It’s often perceived that a true missionary calling must be to the other side of the world. For some, this is a reality. And for others? They’re homegrown. People called to their own backyard.
Situated 30 miles north of Seattle, WA, quiet, small-town Whidbey Island isn’t exactly top of the list for church planters. Yet for Matthew and Stephanie Erikson, it’s precisely where they were called to be. Matthew, a 4th-generation Whidbey Islander, was raised on the south end of the Island, and Stephanie was raised in the Seattle and Mt. Vernon area of Washington. In 2012, following a church planting assessment through Northwest Church Planting, they courageously answered Jesus’ call to plant a church on the north end of the Island in Oak Harbor in partnership with the South Sound Network, Northwest Church Planting and the Alliance Northwest.
While the Eriksons were locals to the Island, they knew no one in this new community nearly an hour away. So when they moved to Oak Harbor in August 2014 with their three school-aged children, they were faced with the same church planting questions one moving a world away might ask: What is our mission? How do we best reach people for Jesus? How can we partner with our community? How will we raise leaders?
God quickly opened doors for the Eriksons to be missional, bringing into their life family after family with special-needs kids. Before long Stephanie had landed a job with the Oak Harbor School District, working with more children with special needs. With prayer, it seemed evident that God was shaping the Eriksons’ calling. Plant a church. Start by being a Christ-like presence to these families with special-needs children. “Not who we thought we’d be reaching out to,” says Stephanie, who had thought maybe their mission field would be the many Navy families in the area because of the nearby Naval Air Station. Yet, she says, “it seems He keeps bringing people that have special needs.”
Meanwhile, Matthew and Stephanie connected with a local Foursquare church that took them under its wings as planters. Recognizing that Kingdom work transcends denomination and network, the Eriksons were blessed to be sent out after a year by their adopted “mother church” with several families and financial support.
Their first gathering as a missional community took place February 2, 2015, six months after landing in Oak Harbor. Today 15-30 people gather at their home for dinner and community every Sunday afternoon, with one of those Sundays a shared community service day. The group is a mixed one: seekers, new believers and older believers.
Both Matthew and Stephanie are bi-vocational. Stephanie’s job, in particular, has allowed the Eriksons to meet and engage with many families they wouldn’t have otherwise. “We’ve seen that sometimes families feel that it’s hard to connect in a church because of their special-needs kids,” says Matthew. “It’s hard to get connected…and congregations don’t always know how to react.” Matthew and Stephanie quickly realized that they wanted to not just be sensitive to these families with special-needs children in their church plant, but wanted to be able to serve them. Here’s a bit of how they’re doing that:
- One of the first families that came along was a single dad with two boys, one of whom has Down’s syndrome. The Eriksons embraced the family and they continue to be part of their community.
- Another family with a 23-year-old special needs son started an organization to raise funds specifically for special-needs kids in the community. Resonating with the Eriksons’ mission and vision, they are also an active part of their missional community.
- A firmly non-believing co-worker of Stephanie’s whose husband is deployed asked if their Sunday group would host a birthday party for her daughter—recognizing there was something both special and safe with this missional community.
- Matthew performed a wedding for an autistic couple, both of whom have given their lives to Jesus and will soon be baptized.
- Two discipling huddles are underway, with Stephanie leading the women and Matthew leading the men.
- The Oak Harbor community continually asks the Eriksons for help, recognizing that they are a family on mission together.
Matthew and Stephanie will be the first to admit that church planting isn’t easy. They are in desperate need of mature believers and leaders. Weekly hosting and communal dinners get tedious and messy. Attendance is often spotty, and a wide mix of people come through their doors. Sometimes strangers show up, just in need of hope. But Matthew and Stephanie hold fast to their calling. In every story, every life touched, God is showing up and confirming their need to be a light in Oak Harbor. Their budding missional community is rife with real and broken people willing to go deep and recognizing their need for Jesus.
God is building His church, recognizes Matthew, “through family. As we discover what it means to be family, people are attracted to Jesus. We didn’t know what to expect—but we are happy with what God is doing.”