In 1989 I was burnt out, I was also a church drop out. Because a denominational church pastor was innovating and planting a contemporary church, I was invited, and attended the new church. As a result I was renewed in my faith and became an active lay minister. A lawyer by trade, I was inspired to read every book I could get my hands on about the subject of "church growth" and "church planting." Eventually I served as the executive pastor of that church for a number of years culminating with a building program at a new location.
Some of my favorite Christian experiences have been in small groups. In the 80s after my first divorce, the denominational church in which I was raised, "divorced" me. Having been raised to believe that church membership was the path to salvation, being kicked out sort of messed with my theology. I had been a churchgoer from my earliest memories when my Mom would dress me up in a little suit and drop me off at Cradle Roll, or Primary, or Juniors, you get the idea.
My religion was of the institutional kind. I went to Christian school, was baptized at the age of 13, nominated and ordained as a deacon at 17, sang in the choir, played special music with an instrumental group, sat on committees and was active in the traditional church until my marriage disintegrated and I was the first to be remarried. Then, my traditional church de-churched me.
After a few churchless years I walked into a Calvary Chapel about 20 minutes before the 8:30 a.m. Sunday Service. I enjoyed the contemporary music and the sincerity of their prayers. Soon we were part of a home Bible study and I had my first experience of community in a small group. We were members and then hosts and we saw God knit us together as a family. People were birthed into the kingdom.
In the midst of this journey God gave me a mission: "To support, encourage, and nurture the planting of churches targeted to reach teens-to-twenty-somethings and their parents." When I took over as the interim pastor of a local Vineyard church, I thought, I’m finally on the way to my mission! God had a lesson to teach me in pastoral ministry: "You don’t know everything."
For my three years pastoring the church, everything that I had learned about church growth and leading a church stopped working. As a person who believed that cause and effect were a predictable process, this was a hard lesson to learn. I also found out, like Charlie Brown, that "I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand."
I had every possible kind of bad experience, from church splits, to church rebellions, to gossip and slander. I was kind of cheered up when I read a book on pastoral burnout and realized that I hadn’t ended up on the floor of my bathroom in a fetal position, like the author of the book. Eventually, the church had "grown" from about 125 to 30. It was time to call it a day, and start over.
Here is where the story gets interesting
At the first meeting of our re-launched church an amazing thing happened. In preparation for that evening, I asked one of our teenage boys, "What if we were to rope off an area of the parking lot for skateboarding, and set up for your band (a Christian punk group) to play, would you be into that?" He said yes, and that he would invite some of his friends.
I didn’t think a whole lot more about it until that night when nearly 60 skateboarders showed up! At one point there were more people participating in the skateboarding and watching what was happening in the parking lot, than were inside for the things I had planned for the launch of our new church.
I have learned from the scripture and from experience that you have to keep your eyes open to see what God is doing, and then to act on it! God was doing something with skateboarders! One of my fellow church members, Marv Schuler, jumped in that night, picked up a microphone and began to run a skateboard contest. He and his wife, Karen, were called that night to reach out and to minister to these kids.
It is now a little over five years since that night. The re-launched church became a small group that met on Sunday evenings
The Schulers’ own 10 acres in Moreno Valley, a place we affectionately learned to call the Ranch. We poured some concrete and built some ramps and the group began to meet most every Thursday night for skating, snacks and to hear the gospel around the fire pit.
When we held the first Christmas party. Karen prepared and served a dinner, and desserts consisting of several pies. A professional skateboarder came and shared the gospel. The Christian punk band, CIP (Christ in Progress) played. And over 100 kids showed up on a winter night!
I told Karen that night, that God was going to save some of these kids with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. That’s the only gospel presentation they are going to need. When I told her that, she said she just wants to see the kids get saved! Marv spent 4 months constructing a half-pipe. Karen and Marv have taken some of the kids who need a place to stay into their home.
Going at the speed of money….
ramp: At one point we prayed that God would send us workers, specifically some young men who could identify with the skaters and minister to them. A couple of days later, Hunter Chapman came, with dreams of a camp to reach skateboarders and plans for a half-pipe. He also brought donated lumber. We watched as the first kids tried out the completed half-pipe. It took four months to complete, we were going at the speed of our money.
The dreams of a camp, with bunkhouses and shower rooms, basketball courts and swimming pools to go with the skateboard ramps and skateboard runs, with playing all day and the gospel being presented at night, have not materialized. Marv and I used to joke with each other that we daren’t tell anyone that we are doing this outreach. We already had more kids than we can minister to effectively.
What was happening at the Ranch was not normal church, but the kids (mostly teenage boys, with a few girls who like to be around the boys) were experiencing the gospel through presence evangelism (the skate ramps and food have been presented as a gift from God); through personal evangelism (there is plenty of opportunity to talk with the kids one-on-one); and through proclamation evangelism (the kids hear the gospel around the fire pit every week).
This was not your normal youth group, most of the kids have no church affiliation and do not come from homes where God is an active presence. But God did something great. We have had the opportunity to pray for healing for parents, and for broken ankles!
A lot of raw material…
I was not sure at the time if we would ever get a church out of what we were doing at the ranch. I did know that we had a lot of raw material to work with. It was fun to be in on the ground floor of something that God was doing. It was also fun to be part of an adventure, especially when we didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
Eventually the small group got smaller…
The small group which was hanging out at the beginning of The Ranch consisted of the Schulers, my wife and I, two couples of the former parishoners of my church and my former worship leader. Our early conversations concerned whether we would allow the skaters to smoke cigarettes or not, and whether we would resist allowing the skate ministry to be turned over to the children of Christians. Eventually my wife and the two couples stopped coming to our weekly meetings.
Somehow the mission grew larger…
For years Karen’s dream had been for the Spirit to fall on Moreno Valley and for the Valley to be saved! The Ranch played its part in fulfilling that dream. In the early weeks I gave "altar calls" at the fire pit. I never saw much fruit from that sowing of the gospel. Marv spoke every week and told the kids: "This is a God thing." "God is building these ramps, God is building the Ranch."
We never made a conscious decision to live in community, but…
We never made a conscious decision to live in community, but about one year after we started the skate ministry my wife and I separated and I rented a room from the Schuler’s. Tom Chapman, the former worship leader at our church, bought an RV and parked it at the Ranch. So there we were, the four of us living in community! We encouraged one another, ministered to one another, and made all of the ministry decisions effecting our mission.
One sign of mission is opposition
Early on the next door neighbor made it clear that she didn’t like what we were doing at The Ranch. She hired a private investigator to video tape our preaching time and file investigative reports. She filed complaints with the City of Moreno Valley. She called the police. We went to court in that first year and won our case, we were’nt operating a church illegally, nor were we disturbing the peace. A few months later, the neighbor sued Marv and Karen for nuisance. At that point we had been cussed out, hauled into court, Marv was punched in the face and cited for assault!
My new ministry position was defense attorney. We settled the suit out of court and agreed to move the skate ramps over 150 feet away from the neighbor’s property line. We had already been asking what God’s will was in the midst of the opposition. We were convinced that he wanted us to continue to serve the skaters and preach the gospel. When we moved the concrete slab and the ramps we made the area bigger. Soon an evangelist and a teacher began sharing regularly. Ministry was opened five days a week. The "altar calls" began to yield more fruit. Over a 12 month period we gave away 3000 New Testaments to young people who responded to Mark and Matt’s messages.
I wish I could report that the opposition decreased. While we thought the police calls would end, they continued. The code-compliance complaints continued. Eventually the neighbor got the ear of two city councilmembers and the City brought their full weight and authority to bear to close the Ranch.
Living in community has ebbs and flows…
Eventually my job took me to another geographic location. The code complaints made it impossible for Tom to continue living in his RV. We moved away from the Ranch, but others took our place. Tom would always be the businessman who funded much of the early construction. I continued to be the defense attorney. I defended the Ranch before the City Council and before a Superior Court judge.
Others have come alongside Marv and Karen and have ministered to the skaters. A loophole in the temporary injunction against the Ranch has allowed it to operate for over a year.
We have seen God work…
As Marv says, there are many stories of how God has worked in the lives of the skaters. I know he has worked through the prophetic, in evangelism, healing, dreams and visions over the last five years. He has poured out financial blessings. While there has been opposition, there has also been favor. As we have tried to obey what God has asked of us, he has been faithful in spite of our lack of faith.
We didn’t set out to have a mission to skaters. That was God’s idea, and we saw what he wanted, listened to his voice, and obeyed. A few people can accomplish a lot when they are on a mission from God. We didn’t set out to live in community, it just turned out that way. I know my life has been changed for the better because of that experience. We didn’t start out with a lot of faith, but our faith has grown as we have seen God move, with resources and fruitfulness.
When I first wrote about these experiences in 1999 I wasn’t sure if we would "get a church" out of the raw material of The Ranch. As I write this in 2003, I can say for certain that the missional community called The Ranch is the church.