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Small churches stay steady, stick to Scripture

Pastors emphasize community, relationships in congregations


by: MARK MILLER - Ron Peterson, pastor of Another Level Apostolic Church of St. Helens, paces while praying at the start of services in the Americas Best Value Inn meeting room Thursday, April 10. Another Level, which may be the smallest in Columbia County, welcomed just three families in its congregation - including the pastor's family - by the start of its April 10 services.It has become an article of faith for the national media: religion is on the wane in the United States.

The Pew Research Center, a well-regarded polling and survey outfit, reported in October 2012, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace.”

Pew reported that month that more than 20 percent of Americans, including more than one-third of people under the age of 30, identified as non-religious — the highest rate of non-religiosity ever recorded in a Pew survey. Some 29 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 33 identified as religiously unaffiliated in another Pew study published earlier this year.

But against this backdrop of an apparent trend toward greater levels of religious disaffiliation on the national level, small local churches in south Columbia County and associated communities report their attendance has remained fairly steady, neither growing nor shrinking significantly.

“I don't know that it's affected Canaan as much as it has some of the larger churches,” says Jeff Mullins, pastor of Canaan Community Church near Deer Island. “The ministry at Canaan is pretty straightforward.”

Pastor Scott Thompson of Holbrook Bible Church, several miles south of Scappoose, says, “We fluctuate a little bit. You know, sometimes the job market tells us people have to work on Sundays, so that can affect things.”

But on the whole, Thompson adds, “We've been pretty consistent over the last decade.”

Ron Peterson, pastor of Another Level Apostolic Church of St. Helens, takes a philosophical view.

“I don't think the country's gotten less religious. I think the country is asking more questions,” Peterson says. “We no longer live in a society that's OK with 'do this because I told you.'”

He adds, “They need to understand for themselves, not just because someone told them. And I think the church has done a bad job of being able to answer those questions appropriately.”

Common ground for community churches

Building a sense of community in church is identified as a key goal by each pastor: Mullins, Peterson and Thompson.

by: MARK MILLER - Holbrook Bible Church, about 5 miles south of Scappoose on Northwest Morgan Road.“I do think there is a sense where the concept of just sort of a rigid, religious organization isn't as appealing as it used to be, which is fine with me,” says Thompson. “We deal with the fact that we try to be faithful and true to what we believe. We try to be flexible in how we reach people. … We try to be adaptive to the changing culture. You can do that without giving up what you believe and changing your faith.”

Thompson cites Holbrook Bible Church's online presence, through its website and social media, as ways it is reaching out to the community. Just this month, a billboard for the church went up along Highway 30 in south Scappoose.

Like Holbrook, Canaan Community Church is located in a small building, which Mullins describes with a laugh as “in some ways, pretty primitive,” in a rural area, not directly off the highway.

“We don't have a lot of the bells and whistles that some of the bigger churches do, but we have a family atmosphere,” says Mullins. He explains, “We don't really have the means to have a lot of the bells and whistles. Our music program is pretty traditional, rather than contemporary. But we just try to encourage people to build relationships with other people. And most church growth actually occurs through relationships rather than programs.”

Peterson agrees.

“For us, it's not about religion, it's about relationships,” says Peterson.

Distinct personalities

Peterson's Pentecostal congregation of Another Level Apostolic actually meets for services at the Americas Best Value Inn in St. Helens. It has no dedicated church space of its own.

“We started out as a home Bible study about two years ago, and we kind of outgrew that space,” explains Peterson. “We kind of felt we had to start having more traditional services.”

Peterson estimates his congregation averages about 10 people. Many of those people come from lives of hardship, especially histories of addiction, he says.

“It's just a source of stability, and with a lot of the people that we're working with, a lot of their life events are unstable,” Peterson says of Another Level. “They have a lot of instability in their lives. This is a place that they can come and just have a place that's predictable and that's warm.”

Another Life, Canaan and Holbrook have a great deal in common, but each church takes a somewhat different approach.

by: MARK MILLER - Canaan Community Church, located about 4 miles west of Highway 30 in the Deer Island area.Canaan has a sizable role in outreach beyond its immediate community, Mullins says.

“Although Canaan Community Church appears to be very small … it actually has a significant reach,” says Mullins. He himself has been to Russia five times and Africa once as part of mission work.

Canaan is also planning to establish what Mullins describes as a “daughter church” in Longview, Wash., to minister to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. That church is set to open sometime this summer.

While Mullins describes Canaan as “traditional” in many ways, Thompson emphasizes Holbrook's casual atmosphere.

“We treat everybody who walks through the door like they've always been there,” says Thompson. There are no dress standards at the church, he adds: “I preach in blue jeans and a collared shirt most of the time.”