Pastor Chris Breuninger wants his parishioners to follow the path of Jesus — by walking out the church doors and into the arms of the rest of the world.
Jesus "spent his time around lakes and seas and mountains — not a lot of time in the synagogue, but in the streets," said Breuninger, lead pastor at west Santa Rosa's Redwood Covenant Church.
Since his arrival two years ago, Breuninger has moved quickly to reorient the church outward. To institute his practical Christianity, he established a series of "Community Groups," teams of 40 or 50 members who plan events, conduct social work or just forge friendly, informal connections with those outside the church.
While he doubled the congregation at his last church in Washington, Breuninger said bringing converts to the church on Sebastopol Road is not important. What matters is living faith outside the confines of a church hall or Bible study group.
"I think we grow most when we're serving," he said. "We often associate church with sitting in a chair listening to a talking head, taking down information, downloading. Faith formation is something we do in our lives. We live it out, and the way we live it out is in community."
As a result, the new community groups are a decidedly unorthodox mix. There are groups devoted to traditional church projects, such as feeding the hungry, organizing prayer circles or planning overseas missions, but there also are groups devoted to more secular pursuits, such as volunteering with Special Olympics and even wine appreciation.
Church member Matthew Nalywaiko is leading a community group devoted to serving the needs of single mothers in the community.
Breuninger "has come in and done a paradigm shift," Nalywaiko said. "He's saying 'church is great, but our God is out there.'"
Groups related to homelessness and reaching out to men, meanwhile, have volunteered with Santa Rosa's Redwood Gospel Mission, mission Executive Director Jeff Gilman said. Volunteers and performers will be participating in a major downtown outreach to the homeless and needy on Easter afternoon, an event expected to draw several hundred people.
Breuninger "has a creative idea that's a little different from a lot of folks," Gilman said. "It's really exciting to see how the church is being mobilized to get out and take care of folks in the community."
The public projects organized by the groups, known as "out events," are not necessarily overtly religious, members say. They don't hide their church affiliation, but neither do they proselytize or try to draw new members to church.
The church has a long-established tradition of service, operating the successful "Open Closet" monthly food pantry and clothing distribution for more than a decade. The church runs smaller distributions as well and sends volunteers to help with projects at the Redwood Empire Food bank.
"They do an amazing amount of work," said Gail Atkins, director of programs for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which provides some of the food for the church's food pantry.
Over the past decade, she said, the church has distributed more than 1.5 million pounds of food, enough to make about 1.4 million meals. That makes the church among the largest of the food bank's 166 partner agencies countywide.
The Open Closet project has become the focus of one of the 14 community groups, first established last fall. Other long-standing church projects such as the kid's ministry and the Emmaus program, designed for older students, have become the centers of community groups as well.