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Finding Healthy Churches

Oryan Lopes first heard about a project that was planting churches outside military bases in 2011. Having gone to church plants when he and his wife Danielle were in college and newly married, this project was something they were interested in being a part of. They just had to wait for God to give them the opportunity. Their first opportunity was when Oryan got stationed at Quantico in Virginia and they were close to Pillar Church of Dumfries.

Oryan shared, “We remember pulling into the parking lot, which was attached to a tire shop, and there were 7-8 parking spots out front (we didn’t know there was a huge parking lot in the back) and we were like ‘Oh boy, at least we’ll get to know everyone quickly.’ 

“But we pulled in with just a little bit of faith, even though we thought it’s going to be uncomfortable at first…We went into the door beside the tire shop, and it wasn’t uncomfortable! We heard a gospel-centered message and we walked out with an invite to [Pastor] Colby’s house. Three days later we’re in his den sharing stories and getting to know one another.”

This was the beginning of the Lopes family’s journey to being a part of 3 different Pillar churches and learning new lessons along the way of what a healthy church looks like and what their role can be as a transient Marine Corps family. 

From Dumfries, they eventually got orders to move across the country to Twentynine Palms, California. Because several members of various Pillar churches had found themselves in Twentynine Palms around the same time, and considering its strategic Marine Corps base location, a core team was formed to plant a new Pillar Church.

During this experience, Oryan and Danielle learned to rely heavily on prayer. “We used to go on walks in the morning up to a high point in Twentynine Palms, and as the sun was coming up we would pray over the town…At the time it was just our core team. We did that for a couple of weeks until I ended up deploying,” he said.

Throughout deployments and the ups and downs of family life, the Lopes found the consistent, loving presence of like-minded believers and the encouragement through gospel-centered preaching at Pillar Church to be key ingredients in their spiritual growth.

When their next orders came in and they found out that they would be moving to Washington, DC, they learned that Pillar DC was undergoing leadership changes and would be relaunched a few months after their arrival. Now, they had a decision to make. Would they live on mission and be a part of a core team a second time?

“With just a little faith, we committed to going to the church [Pillar DC] before we got there…[This process has] completely shattered our idea of church shopping. If they’re preaching the gospel and they’re local, you can be a part of the edification of a local church,” said Oryan.

Oryan and Danielle jumped right in with Pillar DC, encouraging and edifying the other core team members made up of military and civilians. They helped with setting up chairs, running childcare, hospitality, and Oryan was voted in as an Elder while Danielle helped start a women’s ministry. Both were learning from this new church what intentional, personal discipleship could look like and implemented it by pouring into new believers.

Oryan shared. “A church plant is tough, not flashy, not a place to just get an emotional high on the weekend. But if you’re chasing after the Lord, and you’re seeking after him, the Praetorian Project is a kingdom-focused network where you will grow and be discipled along the way.”

“Every single Pillar we’ve been to has been different. The pastors, the relationships, the buildings, even the way you get there…In DC we took a boat to church for a good part of the summer. In Twentynine Palms, you would go down a straight road for 20 mins at 50mph. Every church is different. Those preferences shouldn’t be why you stay at a church.”

With each new experience, the Lopes were also learning what to look for in a church when they would eventually move to a city without a Pillar church. Their next orders were for Tokyo, Japan, and one of the first things on their mind was to find a healthy church to join. Pillar Church of Okinawa, though in the country of Japan, is located on an island over 1,200 miles south of Tokyo.

The Lopes reached out to the Pastor of Pillar Okinawa, Jon Ransom, to ask if he had any connections with churches in Tokyo and they were able to get connected with a healthy, gospel-preaching church near their part of the city.

“I think the Praetorian Project taught us to get plugged into a church – and it’s just as much a blessing for you as it is for the pastor…[The Bible] talks about allowing the pastor to do his job with joy. That has really been our mission in every church that we’ve gone to,” shared Danielle. They emailed and connected with the pastor of the church they planned to join, even before they moved into the city. They wanted to know how they could help the mission of the advancement of the gospel in Tokyo.

Oryan added, “There are hard things when you commit [to a local church], but it’s part of saying that these are fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, and I’m not perfect and they’re not perfect–but we’re called to come together and worship the Lord.”

Looking to the future, the Lopes family knows that they can rely on God through every move. Whether or not their next duty station has a local Pillar church, they have found the beauty and growth that comes from attaching themselves to a healthy church family, even when it might look a little different from where they came from before.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” – Colossians 3:23-24

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