A letter to a young pastor about ministry in Seattle.
Editor’s Note: We’ve asked five seasoned Seattle pastors to write a letter to a young pastor in the city on what they’ve learned over the course of their ministry. This first piece comes from Richard Dahlstrom, pastor of Bethany Community Church.
I still remember the first time I set eyes on Seattle. It was the fall of 1976. I’d recently changed my major from Architecture to Music, and that meant changing colleges, thus the move to Seattle. A lifelong Californian, I’d never been north of Sacramento life until I loaded up my car and headed to the Emerald City.
Just beyond the airport exit, there’s a bend in the interstate where the city comes into view. As I swept along the freeway in my Mustang, and was first greeted with the view, I was overwhelmed and filled me with a love for this city that continues to grow many years later.
Seattle’s big. As I surveyed the downtown’s skyline I knew I was moving to a city larger than anywhere I’d ever lived. It was a far cry from San Luis Obispo in California, where everybody knows your name. I now know that as far big cities go, we’re no New York or Chicago. But we’re big enough to be pluralistic—lots of languages, worldviews, lifestyles, immigrants, and wildly diverse subcultures obsessed with everything from hammer dulcimers to Salmon to Seahawks.
Size, when coupled with the reality that we’re a port city, means that you’re pastoring in a city big on tolerance and short on dogma. The elevation of tolerance and dialogue as values means pastors need to use their ears as much as their mouths. You need to become a listener of the community you’re serving. Because I like talking about ideas, I’m at home in a culture of dialogue. Yet there’s also a time for speaking with authority. And in our city doing that isn’t always well received, even within the church.
I’m reminded of Paul’s word to Timothy to “preach the word, in season and out.” If you heed that mandate, you might be labeled as too liberal at times, because you challenge the power structures that cause oppression and poverty. On the other hand, you may be called too conservative because you are trying to take the biblical witness seriously in the realm of relationships, or protecting life in the womb.
So listen, dialogue, be open to having your own views challenged and even overthrown; but for God’s sake and the sake of those you love and serve—lead!
Some opt for endless dialogue, sans conviction. As a pastor, you don’t have that option. You have been granted a voice of authority by virtue of your calling. So listen, dialogue, be open to having your own views challenged and even overthrown; but for God’s sake and the sake of those you love and serve—lead!
Seattle’s beautiful. I’ve travelled the world but I’m grateful for where I live every time the plane is descending into Sea-Tac. I look west to the Olympic Mountains, and the glorious waters of the Puget Sound. To the east there’s the cascades, punctuated by volcanoes decked in infinite shades of green with Queen Rainier standing above them all. “This is home!” I whisper to myself, convinced that I live in the most beautiful place in the world.
I’m not the only one who notices. Sunday church attendance is tied to the weather. When the weather is good for hiking, sailing, or skiing … let’s just say parking gets a little easier for the rest of us. Seattleites love beauty. They love it in nature, film, music, literature, coffee, microbrews, food, and art. We hike, we ski, we sail, and kayac. We go to the Triple Door, or SIFF, or SAM, or MOHAI. (And if you don’t know what some of these acronyms stand for, or haven’t been to the Triple Door, you’re not local enough yet to be a local pastor. Jump in!). It’s all about the beauty, tasting and seeing it.
The wise pastor in Seattle will tap into our city’s longings for beauty and preach not only the beauty of the gospel, but display it in acts of justice, mercy, and love.
This is good news, because the gospel is also beautiful—the greatest beauty of all. God turns ashes into beauty. Pain and suffering become the soil in which hope and joy flourish. Christ’s sacrificial love abolishes social divides and transcends economic and racial categories. The wise pastor in Seattle will tap into our city’s longings for beauty and preach not only the beauty of the gospel, but display it in acts of justice, mercy, and love.
Too often the gospel’s been reduced to a set of precepts, rather than an invitation into a story of beauty that God is writing in the world. Such a reduction won’t work here, and I thank God for that.
Our preaching itself should also be beautiful, and our worship experiences as well. Words matter, and the wise preacher will invest time in choosing words to build bridges between our longings for beauty and the beautiful gospel we proclaim. The wise worship leader won’t chase trends so much as seek to create beautiful encounters, so thick with the Holy Spirit that those gathered know that they’ve encountered the divine.
These manifestations of beauty, though, don’t come from mere clever wordsmithing or cutting edge mixer boards. In fact such pursuits can distract us from what matters most, for this kind of excellence ultimately comes from God, and so the requirement, in the end, is anointing.
This, perhaps more than anything else, is my hope for you: that you will know that you’re anointed by God for the work you’re doing. Anointing means having others who know you well confirm both your gifts and your calling to the context that is Seattle. Calling and anointing never really happen in isolation. Ambition is overrated. So many begin with the adrenaline rush of excitement, but finish by flaming out in discouragement. It’s better, on the front end, to know that you’re called.
My final wish is that you’ll not worry too much about results. Some churches will experience explosive growth while others will plod along, seemingly static, boring even. But be careful, friend. Things are rarely what they appear to be. I’ve learned to ignore the hype, especially my own, and simply get on with being the presence of Christ in our great city. If you’re passionate about embodying and articulating the beauty of the gospel, and humble enough to be a learner in this profoundly beautiful culture, you’ll see the fruit of changed lives and Christ made visible. That’s worth everything!
When people ask me how I’ve managed to keep hanging around for the past twenty years I just tell them that according to John 15, the nature of Christ’s life is reproductive. So if I’m abiding in Christ, I expect fruit to come in the ministry to which I’m called. It may come quickly or slowly, with bumps, curves, and setbacks along the way. But I don’t worry about it much because I truly believe that if we are “in Christ,” then Christ will be changing lives, blessing, forgiving, serving, and loving others through the community that is his body, the church.
So let’s get on with it—day after day. Days become weeks, weeks become months, and suddenly you wake up one day, realize that the city you saw from your Mustang in 1976 when you first drove up from California has been your city, your place to embody Christ, for many wonderful years. I wish the same for you.