- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

BOTHELL, Wash. — It's a region of universities, the birthplace of grunge rock, Microsoft and Starbucks coffee and a Shangri-La for bicycle enthusiasts and mountain climbers.
It's also a center for free thought. In recent years, Washington has polled as the nation's most pro-choice and least-churched state. Urbane and trendy, it has attracted an unusual seminary devoted to raising church leaders to pastor the nation's young, bored and restless.
Mars Hill Graduate School is the new home for an unusual theological experiment founded by a group of evangelical Christian counselors and psychologists seeking to create a new breed of clergy and church worker. The premise of the school is that ministers must be students of American culture, must learn to speak its language and learn to listen.
"Christians have forgotten how to dialogue," says Dan Allender, the 49-year-old president of the seminary, which sits in a business park in the Seattle suburb of Bothell. "It's hard to engage a human heart if you don't know how to listen. The Gospel is not a product like a Hoover vacuum."
And what is the culture talking about? Anger and sexuality, for starters; two topics most churches are not comfortable talking about.
"The things you don't hear about in church are the things that ache in people's lives," he says. "The Gospel gets lost in '50s American blandness."
That is why the seminary's three-times-a-year magazine, the 160-page Mars Hill Review, (www.marshillforum.org) contains a review of the latest CD by Smashing Pumpkins, an interview with Columbia University historian Jacques Barzun on decadence in Western culture, an essay on Nietzsche, a think piece on virginity, generous amounts of poetry and an article about "gay writers on faith."
"What we find in Seattle is, although it's a liberal city, people are very much in conversation here," says Kim Hutchins, publisher of the 5,000-circulation journal and a commercial real estate lawyer. "There's a huge web of community activism centered on dialogue."
That is why the magazine markets itself to the literary and poetry shelves at Barnes & Noble instead of being sold at Christian bookstores.
That is also why founders of the seminary chose the name "Mars Hill" as their logo. Mars Hill is the English translation of the Aeropagus, the hill in Athens mentioned in Acts 17, where the Apostle Paul argued the case for Christianity with Greek skeptics 2,000 years ago.
Christianity can be presented to today's culture in just as winsome a way, they say, but not in the "modernist" terms of evangelist Bill Bright, who reduced the 20th-century Gospel to four "spiritual laws" presented in booklet form. Seattleites, they say, are far more postmodern and forward-looking in their lifestyles than, say, Texans, and present a perfect laboratory to learn what can work in the 21st-century church.
Seattle is also more indicative of a pop culture that changes every four years, compared with a Christian culture that turns over every 40 years.
The Mars Hill professors also chose the Pacific Northwestern city because of its love of the arts, its nonjudgmental, diverse population, the vitality of having two competing newspapers and a balance of political opposites whereby the new Democratic senator, Maria Cantwell, scraped out a victory by the narrowest of voting margins over the long-time Republican incumbent. It is also a city where one of the most popular radio stations, KVI AM 570, is a conservative talkfest featuring everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin, also a Seattle resident.
The seminary, which offers classes to 202 students on everything from youth-ministry philosophy to church history to psychopathology, has graduated 175 persons in the past three years in three degree programs. Graduates have also requested training on how to help the sexually addicted and how to create films to impact the culture. In the planning stages are degree programs in the creative arts.
"Our students aren't afraid of engaging with people who believe differently," says Heather Webb, a professor of counseling and theology. "Somewhere in our evangelical subculture, we think we have to convict others of sin whereas it is the work of the Holy Spirit."
Mrs. Webb was one of a group of six seminary professors who left Colorado Christian College in 1997 to found a nontraditional theological school on the West Coast. Although several of the professors were Presbyterians, they aligned themselves with Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., a school associated with the Conservative Baptist Association of America. Mars Hill Graduate School enrolled 30 students in its first year.
The sextet of professors had been dissatisfied with how Christians were being trained at the Colorado school and how the class work did not always reflect real life.
"Our core constituency began in the counseling office, so we know what's going on out there," Mr. Hutchins says. "There's a large segment of folks out there who are young, curious and hungry, but they have never been part of a church."
"There is a sense among evangelicals that Christianity has become boring," Mrs. Webb says. "In our fear of being too sensual, sexual or violent, we have stopped being passionate.
"People are asking: 'Will you be honest? Will you have integrity in such a way that I know your God is real?'"
Unlike Paul, the Mars Hill folks are short on dogma and long on storytelling and hanging out at one of Seattle's many off-beat movie houses, coffee shops and bookstores. There are no temples of Artemis present, but there is the Sunday evening Compline service at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, the one place in town where Christians and New Agers gather to listen to medieval liturgy set to Gregorian-style chant.
"You can't reach a culture unless you love it," says Mr. Allender, who regularly chats up passengers on the daily ferry rides from his home on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound to downtown Seattle.
"What people on the ferry see of Christianity is its superficiality. We hate movies, theater, music, but we never go to see them. We've become a culture of 'no.'
"What we ask people to do in grad school is to face the darkness of their own hearts. America has not lost its rage against sin, but it has lost its sorrow over the depth of sin," he says.
So the seminary chases its students out into the world, and, like Paul, to learn how to express appreciation for the culture before interpreting it, critiquing it and offering an alternative. Mr. Hutchins, for instance, hosts a monthly potluck and film showing at his home for unchurched neighbors. Mr. Allender zips about town on a BMW motorcycle.
"We want to return people," Mr. Allender says, "to know how radical and wild the Bible is."

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