Seattle pastor Eugene Cho testifies to the beauty of a grace-filled, multiethnic church
By Rick Lund
In the latter stages of its 50-year-plus history, Interbay Covenant Church looked a lot like other urban churches in its denomination—an aging, predominately white congregation whose most fruitful years of ministry were behind them.
Today, the church building at the corner of 15th Avenue West and West Dravus Street northwest of downtown Seattle still stands. But what’s going on inside the 1960s-era, brick building with the curved wood beams is nothing short of amazing.
Now called Quest Church, it is a thriving, multiethnic, multicultural, and multigenerational congregation that is making an impact in a city and region regarded as one of the “least churched” in the United States.
And Quest’s almost-overnight success is due in no small part to a jaw-dropping gift from an unlikely partner—the Interbay congregation.
In 2002, Interbay took on a $300,000 loan to renovate a warehouse on the church’s property for Quest, which didn’t have a church home at the time.
In 2007, Interbay handed over the keys to its own building after voting to merge with Quest. In doing so, Interbay gave the much younger congregation its debt-free building and made Quest pastor Eugene Cho the lead pastor of the two combined churches.
When Quest Church started in a living room in Seattle with seven people, Cho dreamed it would become a diverse congregation. That dream is now a reality. Quest is about 40 percent Asian American, 40 percent white, with African-Americans and Hispanics making up the remaining 20 percent.
“I’m grateful, because this has been part of our vision from the genesis of our church,” says Cho, a dynamic preacher who is in demand as a speaker around the U.S. and internationally.
“Having said that, it’s been really difficult. But we’re encouraged that this is a vision that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, inspired by the Scriptures, and is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is and what it will look like for eternity.”
Passing the baton
At the time of their merger seven years ago, Interbay and Quest were very different congregations.
Quest was predominantly Asian American—most in their 20s and single—whose pastor, Cho, was a 36-year-old, hip, Korean-born American. Interbay’s congregation was largely white, over age 50 with familiar ties to its Swedish heritage (the church was founded in the 1950s by Swedish Americans), and led by a former Boeing engineer, 61-year-old pastor Ray Bartel.
When traditional met hip, there were some awkward moments.
“All of a sudden you’re working through power decision issues, and we’re having Korean food at our meetings,” says Barbara Lundquist, 80, a longtime Interbay member who remains at Quest today. “When you get down to food and music, that’s when things really hit the fan.”
Some Interbay folks missed the old hymns and complained Quest’s worship band played too loud. Quest leaders also replaced the traditional pews in the sanctuary with chairs to give Sunday worship a more informal feel.
What’s more, the twenty-something members of the Quest congregation who initially arrived in 2002 were now getting married and having children.
“Babies were crawling around all over the place,” says Lundquist. “We (the Interbay congregation) were older and not used to being around a lot of babies.”
Of the 50 to 60 people from Interbay who joined Quest, Cho estimates 20 to 30 have stayed. Some of those who left were already commuting long distances to Interbay and chose to find another church. Others preferred the smaller congregation of Interbay, or weren’t enamored with the changes that came with the merger.
But what has transpired for those who have stuck it out, says Lundquist, is “a miracle, an absolute blessing to the core.”
A lot of those early kinks in the initial phases of the merger have been ironed out as hard attitudes and unfamiliarity gave way to harmony, acceptance, and grace, she says.
“We know God’s kingdom is for all of us,” Lundquist says. “All ethnicities are there. It’s a blessing to live in that, and see it happening. There was some roughness at first because we were unfamiliar with each other. But we sit next to each other in worship and we’re speaking across cultural boundaries.”
Quest, on the other hand, benefited from the wisdom of the Interbay folks.
“You can’t fabricate time, you can’t fabricate experience,” says Cho, who turns 44 this year. “We have these Interbay brothers and sisters who are in their 80s and they have a lot of wisdom. Their perspective is incredibly critical for a church like ours.”
A case in point is the 68-year-old Bartel, who originally planned to bow out a year after overseeing the transition. But he has remained on staff as associate pastor, in charge of pastoral care and other special projects. His administrative skills have been invaluable to Quest.
“Pastor Ray gave up being a senior pastor for this (the merger),” says Lundquist. “But Pastor Eugene is thriving with him. Pastor Ray is so good with finances, pastoral care, seeing things in an objective way.”
Cho says today the merger is rarely mentioned. But he hasn’t forgotten the sacrifice the Interbay congregation made.
It was an amazing expression of God’s grace,” Cho says. “They didn’t need to do that. But because they were inspired by a larger kingdom vision, they realized there were a lot of things they wanted to do but weren’t able to do them for a lot of complex reasons.”
The future of Quest
Quest averages around 700 in weekly attendance between two Sunday services, including children.
With growth, however, come challenges. Quest has grown out of its 300-seat capacity sanctuary, and its Christian education space strains to accommodate 170-180 children younger than fifth grade, says Cho. There is talk of adding a third service.
“God is doing amazing things here,” Bartel says. “We’re using every square-inch of our facilities.”
Which is why Quest recently came close to selling its property and facilities, and acquiring a much larger building in north Seattle. The church, however, has “hit the pause button” on such a move, says Cho. The board didn’t sense there was momentum from the larger congregation for a re-location.
Quest is committed to its urban identity and, ideally, would like to be in a neighborhood that is more diverse than its current site. The area the church draws from now is one of the most homogenous of Seattle, according to Cho.
Wherever Quest ends up, Cho says they desire to be a church that knows the city it ministers to and tries to be relevant to the larger culture. That can be a challenge in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city—one known to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the gospel.
“We live in the context of the Northwest, where there is some antagonism against the church,” Cho says. “It means building relationships with our neighbors in the city. It’s taken us 13-14 years to listen well to our city.
“The most important thing for us is the gospel. So we want to make sure our convictions and our belief in the gospel is so powerful it permeates everything we do. That it informs and transforms everything.
“Don’t begin with multiethnicity,” says Cho. “Begin with the gospel, so it infiltrates hearts and souls so much that it can’t help but imagine or reimagine what the church can look like and should look like.”
Surely the old Swedes who began ministry in the Interbay sector of Seattle would be in full agreement with that.
Rick Lund is news presentation editor at The Seattle Times.