Interview with Pastor Gary
Pastor Gary VanderPol grew up in Modesto, CA and came to faith when he was sixteen years old. He holds a PhD in Global Christianity from Boston University and was most recently an assistant professor at Denver Seminary. He is the author (with Soong-Chan Rah) of Return to Justice, which tells stories of the last two generations of evangelical Christians who have recovered a biblical commitment to the oppressed and marginalized. He has been CWOW’s senior pastor since 2015 and was recently interviewed by Professor David Buschart of Denver Seminary. The interview below was originally posted at journeywithjesus.net
David Buschart: Gary, because you are pastoring a church with the name “Church Without Walls,” I have to begin by asking you to briefly describe the church and how you came to be the lead-pastor.
Gary VanderPol: CWOW was founded in Berkeley, CA almost 15 years ago by a group of InterVarsity leaders who wanted to live-out faith together in a church that reflected their commitments to justice, evangelism, and community. When the founding pastor, Dana Cunliffe, moved overseas, CWOW invited me to fill her well-loved shoes. At the time I had my dream job teaching in a tenure-track position in justice and mission at Denver Seminary, and with the extreme scarcity of academic positions, it seemed a little crazy to consider leaving for a church of 150 people. Why did I do it? Well, I guess that’s what this interview is about.
Tell us about the name of your church. What does it mean?
Church Without Walls does mean that we purposely don’t own our own building, but on a deeper level, I think we’re trying to break down the walls that keep secular people away from the gospel, and also to destroy the barriers that have divided the Body of Christ — especially injustices related to race and class. As I did research for my recent book Return to Justice, co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, it struck me that most evangelical churches don’t really think that doing justice is a fundamental part of following Jesus. That’s why the recent growth in evangelical concern for justice has been led by parachurch organizations like World Vision and International Justice Mission. The church has mostly been left behind. CWOW strikes me as special in its aim to be a community in which actively doing justice and evangelism is simply a part of the normal Christian life for everybody.
It reminds me of Ephesians 2:14 that Jesus broke down the “dividing wall” that separates us by all sorts of hostilities. Is that what CWoW is trying to do?
Exactly. That passage is one of many that emphasizes the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection not just on individual “sinners,” but on sinful and oppressive social structures as well. That’s why we’re not only trying to get more secular people into church, but also to work for economic, racial, and educational justice in the world beyond the church.
It seems safe to say that in faithfully pursuing its call from God, CWoW is different from many (indeed, most) churches. How would you describe the oneness or commonalities that CWoW shares with more conventional churches?
Doctrinally, we’re a standard evangelical church. We have a high view of Scripture and subscribe to all the usual creeds. It’s just that we think that the implications of those traditional views are profoundly subversive in our postmodern/postindustrial, consumption/technology-driven context.
What are the “highest and widest” dividing walls that you see in the American church? That you see in your local context in Berkeley?
A generation ago Martin Luther King observed that 11 o’clock on Sunday was the most segregated hour in America. That’s still true today. It’s the case even in Berkeley, a town that prides itself on its liberal ethos. Our church community is currently about 50% white, 40% Asian, and 10% black and Latino. But we still have a long way to go in grappling with long-standing patterns and assumptions of white superiority/privilege, which profoundly affect the way we relate to each other and the world.
The elephant that may be harder to see, but is no less pervasive, is the way consumerism has come to dominate the American church. Despite the strong and repeated teachings of Jesus on money, Christian patterns of spending, saving, and giving are almost indistinguishable from their secular neighbors. In Berkeley, crass name-brand materialism is often seen as gauche — but it is replaced by a consumerism of experiences like organic, locally sourced culinary creations, sophisticated aesthetic tastes, and gentrification that puts real estate out of reach for most. These consumer experiences are extremely expensive and demand wholehearted devotion to making money in order to achieve them.
Berkeley is a famous (some might say infamous) university town, home of the University of California. How does the presence of the university impact the vision and the life of CWoW?
A recent Barna survey shows that the San Francisco area is by far the most unchurched major urban area in the US. The academic ethos of Berkeley intensifies this regional reality. Yet many folks are very open to spirituality. This means that as we communicate the gospel, we assume spiritual curiosity but no familiarity with the Bible or Christianity. At the least, it makes us vigilant to weed out Christian insider-language that would be off-putting or confusing to our neighbors.
In your experience, how are Christians and Christianity viewed in your local community How have these perceptions shaped the life and work of CWoW?
My sense is that most folks view Christians as backwards, bigoted, homophobic, and anti-scientific. As we talk with co-workers, neighbors and classmates, it is a challenge for us to not self-censor our identities as Christians. I think the best way to contravene these stereotypes (which are all-too true all-too often) is to simply live with integrity God’s concern for justice and the marginalized. Perhaps prophetic lifestyles enable our neighbors to notice the grace of God in us more than a slick worship service with high production values. To paraphrase theologian Lesslie Newbigin, we want to live such distinctive lives that they demand an explanation.
You have previously indicated that “life groups” are an important part of the life of CWoW. Please describe the role of these “life groups” and their relationship to your Sunday worship services.
Sunday services are great for gathering for worship, but genuinely incarnating a counter-cultural gospel requires intimate community. Our Life Groups follow a quasi-monastic “rule of life” that hopefully enables our missional practices of justice and evangelism to flow out of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship and Scripture reflection. Again, I think we’re trying to embody the idea that the gospel is less like a show you watch in a theater and more like a life you live together.
What, if any, are your church’s working relationships with other churches, para-church ministries or other organizations (e.g., community services organizations)?
We know that lots of folks around us are doing great work, so we don’t feel like we have to start a new ministry for every issue we care about. For example, one of our Life Groups is working to fight mass incarceration and walk with formerly incarcerated people as they re-enter life in the Bay Area. So they financially and relationally support a black church in Oakland that has been doing this for years. We also join with community organizing coalitions to advocate politically for an end to racially unjust policing. One more example is that every year one of our Life Groups organizes a massive Science Night at a local public elementary school as part of their desire to improve educational equity. These are simple examples, but I can’t think of a better way to begin showing folks what the Kingdom looks like.
You are a pastor with a PhD and continue to be involved in academic work. What are some of the unique challenges and blessings of fulfilling the two vocations of pastor and scholar?
When academic theology is divorced from the daily life of the church, both are impoverished. I want my theological reflection to be rooted in an actual community that is (imperfectly) striving to embody the gospel. Until the Enlightenment, this was the norm — think of St. Augustine as bishop of his adopted hometown, writing his magisterial City of God in response to the most pressing pastoral concerns of his congregants. In a postmodern, secular age, I think we have an opportunity to recover this kind of integration that faithfully reflects the incarnated, narrative, communal orientation of Christian faith.