Sage Hills Church in Wenatchee, Washington, is growing rapidly while reaching previously unchurched people and empowering longtime members by emphasizing discipleship.
When Lead Pastor Mike Wilson arrived in Wenatchee 11 months ago, he found the congregation to be a “multigenerational, multifaceted church that was heavily invested in Christian education” such as Sunday morning Bible studies. The challenge was that the congregation’s 10 to 12 discipleship groups often were segregated by age or marital status, and the groups discussed discipleship using different terminology. After redoing its discipleship program, the congregation now has 26 groups. Instead of offering different types of groups like in the past, new “Rooted” groups offer a 10-week discipleship experience. More than 360 people currently participate in Rooted.
Wilson said 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?”
Church leaders created a strategy to lead people on the path of discipleship:
- Encounter love in worship.
- Experience love in a group.
- Expand love through serving.
Wilson said church leaders “leveled the playing ground and said, ‘We’re going to have one language for discipleship. We’re going to simplify what we’re doing and focus our energy and effort around all generations coming together.’”
More people are now in the leadership pipeline. After completing the 10-week Rooted group, a person is able to lead another Rooted group. Before the Rooted program began, Wilson said, 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.”
Targeting the Unchurched
Some people did not like the changes and left the church, but the congregation has grown from approximately 1,000 people when Wilson arrived to an average of 1,240 people now attending the church each week. Approximately 50 percent of Sage Hills’ visitors are previously unchurched.
Wilson highlighted a new couple at the church who previously declined invitations to visit the congregation – then known as the Wenatchee Free Methodist Church.
“They had never been to church in their life,” he said.
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.
Because Wenatchee is a popular destination for outdoor recreation, Wilson said, church leaders “wanted to do something that not only honored the Lord but also honored the process of people coming to church.”
Along with the new name reflecting the local geography, the congregation added a new slogan: “Where Your Journey Begins.” The name change hasn’t caused the congregation or its pastor to be shy about denominational affiliation and history.
“I’m a Free Methodist through and through,” Wilson said.
Although the church has a new name without the denominational title, its website highlights its founding in 1908 and details the church’s Free Methodist beliefs and rich heritage. It even notes that “Pastor Myron Boyd (1935-37) began a weekly gospel radio program” that “became the denomination’s award-winning radio broadcast, ‘The Light and Life Hour.’” Bishop Emeritus Les Krober serves on the church’s staff and oversees the congregation’s global mission.
The congregation has a legacy of being one of the denomination’s fastest growing congregations, but over the decades, some members lost their passion for evangelism. Wilson said it’s normal for a church’s life cycle to include a “move from barbarian to bureaucrat” while “that storm becomes a norm, and we get stuck and start to plateau or decline.”
“When we find ourselves in decline, as church movements, we’ve got to get back to that place of living on mission,” Wilson said. “Our mission statement at Sage Hills is: ‘We’re going to risk our comfort to reach our community to release freedom in Christ.’ When you get people centered around the mission, that barbarian spirit returns, and then we can start going forward.”
Wilson became a Free Methodist pastor in 2001, worked at several FM congregations in California and also served as the denomination’s national youth ministry director. His most recent experience before Wenatchee was seven years at Centerpoint Church in Murrieta, California, where he was the senior associate pastor. He credited Centerpoint Lead Pastor John Hansen as “the guy who discipled me” and called him a mentor and friend who “poured into my life, took a big risk on me and trained me to have the ministry. I can truly tell you that I am who I am because of his investment in me.”
He said it was difficult to leave Centerpoint for the Wenatchee congregation, but he believed he had the opportunity to take what he learned at Centerpoint and “spread a little bit of that wealth across our denomination.”
Wilson said that if a local church lacks mission, people’s preferences “drive the ship,” but the church should be guided by a solid mission, value system and strategy rather than personal preferences.
Preaching also matters in the local church. Wilson said some churches undermine the value of passionate preaching. He said pastors should preach for transformation rather than just knowledge — and for action instead of just intellect.
“If there’s anything I would like to see added to our platform, that is passionate gospel preaching,” he said. “Our passion for Jesus is what motivates people to make the next step. I strongly encourage passionate proclamation of the gospel.”2