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Pastor thinks outside the church

Chris Breuninger
Chris Breuninger

Pastor Chris Breuninger of the Santa Rosa Redwood Convenant Church preaches during a service on Good Friday.

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 12:14 a.m.

Pastor Chris Breuninger wants his parishioners to follow the path of Jesus — by walking out the church doors and into the arms of the rest of the world.

Jesus “spent his time around lakes and seas and mountains — not a lot of time in the synagogue, but in the streets,” said Breuninger, lead pastor at west Santa Rosa's Redwood Covenant Church.

Since his arrival two years ago, Breuninger has moved quickly to reorient the church outward. To institute his practical Christianity, he established a series of “Community Groups,” teams of 40 or 50 members who plan events, conduct social work or just forge friendly, informal connections with those outside the church.

While he doubled the congregation at his last church in Washington, Breuninger said bringing converts to the church on Sebastopol Road is not important. What matters is living faith outside the confines of a church hall or Bible study group.

“I think we grow most when we're serving,” he said. “We often associate church with sitting in a chair listening to a talking head, taking down information, downloading. Faith formation is something we do in our lives. We live it out, and the way we live it out is in community.”

As a result, the new community groups are a decidedly unorthodox mix. There are groups devoted to traditional church projects, such as feeding the hungry, organizing prayer circles or planning overseas missions, but there also are groups devoted to more secular pursuits, such as volunteering with Special Olympics and even wine appreciation.

Church member Matthew Nalywaiko is leading a community group devoted to serving the needs of single mothers in the community.

Breuninger “has come in and done a paradigm shift,” Nalywaiko said. “He's saying 'church is great, but our God is out there.'”

Groups related to homelessness and reaching out to men, meanwhile, have volunteered with Santa Rosa's Redwood Gospel Mission, mission Executive Director Jeff Gilman said. Volunteers and performers will be participating in a major downtown outreach to the homeless and needy on Easter afternoon, an event expected to draw several hundred people.

Breuninger “has a creative idea that's a little different from a lot of folks,” Gilman said. “It's really exciting to see how the church is being mobilized to get out and take care of folks in the community.”

The public projects organized by the groups, known as “out events,” are not necessarily overtly religious, members say. They don't hide their church affiliation, but neither do they proselytize or try to draw new members to church.

The church has a long-established tradition of service, operating the successful “Open Closet” monthly food pantry and clothing distribution for more than a decade. The church runs smaller distributions as well and sends volunteers to help with projects at the Redwood Empire Food bank.

“They do an amazing amount of work,” said Gail Atkins, director of programs for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which provides some of the food for the church's food pantry.

Over the past decade, she said, the church has distributed more than 1.5 million pounds of food, enough to make about 1.4 million meals. That makes the church among the largest of the food bank's 166 partner agencies countywide.

The Open Closet project has become the focus of one of the 14 community groups, first established last fall. Other long-standing church projects such as the kid's ministry and the Emmaus program, designed for older students, have become the centers of community groups as well.

Others groups are addressing new issues, including the single mothers group, a families with kids group, and a widows and orphans group. Several more are in the works, including one devoted to environmental stewardship.

“We recognize that without a way to get out from beyond walls of the church we're going to end up kind of serving ourselves,” said Breuninger.

The most nontraditional group is the wine group. Members gather for a meal once a month to talk about wine and hear from winemakers and experts invited to discuss different producers or styles.

Group leader Tamara Buchan said the group's first three dinners have featured a moment of thankfulness at the start of the meal, but no prayer. Conversation has included some discussions of faith, but only as the talk turned in that direction naturally.

The meals are a “place to experience God without using words,” she said.

Several of the people who have attended the dinners are not church members, she said, but are simply friends who wanted to get together and talk about wine.

At one recent dinner, members invited Mark Kohut, a representative of Dutcher Crossing Winery in Geyserville, to pour and discuss the winery's products. Kohut said he didn't even realize at first that he was addressing a church group. He knew, however, there was something special about the people he was with.

“They started asking me about my life and how I got out here, which was nice,” he said. “They didn't have to take an interest in my life; I could have been just the guy standing there pouring wine.

“I knew they were close, but they weren't overwhelming me with religious banter,” he said. “They weren't hitting people over the head with a Bible.”

Whether or not someone like Kohut ends up attending the church is beside the point, Breuninger said. Jesus called on his followers to serve others, whether they were believers or not, as a way of serving God.

“We want to see more and more people who wouldn't set foot in a church ... we want those people to experience authentic community,” he said. “We want them to see the love of God in action. That's our only objective.”

Breuninger says he enjoys being outside the church, meeting nonbelievers or followers of other denominations. It comes from his youthful experience, growing up without religion and with an unhealthy enthusiasm for drugs.

“I love hanging out with people who aren't Christians, and the rougher the better,” he said. “I am not offended in the least; having walked that, I find myself drawn to these people ... I see them as loved by God and I want them to know that, because I know what a difference that made in my life.”

Breuninger, 52, appears to enjoy confounding expectations. He dresses casually, sports a youthful haircut, and enjoys some unpastoral-sounding pursuits, such as his abiding love of wine and his recent experiments with French cooking.

“I love the senses and I think God gave us the senses to enjoy and that joy leads us to God,” he said.

Breuninger's own Christian story starts with winning a radio station contest.

Breuninger was born in Alaska, but led a vagabond existence following his father's studies and career as a pharmacist. The family had lived in seven states by the time he was 14.

After leading a life without deep religious commitment, Breuninger's parents became devout Christians when he was a teenager, but he didn't join them in church. Instead, he said he led a life dealing and using drugs. By the time he was 21, his parents were frantic to get their son on a healthier path.

They offered to pay for his tuition at a Bible program in Sweden, provided he paid the air fare to get to Europe.

“I wanted to ski the Alps and drink dark German beer and I hear you can pick up Thai stick (a form of marijuana) in Amsterdam,” he recalls thinking. “So yeah, I'll do that.”

But being a wayward young man, by the time he was accepted into the Swedish program, he had done nothing to earn the cost of a ticket to Europe.

A short time later, he said, he got a call from radio station KZOK in Seattle, where he was living, saying he was the winning entrant in a contest to celebrate the recent release of the Clash album “London Calling.”

The prize? An airline ticket to London, erasing most of the expense of getting to his program.

“About a month later, I was on a plane,” he said. “I stopped off in Amsterdam, picked up some hash, went on to the Bible school.”

He had expected to smoke and sleep his way through the classes, but what he heard there surprised him: open discussion about the real life and meaning of Jesus, rather than the rote biblical recitations he had expected.

“It was just very eye opening, so just two weeks into the course, I just surrendered and said, 'OK, God, I get it,'” he said. “So I just said a simple prayer and from that point forward experienced a pretty profound transformation in my life.”

He returned to the United States and finished college, attending Western Washington University and Regent College in Vancouver, and later earning his doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

His first church was a start-up in Twisp, Wash.

“Like Sonoma, it was very countercultural,” he said. “In fact, many of the core of that church were from Marin County and they had become Christians through the Jesus movement.”

He later helped found a church in suburban Chicago before returning to Washington state to head the Pine Lakes Covenant Church in Sammamish, where he spent 12 years and presided over a period when the congregation more than doubled.

At Pine Lakes, Breuninger experimented with an early version of community groups, calling them “Life Groups,” and encouraging members to work in the wider world.

“There was definitely a sense that church was not just for us, but for the community,” said Sharon Anderson, pastor for adult Christian formation at Pine Lakes.

Although he enjoyed his job in Washington, when Breuninger heard that the lead pastor job was open in Santa Rosa, he felt a calling to apply. Partly it was a professional challenge, leading a bigger church on the cusp of change, and partly it was personal, pursuing his interest in wine and rigorous outdoor activity.

“I think living here in this place I like is a dream come true, because this is an explosion of senses,” he said. “Not just the wine but all the microclimates, the beauty of Sonoma County, the ocean. It lights me up. I love living here.”

And the countercultural, hippie vibe of the area speaks to his own eclectic and unorthodox style.

“I think that whole '60s thing was a generation coming of age, seeking transcendence ... and I think the drugs were a reflection of that,” he said.“I guess I am not offended or threatened by some of the things I see Christians veering away from. I think they are the kinds of things we should be leaning into.”

Today, Breuninger lives in Santa Rosa with his wife, Amy, a physical therapist at Kaiser-Permanente. His daughter Emily, 22, is about to graduate from Western Washington University with a marketing degree. His son Marcus, 20, is studying outdoor leadership and emergency rescue with an eye toward being an wilderness guide or some similar outdoor career.

Breuninger's unconventional tastes and style seem to fit well with the denomination behind Redwood: the Evangelical Covenant Church, based in Chicago.

The denomination bills itself, in part, as “evangelical, but not exclusive; biblical, but not doctrinaire; traditional, but not rigid.”

Breuninger said many in his church are former members of other churches: Pentecostals tired of strictly doctrinaire fundamentalism, or members of highly liturgical churches, such as Catholics and Episcopalians, tired of formal ceremony.

“Evangelical has a stereotype, you know: being bigoted and angry and doctrinaire,” he said. “In its original usage it just means the bearer of good news; one who has experienced the good news of God in Christ and one who lives it out.

“So when we look at scripture, we're not looking to bang people over the head,” he said. “We're not looking at it as a rule book; we're not looking at scripture to fill our minds with doctrine. We're looking at it as a source through which God speaks to form lives, to form lives that are more alive.”

The church doesn't get hung up on finer points of doctrine, he said, details such as whether members should be baptized at birth or as adults. Arguments over such details have become so heated throughout history as to cause splits in religious movements.

“So there're a lot of areas in scripture that are clear and we hold firm to those,” he said. “But there are a whole host of areas of scripture that Christians have disagreed about for centuries. As a denomination, we tend to focus in on the majors and allow for discussion on some of the things that are not quite as clear as even some Christians assume them to be.”

Even on really contentious issues where the institution has a clear position, he said, Covenant churches tend to avoid being overtly strident or political. The church takes a traditional view of same-sex marriage (the Bible says no in several spots, he said), for example, but it isn't a topic on which he preaches or exhorts his members to take a political stand.

“I think it really is difficult to talk about it; it is such a loaded issue,” he said, displaying a rare moment of apparent discomfort.

Breuninger is happier talking about the community groups initiative, which he says has taken off far faster than he expected. At least 500 people have signed up for one of the groups and he already is looking to expand the program to new topics and issues.

Although the first few months have generated excitement in the congregation, it may take years to see how the groups will affect the worship style and culture of the church, he said.

The initiative will be a success, he said, “if people could look at Redwood Covenant Church and say there is a church family that is genuinely focused in on the right thing: they want to love God, they want to love each other, they want to love their neighbors, and they're doing it ... they are following the ways of Jesus, extending God's love in very practical ways, that's making a difference in very practical ways.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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