Pastoring Portlandia: Rick McKinley

“The gospel is enough! We don’t have to sell out or hide in a self-protective group, shivering at the culture around us.”

Once locally known as “that church from Blue Like Jazz,” east Portland’s Imago Dei Community has grown from a handful of people to one of the largest and most influential congregations in the city, known for its artsy, activist congregation. Pastor Rick McKinley’s leadership has focused on church/city partnerships as a key driver of ministry, making a significant impact on neighborhoods throughout Portland.

Two days after my conversation with John Mark Comer, it’s time to chat with Rick McKinley, my former pastor. I call Rick, who is at a gathering down on the coast, from my backyard studio. The tree line is a few yards from where I sit, marking the beginning of the southern wilderness that follows the Cascades toward California. It is the classic Oregon forest—a maple and white oak border climbing into stands of towering, old-growth Douglas-firs.

I dial Rick’s cell. He’s warm and casual on the phone. We get straight to it.

Imago is one of the key churches in Portland, despite being only 16 years old. Go back to the beginning. Tell me about the moment you knew you were called to be a pastor.

I was raised in the Bay Area [of California], then came up to Portland. I became a believer when I was 18. Mine was a pretty radical conversion—I had never gone to church prior, had never read the Bible. It all was new.

I was reading Acts 20:24, where Paul is going to Jerusalem. He’s warned that something will happen, but he says, “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” That was kind of it for me. I felt it was what I was called to do, too. I had no idea what that meant or looked like. I was off to Bible college nine months after that.

I had a variety of backgrounds before planting Imago in Portland. I worked in a Presbyterian church for a while, then part of a Willow Creek wannabe church plant—for lack of a better phrase—that we learned a ton from. Then we went, when I was about 25, to La Grande, Oregon, where we did rural ministry for four or five years. It’s there that I had the space to read and think, and had time to define my calling. So, in 2000, when I was 30, we came back to Portland and started Imago Dei with 15 people.

I had no track record at big churches. We didn’t think we were going to have one when we started. We didn’t know what would happen.

What values guided Imago’s planting here in Portland?

We were hoping to see some things that we hadn’t experienced before. At that time, there wasn’t a ton of urban church planting happening, especially in Portland. We started Acts 29 back then—which I left after three years. So at first we were set on planting a cool, young, urban church, and then God began to break through that. We ended up more with a true vision for Portland.

We were compelled to ask this question: If we ever left, would this city miss us? At that point, our vision shifted. We saw the church existing for the sake of the world, not for itself. That value has only deepened as the years pass. It’s bearing fruit. The idea that the gospel is both good news and good works held together, you know? We’re supposed to minister to the whole person. That shift has been foundational to our philosophy. As a result, we push into the messy places, topics and conversations of our city—things we’d often like to avoid.

What have you learned about pastoring in that strongly missional way?

It’s a roundabout answer, but I’ve learned that the church is always the church. And we need to be open about that.

Bear with me. Honesty is what I mean. When I was younger, I envisioned a perfect church—one with no “churchy” issues. Ha! We may love Jesus, but we’re still just a bunch of sinful people. We can’t avoid the fact that there’s a mess inside of most churches. The worst part about that lie—that we can create a church that is all the good stuff and none of the problems—is that underneath that sentiment is a deep lack of self-knowledge. You have to be unaware to believe it. You have to have forgotten that this is Christ’s church, not ours.

This is how you find yourself running on a treadmill, trying to make sure that people are happy and stay happy—and a lot of pastors get stuck there. Working so hard. But running nowhere. How can you be a church for Christ and the city if that is your focus? We’re always so tempted to give up our mission for the lack of conflict.

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Early on, I was naïve. I assumed that no one would want to leave because everyone wants to be on mission. We really like to talk about it, read about it, even pray about it, but when it actually came time to reach out and move out, even in that small group of people, we didn’t want to. So the first big lesson was that we have a desire problem, not an information problem. It’s not an issue of how-to, it’s an issue of want-to.

Here in the Western church, especially in Portland, we have so much access to information. And we’d like to think that we’re ready to respond. To act, to commit. To be radical for what we believe. After all, if Portlanders can commit their lives to Greenpeace or animal rights or punk music or whatever, can’t we do that for Jesus and our city?

Not if our “want to” is missing. We need profound desire for Christ and his kingdom. When we realized that we didn’t really have that, we refocused. We repented of our sins of omission. We confessed: “We don’t have the love that we should have; we don’t have the compassion. We need the gospel for ourselves.” That was a huge turning point in the first couple years for us. We realized that if we were going to offer our gospel to the world, to Portland, we had to keep coming back to it ourselves.

How have you cultivated that desire—the “want to” of missional ministry?

Early on, by being honest. Instead of pretending that we’re all nice, good Christians who want to obey the hard commands of Jesus to love those who aren’t like us, we had to admit—we don’t want to. When I say “repentance,” sometimes evangelicals hear that as scandalous. But it is really just the gift of turning, a call to continually be turning toward Christ.

The great thing about our young group of people is that they were willing to be honest about those things. Literally, in the first couple years, we were repenting just about every Wednesday night. It wasn’t just wallowing in our own failures; it was introspection, confession. I would come up with lists—everything I could think of—of needs in the city, and we would just pray and confront the fact that we simply didn’t care about most of what was around us. And then you know what? We started to care. And then things shifted.

Things sure did. Today, Imago is one of the key churches in Portland. Much of that influence is due to city/church partnerships. How did your “desire change” prepare you to reach beyond the walls of the church?

There were a couple significant ministry philosophy aspects that came. One was that we really did believe that everyone in our church was the church—called, gifted, and filled with the Spirit. They were sent. On mission. That meant that our job as leaders was to pastor and equip them well—to unleash them well, empowering them to do the work they were called to do.

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As a result, we don’t really come up with programs at Imago. Almost everything that Imago is doing, in Portland and beyond, is lay-driven. That was significant from the beginning. When we saw desire to do needed ministry in response to our city’s pressing needs, coming from 19 or 20-year-old kids, we gave them authority and responsibility in our church to chase the thing God was calling them to do.

One of our guys was feeding homeless people at 3 o’clock on Saturdays, because there were no services to them at that time. He had a camp stove and made food. People gathered around him. That ministry’s grown and changed, even shifted hands, but 16 years later, there are still people doing that. The congregation comes around different home communities and interest groups to serve and help out. The church offers missional grants, which is money we set aside to give to people who want to start ministries outside the doors of Imago. They come up with an idea, and we put business leaders and educators and a whole team of Christian professionals behind them. We get people who are “prayer warriors,” for lack of a better term, who support them. We help put those proposals together, then we give grants to help them start ministry. What it’s done for us is to continue to cultivate the idea that the congregation—all of us, together—is the missions team. It allows the Holy Spirit to shape what the specifics of that mission look like. God is giving people in the church passion.
He’s calling them to specific issues and people and places. We’re helping that grow.

As a Portlander, I’ve seen that approach from Imago bearing rich fruit. Tell me about the roots, though—formation and discipleship inside the church. What have you learned about preaching the Bible in Portland?

I’ve learned a ton. A big point comes back to repentance again. We have to understand that we have solidarity at the cross with every person in our city, every person in the world. Preaching the gospel to ourselves is a big piece of that. There definitely is always a place for evangelism, but there is also a place for continued repentance and conversion of ourselves as God transforms us.

In every culture, Portland included, you have windows of redemption and windows of opposition—cultural values that Christians can affirm as good, true and beautiful, and others that the gospel shows to be upside-down. We try to handle those issues gently and respectfully, and yet honestly, in terms of what the Bible says about our lives.

I think it helps people in Portland when we are honest as Christians about our own sin and mess. When we’re preaching in a way that is convicting ourselves about our sin, then the lost person that’s in the pew or on the podcast says, “Yeah, that’s right.” It speaks to them too. That approach has also allowed our church to preach to many people who don’t believe, to preach the good news and even the confrontation of the gospel. If we’re including ourselves in our message, saying that we all stand in need of Jesus before the cross, it takes away “us versus them.” The church is so often guilty of that kind of language, that people—especially sharp, alternative-cultured Portlanders—are caught off guard by Jesus. In a good way. When we don’t separate ourselves from culture (I don’t mean that in a syncretistic way—we do have a holy identity in Jesus), the pulpit gives us amazing opportunities. From the pulpit, we can create culture in the church, can cultivate repentance, can let the Bible lead the vision and to confront ourselves in the pages of Scripture.