By the grace of God
Outreach, acceptance and embracing change have transformed Bidwell Presbyterian from floundering to full of life
From the outside, with its red-brick exterior walls that extend into a steeple high in the sky, Bidwell Presbyterian Church appears to be about as traditional as a church can get. Inside, row upon row of wooden pews lead up to the altar, and oversized, opaque windows line the walls.
“A lot of people see our church and think it’s going to be really staid,” said Steve Schibsted, senior pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian. “You couldn’t get a more traditional-looking church.”
On a quiet day, this building, on First Street butting up against the Chico State campus and across the street from Celestino’s, is everything one might expect from a church John and Annie Bidwell helped establish. And in fact, Schibsted admits, “The traditional service is probably not much different from when Annie was here.”
At Sunday morning’s contemporary services, the church’s most popular, it’s a different story. When I arrived a little before 11 on a recent Sunday, parking was scarce (there’s room for only 40 cars in the lot) and the lawn outside the sanctuary was filled with people—chatting, drinking coffee. If they weren’t standing outside a church, you wouldn’t necessarily know they were churchgoers—they were ordinary folk, dressed nicely but many of them in jeans rather than their “Sunday best.”
Walking up the stone stairway to the main entrance, attendees were greeted warmly and handed pamphlets to guide them through the day’s worship. Associate Pastor Greg Cootsona would lead the service, titled “Taking the Mystery out of Discerning God’s Will.”
A rock band, complete with electric guitar and drums, accompanied the gospel choir, and the words to their songs were projected on two large screens on either side of the pulpit.
As Cootsona paced, speaking into his headset and motioning to the video screens supplementing his sermon, it became obvious that this service and congregation were far from old-fashioned. And the audience—the second, but no less full, contemporary one that day—rejoiced, alternately singing, hands in the air, and listening intently to Cootsona’s words.
A curious revival has taken place in Chico, just a few steps from the CSU campus and downtown. Over the past decade, a denomination that has struggled throughout the United States has done the exact opposite here—it’s thrived.
Bidwell Presbyterian Church owes its name to the city’s founders, who were among the congregation’s 16 original members. Today churchgoers number 1,183 at last count. That’s more than double the number in 1997, and not far from the church’s heyday in 1959, when membership peaked at 1,396.
Worship attendance has also more than doubled in the past 10 years, from 285 in 1997 to 800 in 2007 (and more than 1,000 at last count). In fact, the church now offers four services on Sundays to be able to accommodate everyone: at 8 a.m. is the traditional, at 9:30 and 11 a.m. the contemporary, and at 5:45 p.m. is an alternative service aimed at college students. There’s even talk of adding a satellite site within the next five years.
“PCUSA [the national Presbyterian church] is declining pretty quickly, so to have a church that’s growing is almost an anomaly in itself,” Schibsted said.
Back in the late 1860s, when Chico Presbyterian Church was formed, Presbyterian churches throughout California were weak—the same position many are in now—and most relied heavily on outside aid. John Bidwell, who joined the faith because of Annie, donated $10,000 to build the first church, on the corner of Fourth and Broadway. His financial backing meant that Chico’s congregation didn’t face the same troubles as others nearby.
As if following in the tradition of its beginning years, Bidwell Presbyterian isn’t plagued by dwindling attendance and membership. Chico’s congregation is one of the fastest-growing Presbyterian churches in the United States.
To attribute Bidwell Presbyterian’s successes to one single person or effort would be disingenuous. Change, acceptance, reaching out—they all have something to do with it. Oh, and God’s grace—ask anyone and you’ll find it’s working here, too.
Seated in his office around the back of the church, Schibsted talked animatedly about the rapid changes that have turned Bidwell Presbyterian from floundering to vibrant since he arrived in 1998.
“If a church that has been established is going to grow, it has to go through change,” he said. “Leading change and understanding it is really important. The culture has changed. But many established churches are still doing things like in the 1950s.
“The trick is keeping the timeless message and communicating it in a way that speaks to a new generation.”
Technology and music are just a few of the ways pastors at Bidwell Presbyterian communicate with churchgoers of the 21st century. Besides that, they literally speak to their congregation in a language they understand—it’s not all Latin and archaic.
Bidwell also is determined to focus on what the Presbyterian church is for, rather than what it’s against. In that way, Schibsted and his fellow pastors preach more positivity than negativity.
“Steve has really set the tone in terms of how we communicate,” said Jeff Gephart, the church’s college ministry pastor. “There’s always good news to be preached, because sometimes our lives are a lot of bad news—it’s the reality of life.”
Part of the reality of life today is that the church is no longer the cornerstone of society, Schibsted wrote in a paper outlining strategies for growth at Bidwell Presbyterian. So the church must accept this change and change its own vision.
“People in general have a longing for community,” said Kristen Gephart, Jeff’s wife. “They want to go to a place where they’re loved. So a lot of times, I think, they come before they believe because they get the message that you can belong here, and be loved.”
In that way, Bidwell Presbyterian has put an emphasis on acceptance.
“We accept people where they are, instead of expecting them to be someone else,” Schibsted explained. “We emphasize God’s grace and unconditional love for us. It’s a message that is timeless. Christianity is often about do’s and don’ts and misses the message of grace and giving us life. We really stress that.”
Amid all this activity at Bidwell Presbyterian is an upsurge in outreach programs, from Chico’s back yard to across the globe. Church groups, for example, recently adopted Citrus Elementary School to offer help in any way they can. The church now offers Sunday lunches at the Jesus Center, to fill a need not previously met in the community. Money is being raised to build a Habitat for Humanity house over the summer in Chapmantown.
Missions abroad include partnerships in Albania and Swaziland, a village in Honduras and an orphanage in Haiti.
“We’re not just here for ourselves,” Schibsted said. “How can we be a positive force in our community and the world? That’s what Christ had in mind when he sent his disciples out.”
The Gepharts are two of Bidwell Presbyterian’s disciples. They recently packed up the family and took a church group to Albania. The couple lived there for a year following college, in 1996, and now Jeff regularly leads groups of college students to the poor country, east of Italy.
“For me, when you cross a boundary, you become awakened to something you maybe didn’t see before,” Jeff said. “It broadens your horizons.”
“And from a spiritual perspective,” Kristen added, “you get to see what God is up to.”
“We’re going to hang out and get to know people,” Jeff said of their mission in Albania. “We primarily seek to know people for who they are, and to love them and share our life with them. It’s about relationships.”
During a visit with the Gepharts in their dining room just days before their trip, their eagerness was evident. For Kristen, who is soft-spoken but passionate, this would be her first time returning to Albania in more than a decade. It would also be the first time little ones TJ, 4, and Alex, 8, accompanied their parents on a mission outside of Chico.
“I want our kids to see us in action globally,” Jeff said. “And to have a big vision of God. I think that’s caught more than taught.”
“I also want them to know that they’re part of the team,” Kristen added, “and to see how God is working in other places.” Socializing with children from another culture also will hopefully have an impact on the boys, she said.
“Whether you’re here in Chico, or wherever around the world, God is working,” Kristen emphasized. “We want to be a part of that—locally or globally.”
“You don’t have to go to Albania to do mission,” Jeff agreed.
The Gepharts, both 35, belonged to an extremely vibrant Presbyterian church during college at the University of Washington in Seattle. Eight years ago, when Jeff got the job in the college ministry at Bidwell Presbyterian, he hoped to bring that same vibrancy here.
“To have a pastor and a service specifically for college students is really exciting,” Jeff said. “Through the college ministry, you really get a chance to influence the world. When students leave Chico, they’re taking with them something you’ve contributed to.”
Jeff often leads “The 5:45,” the service aimed at Chico State students, on Sunday evenings. Kristen is active in the church as children’s director.
“It’s an exciting place for kids to be,” Kristen said. “They’re a part of the congregation.” In other words, it’s not just a glorified daycare so parents can have a place to drop off the kids while they go to church. Sometimes, even, it’s the other way around, Schibsted said—kids want to come, so their parents follow.
“We create a place where people feel safe, and don’t feel judged,” Schibsted said of why sometimes people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to church are drawn to Bidwell Presbyterian. “It’s a place to explore their faith and be accepted for who they are. God’s gonna speak to them—we don’t have to browbeat them. We trust that God will do his job.”
Doubling the size of its congregation has had an impact on the church facility itself over the years. Given that the last major renovation was completed in the early 1930s, after a fire gutted the building, much of the interior was in disrepair, some of it even bordering on dangerous.
“Our facilities were worn out,” Schibsted admitted. The church has since undergone a nearly $4 million renovation, including among other things handicapped access that was not previously available. Outdoor passageways were covered, the sanctuary was enhanced, and classrooms were remodeled.
“A couple of years ago we were deciding whether to move or grow this church as much as we can here,” Schibsted said. “We decided we want to be a part of a vital downtown.”
The location of the church makes it not only part of downtown but also the campus, and moving elsewhere would likely mean losing much of its identity. As it is, growth has been wonderful but has brought up problems with being lost in a crowd.
“As we do get bigger, we try to connect to people on a more personal level,” Jeff Gephart said. “We want to get people into smaller groups so people have others that they journey with.”
Finding ways to meet with people more individually or in smaller groups will be one of the next things the church tries to make happen, Gephart said.
Until then, the energy is evident at Bidwell Presbyterian. There’s an element of excitement—"joy” is how Kristen put it—in Sunday services and excitement about outreach projects has reached a high point. Now the church needs to hold onto that excitement, that motivation, and keep it going.
“Our laypeople are amazing,” Schibsted said. “The people catch a vision …. Our problem right now is trying to herd all these different people going in different directions.”