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Churches will discern their mission to serve neighborhoods

Youth ministry led Katie Stark to want to retain young people.

By Mary Stamp

The Presbytery of the Inland Northwest has received a $754,487 grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. Thriving Congregations Initiative to establish its Ezra 3:13 Project.

Katie Stark, the presbytery's missional expediter and cyclical co-director since 2018, wrote the grant and will oversee its use.

As missional expediter, she works with existing congregations to help them be outward focused. As cyclical co-director, she helps leaders form new expressions of the church.

"In both roles, I seek new ways for congregations to be the church in our radically changing culture," she said.

The grant project grew out of that commitment. From March to mid-June in 2023, she spent 10 to 15 hours a week doing research and writing the grant.

The presbytery proposes to expand its four priorities: 1) reconciliation with the Nimiipuu, 2) supporting congregations to be outward focused, 3) supporting leaders called to start new expressions of church and 4) encouraging land stewardship.

They will begin with the focus on land stewardship and use of buildings in ways that address the other priorities.

The project name comes from Ezra 3:13, a text the presbytery began using in 2021. It tells how after the first temple built by Solomon was destroyed and Israelites spent decades in exile, they returned and built a new temple foundation. What should have been a joyful celebration was interrupted by the weeping of the older generation who had seen the first temple and, according to the prophet Haggai, the foundation looked nothing like the first temple.

"However, the Israelites continued building the new temple as a unified community made up of both those who were weeping and those shouting for joy," said Katie, anticipating how God will be doing something new in presbytery churches.

While Christian churches may be declining, they formed the faith of many, she pointed out. The pandemic accelerated changes that were happening in the culture and churches. So, the church needs to look different.

The project seeks to guide churches to recognize that the church of the past no longer exists, so they can now dream of what it could be, she explained.

Katie said that four cohort groups will each meet for a year over the next five years. The first in spring 2024 is for congregations with 50 or fewer members. The second is for churches with 100 or fewer members. The third is for churches of any size. The fourth is for Nimiipuu congregations, which may meet separately or with other cohorts.

"Cohorts will practice spiritual disciplines, clarify their mission and values related to the community, deepen their relationships with God through Christian discernment and hospitality, and align their building use to their mission," she said. "At the end of the year, they will propose a project to change their building use to align with their mission to the community.

"We are asking: If the building helps its neighborhood flourish, how does that impact the congregation? We suspect it would have a positive impact," she said.

Congregations may propose projects and apply for a $10,000 seed grant.

For example, they might upgrade their kitchen to be a commercial kitchen to offer cooking and canning classes, or they might open their kitchen for community groups to use. Rural churches might host a monthly dinner.

Katie said Bethany Presbyterian plans to tear down its building to build affordable housing on their property. Other churches may upgrade building spaces to rent to nonprofits that align with their mission.

The key is for churches to listen to their neighbors to learn what they need, not to assume they know what their neighbors need.

"Church building projects are to grow out of relationships and out of listening to neighbors," Katie said.

"Our hope is that, instead of looking for ways to survive financially, churches will look for ways to thrive in today's cultural context that has shifted dramatically from when the churches were founded," Katie said. "We want churches to be share the gospel in new, compelling ways."

That vision came from 20 years in youth ministry and grew into her role with the presbytery and the grant.

Katie grew up in Oak Harbor and Longview and came to Spokane to study theology at Whitworth. In 2000, she earned a bachelor's in theology. From 2001 to 2017, she was youth minister at Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church. In 2018, she earned a master's in theology at Whitworth, and a master of divinity at Portland Seminary with George Fox University in 2020.

"I had a clear call to ministry. When I was in community college, the pastor of our small church invited me to do part-time youth ministry," said Katie.

"Youth ministry informed my sense of calling, but I realized that young adults were generally missing from churches. Most did not continue to go to church after being in youth group," Katie said. "I long for the church to welcome people from a variety of backgrounds. I want it to be inviting so my 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter will want to continue to be involved.

"I long for the church to find new ways to reach out to younger persons rather than expecting them to come to us," she said.

She knows some reasons why young people are missing, so she wants the church to find new ways to be the church that will draw more to connect with Jesus.

At Hamblen, she usually worked with 25 high school and 15 middle school youth. They met on Sundays, beginning with the middle school group meeting, followed by dinner with high schoolers, and then the high school group.

"We created space for conversations at the dinner table," she said.

Youth went on mission trips, she said, aware that some question if trips harm more than help people.

"They were good for the spiritual formation of youth, and we sought to listen to and learn from those we encountered," she said.

Youth did projects on the Navajo Reservation at Ganado, Ariz., where they built a long-term relationship with the pastor and congregation.

Other years, they went to Washington, D.C., to learn how faith, politics and social justice weave together. They visited the denomination's advocacy office, worked in soup kitchens and participated in workshops on faith and politics.

Sometimes youth helped with disaster recovery such as after Hurricane Katrina and tornadoes in Oklahoma.

The goal was for youth to explore how to live their faith and help them see their faith could make a practical difference in their lives, Katie said.

Nonetheless, few young people continued to connect with the church, even after marrying and having children.

She knows there are different reasons why Catholics, Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints leave their churches, but most mainline Protestants say they left because they were not hearing a compelling message, according to the book Non-Verts.

"We must be sure we are preaching the Gospel, which is compelling," said Katie, whose work with congregations on mission and seeking new ways to be church is compelling for her.

"Some connect with the church as it is, but some will not walk through the doors of a church. Our job is to reach both," she said, expecting the Ezra 3:13 Project to help.

Katie said her call to ministry and others seeing gifts in her helped her stay connected to the church. She, her husband and their children attend regularly.

She knows that for some, sitting in church for an hour on Sunday is not compelling, but new expressions of church like Feast World Kitchen and Growing Neighbors are compelling ways to express their faith.

In its request for proposals, Lilly recognized that COVID has had an impact on church attendance. It wants churches to find new ways to thrive.

In recent years, the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest guided congregations through changes to adjust to the new social and cultural contexts. In the process, many congregations have strengthened outwardly focused ministries that serve their communities, Katie said.

That led to creating her position in 2018.

Five years ago, the presbytery began Cyclical Inland Northwest to support leaders called to start new expressions of church for the unknown future.

The Presbytery of the Inland Northwest is one of 105 organizations—mainline Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, peace church and Pentecostal traditions—receiving grants in 2023 through the Thriving Congregations Initiative.

For information, call 924-4148, email or visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January 2024