Every night, when Garat Grant drives home, he sees a giant neon cross in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
Grant often envisions Jesus standing beside that neon cross near Sedro Woolley, Washington. He anticipates a river of life flowing from the Lord, who reaches toward Grant’s neighbors.
Grant is confident of God’s love for the 130,000 people in the five towns of the Skagit Valley. The love rushing into homes and neighborhoods, schools and businesses forms the essence of Immersion Church.
“The river of life is coming so aggressively that people couldn’t escape it if they wanted to,” Grant said. The Lord’s love inspires “this picture of Immersion Church’s goal: to see the fullness of Christ in the Skagit Valley.”
The reality always precedes the vision
Skagit Valley has soil so fertile that miles of beautiful tulips grow every spring. Along Interstate 5 or in the foothills of the Cascades, field after field glows with blooms. Unfortunately, however, the spiritual landscape in the mountain community seldom matches the floral brilliance.
“As a whole, the Pacific Northwest’s spiritual culture feels like winter,” Grant said. “I would describe it as cold, dark and harsh, just like the winters. It definitely doesn’t feel like an easy place to do ministry. It’s really hard to get people’s time or attention to talk about the gospel.”
Hearts closed to the deep love of God creates familiar territory for Grant by this point. He moved to Washington from California when he was 14. A year later, he began attending Adventure Church, a Converge church in nearby Duvall.
“Adventure was such a beautiful church,” Grant said. “I loved my time there so much.”
He eventually became the church’s youth pastor.
Let’s open another door
His experience at Adventure was so great that he drew on it as motivation for planting Immersion Church.
“It’d be cool if there were a church somewhere else like this so more people could get a message like this,” he thought.
Grant met Randy Lawrence when Lawrence was pastor of Adventure Church. Now, Lawrence has joined Grant in planting Immersion Church. The pastor was his mentor in Grant’s teenage years, teaching him carpentry and showing him how to follow Jesus.
Lawrence sees how Immersion Church can offer something new and vital to the Skagit Valley.
“Our hearts definitely lean toward helping people walk intimately with God,” Lawrence said. “To find God as Father and allow him to re-Father them in ways they didn’t think possible. We want to have a church that teaches and portrays his way of living as the way to have life to the full.”
The local church has tremendous power
The value of a local church has inspired Immersion’s core team to face the challenge of COVID by continuing to gather as a church in Washington, one of the earliest states to have confirmed cases of the virus.
“How do you get people in the door in a community or a culture that has so bought into the governor’s mandates?” Grant said. “Even when they come, you can’t see their face. That’s a big challenge. We do not have the manpower to meet online. So our first priority through 2020 and 2021 has been to survive. Stay open as a place where people can find Jesus if they need hope. Keep the doors open.”
The leaders are not only keeping the doors open. They’re confident of God’s goodness as they’ve been able to buy and renovate a closed church building. Now, they can do more through a consistent place to meet.
“God has been with us in the things we’ve done so far,” Grant said. “He’ll be with us in what we do next.”
About a dozen people formed the core team in October 2020 when Immersion met in Lawrence’s garage. Grant’s spiritual walk includes so many moments when he was just glad a church was open.
Like many, his life hasn’t been without a few years of wandering and disobedience. Still, his experiences since a child convinced him “there was somebody out there who had my best interests in mind.”
Church was a place where Grant knew he could hear from God. Moreover, even as a young boy, older women in the church would tell Grant’s parents he would be a pastor someday.
“Church was always an experience that was part of who I am,” Grant said. “Even through all the stuff that’s messy about churches, I just know it’s not an option. Walking with God and going to church, I’m not being true to myself if I’m not involved in this.”
As a 17-year-old, Grant was praying one night in his car. He asked God, ‘What do you want me to do with my life?’
He hadn’t forgotten the prophecy of the older women in his childhood church down in California. But there’d also been anger and sinful choices and struggles for part of his high school years. As graduation approached, his grades were good enough to create some options. But, that night in prayer, he wanted God to say something about what should come next.
He heard one word ― theology ― as he prayed. However, he didn’t know what the word meant, so he went to pastor Lawrence to find out. His pastor helped him see Grant’s next step was academic preparation for ministry.
So, Grant went to Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. His graduate program equipped him with skills for counseling people since people often came to him to talk about life struggles.
“My training in that allows me to say from the pulpit that there’s darkness all around us,” Grant said. “We have these deep traumas, and they affect how we see God. If we don’t talk about the darkness and those hard things and those issues we’ve struggled with for years and years, our knowledge of God won’t change. When we talk about those issues, they come into the light of God.”
People going from ruin to restoration
Grant and Lawrence are convinced, convicted even, that Christ longs to bring heart change that ushers in life change. They’ve seen it over and over again. Seeing God work in people from the inside out informs how they minister to people.
“Jesus has come to restore humanity,” Grant said. “That’s a lot of the lens we do ministry from. Humanity’s really broken. That’s not hard to see. And Jesus has come to restore you, to restore humanity, to restore your heart and bring you back to a relationship with God.”
In the Skagit Valley culture, Grant finds the language of restoration helps the church talk about sin and the gospel.
“It doesn’t discount sin, it doesn’t discount brokenness,” he said of such a paradigm. “It actually highlights [sin.] It doesn’t just leave you there as a dirty, rotten sinner. [Restoration] completes the story for you.”
He and others on the Immersion team have received such restoration. They now experience what Jesus said and did 20 centuries ago in Scripture.
“We have experienced more change with people when we go the route of the heart than behavior management,” Grant said. “If you count it up, Jesus talks about the heart more than he talks about the mind, behavior and all of that. Our team has seen more breakthrough and intimacy with God by starting with the heart, and behavior naturally follows a change of heart.”
Chandler and Hannah Richardson joined Immersion in August 2020. Chandler is one of the pastors now; he left a California church to join Grant and Lawrence in starting the church. He has experienced that inward work since he arrived in Washington.
“We as a church talk a lot about being able to hear the voice of God,” Chandler Richardson said. “That was foreign to me before we started the journey of coming up here. There have been some really cool moments of starting to learn to hear his voice and recognize when he’s leading and guiding and bringing healing from stuff in the past.”
Therefore, Immersion Church exists to bring the river of life from Christ to people, particularly disillusioned, struggling young families in the Skagit Valley. Grant and Lawrence want to help them move their pain into the light and let Christ’s love overcome the darkness.
“The group we’re hoping to get after is the young, unchurched families that the American dream has failed,” Grant said.
Grant and his wife Kelsey expect their third child in April.
“The American Dream is to work hard, buy a house, have kids and everything’s going to work out for you,” he said. “When you get to your late 20s like I am, you just find that’s a bunch of garbage. That doesn’t give you the life that makes you happy.”
Instead, Grant knows a ministry from the Scriptures focused on restoration available through Jesus is a great gift the church can give.
“We hope to be a voice that says we’ve been there,” he said. “We know what you’re feeling, and we’ve found a way to get the life you’ve always wanted. It may not look like you thought it would, but it’s real and it works.”
Chandler Richardson said he and Hannah were concerned about finding friendship and following Christ among new people in an unfamiliar community. When they arrived in Washington in August 2020, about 12 people attended Immersion.
“Our biggest fear in coming up here has been our favorite part of coming up here,” he said. “We have grown in a really deep, rich community of people who love Jesus and people who aren’t afraid to call each other into a better relationship with Jesus and people who are just fun to be with and have the hard conversations with.”
An invitation home
Near the end of high school, Grant was on a mission trip in the Philippines. Some of his high school years had been challenging. He didn’t yet have the life he’d always wanted.
As he watched a storm approaching the beach, seeing dark clouds miles away on the ocean, Jesus spoke to Grant’s heart.
“There was a storm coming in,” he said. “You could see really far out on the ocean the storm coming in. Jesus said, ‘I am coming for you as fast as I can. Like the sun chasing the night, I am coming for you.’ That felt like an invitation home to me.”
Through Immersion Church, Grant is confident the Christ on the hill of Calvary is the same Christ who looks over the Skagit Valley. From his wounded side comes the life-giving river of love for the five towns of the Skagit Valley.
“Walking with God is the best thing you can do for your life,” he said. “Our focus is how do we get the people who do walk in our building closer to God,” he said. “We’re being unashamed about that. We’re not pulling any punches about that.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.