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Two-Level Lessons Learned in Seattle

Early Seattle had a significant problem. Their toilets would not flush. I think that we will agree that this could go beyond a minor inconvenience—but the solution came at quite a price.

The original settlement of Seattle was built on tidelands that often flooded. Among other issues, this meant that as indoor plumbing caught on, sewers backed up at high tide. The city stakeholders were wrestling with how to deal with this issue when tragedy struck. On June 6, 1889, an apprentice cabinet maker was at work heating up some glue—which unintentionally lit a terrible fire that burned down over 90 percent of the town.[1]

Tragic Restart

The tragedy offered the opportunity for a restart. The decision was made to raise the streets up one or more stories to be well above the impact of hightide. This great idea was going to take a while to implement—raising roads with existing technology was not going to be an overnight enterprise. Meanwhile, businesses and developers were anxious to rebuild right away. They simply could not wait until all the road raising was completed.

A compromise emerged. Businesses were built with a traditional entrance at ground level, but one or more stories up, another entrance was constructed in the building to be ready for a new sidewalk at the elevated street level. Eventually, what had been the ground level entrances became underground as the streets and sidewalks were built above.[2]

The remnant of this underground city can now be visited as a historical feature of Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. What was once a functional need during reconstruction faded into disuse, and we now fully experience Seattle at the raised level.

In 1889, the city had a flooding problem. The fire created a devastating opportunity. The rebuilding necessitated a two-level solution. The same is true for us today.[3]

Rural Ministry and Two Levels of Revitalization

I think that we rural ministry practitioners can learn a lot from the analogy of rebuilding Seattle. In 2022, churches across America are finding themselves in a devastating opportunity, which is especially true in rural America.

As we continue to live with the ongoing social, emotional, and physical impacts of COVID, we face a number of challenges. Many churches have fewer people attending weekly worship in-person. Many church leaders are fatigued and drained at this point in the journey. Similar to early Seattle, there is a need to rebuild at two levels, requiring some patience from those who are anxious to restart at full speed and graciousness from those who are apprehensive about the necessary change away from ground level entrances.

On the one hand, we need to take immediate steps, to keep going with existing work and methods. Concurrently though, we need to be looking at constructing the figurative second story entrance. We need to be looking at longer term mission that God is calling us into and living into that opportunity—together.

For the rural churches, it is far too easy to only look at “first level” needs when we think about revitalization. If we can just get a few more people in the door. If we can make our budget. If we can restart the youth group. If we can get people to attend the work bee. All of these are important items, but they are all focused on the first level. All too often, we aim at getting things patched up for business as usual rater than looking at the “second level” for the future. Analogous to Seattle, we need to be building a second entrance.

Simply put, we look only at our deficiencies rather than our assets. Level 2 building requires that we examine not just what is broken, but also what assets we have that can shape our future as rural churches.[4] The central premise to an asset-based approach to revitalization is that we purposefully identify and assess the under-recognized assets, or strengths that we maintain, and then mobilize the church based primarily on the assets rather than solely based on the deficiencies.[5]

Under-investment in Leadership Development

As rural churches, we need to be intentionally building at both levels during this season of devastating opportunity. While we are faithfully carrying on needed work in the present, we need to be prayerfully looking at the future and preparing for what God is inviting us into next.[6]

We give a lot of lip service to the asset of human resources in our rural churches, but I wonder how much we leverage this asset at level 2 thinking. We figure out how to get people to do the work and tasks to keep the doors open today, but we struggle to invest in the long arc of leadership development that does not have a quick payout.

At a church business meeting, we decide that we are going to upgrade from a cell phone recording the worship service to the next best thing. We also decide that we need to get some volunteers to clean up around the church building to get ready for the fall festival. We get the problems fixed—maybe by using the human resources within the church.

Using but not growing those resources.

At that same meeting, did we talk about life-on-life mentoring to shape emerging leaders of the future? Did we talk about the events and experiences that we are sending emerging leaders to in order to grow and expand their capacity as leaders in the future?

In 1889, Seattle had a devastating opportunity. Wisely, they built at two levels—finding the balance of meeting immediate needs and long-term viability. As rural churches, we need to do the same with an asset-based approach. We need to address the deficiencies, but there is more at our disposal than our problems. One of the key resources that we have are people. The question is, are we considering building a second story entrance?



[3] Thank you to Dr. Chris Aho, Director of the Thriving Churches Initiative for introducing me to this two-level concept.

[4] In Rural Ministries: Legacy and Change (2012) Flora, Flora, and Gasteyer advocate that there are seven main rural capitals, or assets, that should be considered.

[5] What is Asset Based Community Development?

[6] For a helpful guide in asset based engagement with the community, see Let’s Begin a Conversation About the Church in Rural Areas by Brian Foreman and Justin Nelson (2021).