Recently, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) had the privilege of interviewing Benjamin Palka, who serves as a church planter at King’s Church in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of State University College at Buffalo State with a bachelor of arts in communication and earned a master of theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Palka currently works in the defense industry. He was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and time with IRD.
IRD: Can you please give me an overview of Kings Church DC’s conception?
Ben Palka: At the most basic level, a good friendship with another like-minded Christian named Wesley Welch got the ball rolling in early 2016. I attended the same church and studied theology at the same school. We found out each other had the same desire to organize and plant a church in the nation’s capital. From there, we started talking and discussing the idea with our pastors, mentors, faith leaders in D.C., and a Southern Baptist denominational leader. Our motives, rationale, and vision were vetted and those important to us and our efforts gave us a green light. Things progressed quickly, and with Wesley as the other leader, we officially started on February 2018.
On a deeper and more personal level, I committed to faith in Jesus Christ in college and that has been the single most important experience of my life. After that happened, I had years of maturing and it became clear to me that I wanted to be involved in the work of church planting. From there, the idea of helping to start a DC-based church plant materialized as I became more aware of how God was the architect behind the experiences and personal interests in my life. I’m reminded here that God promises to use every single event in our lives to bring about good (Romans 8:28). Basically, from as early as I can remember, I was always interested in government, international affairs, and policy. I was involved in student government from grade school until graduate school. I have worked in defense and have done analysis reviewed by Senior DoD leaders. I came to the point where I realized these particular personal interests and life experiences would make DC – an underserved area, despite what you may hear – an ideal fit. Here, I would have the opportunity to not only “reach the old me,” but serve and bring together a community of people that I could help to see faith as something more central to their identity than anything else.
IRD: The IRD’s President Mark Tooley mentioned that your church met at the International Spy Museum for a time. How interesting! Did you outgrow the space? How did you come to meet at a charter school location?
Palka: Yes, we just finished our 6-month lease meeting at the International Spy Museum. They moved to a new facility in a different part of town and we really desired to stay in Chinatown, which is the heart of the city. The Museum had been our home for the majority of our short existence. It’s very interesting as they’re dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage and feature the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on public display. We’re thankful to the board and staff there who were so gracious to King’s Church. Go visit if you’re in the area!
We still meet in Chinatown. We’re now just a block away from the now-old Spy Museum at a large DC charter school called BASIS. In perfect timing, a man named William who drives for Uber happened to be my driver a few months back. Eventually, he and his family ended up joining King’s Church. He offered to help find a new location and on his first phone call helped connect us to a charter school called BASIS. The facility is great and offers a lot of room for growth. It’s also the leading charter school in the city. We’re so thankful to have found it!
IRD: It seems like there are theologically conservative church plants popping up all across the city. One major criticism I’ve read surrounding urban church planting is that they lack a holistic, strategic approach that will offer long-term differences. How does Kings Church hope to truly engage with its community and make a lasting impact on both the lives and souls of your neighbors?
Palka: Yeah, that’s definitely true. There’s a lot of these types of church plants popping up across the city. The good news is that though they’re routinely all conservative theologically, they appeal to different types of people because they’re different culturally and practically. I’m glad they’re here. We need more of them because the city is filled with so many different types of people and therefore is very complex.
I agree with the criticism too. I think it’s more difficult for smaller urban church plants to have an effective socio-economic and spiritual city-wide approach. Resources, staffing, unfamiliarity, theology, and leadership-capacity are all impeding factors. However, in DC, it’s even more challenging to plan for long-term socio-economic impact because so many people in the city–especially those who need to be served, connected, and engaged–are decidedly transient. A lot of educated people move here, work on the Hill, a think tank, a lobbying firm, or a shiny new job and then move on. I think transience often lessens the affection one has to see long-term local socio-economic change in any given area. On the other hand, there are those long-term residents in DC who need to be served, connected with, and engaged in completely different ways. Due to gentrification, a lot of long-term residents are leaving and more of the transient types are flocking towards DC. This creates moving pieces and produces challenges – especially in bringing those segments together.
When our church considered the long-term impact on the lives and souls of our neighbors, we were aware of these challenges. We have adjusted our mission accordingly and there are a few things we’ve tried to emphasize. The first is genuine friendship. Our church, like many church plants in urban areas, is ethnically, educationally, vocationally, and age diverse. Yet, the biggest commendation we get is that our church actually likes each other. It’s not uncommon to see a 59-year old African American public-school teacher, a 47-year-old White House staffer and a 27-year old Korean lawyer having genuine friendship at our church. We do our best to live life together before the face of God. Binding our lives together in the true friendship of burden-bearing and vulnerability is a powerful tool for long-term impact in each other’s lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together is our second Bible. Secondly, the more conventional answer that people like to hear is that we partner locally and internationally to provide support. We back and are involved with a DC-based group called Breadcoin. Their mission it is to alleviate poverty and homelessness with a new currency that is increasingly being accepted by local vendors. Another local example is that we partner with local DC schools to do things like character talks and school-supply drives. On a more international level, we’ve invited representatives from 127 Worldwide and Invisible Girl Project to our services to educate and advocate. We have been part of the International Justice Mission efforts to lobby US Congress and raise advocacy among our neighbors regarding human rights and the mission to combat sex trafficking worldwide. This community-local/international approach has allowed us to build a strong coalition among our members to begin to face the multi-tiered challenges of doing ministry in DC.
IRD: What methods have you and your team found helpful in publicizing (for lack of a better word) your church plant. How are you getting folks involved in Kings Church DC?
Palka: Word of mouth, new friendships, internet, and social media, novel outreach events, social programs, and the sign on the sidewalk on Sunday morning.
We get people involved by showing them that the church is supposed to be a team of people accomplishing God’s good work of redemption together. Practically, we invite people to serve in different components of the Sunday service, join a small group, help in an outreach, or use their gifts and talents to create something new.
IRD: We have noticed that a good number of young DC churchgoers are attracted to theologically conservative churches, and yet they are socially liberal. Is this something you’ve observed?
Palka: Yeah, I’ve seen this trend as well. I think it’s a great thing because as a theological conservative myself who stands within the Great Tradition of the Church, I welcome discussion and differences of opinion from people who are sincerely trying to understand the Bible. I think authentic Christianity offers a critique of both US conservative and liberal social norms, so I say let’s become friends and have a discussion.
It’s also worth pointing out that it’s infrequent that I use the term “theologically-conservative” in DC because there’s a good chance that someone may think I’m saying “theologically Republican.” You may land on your choice political party via your theological beliefs, but it’s important that the Church institutionally be neither Republican or Democrat.
But for the sake of clarity, I think socially liberal people attending theological conservative church plants end up there for number of reasons. Some may categorize themselves as socially liberal because they’re affirmative on most of the issues you would expect but disagree with some key liberal views on issues where they believe the Bible speaks with precision (these issues are usually the specific kinds that theological conservatives emphasize). Others may be socially liberal and disagree with their theologically conservative church on key social issues, but prefer to keep quiet, genuinely preferring a conservative approach to religion and tradition. Still others may be socially liberal and are not aware they attend a theologically-conservative church. For these types, a theologically conservative church must mean a Republican church. However, when they attend, they meet people who have attractive piety and maintain a nuanced and complex understanding of political and social issues.
So it’s a great thing – as long as these churches actually challenge people to think and grow – whether they’re coming in as socially conservative or socially liberal. That is what the Christian gospel and active faith is meant to do: transform us all, over time.
IRD: What signs make you most hopeful about being a church planter right now in the nation’s Capital?
Palka: A lot. Here are a few: One, seeing groups (ethnically, vocationally, educationally, age) that normally wouldn’t “do life” together begin to reconcile and work together towards common mission goals. Two, being a catalyst to bring people who have power and significance to faith in Jesus Christ. Three, being able to positively influence people who are decision-makers. Four, the level of support and acknowledgement we receive from people all over the country in this little project is a huge honor we most definitely do not deserve!