Learning to think like an outsider
COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — On a recent Sunday night, Benjamin and Christina Heater lived out their faith on the floor of the Dalton Gardens Church of Christ.
The couple and their two young children, Jessica and Caleb, slept at the church building as they hosted two homeless families overnight.
“So often, we’re just Sunday morning Christians,” Christina Heater said. “This really is a concrete way to make a difference and to reach the lost.”
Through the areawide Family Promise program, the Dalton Gardens church regularly provides temporary housing and meals to needy families.
It’s just one example of the north Idaho congregation’s purposeful shift from an inward to an outward focus, leaders said.
“We want to create as many contact opportunities with people as possible, whether it is through hospital visits, building their house, getting a coat for their kids or in a dozen other ways,” senior minister Michael Lewis said. “We want folks to know there is something authentic and important here among our church family.”
Lewis learned the power of a simple act of Christian compassion 45 years ago while growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.
At age 11, while suffering from near-fatal double pneumonia, he and his family received a visit from a Church of Christ preacher named George R. Mayfield.
As a result of Mayfield’s visit, Lewis’ parents, Derald and Winnie, started studying the Bible and were baptized.
His father later served as a church elder for 20 years.
“In my dad, I saw that transition from a rough-talking, worldly truck driver to him becoming a great shepherd,” Michael Lewis said.
‘THAT’S WHAT CHRIST DID’
Far from the Bible Belt, in a tourist community known for lakes, mountains and ski resorts, the Dalton Gardens church averages Sunday morning attendance of about 280 — up from 200 just a few years ago.
That’s a 40 percent increase, which church leaders attribute to finding new ways to reach the lost.
“I never have to stand in front of this church and say, ‘OK, now we’re going to work on loving each other.’ They really do love each other. They are genuinely friendly and welcoming,” said Lewis, who came to Dalton Gardens three years ago.
“And with that start, people can learn to be outwardly oriented, and they can learn how to think like outsiders and adapt and share that love with other people.”
That’s not to say it’s an easy transition.
“You can say, ‘Let’s be an outward congregation,’” said Paul Swaim, a father of two active in the youth and small-group ministries. “Some people’s definition of that is, ‘Let’s just dress up our congregation and be more appealing to people when they come in.’ That’s a good thing. But that can’t be all that you do.”
Swaim and his wife, Katrina, open up about their personal struggles as they invite friends and neighbors to take advantage of the church’s marriage and divorce recovery ministries.
“There’s a lot of brokenness out there, and we need to meet people at the place of their brokenness to reach them and pull them into the family of Christ,” Katrina Swaim said. “That’s what Christ did.”
Dalton Gardens members hammer nails with Habitat for Humanity volunteers, host a Super Bowl Sunday chili cook-off and offer a sunrise Easter service featuring a free community breakfast with hotcakes and sausage.
The congregation gives out hundreds of bags of groceries through its benevolence program. It sponsors large community picnics with free hot dogs and entertainment.
Via 60-second radio ads, Lewis promotes the church as an authentic, welcoming place for visitors.
“The challenge,” Lewis said, “is to take everything we do as a congregation and ask, ‘How can we make this connect to an outsider?’”
‘BIBLE THINGS IN BIBLE WAYS’
The idea of an outward focus is not a totally new concept for a congregation that started as a house church in 1944.
Founding members wanted to “just do Bible things in Bible ways” and “just be Christians,” as the church Web site describes it.
Larry Grow, a Dalton Gardens elder since 1992, was baptized at the church in 1954. He spent 20 years away in the military but returned to the congregation in 1979. In the 1980s, he recalls, the church had a thriving bus ministry. At least seven buses brought as many as 400 children to Bible class each Wednesday night, he said.
“There was a real excitement, but there also was a burnout factor,” Grow said. “Over a period of years, it just became such a burden on the people. And so a church goes into a period of relaxation and not reaching out.”
Several years ago, the church also dealt with the loss of about 100 members who wanted a more contemporary worship style, including instrumental music, leaders said.
Although Grow declined to characterize those members’ departure as a split, their leaving dealt a painful blow, he and others said.
“So for a while, we went into a retreat again,” Grow said. “Now, that’s all behind us. The Lord is bringing new people in. He answered our prayers that way.”
WHAT’S MISSING? UR
Wooden crosses and rocks inscribed with Scriptures dot the prayer garden at the Dalton Gardens church, which is surrounded by postcard-perfect mountains and thick clusters of colorful trees.
Built by church members about 10 years ago, the garden features “stations of reflection” representing the deliverance of God’s people, the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion and the empty tomb.
“The garden has become a frequent place for members and community guests to stop, reflect and pray,” Lewis said. “We have a big box there where people can put prayer requests in.”
A sign at the corner of the church’s property greets passersby with brief, thoughtful sayings designed to draw attention. “We are a CH CH on the move,” declared the sign on a recent Sunday. “But something is missing. UR.”
A converted bus barn next to the church — dubbed the BARNaBUS — serves as a hangout for church teens and their friends.
From 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. each weekday, students in sixth through 12th grades can play games, enjoy free drinks and snacks and get help with homework. Anywhere from seven to 16 teens usually show up.
“It’s a safe, supervised place for kids to go after school until their parents pick them up or they get a ride home with somebody,” youth minister Patrick Ford said. “That effort has really solidified our relationship with several teens.”
The Dalton Gardens church also houses the Coeur d’Alene Christian School, where elder Dan DuPey serves as principal. Seventy students in preschool through seventh grade attend the school.
“That’s really a gold mine for us as far as the parents,” DuPey said, noting that most of the students do not come from Church of Christ households.
DuPey said he and his wife, Teri, also work hard to develop relationships with their neighbors, through events such as block parties and barbecues.
Once you know a neighbor, he said, “you have an opening to invite them to a life group or to services. And we’ve done that several times. Do you get 100 percent there? No, but you get your foot in the door.”
This is a part of the country where Churches of Christ remain relatively unknown.
For someone like Lewis, who preached two decades at 1,000-member Texas congregations, that’s not necessarily a drawback.
“You don’t have to worry about ‘church language’ and ‘Church of Christ’ buzzwords,” Lewis said. “The folks here will remind you how to relate to them. … They care most not about doctrine but about authenticity and being a regular person.”
Handshakes and hugs greet visitors, as does a circular “Welcome Desk” with a handwritten guestbook like one would find at a wedding or funeral.
The men who lead the public assembly avoid church code, such as “guide, guard and direct us,” and explain terms such as “fruit of the vine” that a first-time guest might not understand.
Eventually, Lewis said, visitors start asking questions like “What do you guys believe?” and “How do I become a Christian?”
“And from those kind of questions,” he said, “we study, we baptize and we study some more. And then they live with us trying to make a difference in our community.”
WEB SITE: www.dgchurch.org
SUNDAY ATTENDANCE: 280, up from 200 about three years ago.
MINISTERS: Senior minister Michael Lewis, youth minister Patrick Ford and children’s minister Allison Ford.
ELDERS: David Bruner, Dan DuPey and Larry Grow.
HISTORY: The congregation started in 1944 “with Christians in the area deciding their priority should be to just do Bible things in Bible ways and no longer to be known in denominational terms, but to just be Christians,” the church Web site says.
OUTREACH: Adoption and family ministries, radio advertising, Christian school, divorce recovery, marriage support, counseling, after-school tutoring, community benevolence and food distribution, family Bible camp, Habitat for Humanity, Friends Days, Super Bowl Sundays, community picnics and more.