By Karen O’Connor
Twin Lakes Church (TLC) in Aptos, California, is known for reaching out to the residents of Santa Cruz County, a community that “has one of the lowest percentages of churchgoers in the nation,” said Laurie Schlaepfer, wife of TLC senior minister René Schlaepfer. “Most community leaders are not churchgoers,” she added, “and some made that very clear right from the start!” But that has not stopped the church from sharing the love of God in ways that have nothing to do with Sunday sermons or Bible studies.
“One successful local business leader was the board chairman of the local food bank,” Laurie said. “He was very direct in letting René know where he stood. ‘I just want to tell you up front that I’m an atheist, and I have never been in a church and never will be.’”
René replied with a smile, “You’ll be in our church before the end of the year!” And the man was—the day he appeared up front thanking the congregation for the one million pounds of food they had raised, breaking all previous records of donations to the food bank. “He stayed for the service and since then he has flown René to a speaking engagement at a Christian college in his private plane.” The men have had good conversations about faith since then.
Changing Hearts and Minds
“Over the years our church has been involved with Second Harvest Food Bank, Homeless Connect, and other outreaches,” said Laurie, “René has gotten to know many of our community leaders, including building a solid friendship with one of the local elected officials.”
The official too was amazed at how active the church has been. He told René that meeting him and seeing what TLC members have done for others has completely changed his view of evangelical Christians. It seems the official and his wife were “burned” by their religious upbringing. Recently he admitted that he and his wife “would love to come to Twin Lakes Church—if it wasn’t for the religion part.”
Laurie said that statement led to a conversation about what “the religion part” really means. René told him that as Christians we aren’t motivated to do good works in order to earn our way to Heaven. We’re motivated because of Christ’s sacrifice for us. We want to do for others what has been done for us. Recently the official and his wife just put their child on the waiting list for the church preschool. “So it appears they will be connected to our church for years to come!” said Laurie.
Experiences like these occur in many lives after people are affected by TLC’s various outreaches. “One woman who was in a recent new members’ class told René that she drives nearly an hour to church each week. He asked how she heard about Twin Lakes. She’d seen a television news story about our donation to the food bank. ‘If I ever go to a church, it will be a church like that!’ she said. And here she is.”
Good works like this continue, and TLC has become known as a community friendly church. As a result, the city mayor asked René to perform the memorial service for two police officers who were shot to death during a routine investigation. “The service held at a huge arena was an opportunity to present the gospel in a concise and sensitive way to the majority in our county who watched it on Bay Area television or attended personally,” explained Laurie.
Another outreach that has impacted the county is an event the church has dubbed The World’s Biggest Garage Sale, with all proceeds again going to the Second Harvest Food Bank. Laurie and her team head it up, and people from all over bring their for-sale goods. It’s a huge endeavor, and the men and women set up everything and take it down all in one day.
Laurie shared this touching story about a woman named Chris who arrived as a volunteer: “She was hurting deeply from the recent death of her mother and other challenges in her life. She made friends with many of the other workers and had a great time, but she told me she is not a churchgoer. She preferred to go to the beach on Sunday mornings and talk to her mother, whose ashes were scattered at sea. The following year Chris repeated her story. But this last year something changed. I now see her at church from time to time. This is a big step for her, and I’m hopeful she’ll continue to come and start to grow in faith as she hears the message of the gospel.”
One year René received the Man of the Year Award from the Aptos Chamber of Commerce, and another year the Chamber named Twin Lakes Church their Organization of the Year. “These awards were huge honors for the church,” said Laurie, “but more than that, they were signals of a massive change in the way our community saw our church and churches in general. Our county is known for being one of the most politically liberal in the country—and for some reason, in America, that has usually correlated with low levels of church attendance.
“Consequently churches were simply not in the consciousness of most community leaders here. It’s not that they actively looked down on them; they simply never thought about them at all. They were not aware of the many services we provide for the community, nor were they aware of the needs we have that are impacted by political decisions.”
In recent years that thinking has changed. “Now the local community business and civic leaders ask our participation in community service projects,” Laurie said. “They are more aware of how their decisions may impact our ministries. And perhaps most importantly, they seem open to invitations to attend church, address the congregation, and engage with the churchgoing population.”
Laurie said she couldn’t stress enough how much of a change in the environment this has made. “For years we tried to impact the community through our programs—children’s camps, Christmas concerts, and recovery ministries. Those did have an effect, and we enthusiastically continue them. But it wasn’t until we launched our community engagement initiatives that we were finally welcomed into the community as friends.”
Reaching Those in Grief
June Ettinger from TLC (Laurie Schlaepfer’s mother) leads a program called GriefShare (griefshare.org), another successful outreach program. She had some inspiring stories to share about how this 13-week class has impacted many people in the community at large.
For example, some years ago a man named Rob showed up at session one. Both of his parents had just died and he was lost without them as he had been their caregiver. He’d never been inside a church so he didn’t know what to expect. His father had worked for a contractor who built churches and told his family that since he was at church all week long he didn’t need to go on Sundays. June said it was obvious to her that Rob was lost—middle-aged, unmarried, alone, and needing friends. She invited him to one of the Sunday services. He came and he’s been attending ever since. June often sees him smiling and chatting with others afterward.
“Andrea too has a touching story. She had lost her mother and was truly devastated. She had never gone to church. Her husband and teenage son didn’t believe in God. Andrea did believe, but that was the extent of it. Gradually she began sharing more during the class, and by the last session she told everyone she had come looking for ‘peace and soothing words’ but then realized what she really needed was Jesus.”
Sue came to class, mad at God for allowing her twin brother to kill himself. She hadn’t been to church since his death, some 25 years before. She continued to attend GriefShare, sobbing whenever she spoke—but then over time was able to talk without crying. Before the program ended she joined the Christmas choir and began attending church again—now with her husband who had also been away from the church. Later June invited her to another session of GriefShare to give her testimony and talk about what God had done in her life.
These are just a few of the many ways Twin Lakes Church has impacted Santa Cruz County—and hundreds of other counties around the world whose residents benefit from the weekly sermon broadcasts and the encouragement they receive to reach out, in turn, to their communities—all by the grace of God and his love for all people. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California (karenoconnor.com).