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A Gay Mayor, an Evangelist and an Imam Discuss Culture

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This is not your father's church conference. But the founder of Q Gathering, Gabe Lyons, insists he holds true to your father's teachings.

Lyons, a hip yet classic 36-year-old donning jeans and a suit jacket, rallied the faithful at the historic Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon last week for the fifth annual Q Gathering to ask questions, and search for answers together, while still reminding the 650 participants that he is not espousing a new Christianity, but actually returning to historic Christianity, a faith that engages and impacts culture for good.

He cites statistics diligently researched that a younger generation of believers is leaving the church in droves, most likely because of what Christianity has come to be associated with -- the Gospel of the religious, political right. One known for what it was against, not for what it was for.

Lyons is a modern shepherd of sorts, a prophet that leads an eager flock of I-Pad/I-Phone using, Keds-and-suit-jacket-wearing, espresso-sipping believers seeking to live out a genuine expression of their faith that is relevant in a post-Christian world -- and 180 degrees opposite of the political Christian right.

And unlike most Christian conferences, Q Gathering not only invites the faithful to present topics of discussion; Lyons opens up to hearing from leaders from all channels of culture, no matter what their faith or lifestyle background, and learning from them.

Included in this year's speaker lineup were Bobette Buster of the USC Film School; David Dark, poet and author; Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine; Jennifer Wiseman with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; Luis Palau, founder of the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association; Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society; actor Mark Ruffalo; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of Ground Zero fame; and local Portland gay mayor Sam Adams.

The letter Q stands for Questions, and by admitting he does not hold all of the answers and is willing to bring in movers and shakers to the table to discuss the big questions, Lyons models a new way to re-imagine how the Christian faith is lived out in a culture weary of Christianity represented by the likes of a Koran-burning pastor.

With Q staged this year in Portland, home of the first openly gay mayor in the country, Lyons allowed the story of the City's faith community to take center stage as an example of what can happen when the church humbly approaches the city with a question.

"How can we make the city a better place?"

That is, Q's larger theme -- what ideas can we bring to the table to help with the Common Good?

During the opening evening of Q 2011 in Portland, while gay mayor Sam Adams was interviewed by Kevin Palau of the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, the democratic mayor was honest regarding his initial anxiety about partnering with the Christian community for its proposed "Season of Service" to help clean up the city three years ago.

Mayor Adams had the attendees in the historic Crystal Ballroom chuckling when he joked about his worry that the faith community might "carve crosses in the trees."

Then Mayor Adams added, "But we were desperate for help." Another collective understanding smile from the 650 gathered.

During the conversation style interview, more honest responses were shared by the mayor. He said that after working with the Luis Palau Association and Imago Dei Community and other churches who dug in and got their hands dirty to assist the city, with no strings attached, his initial stereotyping of all Christians as being judgmental was transformed.

Mayor Adams explained, that as he has seen the church flock into Portland to clean up the city, help with its struggling inner city schools, and address child sex trafficking and gang problems, he has grown to appreciate a new kind of Christian, the kind that Lyons is shepherding into dialogue on issues facing culture. Lyons' new book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America, discusses this type of believer.

Portland's gay mayor even shared that he has endured criticism from his liberal constituency for working so closely with the evangelical community. But, he forges forward and actually has grown to depend on them, as they are the ones who are showing up.

Notably, when Mayor Adams, the nation's first openly gay mayor of one of the country's most progressive liberal cities, left the stage after the interview was over, he was rewarded for sharing his thoughts with a standing ovation by the 650 attendees, the only standing ovation offered during the entire three day conference.

And it all started out with a question, the kind that Lyons is heralding Christians to ask. How do we engage and impact culture as Christians have historically done in art, literature, politics, science, and education, and indeed all areas of society.

Yet, while most in the Portland area have gotten used to the idea of a gay mayor partnering with the evangelical community to better the city, heads did turn twice when Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of ground zero fame was also on the speaker list at this year's Q.

In fact, a few protesters outside the Crystal Ballroom picketed the event. And, even Kevin Palau, who had courted Lyons a year ago to bring Q to Portland, was hesitant about having the imam speak. Palau didn't want the imam's presence on a list of 44 other speakers to distract from the bigger vision of Q, and all of the positive partnerships that have been forged between the faith community and the city of Portland.

But, Lyons remained confident of his decision to invite the imam. He assured those gathered that he would ask tough questions, but also look for ways to dialogue and engage the imam in order for Christians to understand the Islam faith better, and perhaps even help Muslims move into a modern American expression of their faith.

One of the tough questions Lyons asked Rauf, was to explain his "60 Minutes" interview shortly after 9-11, when the imam essentially blamed America for the terrorist attacks on United States soil.

Rauf responded without hesitation, "I regret saying that."

There was a silent collective sigh in the Crystal Ballroom when the imam said those words, which seemed to be a white flag of sorts from the Muslim imam to the Christian believers gathered at Q. Perhaps, in the same vein that the Christians were re-imagining their faith in today's culture, the imam was espousing an Islam different than a decade ago.

Of course, time and actions can only tell.

And, as time marches on for the planning of the next Q, strategically scheduled for Washington D.C. in 2012, an election year, time will only tell which form of Christianity takes center stage: The political religious right sometimes vilified in the press due often to its own representation, or a new kind of Christian.

By looking at the vision, drive, and speaker lists of Q's Gabe Lyons, I believe the next, new kind of Christian has arrived.

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