Old photos of the church in its heyday.
Old photos of the church in its heyday.

Most Sundays few more than a dozen people fill the wooden pews in the Sky Valley Church of the Nazarene.

The nave has a capacity of 300. Pastor Les Bouck said attendance peaked at around 200 several years ago. Membership has dwindled over time due to congregation members moving away, U.S. Highway 2 traffic, leadership changes and recurring damages to infrastructure, he said.

Bouck started his service at the church about 3 1/2 years ago. His hope is to rebuild the congregation.

The church can first be seen at the crest of the hill that empties drivers out into Startup. Its pristine, white paint sticks out against the dark evergreens that coat the slope on all sides.

The Rev. Gary Nelson was the original pastor for the Sultan Church of the Nazarene that formed in 1974. Services were first held in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building. Sunday school was hosted in an old barn.

The congregation moved to the neighboring unincorporated community years later, on land donated by one of the families. At one point a section uphill of the new church was sold off to pay for a roof replacement.

It is the eastern most church in the Washington Pacific District Church of the Nazarene, Bouck said. The average active parishioner is in their early 60s. The group has been praying for people of all ages to come join in services and activities at the church, he said.

Margaret Morey lives just east of Gold Bar. When conditions are of concern on the narrow gravel road that leads up to the building, the longtime member parks her van and walks up. She joined the congregation in 1988.

“It’s been my home ever since – haven’t wanted to go anywhere else,” Morey said. 

The Church of the Nazarene was founded in 1908, Bouck said. It is an evangelical denomination of Christianity, and is the largest Wesleyan-holiness denomination in the world. The church’s roots are in the Methodist church. Methodism has become more liberal over time while the Church of the Nazarene has remained more conservative, he said.

Shortly after being called to lead in the Sky Valley, Bouck and a few members, including Morey, participated in a seminar on church development. The content included not only how to spruce up the actual structure, but also how to plan outreach and increase attendance.

Their new motto, “Getting ready for company,” was born, Bouck said. That is why they are remodeling the kitchen, and have added a fresh coat of paint to the exterior. It is why the dilapidated highway sign was replaced, and the fading outside mural was redone, he said.

“I just keep thinking that the church is going to be filled again,” Morey said. “We are just trusting God for this – there is no way I can do anything to bring in 200 people myself.”

She said active church members have initiated many new programs in recent years. Women’s Time Out is held 10 a.m. to noon Wednesdays; the gatherings will start up again in September. It is a chance for people of any faith, background or language to come play games, learn to sew, or just sit and talk. Prayer and information is available if someone is interested, but it is not an intended use of their time, she said.  That gathering has historically been advertised through word-of-mouth, which Morey said is more personal.

While the Nazarene doctrine does emphasize mission work, members don’t usually go and knock on doors. The Sky Valley church gives out free water during the Sultan Shindig and Gold Dust Days every summer. Invitations to Sunday services are only offered if a recipient seems curious, she said.

Morey said a vacation Bible school has been held in the past, which was promoted with posters. A group of women have met before to sew dresses for girls in Africa. Bible study is scheduled for 7 p.m. every Thursday night in the spring and fall. Members also pass out free popcorn at the Winterfest craft fair and tree lighting event held every December at Sultan High School, she said. 

“We are just reaching out to let them know that we care, we care about them,” Morey said.

Bouck said one of the biggest barriers to raising attendance may be the highway. It became impossible to hold Sunday evening services, he said, as people would get stuck in weekend traffic for hours at a time trying to get there, he said. 

Members have moved away or chosen to patronize another church, Bouck said. That and leadership turnover has led to other families leaving. The driveway occasionally washing out didn’t help things either, he said.

Years before serving in the Sky Valley, while working as an associate pastor in Everett, Bouck heard rumors about struggles the church faced. He said they had to hire contractors whenever a section of the driveway crumbled. Soon they will be digging a ditch and installing a pipe they hope will permanently divert damaging water flow, he said. 

Bouck said members do most repairs and necessary labor themselves. One man in particular does the housekeeping, grounds keeping and maintenance.

“He is just stretched to the limit,” Bouck said.

Bouck was inspired to ask about the church when the previous pastor Bill Gunther retired. He called the Washington Pacific District Church of the Nazarene Superintendent Rev. Jerry Kester, who told him to contact Morey.

The congregation happily welcomed Bouck and his wife, Mary, Morey said. An attractive quality was that they both could play the piano. Churchgoers sang along to recordings for many years, she said.

At sunset the light coming in through the tall, colored glass windows warms up the nave. The caramel colored seat cushions and wooden pulpit create a subtle glow throughout the room. The quiet library, fellowship hall and front entrance are neat and tidy.

On Thursday evening, Bouck and Morey sat in the commons area beside the kitchen with photographs of former pastors and churchgoers laid before them. An old newsletter and books with the names of every congregation member ever were there as well.

“The predecessors, all these people in these pictures, they (put their) blood, sweat and tears, and sacrifices and time and resources, and you know, they poured out their lives into the place,” Bouck said. “How dare we give up and say, ‘Well, we’re just going to close our doors.’ ”

He said the church exists as one way to glorify God, and also to support the community. He said it also honors their heritage and continues the work started decades ago.

“I can’t see closing the church,” Morey said. “I just can’t.”