In 1998 I was burnt out. Three years earlier, I had taken over as the interim pastor of a local Vineyard church. For my three years pastoring the church, everything that I had previously learned about church growth and leading a church stopped working. As a person who believed that cause and effect were a predictable process, this was a hard lesson to learn. I also found out, like Charlie Brown, that “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”
I had every possible kind of bad experience, from church splits, to church rebellions, to gossip and slander. I was kind of cheered up when I read a book on pastoral burnout and realized that I hadn’t ended up on the floor of my bathroom in a fetal position, like the author of the book. Eventually, the church had “grown” from about 125 to 30. It was time to call it a day, and start over. We released the remaining church members and decided to re-launch in a few weeks.
|Skater’s “cast” their broken boards at the foot of the cross at the Skate Ranch in Moreno Valley, California.
I had become a pastor because I wanted to see people “saved”, birthed into the kingdom. I hadn’t seen much fruit from those efforts. We had tried some outreach efforts, mostly on a small scale. Simple servant evangelism projects, like handing out cokes on a hot day, on a hit or miss basis but with no sustained commitment. I had heard of Steve Sjogren, the guy who cleans toilets for Jesus, I had read his books, but I hadn’t really become outward-focused in my daily life.
Here is where the story gets interesting
At the first meeting of our re-launched church an amazing thing happened. In preparation for that evening, I asked one of our teenage boys, “What if we were to rope off an area of the parking lot for skateboarding, and set up for your band (a Christian punk group) to play, would you be into that?” He said yes, and that he would invite some of his friends.
I didn’t think a whole lot more about it until that night when nearly 60 skateboarders showed up! At one point there were more people participating in the skateboarding and watching what was happening in the parking lot, than were inside for the things I had planned for the launch of our new church.
I have learned from the scripture and from experience that you have to keep your eyes open to see what God is doing, and then to act on it! God was doing something with skateboarders! One of my fellow church members, Marv Schuler, jumped in that night, picked up a microphone and began to run a skateboard contest. He and his wife, Karen, were called that night to reach out and to minister to these kids.
The re-launched church became a small group that met on Sunday evenings and eventually that became just four of us who became truly committed to serving those skateboarding teenagers.
The Schulers’ own 10 acres in Moreno Valley, a place we affectionately learned to call the Ranch. We poured some concrete and built some ramps and skateboarders began to come most every Thursday night for skating, snacks and to hear us explain what Jesus was all about as we gathered around the fire pit. We committed to serving and showing God’s love to those skateboarders, no strings attached.
In 1998, when we held the first Christmas party, Karen prepared and served a dinner, and desserts consisting of several pies. A professional skateboarder came and shared the gospel. The Christian punk band, CIP (Christ in Progress) played. And over 100 kids showed up on a winter night!
I told Karen that night, God was going to save some of these kids with mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. That’s the only gospel presentation they are going to need. When I told her that, she said she just to see the kids come to Christ! Marv spent 4 months constructing a half-pipe. Karen and Marv took some of the kids who needed a place to stay into their home.
We shared the gospel every week over that long fall and winter of 1999. I had taken a job and was commuting daily by train about an hour and a half from my home. I wasn’t enjoying my life very much and we hadn’t seen much evangelistic fruit from our efforts with the skateboarders. I’ll admit it, after about 26 weeks of altar calls in the dirt around the fire pit, I was ready to throw in the towel.
God speaks through Steve Sjogren
It had only been a few weeks since I had stared out of the commuter train window and had uttered this simple prayer, “God, get me out of this mess.” I was offered a new job, easier commute, less responsibility, more money and with the break between jobs I decided to attend the 1999 Vineyard Pastor’s Conference in Anaheim.
On Tuesday evening, Steve Sjogren spoke on the topic, “Six Things I Learned When I Almost Died.” I had read Steve’s books and had dabbled in Servant Evangelism. The skateboard ministry was taking the principles of Servant Evangelism to the max, targeting a specific people group, concerted and focused service in the form of a skate park, food, skateboard repairs and more. But I was ready to quit.
Steve told the amazing story of his medical accident and his encounter with God. His positive attitude in the face of his ordeal was inspiring in and of itself. But near the end of his talk he used a story from the life of Moses to encourage all of us to simply be faithful to the ministry that God had placed in our hands. He explained how Moses argued with God about his ability to do what God was asking him to do. Steve was talking to pastors who did not know what to do next in their ministries, and he quoted God’s question to Moses, “What is in your hand?’ He drew the parallel that we should look to the things that God has placed in our hands and be faithful to using those things and doing those things. He told us that God “will change the world through the simple thing that he has placed in your hand.” In the case of Moses, it was his staff, but from the burning bush forward when God did something significant in Moses’ life it always seemed to involve that staff. During the prayer time after his message I became convinced that I should not quit the skateboard ministry.
What was happening at the Ranch was not normal church, but the kids (mostly teenage boys, with a few girls who like to be around the boys) were experiencing the gospel through servant evangelism (the skate ramps and food have been presented as a gift from God); through personal evangelism (there is plenty of opportunity to talk with the kids one-on-one); and through proclamation evangelism (the kids hear the gospel around the fire pit every week).
This was not your normal youth group, most of the kids had no church affiliation and did not come from homes where God is an active presence. But God did something great. We even have had the opportunity to pray for healing for parents, and for broken ankles!
A lot of raw material…
I was not sure at the time if we would ever get a church out of what we were doing at the ranch. I did know that we had a lot of raw material to work with. It was fun to be in on the ground floor of something that God was doing. It was also fun to be part of an adventure, especially when we didn’t know how it was going to turn out.
Eventually the small group got smaller…
The small group which was hanging out at the beginning of The Ranch consisted of the Schulers, my wife and I, two couples of the former parishoners of my church and my former worship leader. Our early conversations concerned whether we would allow the skaters to smoke cigarettes or not, and whether we would resist allowing the skate ministry to be turned over to the children of Christians. Eventually my wife and the two couples stopped coming to our weekly meetings.
Somehow the mission grew larger…
For years Karen’s dream had been for the Spirit to fall on Moreno Valley and for the Valley to be saved! The Ranch played its part in fulfilling that dream. In the early weeks I gave “altar calls” at the fire pit. I never saw much fruit from that sowing of the gospel. Marv spoke every week and told the kids: “This is a God thing.” “God is building these ramps, God is building the Ranch.”
We never made a conscious decision to live in community, but…
We never made a conscious decision to live in community, but about one year after we started the skate ministry my wife and I separated and I rented a room from the Schuler’s. Tom Chapman, the former worship leader at our church, bought an RV and parked it at the Ranch. So there we were, the four of us living in community! We encouraged one another, ministered to one another, and made all of the ministry decisions effecting our mission.
One sign of mission is opposition
Early on the next door neighbor made it clear that she didn’t like what we were doing at The Ranch. She hired a private investigator to video tape our preaching time and file investigative reports. She filed complaints with the City of Moreno Valley. She called the police. We went to court in that first year and won our case, we weren’t operating a church illegally, nor were we disturbing the peace. A few months later, the neighbor sued Marv and Karen for nuisance. At that point we had been cussed out, hauled into court, Marv was punched in the face and cited for assault!
Eventually we saw thousands come to Christ…
The skateboards at the foot of the cross signify the skaters who have surrendered their lives to Christ at The Ranch. My new ministry position was defense attorney. We settled the suit out of court and agreed to move the skate ramps over 150 feet away from the neighbor’s property line. We had already been asking what God’s will was in the midst of the opposition. We were convinced that he wanted us to continue to serve the skaters and preach the gospel. When we moved the concrete slab and the ramps we made the area bigger. Soon, we were joined by two young men, Mark and Matt, an evangelist and a teacher, who began sharing regularly. Ministry was opened five days a week. The “altar calls” began to yield more fruit. Over a 12-month period we gave away 3000 New Testaments to young people who responded to Mark and Matt’s messages.
I wish I could report that the opposition decreased. While we thought the police calls would end, they continued. The code-compliance complaints continued. Eventually the neighbor got the ear of two city councilmembers and the City brought their full weight and authority to bear to close the Ranch.
Living in community has ebbs and flows…
Eventually my job took me to another geographic location. The code complaints made it impossible for Tom to continue living at the Ranch in his RV. We moved away from the Ranch, but others took our place. Tom would always be the businessman who funded much of the early construction. I continued to be the defense attorney. I defended the Ranch before the City Council and before a Superior Court judge.
Others came alongside Marv and Karen and ministered to the skaters. However, in 2005 the injunction went into effect and the Ranch skate ministry was closed.
We saw God work…
As Marv says, there are many stories of how God has worked in the lives of the skaters. I know he has worked through the prophetic, in evangelism, healing, dreams and visions over the last five years. He has poured out financial blessings. While there was opposition, there was also favor. As we tried to obey what God had asked of us, he was always faithful in spite of our lack of faith.
We didn’t set out to have a mission to skaters. That was God’s idea, and we saw what he wanted, listened to his voice, and obeyed by serving them week in and week out for several years. We learned that a few people can accomplish a lot when they are on a mission from God. We didn’t set out to live in community, it just turned out that way. I know my life has been changed for the better because of that experience. We didn’t start out with a lot of faith, but our faith has grown as we have seen God move, with resources and fruitfulness.