“Open-Source Christianity”

The place was mostly filled up by five o’clock, with solemn-eyed hipsters, middle-schoolers, and graying seniors seated on a motley assortment of older sofas arranged in rings. Wine bottles and plump bread loaves sat on scattered coffee tables, which, along with antique rugs and lamps, contributed to the overall feel of a living room (albeit a sizable one). A man with slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair half-shouted greetings to a gangly youngster. Chatting the boy up, he intoned, “What can I conquer next, now that I have this human interaction thing down?” The boy held out his fist as if gallantly challenging his master to a duel. “Rock, paper, scissors.”

As stragglers trickled in, the band started. The salt-and-pepper man gave a bold vocal accompaniment to the guitarist’s heady vibrato: “The thinnest spots of you … gradually wear through. The circumstance of something true … touches both the old and new.” Others watched the words projected on screens or watched each other hesitantly following along. Afterward, one of the band members chuckled, “That’s what a new song feels like around here: a little like a train wreck.”

The whole setup might seem awkward as church services go, but that is precisely what the congregation of Solomon’s Porch intends. Booklets handed out to newcomers affirm that the seating in-the-round is meant “to help us engage with one another during the music, prayer, and discussion … give it a chance for a while and see how it grows on you.”

Some few hundred people are doing just that, attending this self-described “holistic, missional Christian community” and attempting to “live the dreams and love of God in the way of Jesus.”

Standing well over six feet, Doug Pagitt is the hulking, winsome frontman of Solomon’s Porch, whose stately stone edifice and vaulted sanctuary once served Methodists, before it went up for rent on Craigslist. “We want to participate in what God’s doing in the world. We don’t have everything figured out,” Pagitt didn’t hesistate to admit, with a surprisingly elfin grin. Pagitt became a Christian at sixteen, but had no religious background before that. “I’d never been to church. I didn’t know anything—it was all new,” he said later. Pagitt and some of his teenage pals developed an experimental approach, living out a relational kind of “open-source Christianity,” as he calls it. Sixteen years later, in 1999, he and a group of friends and acquaintances fashioned a church model patterned after his experiences. “We believe in ‘life agreement,’ ” he said during an interview. “We really don’t do ‘doctrinal agreement.’”

Pagitt uses humor, friendly ribbing, and probably even his blue jeans to fuel the casual-authentic environment of Solomon’s Porch. He believes spiritual life flourishes in community; even sermons are shaped by several volunteers every Tuesday. During a recent service, Pagitt explained the process with sweeping gestures. “We collectively create the sermon,” he told worshippers. “It’s not a one-man or one-woman operation. It’s a holistic gathering of thoughts.” On this particular Sunday, Pagitt was serving as the “chief collaborator.” He sat down on the lone stool encircled by all the sofas and asked one family to introduce their baby. The new congregant first had to be located, turning up in a friend’s arms across the room. “Wait, Amy’s not the mother!” Pagitt laughed, his voice booming easily without the use of a microphone. “And by the way, I’m not the father.”

As he initiated the Bible discussion portion of the service, Pagitt began swiveling on his stool—slowly at first, but then quickly, as though paddling in a pitching canoe. “We always think of the word Jesus with the word Christ,” he pointed out as he crossed his legs, swiveled, and shifted in one seamless motion. “Jesus and Christ go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a good ‘last name’ … the quintessential swear word.” Cross, swivel, shift. A young couple in the inner ring smiled, scratching notes to each other on their booklets. “The Jews had the story of Jesus make sense to the Gentiles,” Pagitt quipped at one point. His talk was sprinkled with pop culture references: Journeyman, ZEN MP3 players, Back to the Future, LOST. (Jesus’s parables could have seemed dull in comparison.) Pagitt eventually paused and his stool came to rest. “Questions? Thoughts? Better interpretations?” The baby started crying. “There is no singular right way of thinking,” he reiterated.

After an appropriately contemplative silence, one guy piped up. “It’s fascinating what’s different between the Jews and Gentiles, and what’s the same.” Pagitt ran with the comment like an eager college professor as a few kids scampered around the room. Later, a young man introduced Communion, proclaiming it “a political act that liberates us.” Congregants began mingling, breaking bread, and pouring wine for each other. Eventually Pagitt’s booming voice returned, asking everybody to gather for one last communal response. As people grabbed hands and circled up once more to chant verses from Jude, it seemed as though the joyous Whos of Who-ville had relocated to South Minneapolis. The only thing missing was the giant Christmas tree—and any traditionalist-minded Grinches to pooh-pooh the scene.