A century-old Free Methodist church founded in 1908 in the middle of Washington state was not the most likely church home and mission field for 35-year-old Mike Wilson.
He and I had collaborated on multiple campus expansions of the fast-growing Centerpoint Church in downtown Murrieta, California, where Wilson served as associate pastor for seven years, alongside Senior Pastor John Hansen. Bypassing opportunities to serve in larger metro areas, Wilson later accepted the opportunity to minister in this rural community in the agricultural heart of Washington about 2½ hours east of Seattle because of a distinct sense of calling and the chance to take what he learned at Centerpoint and spread it across his denomination.
When Wilson arrived at Sage Hills Church, then known as Wenatchee Free Methodist Church, at the end of 2015, he found a multigenerational, multifaceted church that was heavily invested in Christian education like Sunday morning Bible studies segregated by age or marital status. He had a choice to make as the new lead pastor: “Am I going to spend my time trying to build the church, which is Jesus’ job according to Scripture, or am I going to do what is the church’s role, and that is to be a discipleship-making machine?”
Wilson and I once again had a chance to collaborate by distilling the church’s unique soil-specific setting, tribal character and plot (purpose). Their rebranding from “Wenatchee Free Methodist Church” to “Sage Hills Church” was coupled with a new graphic identity (logo) highlighting the “Est. 1908” to confirm a strong tie to their history. Along with the new name that reflects local geography, the slogan “Where Your Journey Begins” reflects a simplified and clearly demarcated discipleship journey that starts in a 10-week “Rooted” experience, and then gives participants the chance to lead another Rooted group. This leveled the playing field, creating one unified language of discipleship.
“We’re going to simplify what we’re doing and focus our energy and effort around all generations coming together,” Wilson says. Before the Rooted program began, some church members who had been in Sunday school classes for 20 years “didn’t feel equipped to lead a Sunday school class, so Rooted just gives a very practical way for people to begin to lead groups,” he says.
Spatial Storytelling (Architecture and Spaces)
I had the chance to partner with Wilson and his leadership team with the goal of facilitating a “Blue Sky” week, in which we explored how to share the story of this renewed church and its strategy outside the auditorium. This unique process, invented by Walt Disney to translate film properties into three-dimensional place-making, has been a powerful tool in building consensus and applying story to space in a collaborative vision-casting workshop.
“Design intervention” strategies have been employed to transform the ’70s-era, dark-wood structure into an engaging “base camp” and “trailhead” for the metaphoric discipleship journey on a “freedom trail,” forging paths that unleash freedom found in Christ. Their master plan incorporates a covered pavilion and outdoor fireplace anchored by a cause-oriented coffeehouse across the street from the thousands of students of the Wenatchee Valley College, as well as a future Sage Hills Academy for onsite ministry training.
“The Blue Sky process for me did two things,” Wilson says. “It focused my mind on the task the Lord wanted to accomplish at Sage Hills and it invigorated my soul with something to look forward to.”
The church is growing rapidly (25 percent growth in the first seven months) while reaching previously unchurched people and empowering longtime members by emphasizing discipleship. Approximately 50 percent of Sage Hills’ new members were previously unchurched. One couple had previously declined invitations to visit and had never been to church in their lives. When Wilson asked why they now were open to visiting, they said they were attracted by the church’s recent name change to Sage Hills, which is also the name of a popular hiking trail in the area.
“They felt like Sage Hills was a place they were allowed to go,” Wilson says. “They’re getting plugged in, and we’re really excited about it.”
Mel McGowan, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building.