Church for Doubters?
When Preston T. Ulmer wandered into a random coffee shop in February 2015, he had no idea how significant his conversation with the owner, Trax Henderson, would become.
Involved in the Urban Islands Project, Ulmer, 29, was part of a cohort preparing to plant churches on multiple urban “islands” in Denver. In an effort to learn more about the people living in the Berkeley neighborhood, Ulmer, an Assemblies of God U.S. Church Planters and Developers missionary, stopped at The Laughing Latte and began chatting with Henderson, 28. Ulmer asked what kind of church Henderson would attend.
Henderson chortled, “I’m not religious.”
However, before Ulmer left, Henderson said he would go to a church where people could be intellectually honest. And he thought Ulmer should start one in that neighborhood.
While laying a foundation for The Doubters Church, Ulmer enlisted Henderson’s expertise as a self-proclaimed atheist and together they started The Doubter’s Club. Initially, 10 people with differing worldviews showed up on Sunday nights to discuss topics such as “Is God a Moral Monster?” and “Should Religion Have Any Place in Society?” Henderson moderates, as he and Ulmer model genuine friendship and how to pursue truth together to about 75 people who now consider themselves members of the club.
By opening the meetings with guidelines for discussion, Henderson sets the tone for respectful dialogue. Then he addresses the current question. After he finishes, Ulmer describes the Christian worldview.
“We’ll interact,” Ulmer says. “We ask to hear from everyone else. Discussion happens — all in love.” At the end, the group votes on the following week’s topic.
“It’s democracy that actually works — an unbelieving congregation picking their sermon series,” Ulmer says.
Ulmer relates to those with doubts about Christianity. While attending Southwestern Assemblies of God University, he experienced his own crisis of faith and considered himself an unbeliever. He says he had too many questions not being answered.
However a professor, Jeff Magruder, journeyed through the uncertainty with Ulmer. As a result of Magruder not trying to give him a quick fix, Ulmer says, “I came to have a more vibrant trust in Jesus than when I was growing up.”
Ulmer believes maturity is the consequence of probing inquiries. Too often Christians avoid pondering troublesome questions, he says. Encouraging people to pursue the truth, wherever it leads, helps them find God and meet Jesus. At the Doubter’s Club, sometimes that plays out before his eyes. One woman admitted she might no longer qualify to attend the gatherings because she had become a believer in Jesus Christ. The Doubters Church provides the next step for her faith journey.
As one of the church’s board members, Don H. Steiger, 69, superintendent of AG’s Rocky Mountain Ministry Network, says that The Doubter’s Club has drawn several people to Christ. And that bodes well for the church, which launches Sept. 25, one of the record number of AG Church Multiplication Network congregations starting this month. “We believe in Preston and (his wife) Lisa and the folks working with them. We think this is something God is directing.”
After earning a degree at the University of Colorado, Steiger says he has worked and lived in an environment populated by many people resistant to the gospel. He expresses enthusiasm for Ulmer’s concept.
“I don’t believe we can reach all the demographics with a one-size-fits-all ministry approach,” Steiger says. “We have a very open hand and heart to a wide variety of paradigms of ministry in our network.”
Serving free doughnuts from a renovated horse trailer every first Friday on Tennyson Street is one of the ways The Doubters Church expresses commitment to the families and businesses of the Berkeley demographic. Recently, the launch team also took doughnuts to teachers at Skinner Middle School, where the church will hold gatherings.
Conversations transpire that help locals discover it’s OK to wrestle with issues of faith.
“People are asking if anything good can come out of the Church,” Ulmer says. “We have to think of ways to change the reputation of the Church to something that is life-giving and that adds value to the neighborhood.”