How one Colorado church discovered the power
By Kirk Noonan
Not much of what Larry Baker tells you makes sense —
unless, of course, you believe God can transform, restore, call, gift and heal
It’s a crisp autumn morning in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorful
leaves float on the cool air before hitting the street and skittering away.
Inside Headturners, the salon he owns, Baker thanks a client, sweeps up hair
clippings and then heads out the door.
“Every day I walk my beat,” he says as he makes a beeline
for a pool hall across the street. “I’m looking to hug some necks and make some
new friends, which I’ve found often leads to people wanting to ask me about my
Baker has spent much of his adult life rubbing elbows and
sharing his faith with unchurched people. Fort Collins, a college town, is a
perfect place to do so. It sits on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and
brims with well-visited bars, trendy restaurants and eclectic shops.
Independence and ruggedness run through the locals like copper and lead run
through the Rockies.
It’s estimated that only 35 percent of Coloradans attend
church. Some people say the superabundance of outdoor activities is to blame
for the paltry number of churchgoers. Hiking, skiing, rafting and biking can
fill any given Sunday, depending on the weather. Intellectualism,
postmodernism, affluence, materialism, sheer stubbornness and even mysticism
might play into it as well. Some residents will even tell you that the influx
of people from the West Coast has liberalized the state.
Baker has never been one to concern himself with why people
don’t go to church. Doing so, he says, would run contrary to his modus
operandi, which is to try to unconditionally love everyone he meets.
“Everyone is looking for the same thing,” he contends as he
pulls open the door to the pool hall. “But some of them just don’t know what
In 1993, that could have been said of Nikki*. She was a
barely 5-foot-tall, 21-year-old exotic dancer who met Baker when she went to
him for a haircut. As he cut her hair he made small talk and learned she was a
pre-law student at Colorado State University who was financing her education by
dancing at one of Denver’s most popular strip clubs.
Over time the two became good friends. Nikki seemed to
identify with the older Baker who openly talked about three tragedies that had
transformed his life and shaped his faith.
Four years earlier Baker had severely injured his back while
playing golf. After a relatively routine surgery he suffered paralysis. A year
later, his best friend committed suicide. Two years after that, his wife left
Son, this is going to be tougher than the paralysis, tougher
even than Jack’s death, Baker recalls God telling him. If you’re going to get
through this, you’ll have to stay closer to Me than ever before.
Baker did. In doing so, he says, he became convinced that
everything that had happened had led him to a point where he could share
Christ’s love unconditionally with people like Nikki.
One night Nikki inquired how Baker could love people
unconditionally. He told her a story about Jesus, and the next day he gave her
Eventually, Nikki asked Baker if she could go to church with
him at First Assembly of God Church, now known as Timberline Church. At the end
of a Sunday morning service, Dary Northrop, lead pastor of the church, asked if
anyone wanted to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
“I looked over at Nikki, and she had her hand held high and
tears running down her face,” Baker says. “She made a commitment that morning
that would change both our lives.”
It would change the church too.
Though the sun is out in full force, a light breeze carries
enough bite to let seasoned Coloradans know winter is near. Sports enthusiasts
don’t seem to mind. On many of Fort Collins’ thoroughfares bicyclists seem to
outnumber motorists. But on this Sunday morning not everyone in the city is
pursuing physical fitness.
The second service of the day at Timberline Church is well
underway. Thousands of worshippers are packed into the sanctuary — where
the main service takes place — or in an adjacent sanctuary known as the Video
Outside, on a terrace, a handful of men and women sit at
picnic tables listening to the service through outdoor speakers. Though each
member of the group admits forays into the church are rare, they all agree they
feel drawn to the church and seem content listening to sermons on the outdoor
“You can always feel the presence of the Lord here,” a
40-year-old man says. “They’re definitely warm and loving people.”
That’s a ringing endorsement for a church whose theme is let
love live. But if truth be told, Timberline Church has not always had such a
reputation. Long before Nikki came to the church and started bringing her
friends — many of whom had colorful pasts like hers — Northrop says
the church had grown comfortable and stagnant.
“We were a typical small church with 125 people, three
hymns, a full choir with robes, and potlucks,” he says. “We were very good
taking people out of their real lives and putting them into a religious machine
that produced clones.
“But when Nikki began bringing her unchurched friends we had
to learn how to accept people with tattoos, skimpy outfits and purple hair,” he
continues. “I feared the loss of the structure of what we had known. But I had
not led the church into the situation intentionally. It was an accident that
God divinely orchestrated.”
Some longtime members felt the church was being overrun by
sinners and felt compelled to voice their displeasure. Rather than try to
appease or ignore them, Northrop became a proactive listener.
“I didn’t know how to react to the changes that were taking
place other than to just listen,” he says. “But when we landed on let love
live, it seemed like everything else faded and the things that happened in the
church began to truly revolve around the greatest commandment.”
Northrop changed the topics he preached on. Outreaches to
alcoholics, college students, businesspeople and bikers were planned. Funds
were redirected to help those in need. Leaders and laypeople looked for ways to
make an impact in their community.
The basic idea was to embrace as many people in the
community as possible with Christ’s love.
As a result, the church’s demographics began to expand and
the congregation grew exponentially. Today, more than 6,000 people attend the
church’s two campuses on Sundays.
“Dary and the other leaders realized they were getting to be
a part of something that they didn’t start,” says Dick Foth, a Timberline
teaching team member. “And it was their responsibility to fuel it.”
The result today is a church full of people wired very much
like Larry Baker.
In the pool hall it smells of stale beer. Though it’s well
before noon, a handful of barflies sit on stools quietly taking long pulls on
large mugs of beer. The place is depressingly quiet. Baker hardly notices. He
strolls through the place looking for people he knows.
“None of the regulars I usually talk to are here yet,” he
finally says with a trace of resignation in his voice. “But it’s early. I’ll
come back later.”
Back on the street he ambles down an alley then crosses a
parking lot before negotiating a busy intersection. These are not mean streets.
Boutiques, microbreweries and restaurants anchor almost every corner. College
students strut down the sidewalks in search of food, things to buy and good
times. Like a politician facing a tough race, Baker greets nearly everyone he
comes across and spends time chatting up those he knows.
“You don’t have to be a great evangelist to share your
faith,” he says. “God is just asking us to step up to the plate and live a life
that shows people we have something they don’t — Jesus.”
With that said, he ducks into a store and offers to buy the
owner a sandwich.
*Nikki asked that her last name not be used.
KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal
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