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Amazing Grace: Gresham church thrives on community engagement

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Dynamic approach bucks trend of declining attendance at mainstream churches.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Grace Community Church Lead Pastor Jay Messenger says his congregation lives their faith by helping others in the community through a variety of programs and outreach efforts.

While attendance at many mainline Protestant churches is flagging, folks are flocking to Gresham's Grace Community Church, which is trying to figure out how to expand to accommodate all of its activities.

"Healthy churches grow," said Jay Messenger, the aptly-named lead pastor. "The church is doing what it is called to do: be the light of the world."

Grace had about 400 regular attendees in 2006. Now, little more than a decade later, the church at 800 S.E. Hogan Road has about 1,000 people worshiping at the four identical, 80-minute Sunday services.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Outreach Ministries Leader Rhonda Patrick prepares food to fill dozens of backpacks that church volunteers hand out to East Gresham Elementary students each week. It's just one of the ways the church supports East Gresham, where roughly 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and around 40 percent are learning English as a second language. Obviously, folks like Grace.

Paul Masulis, who has attended the church with his wife, Karen, for about three years, has a laundry list of reasons the couple keeps coming back. "First, the Sunday preaching is always based upon truths from the Bible, as the authoritative Word of God, he said. "Second, there is an a very intentional emphasis upon providing practical help for everyday living — help with marriage, parenting, work, finances, addictions, etc. Third, the size of the church is just right. As leadership has sometimes describes it, Grace is 'small enough for community and large enough for impact.'"

Part of Grace's appeal is its dedication to service in the community.

"The best thing about Grace is the importance of community, both internally and externally," said long-time member David Vawser. "Churches are tempted to 'circle the wagons' and focus on internal community at the expense of the community they live in. We still have a strong sense of faith, but we live it out in helping others."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Lead Pastor Jay Messenger and Outreach Ministries Leader Rhonda Patrick prepare backpacks full of food for low-income students at East Gresham Elementary School. An inspiring journey

Grace supports East Gresham Elementary School in multiple ways, works with local foster families, has a community garden, hosts a weekly evening of support and education workshops and organizes a large vacation Bible school, among many community projects.

"Jesus is our example," Messenger said. "We can't help but love people the way he has loved us. We believe we are called to love God, to reach people and touch people. How we figure out how to do that is to pray and try to see the needs in our community."

Rhonda Patrick, outreach minister and coordinator of the well-attended Wednesday night program called The Journey said. "That is one reason why I love it here. There is a lot of intentionality about what we are doing."

The community involvement component also is important to Paul and Karen Masulis. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hundreds of worshipers pack a recent Sunday morning service at Grace Community Church. There are four services each Sunday, including one in Spanish. Paul spends countless hours volunteering at East Gresham Elementary and in other volunteer jobs.

Another draw might be the casual, welcoming nature of the church and services. There is no hushed, formal sanctuary with stained glass, but a big room Messenger refers to as the auditorium. "We use it for all sorts of stuff," he said.

For Sunday services, the auditorium has chairs set up facing a stage adorned with a simple wooden cross. The eight musicians in the praise band wear jeans, as do many in the congregation. There are big screens that display Bible passages and song lyrics as the service progresses.

"We really enjoy the worship style: contemporary music — but not too loud," Masulis said.

The church even has a phone app that lets folks register for events, check the church calendar, download sermons and other functions.

"We like the fact that the church staff has been very stable, works well together, and is very approachable," said Masulis. "We like attending a church which has a preaching team, so multiple well-qualified speakers rotate preaching on Sunday mornings."

The Journey program is hugely popular. Hundreds of people gather at the church for workshops and support groups.

"The idea behind this is making life skills available to the community," Messenger said.

A free meal is available, and varied groups meet including a teen student ministry, a support group for single moms, Spanish Bible study and a parenting class. "We always have some kind of Bible-based class where people can have a discussion, learn and open the Bible together," said Patrick. "We want to reach out as a resource to the community."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Grace member Paul Masulis tends to the grounds at East Gresham Elementary School. Masulis volunteers countless hours to the school in his retirement as a groundskeeper.  Healthy, vibrant and growing

While many mainline Protestant churches have had to cancel or combine multiple congregations for the traditional summertime vacation Bible school, Grace's July extravaganza draws more than 500 children and is staffed by more than 200 volunteers.

The church also has a community garden on the property. Gardeners work together a couple of hours per week to prepare the soil, plant and maintain the vegetable patch. Community members can get a plot for $10.

Wednesday morning the church hosts and indoor park for moms and their youngsters.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The church's community garden offers plots to gardeners for just $10. Members meet and work together several hours a week to tend to the garden, which is open to the public. Grace's service to East Gresham Elementary is multifaceted. Volunteers do a fall clean-up, readying the grounds and building for students. They supply about $1,000 per week of food that goes home in backpacks with hungry children. They field half-dozen mentors at the school who work with students who need a little extra support. Masulis single-handedly keeps East Gresham's grounds weed-free and neat as a pin throughout the year, and Grace puts on a huge Christmas party dinner for the school.

Families can also come another day, away from prying eyes, and pick up toys for their children to put under the Christmas tree.

The church is the product of several church mergers over the years. The first floor of the Grace building was built in 1997 on former dairy farm land. The second floor of the building, which is mostly offices and classrooms, was added in 2008.

But now, Grace is outgrowing its space.

Church leaders are working with the congregation and other area congregations that might be interested in teaming up for some sort of expansion. Satellite campuses, combining resources with other churches — everything is on the table, Messenger said.

"We want to perpetuate what we've already seen here — a healthy, vibrant church."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Lead Pastor Jay Messenger speaks to the congregation during a recent Sunday service, while the worship team of musicians waits in the background.