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The advent of the Church of Sandy

Fred Vogel is a Baptist minister, but he might not agree with you if you call him one.by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Sandy Baptist Church Lead Pastor Fred Vogel has adopted an inclusive attitude toward all Christian churches.

For the past 31 years, the lead pastor at Sandy Baptist Church has been a church leader under the Baptist brand, and since the early 1990s has moved to mute that distinction in favor of a commonality with other Christian churches.

“We have the name Baptist as our name for our church, but we could just as easily not have that as our lead,” he said. “Our focus here is not on being Baptist. Back in the ‘80’s I taught a class on Baptist history here, but people aren’t really focused on that. What really fires us up is what we have in common, and what we can do together, and we can learn so much from other Christian churches.”

It wasn’t always that way for Vogel. In fact, if you happened to be walking down the street in Chicago back in 1970, you might have encountered him shouting to passers-by about God and heaven and hell and how correct the Baptist church really is.

He doesn’t do that anymore. In fact, he doesn’t even think that way anymore.

“When I became a pastor in 1970, I was very much in the school of preaching the rightness of our church,” he said. “But as I look at the decades, I see how I have grown, how our church has a greater understanding on focusing on the message of Jesus Christ rather than on our distinctiveness as Baptist or another.”

Vogel said his real transformation happened 24 years ago, during a trip to the coast.

“In 1989, five pastors from Sandy went to the coast, and we reflected and prayed together. We came away really close as pastors,” he said.

“Then, in 1990, for the first time that I know of, seven churches from Sandy went back to the Midwest to help with flood relief. While we were there, people would ask us what church we’re coming from, and we looked around at each other and decided that we’re from the Church of Sandy.”

This shift in thinking has Vogel talking much less of things Baptist and more of things Christian. In fact, his church is embracing rituals normally ignored by Baptists. For example, Sandy Baptist has been celebrating Lent for five years. Vogel said this was born of a realization that the rituals of the Catholic and Lutheran churches hold real value.

“There are other religions that are more liturgical, like Catholic and Lutheran, and they are very tied in with ritual,” he said. “And we’ve learned that there’s a value in ritual. For example, we observe Lent, which is a departure for a Baptist church.”

Vogel said his church has found value in the cyclical practice and observation of ritual as a way of reflecting before the death of Christ.

“Our tradition has been centered on the cognitive aspect,” he said. “That means reading the scriptures and learning. What we’ve learned is that a life-transforming aspect comes from these rituals.”

Beyond the adoption of other Christian practices, Vogel said his church is changing the way it serves its congregation.

“More recently, there’s been another big shift,” he said. “I think unknowingly, we had slipped into an organization that could be described like an athletic center. What we did was that the people who attended here, we felt it was our job to serve them much like the staff at an athletic club serves its members. We felt that if we had a great way of serving them, they would keep coming. But the people who weren’t coming weren’t being served.”

To correct this, Vogel said, he has shifted from the staff serving the church to the church serving the community.

“We see examples of this with our church members working with Ant Farm, Community Action Center and Compassion Sandy,” he said. “What we have seen is that our focus has been on helping people to know Jesus Christ. I think there was a time where we just ignored the needs of our community.”

Vogel said there is a challenge in getting people to make it to church, and he attributes that challenge to the region.

“I think particularly in the Northwest, there is not as much of a loyalty to a particular denomination or to church attendance,” he said. “There are so many other things you can do on the weekend and so many things going on. I think people will get involved in the church when they see it can make a difference in their lives and their families.”

Making a big church smaller

Another way Vogel is changing the way his church works is though the formation of smaller groups that interact together outside the Sunday service, both socially and through work. This practice started in 2005.

“We have seen that over the years, that the only contact some people have had for years was when they saw each other on Sundays,” he said. “Now, we have members of our congregation in small groups, called Community Life Groups.

The difference that it has made is that when people are in need, it used to be that we had a church-wide group. Now it’s more organic, and more natural. Now, the people who know this person are bringing the meal over. That’s a big shift, where people are really caring for one another.”

Sandy Baptist Church operates with seven Community Life Groups, ranging in size from 11 to 24.

Of course, Vogel is a long way from his Chicago street corner days, and he wants to make that distinction clear.

“Our way of evangelizing is not about seeing people who we don’t know and lobbing Bible verses at them,” he said. “It comes from just sharing the message. There was the time in Chicago when I would stand on a corner and shout to people. I think that having the word Baptist in our name can turn people off, because they’ll think of a person yelling at them, rather than sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Vogel holds a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in philosophy. He attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied theology. Like most others, he says the Baptist brand sort of chose him.

“I don’t remember actually choosing,” he said. “It was more a formative experience. What attracts me to our tradition is our emphasis on preaching the word of God, and caring for people. We call it pastoral care.”

While he feels comfortable in the Baptist camp, he says he no longer sees its values as distinctive from other churches.

“I think that it’s part of the fulfillment of the message,” he said, “where Jesus said, ‘You will know my followers by the love they have for one another.”