I helped start Woodland Hills Church in the fall of 1992. In the beginning, we were an almost all-white Evangelical church that was supposed to minister to people in an almost all-white suburb of the Twin Cities. Shortly after we got going, however, I began to get a strong sense that what we thought we were supposed to be was quite different from what God intended us to become. Before too long, Woodland Hills was evolving into a congregation that was passionate about racial reconciliation and serving the city. As a result, we never actually made it into the suburbs, and we eventually began to lose our almost all-white status.
The biggest and most surprising way Woodland Hills began to change, however, was theological in nature. Throughout the 90s and into the turn of this century I found myself on a journey out of a rather typical American evangelical theology and model of church into a kingdom-centered theology and model of church—a theology and ecclesiology that I would eventually learn sat me squarely within the Anabaptist tradition.
I tried very hard to gently take my ever-growing evangelical congregation along with me in this journey. I introduced new ideas as softly as I could. I would downplay the more radical implications of these ideas and minimize the degree to which they conflicted with the standard evangelical beliefs and practices that many in my congregation still embraced. I’d like to believe that my motive for soft-pedaling these new convictions was strictly pedagogical in nature. I’d like to think I just wanted to give people sufficient time to process these new ideas.
If I’m really honest with myself, however, I strongly suspect I was also motivated by a desire to keep pastoring as large a church as possible. By 2004, Woodland Hills Church had grown to roughly 5,000 regular attenders, and on some level I knew that if I really “came clean” about the more radical Anabaptist convictions I’d acquired over the last decade or so, a good portion of this crowd might not stick around.
The presidential election of 2004 provided me with an opportunity to find out. Like so many other evangelical pastors, in the months leading up to this election I was feeling an unprecedented amount of pressure to steer my “flock” in the “right” direction, which meant, encouraging them to vote for “the right” candidate and “the right position” on the conservative hot-button issues. Much of this pressure came from people in my own congregation who were getting stirred up watching evangelical television stations, listening to evangelical talk-show radio stations, or just reading evangelical propaganda. Among other things, I and my board were being asked to have our congregation sign various petitions and make various pledges, to hand out “voting information” leaflets to our attenders after our church services, to draw attention to various political happenings during our regular church announcements, etc.
Now, we had never been a church that got into politics, even prior to our evolution in an Anabaptist direction, so we refused to give into this pressure. This irritated some of the more conservative members of our church, and the leadership of Woodland Hills church began to be accused by some of steering clear of politics because we were afraid to take any stand that might offend the more liberal members of our congregation. One attender indecorously captured the sentiment of many when he angrily told me, “You guys just don’t have the [courage] to stand up for God and for our country!”
Seeing that the level of frustration was escalating, I and my board decided we had come upon “a teaching opportunity.” We believed it was time to quit minimizing the distinctly Anabaptist beliefs and practices we’d come to embrace and provide our congregation with a clear biblical explanation as to why we will never throw our hat in the ring of any political party or weigh in on any partisan issue. We sensed it was time for me to clearly and passionately spell out the radical difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world and to clearly express the urgent need to keep them separate—that is, to keep the kingdom “holy.” We believed it was time to drive home the truth that history demonstrates that the church’s witness is always compromised, if not completely undermined, when it tries to further its agenda through political means. And we sensed it was time to provide people with our theological rationale for why we have never had a flag in our church, why we never celebrate the fourth of July in church, why we don’t celebrate our military or condone any form of violence, and why we don’t conform to “normal” American evangelical churches in a number of other ways.
It’s not like I never touched on these topics before. I just had never done so as deeply, as clearly, as persistently, or as boldly as I did during this sermon series. The series, which lasted six weeks, was entitled “The Cross and the Sword,” and it fundamentally transformed our congregation.
The response to this series was telling on several accounts. For one thing, I had never received anything close to the amount of positive feedback I received throughout this sermon series. Some people literally wept with gratitude saying that they had always felt like “outsiders” in the evangelical community for not “towing the conservative party line” on politics. Others reported that their eyes had been opened to how they had unwittingly allowed political and national agendas and issues to cloud their vision of the uniquely beautiful kingdom of God.
But I also had never received anything close to the amount and intensity of negative feedback that I got throughout this sermon series. My messages have always been a bit edgy, at least by typical American evangelical standards, so I was used to occasionally engaging with an angry attender at the end of my sermons. During this series, however, I regularly had to interact with groups of agitated people who would badger me with questions and/or occasional accusations.
The leadership of Woodland Hills Church had prepared ourselves to “take a hit” as a result of this sermon series, but no one anticipated it would be as large as it turned out. Close to a thousand people ended up leaving, which was roughly 20 percent of our congregation at the time. To be more precise, approximately 700 left during “The Cross and the Sword” series, and then another 300 joined them when I decided that some folks hadn’t fully grasped what I was saying, so I revisited the topic several months later in a fourth of July sermon.
At this point one of my board members jokingly suggested I should put together a “Church Shrinkage Seminar” and take it on the road as an alternative to the many “Church Growth Seminars” that were available.
The intensity and scope of this reaction—in a church that had always been identified as “left of center” by other evangelical churches in our area—confirmed our deepest concerns about the evangelical church in America. Among other things, it illustrated just how thoroughly many people have fused their faith with their politics as well as with a partisan interpretation of American values. In short, the astonishing reaction of so many in my church to this series simply confirmed how badly this series needed to be preached!
The months following “the great exodus,” as we like to call it, were difficult. The people who had left tended to be white folks who had been our biggest contributors. We had to downsize our budget by more than 30 percent, which in turn had serious ramifications for our staff. Most staff took voluntary pay cuts to allow us to retain as many people as possible. But even with these generous sacrifices, some very dear and hard-working friends had to be let go. That was the hardest part.
On top of this, we quickly noticed that the great exodus had begun to bring about a change in our demographics. We had always been a church that drew from both the city and the suburbs (our church building is literally on the property line dividing the city of St. Paul and the suburb of Maplewood). After the exodus, however, we began to draw more and more from the city, and these people tended to belong to a lower-income bracket and to be non-white. The result was that the needs of our congregation began to greatly outrun the recently-diminished resources that were available to meet those needs.
It was a tough situation, but out of this mess God began to birth something truly beautiful. For one thing, the sixteenth-century Anabaptists taught a “hermeneutic of obedience,” meaning that they believed that the mind could only see a truth to the degree that the heart was willing to submit to it. This principle was proven true in our experience, for as soon as we were willing to take a bold stand and passionately affirm our distinctly Anabaptist convictions, we began to see their beauty and importance more profoundly than we ever had before. The same convictions I used to soft-pedal quickly became the strongest rallying points for our congregation.
Not only this, but only when we gave ourselves permission to fearlessly proclaim our Anabaptist convictions, regardless of the cost, could we wake up to just how much our previous soft-pedaling had cost us. We had always prided ourselves on not being a numbers-obsessed consumer-driven church, but once we “came clean” with our radical convictions, it became clear that, as a matter of fact, we had been significantly consumer-driven. Around this same time we noticed that Paul’s concern was always to present disciples fully mature before Christ; he was never concerned with numbers. And so we reoriented our bulls eye from quantity to quality and put in place a rigorous 26-six week disciple-making program that equips people to enter into disciple-making missional communities.
We still have a ways to go, but I believe the depth of our disciple-making is much better than it ever has been in the past.
Another beautiful thing that God brought out of our tough situation were some remarkable kingdom partnerships. With our needs soaring and our resources significantly smaller, we had to ask God to help us get creative, and he did. We started developing relationships with a number of ministries and governmental agencies that aimed at doing things that we also wanted to do, such as feed hungry people, provide emergency aid to people in crisis, help homeless people get into affordable housing, provide a free day care for disadvantaged families, provide job training so people can get jobs their families can actually live on, help at risk youth, etc.
We eventually entered into a full partnership with these ministries and governmental agencies. The arrangement is that they bring to the table their expertise and we in turn allow them to use our building as an office for free while supporting their ministry with money, resources and volunteers. It’s a beautiful arrangement; the result is that our church has become a widely recognized service center for the poor, and we are forging new partnerships all the time. Were it not for the great exodus, I doubt we would have ever evolved as a church in such a radical service-oriented direction.
Finally, I ended up transforming “The Cross and the Sword” series into a book (The Myth of a Christian Nation), and I included a bit of the story of the great exodus in it. This story caught the eye of a lady who writes for the New York Times and, to make a long story short, her interview with me ended up on the front page of the New York Times. What is significant about this is that the international attention put us on other people’s radar. We began hearing from individuals, small groups, and churches all over the globe who would tell us that the journey we had been on since the early 90s is very similar to the journey they had been on. The number of people who download our podcast each week went from several hundred to several thousand and now averages around 20,000.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have learned that there is an informal, grassroots, ever-expanding kingdom movement going on around the globe. For those of us who are passionate about the kingdom, this is incredibly exciting, and the fact that we at Woodland Hills Church get to play a role in developing and growing this movement makes it even more so.
But none of these beautiful and wholly unexpected developments would have taken place had we continued to play it safe. Sure, losing a significant percentage of your congregation isn’t easy. But in light of all the remarkable kingdom things that God has brought out of this loss, no one in the leadership of Woodland Hills Church would hesitate in saying that it was more than worth it and that we’d do it again in a heartbeat if we had to.
Because sometimes you’ve got to be willing to shrink your church to discover the full beauty and joy of the kingdom. And brothers and sisters, it is worth it!
Author: Gregory A. Boyd
Dr. Gregory (Greg) A. Boyd is the co-founder and senior pastor of the Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul. MN, and an internationally recognized theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist, and author. He is also the founder and president of ReKnew Ministries (renew.org). This article is adapted from his presentation at Messiah College for the annual Schrag Lectures in March 2017.