No Town Like Hometown (Part 1): Sage Hills Church
No Town Like Hometown (Part 1): Sage Hills Church

By Mel McGowan

If you consider your church to be in competition with the church down the street or across town, you might need a missions lesson. And I know of two homegrown, down-to-earth churches in Wenatchee, Washington, that can help.

In 1908, a small group of Wenatchee folks planted Sage Hills Church. One hundred years later, in 2008, another small group decided to open Grace City Church just a couple of miles away. When Mike Wilson, senior pastor of Sage Hills, moved to Wenatchee a few years ago, he met senior pastor Josh McPherson of Grace City. They immediately became friends.

Serving in Community for the Community

These two pastors desired something bigger than “wins” for their individual churches . . . they wanted a declaration of truth, hope, and freedom in Jesus. So, this past Easter they came together to proclaim, “Jesus Is Greater.”

The churches rented the town center and invited the community to a free breakfast, carnival, Easter egg fun run, and worship service. The entire offering was designated to a local family in need.

“They [the family] have given a lot to our community,” McPherson says, “and together we’re going to let them know that, in our town, you don’t walk alone when things get tough.”

The gift was presented as a surprise to the family a few days later at the opening ceremony of the 100th Apple Blossom Festival. I don’t think “church” gets any more hometown, community-oriented than that!

Building Up and Out

The two churches share common beliefs, but they do differ. In 2015, when Wilson arrived at Sage Hills, it heavily focused on Christian education and building up the church. There were several Sunday school classes, but those who had attended class for more than 20 years still didn’t feel capable of leading a group. Wilson felt called to also build out the church by finding and growing disciples.

Wilson, his leadership team, and the creative team from PlainJoe Studios came together for “blue sky” workshops to explore the church’s unique story by discovering its setting (sense of place), character (identity), and plot (purpose). A new graphic identity (logo) was designed for Sage Hills that included “Est. 1908” to emphasize the church’s long history.

The church was named for the rolling hills nearby that have popular hiking trails and amazing views of the Columbia River, Wenatchee Valley, and North Cascades. The church chose “Where Your Journey Begins” as a slogan to reflect a discipleship path that starts in a 10-week “Rooted” experience and then gives participants opportunities to lead other “Rooted” groups.

A master plan leveraged Spatial Storytelling to transform the 1970s-era, dark-wood church building into an engaging “base camp” and “trailhead” for the metaphoric discipleship journey on the “freedom trail” found in Christ. The plan incorporated a covered pavilion with an outdoor fireplace and room for a future Sage Hills Academy for onsite ministry training. The church’s purpose-oriented coffeehouse is across the street from thousands of students at Wenatchee Valley College.

“The blue sky process . . . 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,” Wilson says.

Reaching and Empowering

In 2017 with the new brand and space, the church grew 25 percent in the first seven months by reaching previously unchurched people and empowering longtime members by emphasizing discipleship. Approximately 50 percent of Sage Hills’s new members were previously unchurched.

One such couple had declined earlier invitations but said they were attracted by the recent changes to the church. “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.”

Sage Hills was growing, and just a couple of miles away at Grace City Church, pastor Josh McPherson was thrilled for Wilson and the Sage Hills team and was cheering them on. And now, Grace City is working with PlainJoe Studios to build a new church home. The $11 million, 38,000-square-foot project is in phase 1. Watch for next month’s article on this crazy, God-sized dream project. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Sage Hills and Grace City know who the real enemy is . . . and it’s not the church down the street. Our selfish side sometimes gets in our way. I encourage you to remember that and to focus your branding and building not just on your church, but also your community. Together we can build Christ’s church up and out.

Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.

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