God’s place on South Avenue
The Front Porch hopes to fill a void–not just empty space–downtown
By Matt Lemmon
The Front Porch. It sounds like a hokey, down-home sandwich shop better suited for downtown Marshfield than Springfield.
You “hokey” Marshfield residents can call Matt Lemmon at 417-883-7417, or e-mail him if you like.
In actuality, it’s a not-for-profit, Christian outreach and social spot run by local home-church network The Core, slated to open in May or June on South Avenue next door to Ernie Biggs’ Dueling Piano Bar. Downtown is a district The Core’s co-founder and pastor, Ryan Wiksell, says intrigues him greatly, both for its lack of invested Christian presence and its similarity with the church.
“There’s a gap in both worlds, the church and the urban downtown,” says Wiksell, 27, who is also an arts assistant at Bellwether Gallery of the Arts (at the Monarch Art Factory), which is owned by Springfield’s Second Baptist Church. “People are drawn downtown because of a sense of place and community and history. Yet it’s still disconnected and individualistic.”
I want to clarify that the “gap” in the church is similar to the gap in downtown because both seem lack a cohesive sense of community, where people experience loyal friendships and look out for one another.
He hopes The Front Porch will help downtown connect. For months, volunteer members of The Core have been working to renovate a long-abandoned storefront just north of Ernie Biggs. Wiksell says The Front Porch will open at least five evenings a week (lunch and weekday plans will depend on staffing), offering “free-to-cheap” coffee and a laid-back environment for anyone interested in a conversation…or Christianity, but only if that’s what the individual is looking for. “We’re not salesmen,” Wiksell says. “A lot of people, including us, resent the used car-salesman approach to Christianity. God can speak for himself.”
If this last quote concerns you, I understand. The point is that the culmination of any sales pitch is the closer. If you can’t close the deal (at some point,) don’t waste your time. But every Christian should know that the Holy Spirit is the only one who transforms hearts. He is the deal-closer… period. In that sense, we should always allow God to speak for himself, and not try to do his job for him. It is a failure to trust him in this way that has brought about many high-pressure strategies, with “closers” like, “Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to give your life to Christ right now?” This is a question many Christians are actually taught to ask. (Incidentally, when I was in musical instrument sales, one of my training tips was to ask, “Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to buy this instrument right now?”) When you take a step back from sales, you get marketing. Marketing convinces you that you have a specific need, Sales convinces you to meet that need by buying the product. Christianity really has nothing to do with either of these things. We “love our neighbors” when we are there for them, and when we sensitively but confidently share with them the truth that they need to hear. In this way, we do speak for God. But this should not have to involve convincing them that there’s a void (most people recognize it anyway, and those who don’t will resent the implication) or pressuring them to fill it with our “product.”
Wiksell says not to expect the typical, going-through-the-motions Sunday morning service at The Front Porch—there may not be Sunday activities at all [at the Front Porch, anyway. But there is actually a good chance that we'll have something going on there on Sundays.] Instead, organizers are planning a slew of open-mic events, concerts and movie nights (think edgier, existential stuff like The Matrix, not cheesy flicks like The Ten Commandments). [For the record, I didn't say that "The Ten Commandments" is cheesy. I would say it's more... hokey. Which is great if you live in Marshfield.] Inside, The Front Porch will be set up like a coffee bar— but with a very limited selection. “I don’t want people to think we’re doing anything like the MudHouse,” [This is just my attempt to prevent the MudHouse from viewing us as not-for-profit competition serving free coffee.] Wiksell says—with tables, couches and a stage for musicians. There’s even a small children’s play room. Sustaining funds are expected to come from The Core, as well as donations from patrons (“like a city art museum,” Wiksell says) and the minimal coffee bar income.
The Core’s (and the The Back Porch’s) [ahem... Back Porch?] start-up capital has primarily come from its leaders’ pockets—though it has gained some financial and logistical support from traditional local congregations; Wiksell refused to divulge which ones. [I prefer the word "declined".] He would say only that a number of local pastors are noticing a “disconnectedness” downtown and felt compelled to help.
It’s an ambitious plan, putting a religiously focused, family-friendly nonprofit next door to Ernie Biggs, which is quite possibly downtown’s bawdiest bar. Ernie Biggs owner Jay Hickman says he has had limited conversations with Wiksell and his wife, Christina, and says he doesn’t know enough about his neighbor-to-be to comment. “I don’t really have an opinion on it,” Hickman says. “It’s not a vacant building anymore, so that’s good.” [Come to the Front Porch... it's better than nothing!]
Rusty Worley, executive director of the Urban Districts Alliance, points to other Christian-related, nonprofit businesses like Bellwether and The Belmonte [as a matter of fact, neither the Bellwether nor the Belmonte are businesses... the former is an off-campus arts venue of a local church, and the other is an empty space that is periodically rented by a local church for bands to play] as signs that The Front Porch, at least in an arts and entertainment capacity, can succeed. While Worley also admits he doesn’t know a lot about The Core or its plans, he welcomes anything that will offer additional all-ages, alcohol-free space and further downtown’s reputation as a live music destination.
[We are really trying to play up the Front Porch's position in downtown as an all-ages, alcohol-free music venue. If you want to help us make sure it succeeds, or if you know any bands looking for a place to play downtown, e-mail me and let me know. ]
The Core’s musical mission is already taking root, though not at The Front Porch. April 7 is the next date in the group’s Open-Mic Church series, currently being held at Bellwether Art Gallery.
[For the record, Open Mic Church is not a primarily musical event. We also welcome anyone who wants to read poetry, tell their story or just share an opinion. And it is from 7-10 pm the day after First Friday Artwalk each month.]
Wiksell himself is a 2002 Evangel University music major (theology minor) and has spent the last three years as music director at South Haven Baptist Church. [Actually, I left that position over 15 months ago.] “In a lot of ways I’m totally unqualified for this,” he says with a laugh. But he’s not unprepared: Wiksell knows The Front Porch will have a very different Friday-night focus than most of its neighbors. “This was exactly what we were looking for,” he says, speaking of The Core’s among-the-people mission. “People can be drunk, poor or homeless and they don’t always know how to handle it in the best way possible.”
[That final quote bothers me, because I can't imagine I would have phrased it like that. It doesn't even make sense to ME. Chances are I was in the middle of saying that we are happy to be in a place where all types of people might come in--including the drunk, poor, or homeless--who normally would be considered "undesirables" in a traditional church. Many Christians are not prepared to handle this type of situation, but we have actually gone out looking for it. Granted, it's impossible to really be truly "prepared" for this stuff.]
Are Wiksell and The Core trying to “save” downtown? “I don’t like that word, ‘saving’. It’s a cliché,” he says. “We’re not going at it with the formulaic approach. Jesus got to know people where they were. If it’s your life, you know if something’s missing.”
“We don’t expect everyone to be spiritual in nature. We’re just trying to set the tone for people to listen.” [to each other]
[He asked me if I was out to "save downtown". To me, that concept is so broad that it doesn't properly reflect our personalized, relational approach. And if you're confused about the, "If it's your life, you know if something's missing" part, I think it goes better with the "used-car salesman" part of the conversation. I was making a point about not using a "marketing" approach.]
[Info Box] What is The Core?
A network of “home churches” that’s bucking the traditional trend
Led by co-founder and pastor Ryan Wiksell, The Core has a downtown-specific mission “to help people connect with God and with one another through whole-life relationships, and to engage them in the mission of God in the world,” according to its website. They hope to achieve this with projects like The Front Porch. The Core’s “member” churches [this makes us sound like a denomination, which we're not... but I don't really blame him for not fully understanding... sometimes I don't even understand it] are led primarily by worshippers—many in their 20s and 30s—who have grown weary of the day-to-day politics of traditional congregations. Wiksell says “family members” include anyone with whom The Core has contact. “Team members” have agreed to be active in furthering The Core’s mission.
Phillip and Amy Scoggins are two such team members. Last year, disillusioned with the politics at a local Southern Baptist church, the couple started inviting friends to join them every Sunday in the living room of their east Springfield home. “We felt called to smaller groups, to go back to basics,” says Phillip.
Friends with Wiksell, Phillip, 29, and Amy, 26, have also become active in The Core’s small leadership group (Phillip is outreach director, Amy is the arts coordinator), even though their congregation is not yet part of the downtown-focused network.
Phillip says he and Amy have embraced The Core. “It piqued our interest because we wanted to be involved in a community and have relationships with others outside our church.” But for some, The Core could present an Animal Farm-esque conundrum: [Is this Matt's subtle way of calling me a totalitarian pig? ] Does a group of people seeking to escape highly organized religion want to join another organization, no matter how non-intrusive it may be? “The question is ‘Do we feel called to Center City Springfield?,” Phillip says, adding that he and Amy are happy to continue working with The Core and that a decision will not be rushed. “We don’t need to pressure them.” [Matt's point seems to be that Phillip & Amy's group is not a structured organization... it is mostly people who are fed up with "the man" and are therefore unlikely to jump back into something structured. Phillip is saying that structure is not the issue. The issue is whether their group feels called specifically to reach Center City. The implication is that if they decide that they share that call with The Core, they are likely to join.]
Like I said, it was overall a pretty good article… and it characterizes us fairly well. So if you’re reading this, Mr. Lemmon, thanks for the attention. We’ll try not to let it go to our heads.