Alan Coler isn’t your standard Baptist preacher, or your standard preacher in general, for that matter. And it’s not only because he describes himself as a “recovering fundamentalist,” or that he isn’t actually Baptist. It’s really the little things that set him apart.
For instance, the tattoo on his left forearm of two red hearts containing the names of his daughters, or the fact that he’s cool with smoking and drinking.
Then there’s his reaction to certain Christian television personalities, like Houston’s Joel Osteen, who he thinks should “spend less money on TV and more money on helping the poor.”
He’s also concerned about the public’s perception of Christianity in recent years.
“So many people now have this image of Christians as people who hate everyone, because those types are the ones who get all of the attention,” Coler says. “That’s a minority. There are 19 million Christians out there, and not all of them are like that.”
So if you name-drop Westboro Baptist Church leader Rev. Fred Phelps, the man infamous for his military funeral protests and “God hates fags” signs, Coler puts his face in his hands in disgust and frustration.
“That man is insane,” he says. “You’re not going to save people picketing on a street corner.”
That’s why Coler plans to take a different tack with his Grace Pointe church, a new Christian organization in Missoula.
Grace Pointe began as an American Baptist Churches project to found a church in Missoula, but was eventually passed on to San Ramon, Calif.-based organization Growing Healthy Churches (GHC), which aids the building of new churches.
“We’re trying to put together a movement,” says J.D. Pearring, director of GHC. “We don’t have a lot of rules. Each church just sort of takes on the flavor of the pastor.”
After GHC met Coler, who’s in the process of completing a doctorate of ministries degree with Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., they decided the 51-year-old seminarian seemed like a good choice as a new face for their efforts.
“Baptists bring in an Assembly of God minister to do the work,” he jokes.
Rather than picket lines, hell fire, and, of course, brimstone, Grace Pointe will employ artistic expression as its missionary focus. And, fittingly, Coler will be using the theater at MCT Center for the Performing Arts as his altar and temple.
“Have you ever seen a sunset? There’s something spiritual in it, and if someone can paint that moment, or photograph it, you can kind of feel that same spirit,” Coler says. In artistic expression, he says, he experiences a bit of God’s presence.
Coler says Grace Pointe will incorporate art from its members––including poetry, paintings, songs and any other form of creative expression–– into Sunday services.
“The idea of using art in this way is that it’s my belief that our ability to create is an example of how we are created in the image of God,” Coler says.
Yes, he still plans to preach about sin—it comes with the territory—but unlike the fire and brimstone crowd, he doesn’t view every last vice as a venal.
“When I was preaching with [Assembly of God] I used to say smoking was a sin, but it’s really not. There isn’t anything in the Bible directly against it,” he says. “Yeah, [Assembly of God] tradition dictates that it’s wrong, but tradition doesn’t make it a sin.”
He says some use the “body is a temple” argument with smoking and drinking, but he refutes the idea with a pat on his somewhat rotund stomach. “How many of us really treat it like that?”
Missoula was picked for Coler’s mission for several reasons. One, its reputation as an artistic community, and two, what Coler sees as a shortage of churchgoing throughout the valley.
According to Coler there are 77 churches in the area, including the Bitterroot Valley, but “there are at least 135,000 people who don’t go to any church.”
“I’m not a church basher. I think there are great churches here in the valley doing great things,” he says. But he sees room for improvement.
Grace Pointe, as a project, represents several years of Coler’s own research on whether an art-based Christian church might draw a following. And though the new church began under the auspices of American Baptist Churches, Coler says his church will be open to all Christian denominations.
“I think of it as transdenominational. If you come in and you’re Presbyterian, or Catholic, or whatever, we’ll respect that tradition,” he says.
Coler moved from Pasadena to Missoula last January, and has been doing legwork since then. He’s made contacts with different Christian groups in the area, handed out invitations, started a website, and even advertised at the Carmike Six and Ten.
It’s hard work, but it’s “not really rocket science,” he says.
Over the last few weeks he’s held several test services to get a feeling for his new venture. So far, so good, he says.
All that work is finally paying off. Grace Pointe will have its first official Sunday service at MCT Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 9.
“The idea of what we’re doing is opening up a dialogue,” he says. “We want to start something that––and I think you’ll love that I say this––can ‘evolve’ to meet the needs of people.”