By Chris Moon
It was mid-January. A bitter cold snap covered most of the continental United States. In the Northeast, wind chills dipped well below zero. But Bryan Sands, in response to a question, casually stuck his hand outside to gauge the temperature where he lives and serves.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably about 80.”
Sands is lead pastor with Kaimuki Christian Church in Honolulu where, day after day, the weather is close to perfect.
“We’re in shorts and T-shirt weather around here,” Sands said. “That’s pretty much what it’s like all year round.”
He said he brought one sweatshirt from the mainland when he arrived in Honolulu three years ago.
“I think I’ve worn it four times,” he said, laughing.
FROM CALIFORNIA TO HAWAII
Sands started his ministry career in 1998 in Southern California, serving 13 years at what is now Discovery Christian Church in Moreno Valley. He spent most of that time in student ministry.
In 2011, he was named campus pastor at Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif., where he served more than 7 years.
“My heart’s always been for the youth,” he said. “It still is for the youth.”
So how did he wind up in Hawaii?
“I Googled ‘new lead pastor in paradise,’” he joked.
Actually, while at HIU, he felt a stirring to move back into church ministry, and he seriously contemplated pastoral positions in Arizona and Texas.
Then longtime independent Christian church leader and educator LeRoy Lawson called Sands about a position in Honolulu.
Sands and his wife, Caz, were excited about the possibility.
“But then we were, ‘Wait a minute. Hawaii is where you go to vacation.’ No one actually lives in Hawaii,” he joked.
Kaimuki Christian Church was a nearly 100-year-old congregation whose longtime pastor, Ron Arnold, was struggling with pancreatic cancer. Arnold passed away in 2018.
Sands and his wife went to visit. They were too busy with interviews to really enjoy the island. But the church was a fit.
“It was just one of those moments. This is it,” Sands said.
He started his ministry at KCC in October 2018.
DIVERSE, LAID-BACK CONGREGATION
Kaimuki Christian Church is a highly diverse congregation. Many people there are married to people of different cultures and ethnicities, Sands said.
The church has seen stable senior ministry leadership for more than half a century. Arnold served there for 25 years, and Arnold’s predecessor, Harold Gallagher, led the church for 32 years.
At a recent service, Sands said, a gentleman came up to him and said he’d been attending the church for 40 years. That same day, Sands also met two people who were attending the church for the first time.
“We have new people coming every week,” he said.
The church’s average attendance is 650 to 700, with a large online audience, Sands said.
The church also is a stop for tourists—especially so before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s great tourists come,” Sands said. “But our heart really is for those who are local and live down the street.”
Gatherings at Kaimuki Christian Church are very casual—“with an abundance of ‘aloha,’” Sands said.
“No one ever wears ties in Hawaii unless you are at a wedding or funeral,” he said. Aloha shirts (aka Hawaiian shirts) and slippers are more the norm.
THE CHURCH IS A FAMILY
But the best part of KCC is the church’s family atmosphere and the wider culture.
The Hawaiians call the family—and their church—‘ohana.
“People [here] truly are a family,” Sands said.
The pastor said he went to a house blessing a couple of years ago, and the kids at the house quickly gravitated to his own young daughters and immediately took them under their wings.
Sands was taken aback. “That would never happen in Southern California,” he said.
The father of the other children didn’t think it unusual, Sands recalled. On the islands, the older kids always look after the younger ones.
“That’s what we do in our culture. That’s just who we are,” he told Sands.
Americans on the mainland tend to be more individualistic, while in Hawaii, family and warm hospitality are central features of the culture. And it’s also like that in the Hawaiian church.
One of Sands’s daughters was born with a congenital heart defect, and the family at one point had to fly to the mainland for medical treatment. They stayed three months. The Kaimuki congregation rallied around them with prayer and financial support.
“Our church just surrounds us with that type of love,” Sands said. “For me, that’s the best part of ministering here—that tight-knit community. It’s not exclusive.”
WORKING THE MINISTRY—AND FAMILY
The setting is idyllic, but there’s also work to do.
Like many churches, Kaimuki’s plans were slowed down and/or derailed by the pandemic.
The church found itself reacting to things more often than proactively pursuing its mission.
Sands and the church’s leaders have been meeting with the congregation in focus groups and guided discussions.
“What we’re hearing is our church wants a clear direction on where we’re going,” he said. People want to know how to plug in and how to serve. Leaders are working to retool the church’s vision statement.
“I’m just excited to see what God’s going to do in and through this process,” Sands said.
Meanwhile, Sands has his family to care for. Along with his wife, Sands has four daughters—ages 8, 5, 3, and 7 months—plus a dog. Most fathers can relate.
“It’s just nonstop. It’s exhausting. Sometimes they sleep well. Sometimes you’re up in the middle of the night. It’s nonstop craziness,” he said.
But at least the weather is nice. And then there’s the calling.
Sands said he encourages all pastors—whether they are in “paradise” or are going through difficult times—to remember their calling and that “the Lord hasn’t forgotten them.”
“I never have regretted saying ‘yes’ to the Lord,” he said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.