary Christian music, but after a while, his rebellious nature came through.
“I just thought, I don’t think God cares about my exterior appearance. These people don’t know my heart, or who I am as a person. They’re making judgments on my appearance. Forget this.”
It was at that point that Kimball began living as himself. He began his own youth ministry in which what mattered wasn’t the trappings of contemporary Christian culture or music or haircuts, but the message of the preachings of Jesus.
Kimball said that eventually he came to the church not because of American religious culture, but in spite of it.
“I didn’t have a bottom-out experience in my life, like a lot of people do. My friends weren’t witnessing to me. I was just always wondering what this thing called Christianity was. So I never forgot what it was like to come into a subculture of Christianity, wanting only to learn about Jesus, and getting signals that are confusing.”
What’s important, he emphasized, is what’s carried in the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike.
“What is this thing called ‘church’?” he said. “Is it something to go to? Well, when you say, ‘I’m going to church, it’s a theological impossibility. The Bible says ‘church’ is all around us. You are the church. But, it’s encoded in our language that church is a building and a place. But really, I’m a church all week. And if people would grasp that, how would that reflect in their lives when they’re in line at Safeway? That’s the question.”