Reflections on 40 Years of God’s Faithfulness to My Home Church, and Why the Local Church Matters
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of my home church, Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon. When the church started, I was a full-time pastor at the ripe old age of 22!
I’d like to share some memories from the past four decades, tying them together with thoughts about the value and importance of local churches.
Here’s a video made several months ago, not only celebrating our anniversary, but also looking forward to what lies ahead for our church. I’ll follow it with some reflections.
The Brink of Something Great
I became a Christian as a teenager, and by the time I’d known the Lord two years I knew I wanted to go to Bible college and study God’s Word. At first, I wanted to be a missionary, but God had other plans. I was 22 and Stu Weber, my youth pastor at the church where I came to Christ, was 31 when we were asked to participate in a Bible Study of forty people who met in the basement of Dottie and Norm Norquist’s home in Gresham, Oregon. As I share in the video, that study soon became something much more, and Stu and I were asked to be the pastors of a brand new church. (After all these years we remain good friends!)
A few weeks later we took nominations for the church name, and I typed up the serious ones, weaving in a few others, including First Apostolic Fire-Baptized Church of Gresham, and Boring Bible Church. (Believe it or not—the local ministerial group was once called The Boring Pastors’ Fellowship.) We voted, and Good Shepherd Community Church won easily. (I recall Cathy Anderson asking, “Is that name too long to fit on a check?”) We hoped “Good Shepherd” would reflect the centrality of Christ, as demonstrated in John 10, as well as the unity of the flock and the fact that all of us—including the pastors, the undershepherds—are sheep.
Garland Gabbert, a godly man who later became one of our first elders, stood up at one of those early meetings and with tears gave an impassioned plea that we wouldn’t be a denominational church, but that we’d just follow the guidelines of Scripture. (I always tried to sit near Garland, hoping his wisdom and humility would rub off on me.)
I remember both tears and laughter from those early days. It wasn’t always easy, because Good Shepherd was born out of difficulty—many of us were leaving another church we dearly loved. But there was also awe and wonder, because we knew we were on the brink of something great, something God was doing.
Our first official service was held on May 1, 1977 at the musty old Orient Grange Hall. Norm Norquist led hymns, I read a written prayer of dedication for this new church, and Stu preached an excellent message on Yahweh, God’s name, tying into Isaiah 6 and God’s holiness.
We had an evening service that day, and I preached on “The Church: Receptacle of God’s Glory,” based on 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, which says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” The distinctive of this passage is that “you yourselves” is plural, while “God’s temple” is singular. This is different than the reference three chapters later which speaks of all individual believers having bodies that are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). So, yes, we are each the dwelling place of God as individuals but in a very beautiful sense, as we assemble together as a church, we are corporately the dwelling place of God’s Spirit.
I talked about how God indwells us, and how if the world is going to see Jesus, we have to show them what He’s like. That’s what we wanted our church to be all about. I asked my friend Steve Duncan to play his guitar and sing John Fischer’s song “We are the Holy of Holies.” Here’s a blast from the past, John Fischer singing that song.
I’ll never forget the feelings of excitement we had that first day as a church. People just didn’t want to go home. It felt like the first spring day after a long winter. (Here’s a video that our new lead pastor Bob Bryant, Stu, and I recently filmed at the Grange Hall, talking about those early days.)
Sorrow, Joy, and Growth
Our first real crisis, and ultimately our first death, came when Marion Smith, a quiet and insightful middle-aged man in our group, got cancer. In our first 25 years of existence, I think there was no single event that had more impact on our church than Marion’s death. It drew us together, and taught us that God’s ways are above our ways. He’s not our follower; we’re His followers. It’s not about us, it’s about Him. We’re not the point, He’s the point. It reminded us that this world, as it is now, is not our home. All of us only have a short time here—so let’s use it well.
Our early mission statement was “Learning together to live like Christ.” Later we added the important phrase “and reaching out in his name.”
Over the years, we saw Good Shepherd grow. Under the pastoral leadership of my close friend Steve Keels, young people by the hundreds, and cumulatively by the thousands, flooded our church, with many coming to Christ at the annual Dunes retreat and other events. Often their parents and siblings started coming, and numerous families were transformed. Many have become true disciples, and over the decades several thousand have gone out in summer missions.
I had the privilege of being on pastoral staff of Good Shepherd Community Church for thirteen years. In 1990, a civil court judgment was brought against a group of pro-lifers—of which I was a part—for our peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience at an abortion clinic. After that judgment, I needed to resign as a pastor to keep our church from having to pay part of my monthly salary to an abortion clinic. (I have always paid everyone whatever I owe them, but one thing I could not do was voluntarily pay money to people who will use it to kill children.)
That was a very hard time for us, in which Nanci and I asked God what we should do next. We felt His leading to start Eternal Perspective Ministries. (See How Did EPM Begin? for the complete story.) All these years we’ve continued to be part of our church. I’ve now been a regular member of the church, not a pastor or elder, for 27 years, which means I’ve not been a church leader for twice as long as I was one. It’s healthy for former leaders to submit to current leaders. Not every pastor or lay leader has had that opportunity.
Sure, my church, like yours, is flawed. In other words, it’s like all of us! When people with problems assemble together in a church, why would we think there would not be problems? But I see in our people and our leaders a sincere desire to follow Jesus, obey Him, share the gospel, support missions, and help the needy locally and around the world.
Our church is where we raised our daughters. It’s where they went to Sunday School classes, to the church school, and to youth groups, and where they grew in Jesus and saw friends come to Christ.
Like all churches that have been around forty years, our church family has been through some very hard times. With all our imperfections (I don’t say all “its” imperfections, because we’re part of it), Nanci and I love the body and bride of Christ. Church has sometimes brought us heartaches, yes, but we treasure the many joys of transformed lives in our community and countless thousands who have been reached all over the globe. I thank God for our church, and its people, elders, pastors, and staff.
Just as our church started with many people from other churches, so today many fine churches in our community have wonderful people who were once part of Good Shepherd. A lot of them serve in key roles in their churches, for which I’m deeply grateful. I still feel close to many of these people when I bump into them in our community, at ball games and stores and everywhere else. I love these brothers and sisters and always will.
Don’t Give Up on Christ’s Bride
If you’re disillusioned with church, as many people are, I get it. But Nanci and I encourage you to try getting more deeply involved in your church, serving and praying and giving. Join a small group Bible study. If you need to leave your church, talk to the leaders and explain why, for their sake and the church’s. And then don’t give up until you find a Christ-centered, Bible-teaching, and grace-filled church. It will still be very imperfect, of course, especially once you arrive. :) For some tips on how to leave a church well, see this article. (And if you’re a pastor who feels a need to leave your church, consider this.)
We stuck with our church because it’s our family (of course, forty years ago the church we left was also family, and we still love it too). How have we handled the wrongs done to us? With forgiveness, just as others have handled the wrongs we’ve done to them.
I would encourage you to remind yourself of what I’ve had to say to myself when I’ve been disillusioned with church: “It’s not about me.” It’s about Jesus and His plan, His church, and His Word that tells us we are to be part of a local church fellowship: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer” (Hebrews 10:25, GNT).
I talk with people who’ve stopped being involved with church and say they are closer to Jesus now. But in nearly every case, it was in churches that they were first taught God’s Word, learned to serve others, and developed a heart evangelism and discipleship and world missions. It was in churches they first experienced small groups studying God’s Word and cultivating meaningful and supportive relationships. If everyone gave up on the churches, where would future generations look that would replace the very structures that were instrumental in the growth in Christ and the knowledge of God’s Word among those who are now divorcing themselves from the local church?
At times local churches may feel like a duty, or even a burden, but isn’t that true of family also? And isn’t family worth the extra effort it takes to stay together, and to serve others instead of walking away because others haven’t lived up to your expectations in serving you? Being part of a church is a high privilege, and one for which God will richly reward His children.
My prayer is that God’s people won’t say “I’m done with church,” but will do the hard—and rewarding—work of getting involved and seeking to glorify Christ with others who love Him. Nanci and I can testify to the joy of that, and we’re excited to see what God has in store for Good Shepherd in the coming years. And we’re also excited for the great things we see happening in other churches in our community and around the world.
Nanci and I celebrated our fortieth anniversary two years ago. And this year we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of our church. Just as Nanci and I are imperfect but in love, Good Shepherd Community Church is filled with imperfect people and leaders who genuinely love Jesus and want to please Him.
We are blessed, and we are grateful.
We also want to welcome our new lead pastor and his wife, Bob and Rachel Bryant, who recently moved to Oregon from Michigan with their wonderful daughters, Kezia, Elliana, and Shiloh!