Peaks of faith among mountains of fun
SUMMIT COUNTY – The stars still shiver in Summit County’s inky winter sky when 33-year-old Shawn Woodcook begins his Sunday morning duties.At 4:30 a.m., the Dillon resident is lugging lighting and sound equipment, a drum set, guitars, microphone stands and stage props to the doors of Skyline Cinema and into one of its theaters.With the help of his 30-person creative team, Woodcook assembles a scene at the foot of the screen that is part rock concert, part art studio, part dramatic stage, and perhaps most importantly, part church.Woodcook is the creative arts pastor at One Community Church, which holds its weekly worship service in the dimly lit, windowless spaces of Skyline. The theater comes alive with song, video, dance, painting and the chords of an electric guitar at 9 a.m.”Artistically, it takes a lot of time to set up,” Woodcook said. “One time we had a full banquet feast up front with real food. Normally, we have paintings up and down the hallway; last week we had a huge crib. All that time I’m focused on getting things done, but at 5 till 9, my mind shifts to ‘How can I help others connect to God through worship?’ I’m constantly praying, saying, ‘What do I need to do now?'”Woodcook croons into his mic, backed up by six other vocalists, a bass player, a drummer, a keyboardist and an electric guitarist, adeptly belting out sounds much like those of the bands that packed nearby bars just hours earlier.And the stream of mostly 20- and 30-somethings in jeans and sweaters, gradually filling the theater, fortifies the rock concert atmosphere. They file in unapologetically at 9:05, 9:15, even 9:30 a.m., throw their fleeces and down jackets onto the stadium seats and remain standing, focused on the band, moving their hips, lips and hands to the music. Their voices follow lyrics projected onto the movie screen against alternating images of mountains, flickering candles and sunshine spilling through clouds. “And here I am to worship, here I am to bow down,”Here I am to say that you’re my God.”You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy,”Altogether wonderful to me.”Woodcook picks the strings of his guitar in the final notes of the song, and asks, “Are you ready this morning to worship God?”Applause erupts from the congregation, and the band goes into its next number, continuing a 40-minute set that precedes a video and live sermon by One’s senior pastor.The Christ-centered lyrics flashing across the movie screen are symbolic of a larger spiritual phenomenon in Summit County. Their message constrasts sharply with the explosions of action flicks and sex scenes of romantic comedies that normally hit the screen, but the message’s delivery is culturally relevant to the lives and times of Summit County’s denizens.
Likewise, the county’s evangelical Christian population is persistently challenging the prevailing mores of hedonistic, largely secular, resort-centric lifestyles, while simultaneously surfing the tide of local culture.One Community Church goes further than most local evangelical churches in adopting elements of what’s hip, but all of them must adapt – at least in small ways – to Summit County’s spiritual, philosophical and cultural landscape to effectively communicate their message.
The word “relationship” emerges more often than not in conversations with evangelical Christians. They strive to cultivate personal relationships with Christ and then, in turn, share it with others.”To me, it’s all about having a relationship with the Lord,” said Silverthorne resident Juliana Black of the fundamentals of her faith. “And evangelism is sharing the love of Christ with other people in my actions and in my daily life.”Black, 26, moved to Summit County a year and a half ago. Within a month, she began attending One Community Church after reading one of the flyers the church periodically mails out to the entire county. Now, she regularly contributes to Sunday services through theater and dance.”I don’t consider myself a religious person,” she said. “Religion is tradition. I just have a relationship with the Lord, and, in my own life, there is such freedom in Christ.”Summit Cove’s Scott Wilson also builds his spirituality around that relationship.”I learned, through studying God’s word, that God isn’t into religion,” Wilson said. “He wants a relationship with people. He said, ‘I’m a father, and you’re my child, and I love you so much that I sent my son to die for you.”Wilson and his wife Tina regularly tour the county in their Big Red Bus, a vehicle for ministry and community service. The Wilsons drive the bus to athletic contests and other community events, offering free hot dogs or hot chocolate, organizing games and activities for children, hosting fundraisers for community members in need or cooking breakfast for firefighters after they battle a blaze.”We just really want to be a blessing to our community, and we’ve built a level of trust,” Wilson said. “We’re not trying to ram Jesus down anybody’s throat.”I go to events, and people want to talk to me. People I don’t know come up to me and say, ‘I know who you are; I know what you stand for.’ And, boom! You see God heal a family: They clean up, stop binge drinking and get healed from alcoholism. We see a lot of that through the bus.”While both Wilson and Black unequivocally describe themselves as evangelicals, and thus believe strongly in sharing their faith, don’t expect to see either of them standing on street corners with Bibles, spouting fire and brimstone.”A lot of the people I’m surrounded by don’t believe,” Black said. “But it’s a personal thing. It’s not something you want to force on other people, but I’m not afraid to talk about it either – it’s my life.”The heart of it is to love people through Christ. Love is the greatest thing we can share, and that’s the heart of evangelism.”
“Relational evangelism” is an approach many local Christians take to sharing their faith. Outright proselytizing is scrapped in favor of a more personal touch.”There are those people who will stand on the street corner and preach the gospel,” said Denny Middel, administrator at Dillon Community Church. “That has proven, in this culture, to be pretty ineffective. Some people are most angry about that approach – they’ve been pricked somewhere.”As you build relationships with people, you build trust, and that’s such a key factor. When they have a need, they might say, ‘What’s your source of strength?’ Because I’ve developed a trusting relationship, I can share where I’ve come from.”According to One’s senior pastor Brent Smith, the dos and don’ts of religion can interfere with people’s ability to deepen their relationships with Christ and to demonstrate it in the community. Some Christians, and even entire churches, can be overly dogmatic and judgmental, turning more people away than they bring in.”How do you communicate truth to people who have been damaged by it, because the church has taken truth and beaten them over the head with it?” Smith asked. “The church has abused its privilege, and we have to undo what the church has done.”How can we build a place where we don’t pound people over the head with truth? We have to find new ways of intriguing people and convincing people their thirst could be quenched. That’s the challenge,” Smith said.
“People come here from lots of different backgrounds, and it’s a very spiritual area,” said Mike Atkinson, pastor at Agape Outpost in Breckenridge. “But there aren’t as many conservative, Biblical, Christian expressions of that as in other places.”Evangelism in Colorado’s Playground is a different animal than in Atkinson’s native Texas or Middel’s western Michigan, where churches sit on almost every corner and billboards inquire, simply, “WWJD?” (What would Jesus do?).Many locals, especially in the large, 20-something demographic, are focused more on breaking trail in the backcountry than beating a path to Heaven. By Wilson’s calculations, 95 percent of Summit County residents are “unchurched,” or don’t regularly worship. And while the diversity of spiritual background and depth of devotion can be challenging for local evangelists, it also has its advantages.In traditionally more religious communities, Christianity has as much cultural and social appeal as it does spiritual pull. And when religious affiliation helps determine social status, it can sometimes distract from the fundamentals of faith. Some people call themselves Christians – because they regularly attend church and socialize primarily with other Christians – but don’t follow Christ’s teachings in their own lives.Atkinson recalled an incident during which he was ministering outside a triple-X theater in his seminary days in Fort Worth, Texas. One theatergoer who stopped to talk to Atkinson asserted he was indeed already Christian and a regular church attendee, oblivious to the irony.”Up here, it’s often more of a genuine choice they make against the culture to live a different lifestyle. The Christians I minister to here have a more genuine faith, which is refreshing,” Atkinson said.
The vast majority of Summit County residents can’t be found sitting in pews on a Sunday morning, but many local religious leaders insist that spirituality is nonetheless a mighty force in the mountains.Searching for happiness and adventure in the majesty of the great outdoors, after all, is often an inherently more spiritual pursuit than storing up treasures on earth in the big city.Accordingly, One Community Church’s Smith recognizes a certain spiritual hunger that leads people to Summit County.”I believe Summit County is a very spiritual county. People are asking more spiritual questions than they have in years: ‘Is there a purpose in my life?’ ‘Did all this happen by chance?’ ‘If I die, is that it?’ Those are core questions. Those are God questions, and God wants to answer those questions,” Smith said.Nevertheless, Summit County’s meandering, adventuring souls can also be fickle, especially when Sunday is a powder day.”Coming from the Midwest, one of the biggest things I see here is the whole noncommittal, oh-whatever culture. One out of 10 people is willing to go to the mat for something. That is something I’ve discovered that’s a hard nut to crack,” Smith said.Atkinson said Summit County’s hedonism can be an obstacle to spreading the Good News.”We can enjoy God’s creation, but our purpose is higher than that: to love God. We don’t see other churches as our competition. Our competition is the world of pleasure,” Atkinson said.But people like Woodcook aren’t afraid to carve deep into Summit County to make connections. He hits the slopes every winter Wednesday morning with an informal men’s ski and ride group. During the summer, he’s fly-fishing on the Blue River with anyone who’d care to join him, and fall finds him with fellow football fans gathered around a television in his living room.”I want to make sure people know we live in a community where we care about each other and we care about growing and finding answers together. In this culture, how else do you connect? Let’s go make some turns,” Woodcook said.Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at email@example.com.
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