SEATTLE (Christian Examiner)—When Mindy Neill and her family started down the road of foster care four years ago, she found a system overwhelmed. Budget cuts and an increased need had laid waste to the foster care system in Seattle.
Everybody keeps saying that Seattle is this really dark place. But isn't that where the light shines best? If this is a dark place, that means it's fertile ground for stories of redemption.
Neill also found a great opportunity for her church to come alongside and help their city.
"They've cut all non-essential positions, so there is a ton of work that churches can be involved in to come alongside of foster youth and foster families," Neill said.
Neill and her church, Seattle's First Free Methodist Church, began a ministry to serve the city's foster care community with three key goals—care for foster children, support foster parents and encourage social workers.
Yet she knew that tall order couldn't be completed through just one church. Seattle is the largest city in a state that has seen a 17 percent drop in foster families since 2007, according a recent Seattle Times article. Thanks to a partnership between five other churches, including First Free Methodist, each church has been more effective at meeting this desperate need than it could on its own.
"Our experience in the foster care realm has really opened our eyes to how much need there is," Neill said. "I kind of joke that I think we could have every church in Seattle contributing and still there could still be unmet needs. So there's plenty to be done. It's been great to partner with other churches. We're not a huge church here, so there's no way we could get as much accomplished without other churches."
An even larger and ever-expanding network of Seattle-area churches will focus on expanding the work even further in 2016. For the past two and a half years local networks of churches and pastors have been cooperating together on region-wide efforts. Earlier this year this network of networks—called the Light up the City Network—agreed to cooperate on eight specific areas of ministry—prayer, evangelism, human trafficking, foster care, homelessness, local schools, immigrant and refugee care and incarceration.
Organized by the Seattle's Union Gospel Mission, the Light Up the City Network brings together networks of local churches in Seattle suburbs and city neighborhoods, including Edmonds, Enumclaw, West Seattle, Bellevue, Shoreline and more. A total of 23 local networks—and around 200 churches—are a part of the Light Up the City movement. They've also begun to connect with an additional 25 church networks throughout the greater Puget Sound region.
To tackle each of the eight areas, the network gathers church leaders—like Neill —who have an interest in the area to brainstorm and minister together. Chris Gough first conceived of the network of networks as he worked with the smaller networks in his position as director of church development at the Union Gospel Mission. Few of the networks, he realized, were in a position to know about the existence of the other networks. Seeing the potential for gospel-centered impact throughout the metro area, he organized the first meeting of the different networks in May of 2013.
The growing network of churches in the Emerald City has seen several positive developments over the past year. Earlier this year, as the network began to look at how they wanted to move forward on evangelism together, they realized that each of the churches were already preparing to present the Gospel on Easter morning. Instead of working on a new initiative, the network worked together to draw people to area churches for the holiday. The network invited Luis Palau and Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, to speak to area pastors on the topic of evangelism a month before Easter. Then area pastors prayed together for their upcoming worship services. The 100 Seattle churches whom they asked to report back about what happened during Easter had a combined attendance of more than 70,000 people.
The Light Up the City Network has also been asked by Seattle Public Schools to get churches to adopt every school in the district.
"They've asked that we pray for every school in Seattle," Gough said. "Could you have a prayer strategy for all Seattle schools? This came from the Seattle superintendent himself."
Much of the work is still in progress, but Gough is excited about the direction. He believes one of the network's primary influences will be as a platform to share what God is doing throughout the city in the spirit of Hebrews 10:24: "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." (NIV)
"Everybody keeps saying that Seattle is this really dark place," Gough says. "But isn't that where the light shines best? If this is a dark place, that means it's fertile ground for stories of redemption."