This article was originally published by The Mennonite

What a playhouse and church have in common

New Voices: By and about young adults

They grew up in a Mennonite family in Harrisonburg, Va., where their Grandpa started businesses, prayed with Ronald Reagan and gave them a book called Capitalism for Kids. They moved to Portland, Ore.—America’s least-churched city—set up shop in a defunct church and put their family-bred business sense to new use. Before long, the church was filling up—one, two, three, sometimes four times a week. Within a year, they found themselves on the cover of the Willamette Week and in the arts section of The Oregonian.

When I ask Brian—a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College—about his beliefs, he speaks like a true evangelist: “I’m a fervent believer in salvation. … I believe in miracles. … I believe in transformation and the power of hope.”

But Brian isn’t talking about religion. Brian and Michael Weaver have founded Portland Playhouse, and they believe in the transformative power of theater. They’re also a shining example of one of the hot new trails being blazed by young adults who identify themselves as Mennonite but don’t go to church.

The brothers’ Mennonite identity gets more than lip service. Willamette Week raves about the hospitality they exude—a rarity in arts, where many of us have been trained to feel guilty if we cough or, worse yet, try to unwrap a cough drop. Not at Portland Playhouse. Brian and Michael set you up with cheap popcorn, free beverages and a couch from Craigslist. Brian figures there are a million tiny details that contribute to their hospitality, but it’s not even something they had to think about. “And [hospitality],” he states flatly, “is directly linked to being Mennonite. Our background—and this [venue] being a church—are the biggest reasons for it.”

Michael’s quick to add his own Mennonite values to the list: “The things I appreciate about Mennonite identity? Community, social justice and simple living.” The audience seems to have noticed. When they presented August Wilson’s Radio Golf, a play that examines gentrification in an African-American community, the many cultures of Northeast Portland came in droves. The play and its post-show talkbacks became a starting point for a long-needed discussion about the gentrification happening all around the playhouse.

With their knack for engaging younger audiences, sparking passions and filling seats, why aren’t these young Mennonites in the church? While theater provides them with ample community and fulfillment, they also admit that church offers something more “foundational and all-encompassing” than that. “Art can come and go, but Mennonite stays,” Michael jokes. So why is he not going to church? “I just don’t choose to make it a priority yet,” he says.

Still, as they discuss the church, you notice what may contribute to that. Brian and Michael describe a church that doesn’t always know what to do with its artists. Art, Brian points out, has two roles in society: to celebrate community and to challenge its conventions and prejudices. The church, he goes on, embraces the celebration but is uncomfortable with the challenge. When he tried to challenge some of the more controversial conventions at Goshen College, for example, he soon concluded that he’d have to choose between being censored and starting a theater off campus. He did the latter, founding the New World Players in the city of Goshen.

Additionally, Brian said he never really felt encouraged to be a professional artist. Mennonites, he found, expect you to give your artistic gifts to the church but steer away from the arts professionally.

Michael sees the same divide from a business angle. When he started looking for donations to help the playhouse, he noticed that his Mennonite community wasn’t as quick to designate its charitable giving to artists as to war relief. Even though, he adds, “the arts would be preventative care,” building the kind of community and understanding that prevents conflicts.

Brian and Michael represent a trend among Mennonite young adults. Their biggest reason for not going to church is that they don’t make it a priority. Their more subtle reasons sound strikingly prophetic. Should the church be doing more to accommodate their insights? Or should these benefactors of Mennonite values be overcoming their church allergy? If you’re comfortable with your church right now, you may want to spend some time meditating on the first question. You can even put some time and money into it by visiting portlandplayhouse.org. If you’re Brian and Michael (or feeling similarly), I recommend the second question—and remind you that Portland Mennonite Church (or your local equivalent) is just down the road.

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