Community Presbyterian altar

Altar with cornucopia for Thanksgiving, Community Prebyterian Church, Sandy, Oregon
Photo: David Nelson

October’s glorious reds and golds in this part of rural Oregon have passed, the last hurrah of sunny weather, the precursor of many weeks of rainy, chilly, wintry weather.

Nestled beneath canopies of spreading maples, alders, firs, and cedars are buildings filled with congregants, happily participating in their liturgies.

Displays of faith vary depending on the denomination, the pastor or priest. Though many Christians consider the Bible as God’s unerring word, given to humankind as a life guide, the denominational apples fall far from this divine tree. After all, some will contend, God has given us perfectly good minds to ferret out the not-so-obvious details. Perhaps this is why the New Testament talks of putting on the armor of God!

Some congregations found in this section of rural Oregon are derivatives of a larger, mainline brand, sitting proudly in the heart of Portland or Gresham, listing many thousands on their rolls. But often in rural America, churches are apt to reflect the independent, non-denominational spirit while searching for Biblical sailing orders. Not so surprisingly, rural churches defy cookie-cutter stereotyping and predictability.

Within a ten mile radius of Sandy, Oregon, where I write, churches vary in attendance from 50 to 5,000. However, unlike capitalistic enterprises, fundamental, evangelical churches mold visions, goals, and congregations around Biblical imperatives such as servanthood, forgiveness, compassion, and love. Pastors, bishops, and priests forage the pages of what they call “God’s Word” for sermons and teaching lessons to feed their flocks rather than looking to the latest fads, trends or sales charts. Or do they?

By far the largest rural church this side of Gresham (population 96,000) is Good Shepherd Community Church, a non-denominational evangelical Christian church. In Christianity, denominations are similar to separate businesses that agree in the free enterprise system but disagree on how to make the profit. In this case, they all agree in God, in Jesus Christ as the risen Savior and that belief in His death, burial and resurrection will reward the believer with forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But beyond that, differing tenets and creeds abound.

good shepherd church sign

Non-denominational Good Shepherd Community Church, in Gresham, Oregon
Photo: David Nelson

Being non-denominational, Good Shepherd is free to establish its own tenets and creeds, according to what its members believe the Bible lays out. And judging by average attendance, several thousand Bible believers must agree.

According to pastor Steve Overby, Good Shepherd lives by their motto: Learning together to live like Christ, while reaching out in His name. When asked what form reaching out in His name would take, he pointed to some of the church’s partnerships with several life-changing community organizations. They include My Father’s House Community Shelter, Shepherd’s Door Shelter for homeless women and children, Good News Clinic (a medical clinic started by a doctor who believes all people should be provided with medical help. He assesses fees, or not, according to the patient’s ability to pay), and Care Ministries, a group whose mission is to visit elderly, disabled, and sick people, bringing food, prayer and hope.

Good Shepherd sits on 27 acres of land donated by one of the founding families over 30 years ago. As often happens with dynamic churches, their attendance began to increase which led the staff to a decision to build a bigger sanctuary. Including ground preparation, the cost would be over $11 million. Since they did not have that amount in savings, they did what many churches do in America, they borrowed it. And today, five years after the first service was held in October 2003, folks who contribute money to Good Shepherd, have a balance owing of $1.37 million. The project gave them a huge auditorium that seats nearly 1,200 people. Included in the renovation were the latest in electronic sound systems, multi-media screens and images projectors and climate controls.

Good shepherd church facade

Good Shepherd Community Church
Photo: David Nelson

In a letter to the congregation, senior pastor Stu Weber, himself a best selling author (Tender Warrior; Four Pillars of a Man’s Heart, Tender Warrior, All the King’s Men, and Along the Road to Manhood), answered the often asked question about the time line for their next building project which is the Learning Center. Another multi-million dollar project, this will facilitate classrooms, enlarged foyer and office space. Some detractors of such projects say the church is supposed to be focused on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that entails rather than building monuments or memorials to success.

Unlike most fundamental churches, Good Shepherd keeps no membership rolls. To consider yourself a member, you need only align yourself with their teachings and come when they’re open. People who call this church home amount to 5,000 or so. They attend either a Saturday evening or Sunday morning service. Additionally, the church offers several Sunday School classes, geared to varying ages and on many subjects.

To facilitate the many needs and demands of such an outreach, Good Shepherd has 13 paid pastors on staff. From this pool, five or six are selected to rotate through preaching responsibilities along with the most well-known senior pastor, Stu Weber. Another former pastor, himself a celebrated author, Randy Alcorn, attends Good Shepherd without adding to its pastoral budget. Alcorn continues to write but his primary focus is now on his ministry, Eternal Perspective Ministries.

Good Shepherd church campus
The complex of buildings at Good Shepherd Community Church
Photo: David Nelson

Even though Good Shepherd Community Church does indeed invoke the name of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, it seems they may have inadvertently aligned themselves with worldly affairs such as borrowing huge sums of money to build larger buildings and “encouraging” congregants to help pay off the loans, rather than using the multi-millions in more directly charitable endeavors. Our position is not that of judge but one can’t help but wonder how many buildings and worship centers Good Shepherd thinks necessary in rural Oregon.

In contrast to Good Shepherd is the Community Presbyterian Church in Sandy, population 6,500, about four miles west. The average attendance here is 110 with services Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. Pastor Greg Thorson oversees the flock and sets the example for them to follow. Originally from Ellensburg, Washington, he has been the pastor here for twenty years.

Greg Thorson

Greg Thorson, pastor of Community Prebyterian Church
Photo: David Nelson

“This church is 101 years old,” Thorson said. “And this is the third location. It has been a non-denominational community church, a Methodist church and now Presbyterian.” When asked if he had a church goal, pastor Thorson replied, “To bring people to Jesus Christ. We want to help believers grow closer to Christ and be a light to others. We want people here to reach out and help in the community, to give and share as Christ teaches. And, most importantly, our church members should be evangelists in their own lives, wherever they live or work, living out their faith to make Christ real so that those who do not know Christ will accept his salvation.”

One very successful outreach is the Open Doors free meals program. Each Friday night, from six to seven, lots of volunteers stand ready to serve all who may come. The atmosphere is friendly and very family style, with clients often sitting next to strangers at one of the large round tables set up. Of course, by the time the meal has been consumed, they are no longer strangers. Mary, an administrative assistant at Community Presbyterian, explains that many of the people who show up are regular attenders, some seeking the friendship in addition to the dinner. “We get lots of good comments on the food,” she said. “Some of the seniors come for the fellowship and we do get homeless folks as well. There is no hint of obligation to anyone eating. No money is sought nor any donation baskets out” Mary explains that the church’s Youth Ministry began Open Doors. “I see Christ in our volunteers. Often people stay around to help with clean up,” she said. “I think they just want to help somehow.”

Community Presbyterian has reached out to fulfill another need in the community through its pre-school program, which teaches children Monday through Friday. The program is divided into two groups by age: two days per week for the youngest and three for older pre- schoolers. The program has been accredited by Head Start and provides a bilingual translator when needed.

Kristen Weakland and pre-schoolers
Getting a pilgrim ready for the harvest celebration,
Kristen Weakland leads Community Presbyterian’s pre-school program
Photo: David Nelson

One member of the congregation, Kristen Weakland, is qualified as a pre-school teacher. It was her idea to offer the program, now in its second year. “I have three kids plus foster kids,” she said. “And I get to bring my kids to work if I need to,” she smiled. “I believe in a hands on approach to teaching. The kids learn manners, sharing, and taking turns. We really enjoy our time together and love to prepare for special parties so we can invite their parents. Today we are having a harvest celebration and the kids helped me make stone soup.”

This “recipe” comes from an old story you can read more about here. The fable is a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” in reverse, where nothing is revealed to be something, after all. One rock in a pot of water becomes a pretext for people to start sharing in a way that they would not have considered without the catalyst of the “stone soup” that they thought they were improving. (According to Portuguese tradition, the events described in the “stone soup” tale took place around Almeirim; nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Almeirim which doesn’t serve “sopa de pedra.”)

community presbyterian exterior

Community Presbyterian Church, Sandy, Oregon
Photo: David Nelson

In addition to a very delicious version of the fabled stone soup, the children also helped bake pumpkin pies. Before the feast, the parents were treated to a delightful repertoire of Thanksgiving songs, including a sign language and Spanish version.

Community Presbyterian Church is focused on teaching the Bible, reaching out to help others and fortify the beliefs of those who attend. This small church is like many that keep their eyes set on the teachings of Jesus Christ rather than a blend of secular and church teachings, hoping to appeal to every ideology. As pastor Thorson said, “We desire to grow closer to Jesus Christ in our own lives. In uncertain times like we are in, Christians must learn to give thanks in all circumstances. One important way to do that is to submit ourselves to God, according to the book of James.”

David Nelson, a former tree trimmer, power lineman, professional photo journalist, and newspaper reporter, lives in Sandy, Oregon.

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