Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We Go to Church in Iowa

Valley Church, West Des Moines, Iowa
Valley Church, Des Moines
“We’d like to give a gift the community,” Pastor Quintin Stieff had proposed to the congregation of Valley Church, an Evangelical Free Church in West Des Moines, Iowa.


Valley Community Center, West Des Moines, Iowa
When I think of a gift, my go to is a Baskin Robbins card. What the leadership of the church had in mind was a little more substantial: building a community center with a gym, playing fields, cafe, indoor play area, meeting rooms, and more on the 35 acres across the street from the church's main building. There had been some thought to building a larger sanctuary and church facilities on the property, but then someone came up with the idea of the community center.


Stieff warned the congregation, “You will not be the users of this space. This isn’t a place for our weddings or parties.” The vision of the Valley Community Center is to “be a hub of doing good for the community, with the community.”


The church is still able to use the facility. On Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, the space is designated for “Life Groups” and Bible classes, but that’s a relatively small part of the facilities’ schedule. For adults in the community, the gym is open during the week for exercise classes and pickup games of basketball and pickleball. There are art and exercise classes for children (including Kids Zumba and Kids Mini Pretzel, whatever the heck that is).


There are rotating Upward Sports programs for kids and youth. Upward is a sports program for families that don’t want sports to dominate their lives (I’m looking at you, competitive youth soccer leagues that expect families to commit every afternoon and weekend in the vain hope their child will grow to be Pele or Marta). Kids play flag football or basketball or soccer with a schedule of one practice and one game. Coaches are expected to rotate all kids into games, even at the risk of a loss. The goal of this program is not to get kids athletic scholarships, but to build kids’ character.


The cafe is a meeting place for parents after they drop kids off at the neighboring elementary school. Reasonably priced specialty coffees are available, but the plain java is free. Younger kids can use the play structure, and snacks like granola bars and mac and cheese are available for purchase, too.


The fields surrounding the center aren’t just used for sports (such as cyclocross biking -- again, whatever the heck that is), but also for gardening. The large community garden is primarily used by low income members of the community, particularly the refugee community. ( The garden is managed in cooperation with a Lutheran church with an extensive refugee outreach.) The grounds also house a historic barn which the church received “free” from the city (excepting, of course, the costs for transportation and building a new foundation).


Don Long, the Compassion Coordinator for the church, told us about giving a tour of the community center to a gentleman who said, “So that’s where our tax dollars go.” When he learned the center was owned by the church, he was astounded that the facility was open to the whole community. His place of worship had a gym, but it was only open to those who attended there.


Don told us that the road separating the church from the community center has proved to be a blessing. He’s happy that many people are unaware of the connection with the church, because they’re less inhibited about using the facilities.


Pastor Stieff shared a letter the church had just received from a neighbor who wasn’t associated with Valley Church. She wrote: “Many thanks to Valley Church for the wonderful community center. I meet friends for coffee and cards. My son practices volleyball there. I walk my dog around the garden and enjoy talking with the industrious gardeners about their crops. The open fields are a blessing to the environment. I know the children who practice on them and the bicyclists testing their skills on the south send up silent ‘thank yous’ for this special gift. It makes our neighborhood a pleasure to live in. Thank you! Thank you!”


But the Community Center isn’t the only way the church gives to the community. Every month at the church and the center, there is a new display of ways people can contribute to those in need. When we were there the display was for a coat drive, but at other times it might be a food drive or a promotion for Operation Christmas Child.


Don was telling us about ways that the church has found to show compassion to the community. For example, a local convenience store chain was reluctantly throwing away hundreds of unsold sandwiches every day. Local food pantries weren’t up to the task of refrigerating the sandwiches for transport and storage, so a ministry partner (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) bought a refrigerated truck, and volunteers pick up and deliver the sandwiches to economically disadvantaged schools, where coaches are able to serve them as a healthy snack for players after practices.


The church shows compassion globally as well as locally. When Valley Community Center was built, a tenth of the money raised went to work in India. (Our connection with the church was made when we went to a meeting of Global Fingerprints, the child sponsorship program of the Evangelical Free Church.) Because the church is blessed with a number of medical and business professionals, those people are encouraged to share their skills through mission trips.


Don said that all of these things are a part of the church philosophy that “Good works produce good will, which allows you to share the good news.”


And, of course, besides doing these outreach programs, the church does, you know, church.


We attended the Saturday evening worship service. The parking lots of the church were filling up, but we soon learned that many people parking in the Community Center lot were going to the neighboring high school football stadium. (I did think it was cool that the church allowed that parking.)


As we entered for the 5:30 pm worship service, I was won over immediately by the refreshment table outside of the worship center. Not only was there free coffee, tea, and water, there was free soda. And not just colas -- the selection included Dr Pepper. Not Mr. Pibb, Dr. Shasta, Dr. Thunder, or any of the other generic impersonators, but the real beverage. I was impressed by this; thereby acknowledging my shallow nature and lack of nutritional integrity.


At the information desk, we learned that the Saturday night service wasn’t as well attended as the Sunday morning services. (One person said that the average attendance was usually 125 - 175 people as opposed to the hundreds that attend the Sunday morning services. On the night we were there, attendance was down from that. Football fans perhaps?) But the service allows an opportunity to worship for those who work on Sunday (or go to one of those youth soccer games).


I asked a few people what drew them to Valley Church. Several mentioned solid Biblical teaching.


Pastor Stieff was beginning a series entitled “Strangers in a Strange Land,” from the epistle of First Peter. (A heads up to science fiction fans - that title isn’t originally from the Robert Heinlein novel.) In his introduction, Quintin talked about the culture shock of his first year of college at Indiana University in Bloomington. (Mindy discovered that they had some friends in common from IU.) The theme of believers as sojourners resonated to those of us who currently live out of our van.


We also attended the “Traditions” service on Sunday morning. The Saturday evening service and three of the Sunday morning services are called “Celebration.” The basic difference between the services is that the Traditions service had more hymns and the Celebration service has more choruses at a much higher volume. (It doesn’t go to eleven, but it’s up there.) As one might expect, the crowd was older at the Traditions service, but there were some younger couples as well, along with at least two very young children.


The Traditions service doesn’t have a live sermon, but rather a tape delayed sermon from an earlier service (either Saturday night or the 8:30 service). At both services, we saw a promotional video for the upcoming Great Pumpkin Party, another event designed for the community. The event has been held for years; last year’s event had over 6,000 people in attendance. Costumes are encouraged, but of the “not scary” variety. In the video we saw a lot of superheroes and Disney princesses. There are churches that shy away from Halloween, but this is a church that will have a free screening of Hotel Transylvania on the day of 10/31.



I think the coolest thing about this three evening, pre-Halloween event is that the first night is for children with special needs. The church is adding another event in the Community Center on the same night, the Harvest Hoedown, for adults with special needs (ages 16 and up).


In his sermon, Pastor Stieff said we may be strangers in this land, but we still need to be good neighbors. Valley Church seems to be doing a good job of that.


Statistics Saturday evening Celebration / Sunday morning Traditions
Service Length: 1 hour 15 minutes / 1 hour 15 minutes
Sermon Length: 50 minutes / 47 minutes
Visitor Treatment: On Saturday evening, we went to the welcome desk; the woman working there gave us a connection card to fill out, introduced us to another worker, and answered our questions and asked good questions to get to know us better. At the Traditions service, which currently meets in the Community Center, Linton Lundeen (pastor of care and counseling) greeted us and introduced himself. There was a greeting time during that service, and several people greeted us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: On Sunday, we got an email from Don Long following up on our visit to the Community Center.
Our Rough Count: 88 / 67
Probable Ushers’ Count: 100 / 75
Snacks: coffee, tea, decaf, ice water, lemonade, and a variety of sodas on ice / coffee, decaf, water, lemonade, and a variety of cookies
Musicians: Celebration service
acoustic guitar (man)
vocals (woman)
bass guitar (man)
drums (man)
keyboard (man)
Traditions service
keyboard (woman)
vocals (2 women)
Songs: Celebration service
"You Have Saved Us"
"The Solid Rock"
"More than Conquerors"
"I Wait" (special music)
"God is Great"
Traditions service
"The Solid Rock"
"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name"
"I Sing Praises"
"Jesus Your Name"
"Precious Lord" (special music)
"Just a Closer Walk with Thee"
"Thou my Everlasting Portion"
Miles to Church: 5 miles
Miles from Start: 38,579
Total 2016 Miles: 38,293
Church Website: https://www.valley-church.com/