Over the years, probably thousands of Islanders have walked through the doors at Bethel Church, a spacious, light-filled building among towering firs on the west side of the Island.
This is where the Vashon Opera holds its some of its sold-out productions, where the Vashon Chorale performs its soaring concerts.
“My philosophy is buildings are meant to be used; they’re not monuments,” said Bethel Senior Pastor Bob Gentzel. “We have people in here seven days a week.”
But this is also where one of Vashon’s more conservative, Bible-based congregations gathers — a church that denounces premarital sex and homosexuality as sins and where some adherents question evolution.
Politics are not preached from the pulpit, Gentzel said, and he urges his 175 congregants to leave politics at the door. Indeed, he was unhappy when an advertisement in The Beachcomber last month opposing Referendum 74 — the effort to legalize gay marriage — carried Bethel’s name.
The ad was never approved by Bethel, said Gentzel, whose own name was included in the ad; rather, it was an effort by a few Bethel church members to rebut an ad placed in the paper the week before urging Islanders to vote yes on Ref. 74.
“The leadership of Bethel Church has never taken a stand on R-74 or any ballot issues,” Gentzel said. “I was quite surprised when I looked at the paper and saw our name on that ad.”
Even so, conservative is a label that suits Bethel Church and its congregation “just fine,” Gentzel said. Many of the congregants consider Bethel a “faith-rooted” Christian church that looks to the Bible as the definitive authority on any number of modern-day issues, Gentzel said. He and other pastors at the church work to tease out the Bible’s “eternal principles” that apply to daily living in the 21st century, he said.
“The Bible is conservative, so if you try to live that out, you’re going to be labeled conservative,” Gentzel maintained.
Some members of Bethel Church find the strong Biblical influence refreshing.
“It’s one of the few churches that teaches right out of the Bible — it’s honest and open,” said congregant Jan Bunger. “That’s what we want to hear. We want to hear the truth.”
Bethel is a member of the Evangelical Free Church of America, an association of congregations that pools its resources to accomplish greater missions than could be achieved individually, Gentzel said. Together, the Evangelical Free Churches support missionaries and humanitarian efforts around the world. The church association also has global prayer efforts, according to its website.
On Vashon, Bethel has a rich and storied history. A fire destroyed the church in 1999, and the light-filled structure that houses the congregation today is just six years old. But the faith group has roots on the Island that date back to 1926.
That year, 15 Norwegian-speaking Ballard residents decided to transform a property on Vashon’s west side from a faith-based summer camp to a permanent church. Since then, the congregation has grown into one of Vashon’s largest.
The church supports various causes on the Island and globally — preparing and serving free dinners for Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, holding church services at Vashon Community Care and funding the efforts of nine missionary families around the world.
Bethel holds church services on Sundays, a weekly youth ministry for children and “fifth quarter” events for Island teens after Vashon High School home games — not to mention an array of community events.
But the active church is more than a destination for services, groups and events.
Bethel works to serve Islanders of every age, Gentzel said, placing a special emphasis on youth and young adults, considered integral members of the Bethel community.
Gentzel and Bethel Youth Pastor Gregg Bernheisel try to make the lessons of the Bible applicable to young people’s lives, holding monthly church services for young adults that appeal to their unique style of worshipping, Bernheisel said.
“Our youth service is designed for them,” he said. “It has their music and messages that apply to them.”
The “fifth quarter” social events are well-known among the teen community. Many teens who aren’t Bethel members go, enjoying pizza the church provides, listening to music and playing games. As parent and Bethel member Lisa Betz put it, the church offers a place where teens “stay safe.”
“That’s an issue on the Island: What do teens do? (At Fifth Quarter,) nobody’s getting preached at or anything like that; they’re just having a good time,” she said.
Every week during the school year, more than 80 Island children fill Bethel’s gymnasium to attend AWANA, a Christian youth ministry that includes Bible study, songs and games.
“It’s a great time,” said Bethel member and AWANA organizer Marilyn Oswald. “They have a lot of fun together.”
About half the kids who attend AWANA are part of the Bethel congregation; the other half come from other churches or do not attend church, she said.
“We reach out and try to share the good news,” Oswald said. “They’re learning a little bit about what the Bible says.”
Bethel Church, like most faith communities, is always growing and changing, Gentzel said, and his church — evangelical in nature — would love to see new faces in the crowd at services or events.
“We’re here to try to meet the needs of the whole person, but really focus on helping people have the relationship with God that they were created to have,” he said. “There is a God, and he created us for the purpose of having a fellowship with him. We welcome people to experience that relationship for which they were created.”