Kevin Schutte, pastor of Pathway Community Church in Olathe, Kan., recalls meeting with the couple a few years ago at Starbucks.
The husband and wife were the first people whom Schutte and his wife, Kelli, met when they moved to the Kansas City area in 2003 to begin a new church.
“They had become dear friends who embraced the dream of starting a new church and offered themselves in pursuit of that dream,” said Schutte, who also serves today as the new leader for church planting for Christian Reformed Home Missions.
Initially, said Schutte, Pathway’s leaders had the dream of moving in a traditional direction, focusing on Sunday worship, including Sunday school and youth ministry, and, as the church grew, they had plans of buying land and building a new church building.
But that direction had begun to change — and in a way that these friends didn’t like.
Although he knew a difficult separation was coming, it was nonetheless painful for Schutte when the couple handed him a letter across the coffee-shop table.
“They expressed love for us, but also a deep level of frustration stemming from the ever-increasing chasm in our fellowship’s understanding of the essential foundations of the gospel and core practices of the church.”
When he had first started Pathway, Schutte said, he’d tended to believe a “successful” church was one that packed the pews on Sunday. But that idea began to change as he prepared and presented a sermon series in 2008 titled “Jesus Beyond a Name.” He calls that experience a conversion.
“As I worked my way through the book of Matthew for the sermon series, I came to the radical conclusion that what we were doing as a church had nothing to do with what this radical guy Jesus was all about.”
As a result, he shared his concerns, and Pathway slowly began to shift its focus from becoming a “successful” church plant. There was nothing wrong, said Schutte, with the large church approach, but they chose a different direction.
“We moved away from the Sunday-only, big box, event-driven approach and became much more intentional about engaging our community and serving the underprivileged, families in foster care, ex-prisoners and their families, refugees, and others.”
Today Pathway worships on Sundays in a relatively small building that features polished wood on the walls and ceiling, windows looking out on a field containing the church’s large community garden, and a comfortable sanctuary with chairs, a raised platform, and a baptismal font. The church has about 70 members and is strongly committed to connecting with its surrounding community as the Spirit leads them.
Helping Pathway over the years has been a generous donor who backs the mission of the church.
“We see Pathway as reflecting a new approach for congregations to take in today’s world, in which church membership is dwindling and people are questioning the significance of having faith,” said Schutte, who as leader for church planting is helping to promote this approach as one congregations might consider following. “Many of our members at Pathway caught the vision, and we support them.”
Showing God in the Neighborhood
A few years ago, inspired by Schutte’s call to follow Christ into the world, Kurt Rietema and his wife moved from Olathe to Argentine, a poor Latino neighborhood in Kansas City.
Located near a street that once thrived with businesses that are now closed and shuttered, the neighborhood is home to many undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Rietema, who served for several years as a missionary in Mexico for an organization based in Kansas City, surveyed the neighborhood from his front porch one recent rainy morning.
He pointed out several homes, up and down the street, that families had once rented but now have been able to buy, with his help and that of Pathway members and others.
Rietema is also in the process of helping to raise funds to purchase the Franklin Center, a historic building about a mile away that they want to turn into a youth center. In addition, Rietema has started a weekly Bible study for people in the neighborhood, with the idea of one day starting a new church as an offshoot of Pathway.
For him, work such as this is what Christ wants people to do.
“We are here being good news and good neighbors — and not just to help save others but to help change ourselves,” Rietema said. “We are here to see God at work. We are here to see a kingdom vision for our neighborhood on 35th Street.”
A Mission for Foster Care
Tim Gay’s life changed a few years ago when he visited Haiti on a short-term mission trip after an earthquake ravaged the country in 2010.
The poverty there hit him hard, but seeing and meeting with orphans, experiencing the suffering and sadness in their eyes, told him that he needed to do more than make short-term mission trips.
At the time, he was an executive with a telecommunications company in Kansas City and a member of a nondenominational megachurch.
“That church was big and active and helped its own members, but it wasn’t really working with ‘the least of these.’ We were blessing the blessed,” said Gay.
He tried for a time to change the ministry focus in that church. When he realized that doing so was “like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around,” he and his wife looked for a different church and came to Pathway.
“We were impressed by Pathway and its focus on community mission, as well as the sense that the people knew one another, spent time together, shared life and faith together,” said Gay.
Soon he realized that he felt a strong call to work in the field of foster care. He and his wife adopted a daughter through the foster care system -- and eventually, with the strong support of Pathway, he left his well-paying job and began working to set up a ministry for young people transitioning out of foster care.
Schutte and his wife have deep affection for this work since they have had foster children in their home and encouraged the Gays in doing the same.
“God used Pathway to take the vision God gave me and make it a reality,” said Gay, who is now director of Youthrive, a nonprofit that works with Pathway and other churches and organizations to find families to serve as mentors helping young adults create new lives for themselves after being in the foster care system.
“I was called to live in mission with those who are vulnerable and at risk,” said Gay. “I think that through people who do this kind of work, God is sanctifying the church. I get to see families engage with young adults and walk with them, and then to see how their worldview expands.”
Finding Acceptance and Love
Christie Grammatikos, who is now the worship director at Pathway, has been with the church since it began in a coffee shop. Early on, Schutte learned she could play the guitar and encouraged her to get involved in the praise team.
From then on, he has been at her side, through tough times and times of joy, always encouraging her to play her heart out — and to lead the worship -- for God.
“The atmosphere of Pathway has always been one of acceptance,” she said. “The church has always experienced the steady hand of provision from God. We get what we need and are sent out.”
Dana Cooley has also felt the arms of Pathway wrap around her. After working for several years as a rape-victims counselor in Chicago, she moved back home to the Olathe area. A survivor of bad experiences at different churches, she one day saw the Pathway sign out front and eventually slipped into the church one Sunday.
“I was scared that they wouldn’t accept me,” said Cooley. “I felt so much shame, and I couldn’t connect with God.”
Although she liked Pathway, she remained wary of church and the people -- until a time when Kelli Schutte, Kevin’s wife, and other members of Pathway knocked on the door of her mobile home.
Knowing she was battling depression, cancer, and other challenges and that she had a hard time organizing things, they asked her to visit with a neighbor while they spent hours cleaning and sorting and arranging things in her mobile home.
“They didn’t look down on me. I felt they were really into this Christian stuff, and I started feeling more comfortable in church,” said Cooley. “I began to have faith in God. I went from being tortured and alone to having what seems like a peace that passes understanding.”
Getting Their Hands Dirty
Lyle and Judy Suderman moved from rural Kansas, where he had owned a farm, to Kansas City to be close to the rest of their family.
Missing the chance to dig his hands in dirt, Lyle was eager to join his wife in planting a few things at the community garden at Pathway. Eventually they took over supervising the project, and then helping to expand it. In the process, they joined the church.
After asking themselves what they had to give, Lyle and Judy got involved in the Strengthening Families Program, a skills-training program overseen by the Kansas Department of Corrections in which church members made a meal for and spent time with at-risk families.
“Once we came to Pathway, it was staggering to see how the people reached out,” said Lyle, who works as a truck driver.
“We are like a New Testament home church,” added his wife, who works as an English as a Second Language teacher. “This is a place where you can grow together in relationship with the Lord.”
Like a Marriage
Kevin Schutte was pacing in the back of the Shawnee (Kan.) Community Center, located a dozen or so miles from Olathe. He had had a busy day that included meeting with a couple who were planning to get married; working on a report for Home Missions; and spending time with his daughter, Abbie, before she left for Calvin College — and now here he was to marry Craig and Stephanie Hindman.
They weren’t members of Pathway, but Stephanie had been on the church’s softball team and had asked Schutte to marry them, which he was glad to do.
Thinking of the journey Pathway has been on, he said the life of a church is one in which individuals come together before God and seek to live their lives as one fellowship, in good days and bad, whatever they face.
As in a marriage, there is uncertainty. But there is also love and the Spirit who guides people as they move through the darkness that sometimes looms large.
“Individuals need to experience God in their lives in order for a shift in their thinking to take hold,” he said.
In his sermon during the wedding, Schutte said all relationships need God in order to thrive, especially when problems come up and the future isn’t clear. And a church is nothing if it isn’t a mixture of people building relationships centered in Christ.
“Keep in mind that our identity is in Christ and in him we are made new,” said Schutte. “We are asked to give our love to one another and to realize that if God is for us, who can be against us?”