Seattle downtown church born after two churches disband

Two congregations in Seattle.

One young, one historic.

One growing, one tiny — with only a dozen or two worshipping in a space that used to hold hundreds.

One owning valuable property in a city neighborhood; one that started its life meeting in a movie theatre, and was hunting for a new home.

Both feeling called to a different kind of urban ministry, wanting to find ways to connect with a diverse and secular neighborhood, thick with young professionals, students, homeless people and drug addicts.

This is an account of the birth of Capitol Hill Church in Seattle. In some ways, their stories are very distinctive, of a particular place and time. But in other ways, their combined story is a lesson for others who dream of new church development and the revitalization of older congregations. A new congregation formed when two others agreed to close down and build a future together.

“To tell the story of Capitol Hill really is to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit,” said pastor James Kearny, who once, during a pivotal moment in the process, heard God’s voice speaking out loud, giving guidance.

“It is the Holy Spirit who continues to grow and move and start new things,” Kearny said. “We’re not here to figure this out. We’re really just trying to put ourselves in the way of God. We’re going to talk and pray and listen. When God shows up and says, ‘Ding, this is what you’re going to do,’ we’ll do that.”

Born from loss. Capitol Hill Church, when it began worshipping on Easter 2006 as a new church development, was not some grand idea, conceived from scratch. It grew, to some extent out of loss, from the histories of two former congregations, Church at the Center and Westminster Church.

Church at the Center started as an NCD in 1993, an informal, urban congregation worshipping in a movie theatre near the Space Needle. Boyd Stockdale was executive presbyter in Seattle Presbytery when that congregation was founded – one of six new church developments he oversaw at the time. Five were started in a traditional way — getting a grant, finding a pastor, acquiring a building — and “I closed all five of them, they all failed,” Stockdale said.

Church at the Center, in contrast, was started by a group of people from University Church who felt a call towards urban ministry and who were willing to leave an established church to start something new. “There wasn’t a recruitment process,” he recalled, no trying to find members to keep the place afloat. The first Sunday, they started off with 100 people, a hot band, and real excitement.

For some years, things went well. But problems popped up, including a painful rift with the founding pastor, who ended up leaving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the growing sense the theatre space wasn’t working.

There were some advantages for a congregation trying to reach the unchurched in meeting in untraditional space. “It was very easy to slide in and be anonymous,” said K.C. Watkins, who works in the software industry and was a member of the founding group of Church at the Center.

But over time there was a growing sense that the theatre space was getting in the way of developing a sense of community.

“People sit down in a movie theatre differently than you do in church,” divided by their armrests and cup-holders, Watkins said. “We were all really scattered people in a great big dark room. We didn’t look at each other. And by noontime they’re popping popcorn and selling tickets and we had to hustle on out of there.”

The theatre also was expensive to rent, so in time Church at the Center moved entirely into its rented office building and started looking for property to buy. One promising deal fell through — another roadblock.  There was a lot of discussion about finances and location.

And there were questions about with whom the congregation should be working in ministry. Many of its members lived in the suburbs. The neighborhood had become less residential. So people started praying about “who do we really serve here?” Watkins said.

Second partner. Meanwhile, a few miles away Westminster Church was struggling too. Founded in the late 1800s, “it was in an historic building and it represented a lot of what had happened to urban mainline churches,” said Westminster’s pastor at the time, Matthew Owen. “When you look at the pictures and the rolls from the 40s and 50s and early 60s, it was going big guns.” But when this city neighborhood started to shift, “it really declined rapidly.”

By the time Owen got there, worship attendance was down to maybe two dozen, in a sanctuary that could seat 350, and with only a sprinkling of younger members. The session meetings were Mondays at noon — no one wanted to come out at night — and “there was inertia” and a sense “this was the church’s last chance,” he said. “They wanted to change, but the idea of change and the reality of change are two different things.”

For the previous decade, “we’d been trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” Owen said. “That wasn’t going to happen.” They had some money — there was an endowment — but “we needed energetic people, we needed vision.”

Facing facts. The possibility of a connection between a young congregation that needed a home, and an older congregation that needed energy began to simmer. It started off with conversations between the pastors. Kearny was new on the job; he’d come to Church at the Center after the founding pastor left. Owen invited the new guy to meet for coffee. As they walked around the neighborhood, they could see the needs, and began to talk about what could be.

Capitol Hill, the neighborhood in which Westminster is located, is only about three miles from the theatre where Church at the Center had been meeting, but the communities have their own personalities.

 Capitol Hill is gritty and eclectic, “kind of like the Tenderloin District in San Francisco,” Kearny said. “A lot of drugs – a lot of heroin, methamphetamine. A lot of homeless. It’s the center of the arts district. It’s also the center of the gay community … Very artsy. Very multicultural,” home to a busy, multi-ethnic community college.

Very secular.

Both congregations were feeling a pull to stay in the city — and to reach out.

For Church at the Center, “we thought it was a place that needed us,” Watkins said. “In a spiritual sense, it was a benighted area.”

And for Westminster, “it wasn’t a desire to keep the place open, continue the legacy, at any cost,” Owen said. People were thinking, “This neighborhood needs a Reformed Christian church,” a healthy one, not a tiny one. “The neighborhood needed Jesus.” 

So, at first informally and then in a more structured way, the conversations about possibilities expanded to include leaders of both congregations. That led to joint activities and joint worship services – although it took time for the vision to gel.

Church at the Center had always been skittish about the idea of a traditional church building, worried “that might be a barrier to people coming in” who had pushed away from organized religion, Watkins said.

Leaders from Church at the Center had been searching long and hard for the right kind of space, thinking maybe a warehouse or office space might work best, and had assembled a list of the features they wanted. Much to their surprise, they found Westminster to be “this marvelous, marvelous cool old building,” Watkins said, with a kitchen and space for offices and classrooms.

And they found at Westminster “very faithful, very traditional older Presbyterians who they came to respect and care deeply about,” Stockdale pointed out. “The reverse worked for the Westminster folks. They encountered very bright, energetic younger people who had a different vision from theirs.”

They also began to see “it could be the life of the church, not the death of the church, to connect to the community.”

Stan Wood, a professor of congregational leadership and evangelism at San Francisco Theological Seminary was brought in as a consultant to help guide the planning and discernment process. Care was taken to make sure voices from both congregations were heard, that the bigger Church at the Center didn’t subsume the smaller Westminster church. Prayer was central.

“Prayer was just through all of this,” Kearny said. And in time, people began to say “let’s not do a merger. We feel God is calling us to a new thing. … We need to press the reset button and start a new church development.”

Owen remembers telling people: “You’re not trying to create the church of your dreams. You’re trying to create the church that God wants.”

And there were signs along the way, Owen said, that helped convince the skeptical.

One man from Church at the Center, a leader with many questions and significant reservations about what was happening, had years before had a dream. “And in the dream was a particular hue of light,” Owen said. “He never saw that hue of light until he walked into our sanctuary and saw it coming through our stained glass window… . It’s going to be small confirmations that create a corporate sense of call.”

On Palm Sunday 2006, Church at the Center and Westminster held their final worship services and then dissolved. On Easter Sunday, a week later, a new congregation, Capitol Hill Church, formed from the two, opening its doors at the old Westminster building.

Capitol Hill formerly chartered as a congregation in 2008. It now has about 135 members, drawing about 160 to worship.

So what can others learn from this journey?

Build trust. The two congregations took time, made room for each other, learned about church transformation — a process Woods described as part courtship, part spiritual discernment, part strategic planning. A key question is “Are they willing to re-conceive of their mission contextually for the people who are in this community?” Wood asked. Are they willing to say goodbye in name and in practice” to the old, to make way for something new?

Giving up. To make that space, Owen agreed to leave. He now is executive pastor of a large, interdenominational church in Manila, in the Philippines. Some months into the venture, other staff members were let go as well.

“There were things in our church that needed to die,” to make room for new life, Owen said. “It was good, it was hard. It was hard because I felt like a quitter. It was good because I knew there needed to be an identified leader. … There was also this sense of ‘I felt I had really been put there to bring this church to a new point.’ I had kind of done my leg in the relay race and it was time to hand over the baton. … After I made the decision I definitely felt the peace and the relief that I was walking in God’s will.”

And, while he couldn’t see then what lay ahead, “it worked fine,” Owen said. “God took care of us well.”

Connecting. Another key question was how Presbyterians from the suburbs could reach out in a diverse urban ministry to homeless people, drug users, and a community of great diversity in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation

“It’s a pretty lively area,” Watkins said. “For those of us who are just sort of classic, middle-of-the-road, white-bread suburban folks …  how can we be effective in reaching out?”

They have made progress — holding a street party and prayer walk; working with homeless men and teenagers; starting an English language conversational group with immigrants at a school across the street; holding Easter worship in a nearby park. When a census of sorts was taken several months ago, trying to organize neighborhood dinners, “to our surprise and delight” the greatest concentration of members came from the Capitol Hill area, Watkins said.

Sometimes “you have to kill a church to start over again,” he said. “It’s kind of a radical move. But it is really important to question your existence, and why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Watkins laughed — comfortable with radical.

“Every church should be killed off every 10 years and started over.”