Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays

Um, Wow: It’s The Imago Dei Show, Starring Rick McKinley!

The halls of Imago Dei church are decked out in a rotating display of member-created art.

A couple of weeks ago, me and my friend went to this show in the student art gallery and then we went and hung out in the coffee shop for a while and then later that night we went to yoga, and I was like, “Does this mean we’re hipsters?”—Kate, 19, student*

Well Kate, it could be. But don’t fret. You could do worse. For example, if it was a Sunday morning and you were at Imago Dei Community church, you might be mistaken for a fundamentalist Christian hipster.


Indie rockers for Jesus. Though, to be candid, I've finally discovered a church vocalist who, Amanda and I suspect, is a freak in bed.

Rick McKinley, Lead Pastor of Imago Dei in Southeast Portland, has founded a church so cool, you’d think Jesus Himself shopped at American Apparel.

But first, a little background. Unlike other city churches, which have experienced stagnant or negative growth, 10-year-old Imago Dei has outgrown one location after another. Last year, it cashed in on a longstanding relationship with Portland Foursquare, with whom it shares more than a passing resemblance in doctrine, worship style and velvet offering bags, to take over that church’s expansive facilities on Southeast 14th and Ankeny. With 2,000  members now in his fold, McKinley carries a great deal of responsibility.


Like the Foursquarers, Imago Dei lifts its creed from the Nicene-Athanasian-Apostolic boilerplate, taking those doctrines to their logical, fundamentalist conclusion. It absorbs concepts usually associated with orthodox Christianity, such as unyielding insistence upon the “truth” of the Trinity, the infallibility of the Bible and the absolute divinity of Jesus—rejecting as false those churches that believe otherwise. Given the opportunity to engage in community work with another church that doesn’t confess belief in the Trinity doctrine, they would “have no association with them,” as it was explained in the after-service New Member Forum. Imago Dei also includes traditional celebrations sometimes associated with Catholicism, such as  Lent and Good Friday, in its annual liturgical calendar.


The difference between this church and other fundamentalist groups is not one of function, but of form: they’ve adopted a cool, pop-cultural vibe with which to praise Jesus.

McKinley aims to attract a youthful, indie crowd and trots out his own hipster cred on the introductory section of the website, where his head shot features the prerequisite thrift store t-shirt and scruffy goatee. The accompanying bio declares that he likes “bold cabs, independent film, good coffee, music you can feel, reading, thinking and creativity.” Why am I thinking he cribbed that list from a random OK Cupid singles ad?


Drop by their website and you’ll see snappy graphics and flip-camera videos promoting cool church programs, like the spookily titled “Advent Conspiracy.” Which made me wonder, if I join in, will I become a member of the Christerati?

McKinley himself is a curious fellow. His slouchy disposition and slurry, casually disaffected speaking style teeters on the edge of irreverent. When he took the stage in a pair of dumpy jeans to underwhelming applause, he put down the attendees’ lack of enthusiasm, asserting his status as alpha dog among the indie Believers, deadpanning: “That was, like, a little golf clap. Two people. Golf clap for the Bible. Yay. Um, thanks for throwing me off.  You like that, don’tcha? Cause I can preach anything I want. Just know that. And its comin’. Just kiddin’.”


I was briefly worried that he would step into the audience and start inflicting wedgies.

A few moments later, he announced that there would be a special baptism during Easter: “Right behind that screen is the biggest baptism in the world, which is awesome. [Supportive laughter from audience.] Uh, we actually had like 30 people in it at one time. Just havin’ a party. A little baptism party. [Smattering of more laughter.] It’s what we do. [Tentative laughter.]”

There's a hint of desperation in McKinley's hipper-than-thou delivery; it's like watching your over-the-hill stepfather try to flirt with a 20-year-old waitress.


And so the sermon went, with McKinley mugging for the audience and playing the “Infallible Word of God” for laughs. This isn’t preaching. It’s public masturbation, disguised as rolling wit’ da homeys.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that efforts to bring religion to a trendy, youthful, urban audience are commendable. God knows they’re the toughest sell in the country, and if you want to succeed, you must reach them on their own terms.

When you stop and think about it, hipsterism, with its herd mentality that thrives on the belief that you’re being all indie or whatever, is the perfect catalyst for church growth—particularly in a predominantly white urban setting. Nobody herds better than fundamentalist Christians—and conferring upon them a cool outsider status, thus converting their place of worship into a “scene,” is ingenious. No wonder they’re growing.


Imago Dei has done a good a job of building an audience. Now what?

Religious leadership might be the weightiest position a person can hold in the local community. A pastor or priest is trusted to answer life’s most important questions—and to model the values he or she preaches. At the same time, the minister (literally, servant), is no better than the people he leads—a fellow sinner, if the Christian tradition is to be believed. It follows, then, that the most self-aware and helpful leader of a Christian church would exercise that authority with humility and deep respect for the message he carries and for the people he carries it to. “What does the LORD require of you?” asked the prophet Micah.  “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The man I observed in the pulpit Sunday floated right by that simple directive on a magic carpet of narcissistic self-adulation.


To be sure, some members are getting some benefit from the service. Any religion or spiritual path is what you make of it. But, like Beaverton Foursquare, Imago Dei blurs the difference between the transcendent and the merely emotional. Attending the Rick McKinley Show is like visiting a strip club: no matter how stiff your erection gets, don’t call it making love.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist proverb, “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” If McKinley ever had an authentic bornagain experience (and, yes, as an atheist, I believe in such profound occurrences), he has the air of a man who long ago forgot to carry water, having fallen into an all-too-common trap of becoming hypnotized by the content of his own sermons and by his status within the community. Sometimes we build our greatest walls, not to conceal our evil nature, but to hide the banality of our souls.


What I saw Sunday was an act. Schtick for Jesus. That’s too bad. I believe the people who showed up for church that day deserved better. It didn’t lead people to God or Jesus. It led people to Rick McKinley so that he can share such insights as, “It’s, like, wow, there’s so much wisdom in the mind of God.”

When Amanda and I began making plans to attend Imago Dei, we were looking forward to this particular Sunday. We’d heard good things about this church. Thus, upon experiencing it first hand, our disappointment was doubled. If we knew then what we know now, we would have skipped Imago Dei and simply hipsterized our faith at Urban Outfitters .


*From “Demythologizing Consumer Practices: How Consumers Protect Their Field-Dependent Identity Investments from Devaluing Marketplace Myths,” by Zeynep Arsel and Craig J. Thompson, Journal of Consumer Research, February, 2011. Excerpt republished in Harper’s Magazine, April, 2011.

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posted January 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm

I am part of the Imago family. I am sorry and sad that you came away from ID thinking and feeling such a way. Truly, that sucks and I wish it’d been different for you. It’s a challenge for me to read your perspective. I find myself pretty put-off by it, but then I have to remind myself that it’s good to experience someone else’s POV, even if I don’t agree. So…thank you? :)

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Joel Gunz

posted April 26, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Elizabeth!

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posted April 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Hi Joel,
I left a “plain” comment on Amanda’s blog, but want to explain a wee bit more.

Imago Dei is affiliated with CB Northwest (Conservative Baptist). My suggestion would be to take a look at the organization, because they dictate/intercede on behalf of the churches that are under their designation.

They are not affiliated with Foursquare, which while there are many similarities there are distinct differences (women as preachers, speaking in tongues, etc.)

I would say that Imago Dei strives to look non-denominational evangelical, but the reality is the dogma is fundamentalist.

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Joel Gunz

posted April 13, 2011 at 9:23 pm

LOL, Ashley! If you want, you can in touch with Amanda to find out what OTHER uses she has for those velvet bags!

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posted April 13, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thank you to both Amanda and Joel for giving an unfiltered view of visiting Imago Dei. Despite what appears to be the popular opinion of the reply posts I value that you don’t have on “Christian blinders” where all things Jesus score automatic points with you. I have been interested in Imago Dei since reading Don Miller, imagining it would break free of the cookie cutter christianity that has taken over. Now I see this is not the case, and I don’t feel I gave up on the religion too soon. I am confirmed in my abandonment of velvet bag Christianity.

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Sebastian Rogers

posted April 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hey Guys,

Wow, talk about snap judgements. Or should we maybe just talk about judgement as a whole? Advertising, Disney Corporation… I was so interested to find out more about you guys – thanks for posting pictures of yourselves and everything! I think we despise most in others the failings which we see in ourselves.

Rick once said in a sermon that he wished his failings and weaknesses weren’t so outwardly apparent, but I see it as his biggest strength. Uh oh… ha ha, get it?… yeah biggest… fat people are so funny. You guys seem like you’re in good shape though, well done – Oprah would congratulate you on the magnitude of this achievement I’m sure – Jesus would probably look at the contents of your hearts, which is something I couldn’t judge.

I see Rick as overflowing with humility. This humiliation will probably lead him only further down that path and for this I’m sure he would thank you. How is your journey towards humility?

We should have coffee some time, you have my email.

Much Love


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posted April 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm

So speaking as someone that used to attend this church, I can only agree with what is said here. Sorry ID, but the truth is the truth. And, yes, I am a Christ-follower.

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posted April 9, 2011 at 10:21 am

Where would the Chrsitian world be today if Jesus had gotten his feelings hurt everytime someone didn’t like him and called him a name. I’m mean seriously, as a Carpenter, there had to be a time where someone said, “Jesus your work is shit”. Also, Jesus was the only White middle easterner of his time so I’m sure that got him some abuse.

Take your lumps Imago Dei. So some blogger called you fat and self centered. Turn the other cheek and be done with it.

Andnext time a non-religous blogger says they are going to visit your church use your head and schedule Donald Miller to speak. I think he would have killed with this crowd.

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Rachel R.

posted April 8, 2011 at 5:00 am

BD: I don’t quite understand how I’m an asshole because I’m explaining Joel’s journalistic approach to blog writing. I was a journalist for 10 years and was responding to Johnathan’s criticism that Joel was making himself appear to be “Mr. Expert” by using quotations. In my opinion, it was an unfair criticism for such a standard technique, so I was informing Johnathan of its common use and usefulness. Does this make me an asshole? Or does it make me an asshole because I enjoy reading Joel’s blog posts? I never defended Joel’s post or what he wrote about the church or the pastor. In that case, this is purely based on my reading preferences. So, does that mean that I can consider you an asshole simply because you disagree with my opinion? That is what you are doing by name-calling.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Whatever Rachel. Go ahead and defend assholes. You all have to stick together apparently.

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Amanda P. Westmont

posted April 7, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Rachel, I could love you for your grammar alone.

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Rachel R.

posted April 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Johnathan: You mention that you get bored of reading Joel’s posts because he drones on and on. You say “posts,’ which is plural for “post.” That means you have read many of Joel’s posts. If they bore you so much, why do you continue reading them? As far as Joel’s quotations, those are standard journalistic style. Quotes are a way to corroborate or set as an example. In this particular blog post, Joel quotes the pastor to reiterate his point regarding the pastor making the service about him. In this post as well as others, he quotes passages of scripture. Would his points really be taken as seriously or given as much weight without the quotes from scripture or the people that he is discussing? He is educating as much as he is entertaining. Personally, I prefer to be educated as well as entertained, which is why I am always intrigued by Joel’s posts.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I grew up in a fundamental church. They did not consider Jehovah witnesses or LDS real Christians.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm

You mentioned in your last post about the minister “droning” on and on and I had to laugh because that is EXACTLY what I think when I read your posts! Literally! I say to myself “holy shit, this guy drones on and on and has to quote everyone and their mother to piggyback on someone else’s thoughts to make himself look like Mr. Expert. Homeslice is trying WAY too hard prove his intellect.” To be honest, I actually can’t even bring myself to read all of your stuff because it is mind numbing. I have to skim and skip paragraphs. Yep, that’s the only way I can get through.

Having said that, you and Amanda are assholes. You’ve got a lot of nerve with your pot belly and your fat girlfriend to be complaining about someone else’s weight or appearance. To you link someone else’s personal dating profile to your blog – that’s really bad. I went ahead and contacted Mr. Elephantwatch and let him know that you’re making fun of him on your blog too.

Why even go to these churches when both of you obviously don’t give a shit about these people or their beliefs? Clearly, you just go to make fun of them. You’re just lucky that these people are nice enough that they pray for you instead of kicking your ass.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

While I cannot force myself to take the time to say everything I feel, as I have already wasted the last ten minutes reading you and your wife’s malicious, slanderous post, what I will say is that your post literally makes me ill. Of course wouldn’t experience God at Imago when all you were looking for was someone to berate so that your small audience would remain entertained by your snarky cynicism. Congratulations on your ability to take cheap shots at a church, community, and pastor that you spent all of 90 minutes with.

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Joel Gunz

posted April 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Hi Jules –

Absolutely, I agree that a church shouldn’t be defined by its pastor–unless that pastor is Jesus. 😉 A quick visit to Imago Dei’s site, which has McKinley’s name all over it, shows that he delivers most of the Sunday sermons. So it’s hard to separate the church from the pastor in this case.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Interesting review Joel! A church should not be defined by it’s pastor-I agree that this seemed more a review of the pastor than the church. However-from your POV-it sounds like he MADE the service about him-or at least made it difficult to not focus on him. You’re spot on with your take on the role of religious leadership in a church. None of us is perfect-including the pastor, priest, rabbi,etc. I think you walk a fine line when speaking to a congregation-a line between giving a speech (boring!) and doing a stand-up show. It appears McKinley crossed the line far into a self-absorbed, “look at me” area. Humility is key and you want not just respect from your congregation but you want them to see you as an flawed individual, an equal who understands the trials and tribs of life.

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posted April 7, 2011 at 7:04 am

As a non-believer who grew up in a Muslim country, I am very intrigued by your project. And I have to say, you Joel, have a way with words. You write really well. Amanda’s writing is more emotional, visceral, you fall closer to book/film/art reviewer style and I enjoy both of your impressions of the churches you visit. I do have to say, though, some of the less than fine moments you expose completely confirms my own impression of organized religion. I am glad you are doing this because I would not be able to even stomach visiting. I have no beef with the good people who believe and serve and treat their respective human being with kindness. I just don’t like the power hierarchy, the reliance on fear and guilt to bind people to a church emotionally and financially and of course the “I am closer to God than you ” sentiments, exclusivity that ultimately surface with those in positions of power. Keep visiting and writing. This atheist is enjoying the education and the writing.

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Shannon Amburn

posted April 7, 2011 at 12:36 am

I “share” quite a few of your posts via Facebook. Last time I looked we were still friends although her daughter did unfriend me awhile back!

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Joel Gunz

posted April 6, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Thank you, kind sir! Just curious…. does Renee know about our lil project? 😉

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Joel Gunz

posted April 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Hey Doug –
Thanks for checking in to clarify your statements. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy post for you and your colleagues to read.

Regarding your statement that ‘we would consider any church that affirms the Nicene creed to be a Christian church': if that reflects Imago Dei’s official position, then your church is, indeed, rather exclusive. For instance, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not affirm the Nicene Creed. While those two groups self-identify as “Christian,” by your definition above, you would claim they are not. Curiously enough, both sides in that debate would claim to be hold the orthodox (right thinking) position.

Yes, indeed, I am quite familiar with Clouzot — the French Hitchcock! Where would “Psycho” be without “Les Diabolique”? 😉


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Just Browsing Thank You

posted April 6, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Hmmm, point taken. I don’t go to Imago Dei but I am connected to that church because I volunteer for a group called Scarlet Cord which is supported by Imago Dei, I just wanted to quickly throw it out there that the “Advent Conspiracy” that you referred to actually has raised hundreds of thousands (maybe millions by now?) of dollars for clean water wells in places like Africa and Vietnam. They also use that money to give out missional grants to people locally, just local people that have amazing ideas about how to love their community, or how to fight for social justice issues, etc.

I have not heard Rick speak in years, but I always thought he was kind of funny, and I think that the comments that you quoted here were probably meant in humor. I can’t say too much for Rick himself, (it seems like you reviewed him and not the church) but I do know that Imago Dei as a whole congregation does some pretty loving and incredible things for the community.

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Douglas Moore

posted April 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Wow, that was rough. This is Doug that led the guest forum after service and I met you guys real briefly. I feel embarrassed / disappointed that your visit was such an awful one. I’m not even going to try to defend the church or explain any of your observations away- I don’t think that would be possible in this format. I would like to apologize for miscommunicating something in the guest forum that you reference in the blog. Obviously, aswering questions on the fly and trying to keep the forum brief is a tricky balancing act and I don’t always do a good job of communicating my thoughts. When you asked me about “who would we consider to be un-orthodox?”, my answer included the phrase that you referenced about ‘not associating’ with other un-orthodox churches and I would like to clarify that (again, because I feel bad about my answer after reading your blog). What I should have said (given a little more time to think about it :) would have been the truth that we will ‘associate’ or work with anyone (regardless of religious/political/social affiliation) in regard to social justice issues or city wide improvement projects or most other events that I can think of. The “not associating” phrase was specifically intended to answer the question about what churches would we consider to be orthodox Christian churches. We would consider any church that affirms the nicene creed to be a Christian church and would ‘associate’ them with historical Christianity. I don’t know if that makes us ‘fundemental’ but it’s pretty much the norm for most Christian churches (protestant/Catholic/Orthodox) throughout the centuries. Also, I’m not a pastor nor a theologian so my answer is based on my own understanding of the question.
Anyway, I don’t know if that clarifies anything, but I thought I would give it a try. It was great meeting you guys and I feel bad that your first impression of Imago was such a bad one. I know that we’re not perfect but Imago has been like a family to me since I moved to Portland and there are many wonderful things that God is doing in and around the church (unfortunately, they don’t always shine through at first glance :) I like the concept of the blog and I’m sure to check it out again in the future. I wish I knew you were such a big Hitchcock fan or we could have talked more- I’m a film buff myself and Hitch is one of my favorites. You should check out Clouzot if you haven’t already. Another master of suspense.
Have a great week and may God’s grace shine upon you!

Douglas Moore

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Shannon Amburn

posted April 6, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I was waiting for this one. I had very similar reactions on my one visit there. For all the hype, I walked away thinking they were as fundamental as fundamentalist get. A cool worship experience cannot hide the intolerance. I was disappointed. And “public masturbation” – quintessential Joel! A great, honest post.

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