Year of Sundays

The first thing you should know about Sunset Presbyterian Church is that, for me, the experience was weirdly reminiscent of the years I spent as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Emblazoned over its front door was a scripture that every J-Dub can recite in his or her sleep:

The Jehovah's Witnesses called. They want their scripture back.

And you know what Matthew 28:19 means for the Witnesses: pounding on your door at 10:00 in the morning to correct your foolish assumptions about God, the Trinity and Christmas. I wouldn’t exactly call my reaction to that sign a symptom of PTSD—it was more like what happens when you accidentally take a gulp from a carton of milk that’s way past its expiration date. Unlike the Witnesses, who emphasize that scripture’s phrase “make disciples,” Sunset Presbyters have built their action plan on the single word “go.” As in: “Go. Get out. Seriously. Are you gone? What are you still doing here?”

Our visit coincided with an event Sunset Pres calls Mission Sunday. By way of a sermon, a slide show and a series of achingly wooden, scripted interviews with church members, they reviewed the many and varied activities you can get involved with, from planting trees for a local school to spending a lovely vacation building churches in Uganda to sneaking into a tin pot dictatorship and joining a Bible-smuggling ring. Busy busy busy! In the foyer, trade show booths promote a bewildering array of choices. Here are but a few:

Go Join the Global Outreach Team!


Go build a church in Russia!


Go help a foreign orphan!


Go plant a community garden!

Oh, the places you’ll go! In one of the morning’s presentations, one member opined that “a church should have a well-worn path leading away from its front door—not because members are leaving [cue: tittering of audience laughter]—but because its members are too busy to stay in church.” Just in case you missed it, that’s an example of Presbyterian humor.

So consider yourself forewarned. Sunset Presbyterian isn’t for bench warmers. Also, its sermons aren’t quite ready for prime time. Like any good megachurch, however, it is home to a well-rehearsed rock band and karaoke system. Unlike the show biz kids we saw at Beaverton Foursquare, this band was fronted by a decidedly down-to-earth group of singers whose sole job was, not to entertain, but to simply lead the congregation in song. If the latter seemed to follow along in leaden fashion, it could have been due to the fact that, numbering 200 or so, it was fairly swallowed up in the 1000-seat auditorium.

That low attendance figure was likely due, in part, to the absurdly early 9:00 a.m. service to which Amanda dragged me (a second, far more sensibly-timed, service takes place at 11:00); the other factor is that the church recently suffered a schism of sorts when its pastor of 29 years, Ron Kincaid, left under what were apparently unpropitious circumstances. As a consequence of that upheaval, some 1000 of the church’s members have ceased attending the church. Ah, the testing. The sifting. The utility bills that go along with heating an unnecessarily large auditorium.

Regardless of these travails—and the cautionary tale they connote about the dangers of building a church around the personality of a single leader—the Sunset Presbyters are a busy bunch.

Since an army doesn’t march on its stomach, the real question for me was, “how was the food?”As kismet would have it, a hearty pancake-and-sausage breakfast was served, complete with a choice of three faith-based octane levels (“weaker,” “normal” and “stronger”) of urn-brewed Boyd’s coffee.

As evidence of their passion for the Christ, Sunset members show their flair with a variety of colorful t-shirts; the congregation is thus an amalgam of casual Sunday best and chirpily-colored beefy tees imprinted with can-do ministry slogans like these:

'I went to Haiti to give out penicillin and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.' (Sorry, Chuck, I couldn't resist!)

Among the occupational hazards of this blogging project are the after-church conversations into which we get roped by over-zealous members of the church. This week, the charge was led by a guy I’m going to call Tex. Tex, with his razor-crisp shirt and Lone Star State dental profile regaled us for almost an hour straight with a sales pitch for his church, Jesus and a faith-healing minister who has taken the trouble to move to Pakistan so he could convert perfectly good Muslims into ambassadors for Christ. (Which reminds me: why is converting Muslims to Christianity a good thing? From where I sit, convincing someone to quit bowing to Mecca so they can kneel before a cross is a zero-sum equation.)

All of that said, the Sunset Presbyters are doing a lot of good in the community. As one of the scripted interviewees above said, “We get a lot from our community and want to give something back.” By participating in such non-denominational faith-based organizations as Medical Teams International, Sunset Presbyterian puts action before doctrine, setting aside differences it may have with other religions and going in league with them to do good in the world. Thumbs up for that!

Sure, the service was dry and Tex couldn’t give a straight, non-preachy answer my questions if I’d held  a .44 magnum to his head. But these folks are trying to be better people, and they’ve found a like-minded to community in which to pursue that ideal.

After the service, my politically conservative girlfriend and I (a pinko liberal) discussed the belief some hold that Republicans are less interested in the environment than Democrats. She insisted that many Republicans love the environment, but that where they differ from Democrats is in their belief that conservation rests, not in government intervention, but in the volunteer and private sector initiatives in which they participate.

As the Sunset members, many of whom I would guess vote Republican, milled about us, it was hard to argue against her point.

Indeed, there is a conservative Christian tradition that maintains that man’s God-granted dominion over the earth (see Genesis 1:26) is a call, not to predatory behavior, but to stewardship of its resources. Maybe that belief is adequate to the urgent course-correction needed to stave off global warming, and maybe we don’t need enlightened legislation or firm regulations in place to prevent the industrial sector from doing what it does best: putting its interests ahead of the good of the environment. For the moment, it seemed as if I was in a roomful of people who are working to make earth a better place to live, and they are quietly doing their part to vindicate Amanda, one sapling at a time.

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