My name is Steve Thomason. This is my story.
While I believe with all of my heart that God loves everyone equally, and that all people are equally valuable, I also acknowledge that our unique ethnic/socio/economic/political/creedal/racial/gender place in the world has drastic impact on who we are, how we behave, and how we treat those around us. We do not get to choose the worldview into which we are born, and yet that worldview shapes us and shapes the way we perceive everything. I think the only way we can get along with each other is to recognize the power of these formational lenses. We need to both cherish them as substance from which we were formed and also question them and be willing to grow beyond them and expand them as God reveals more of God’s beautiful creation to us throughout life.
The world into which I was born was the white, middle-class, suburbia of the Detroit metropolitan area. I was born during the race riots of 1968, but didn’t know about them until I was a teenager. For me, life was simple and safe. My dad was a pastor at a large Independent Baptist church in Hazel Park, Michigan. For the first 13 years of my life I grew up in a very loving, very solid Christian home. I never questioned my parents’ love for God, love for each other, love for us children, or love for people. My DNA was saturated for a genuine desire to pursue God and bring the hope of Jesus to all people.
During these formational years two deep passions sprouted in my life. The first was ART. I love to draw. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. It was in fourth grade I realized that I actually had a special gift for art. My dad has great artistic talent and a love for art, so when he saw it in me he fanned the flame and encouraged me every step of the way. My parents have always made me feel special regarding my art. The second passion was the study and teaching of the Bible. In second grade I decided I wanted to learn Greek and begged my dad to help me map out Paul’s journeys on a big piece of poster board. In sixth grade I preached my first sermon. It was 3 minutes long (many people long for those days!) My grandfather frequently took me down to the Detroit Rescue Mission to preach to the homeless men. I was always in some form of leadership/teaching role in my youth group. At summer camp I would always win the preaching contest. I felt “called” to ministry even from that age.
During these years, being fully enveloped in a Protestant/Baptistic culture, I “accepted Jesus as my Personal Lord and Savior” at the age of seven. By the time I was in Junior High School I could chart out the “End Times” along with the best of them. I was a dispensational fundamentalist with a pre-tribulational, pre-millenial hope of the rapture and the second coming of Jesus. I felt a “deep burden” for my lost friends and prayed that they would come to know Jesus just like I did. The “Gospel” of Jesus was the message that if you prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” then you would escape the eternal flames of Hell and live eternally in Heaven after you die.
In my sophomore year my dad took a senior pastor job at a church in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis. I went from being a well-known and highly active student in my very large youth group and in my school to, overnight, being an unknown outsider. That was an interesting transition. The youth group had four kids in it on the first day we started at the church. My high school was much larger than the one I had attended in Michigan and I didn’t know a soul. Over the next three years I grew. I worked hard in the youth group and I developed my love for the arts. I actually started my own T-shirt design company in my sophomore year and called it Steve’s T’s. Eventually the shop that printed my shirts hired me as a designer and I began my professional art career.
As I was graduating from high school I prayed that I could find an art job (partly because I loved art and partly because I really didn’t want to dig ditches all summer!) The next day an alumnus from my high school came back to visit my art teacher. She introduced me to him and he asked me if I was interested in drawing caricatures at the local amusement park. duh! Two weeks later I had met Steve Fasen of Fasen Arts and was on my way to Chicago to draw caricatures at Great America.
There I was, a 17-year-old christian boy, living in an apartment with three men that I had never met, sleeping on the living room floor. I learned a lot that summer. I learned that I could actually survive on my own. My parents had prepared me well. I learned that I really did enjoy art, especially cartooning, a lot. I also learned that “non-christian” people are not scary monsters that only want to corrupt me. I know that sounds crazy, but remember where I came from. Oh sure, there was a lot of beer drinking, pot smoking, girl chasing, and other sundry “worldly” things going on around me, but I found that I was neither enticed by them, nor was I repulsed by them. I made good friends that summer, some of which I am still connected. My world was starting to expand.
My first year of college was spent at Moody Bible Institute. That was quite a contrast from the summer I had just spent with the artists! Moody was a great school and I value my experiences and education there. The best thing about it was that I met my wife, Lona! While Moody was great, I felt it was too limited for me. I wanted to study art, play football, and have a more general liberal arts education. So, I transferred to Wheaton College my sophomore year.
Wheaton was a great place. It was there that universe really began opening up for me. In my first Systematic Theology class I was exposed to “Protestant Liberal Theology” for the first time, and not in a negative light. I was appalled by some of the things I read in that text book. I was angry that my theology teacher would allow such liberal trash to be presented at an Evangelical school. The very core of my theological foundation was directly challenged. I joke now that I almost became an atheist that year. I didn’t become an atheist, but I did realize that my God was way too small and my understanding of how God wants us to be in the world was way too narrow.
At that time I questioned whether my “calling” to ministry was really a true calling from God or just my desire to go into the “family business.” After all, my dad was a pastor, my brother was a pastor, and my other brother was a Christian counselor. It just made sense. I also wondered whether I was operating under the unspoken rule of the Baptist church that there are two classes of Christians; there are the 1st class citizens who are either foreign missionaries or pastors, and then there are the 2nd class citizens that work in the “world” to support the 1st class citizens. Was my motivation for ministry because I wanted to be a “1st class citizen” or because it was what I was called to do?
I decided that the world didn’t need another pastor. What the world needed was an artist, specifically an animator, that loved God and produced quality art. So, I dropped my double major in Biblical Studies and kept my major in Art. At that point in my life all I could think about was animation. Lona and I got married right after my junior year, and during my senior year we produced two animated films together. It was awesome.
Then the phone call came that changed my life. Steve Fasen called me up and asked if I wanted to go to Las Vegas to open up a caricature operation in a new hotel opening up called the Excalibur. It was supposed to be a family vacation destination. At first I thought he was crazy. My plan was to move to Florida to work with him at Universal Studios while I tried to get hired at Disney Animation. Why would I move to “Sin City?” Eventually, Lona and I decided that it would be better to follow the better financial situation of being a manager in Vegas so that we could pay off my school bills faster. So, we moved the desert in 1990.
After buying a new house and having our first child, I realized that moving to Burbank, California to pursue a career in animation would be too much of a burden for a young family. I had a great job, the business was expanding, and we had found a dynamic church — in Vegas, can you believe it — where we instantly got plugged in. The church was Central Christian Church.
Over the next four years I became very involved at Central. It was the first time in my life I had attended a church where no one knew who I was. I quickly became involved in leadership and worked with the Youth group and taught Adult Sunday School classes. Lona and I were part of the very first small group that Central had. It was in 1992 that I realized that I was feeling “called” to ministry once again. I loved to teach and I loved the church.
In 1994 I enrolled in Bethel Seminary’s In-Ministry Program and began studying to receive a Master’s of Divinity Degree (M.Div.) In order to be in the program I had to be on staff at a church at least 1/4 time. Central graciously brought me on as a quarter-time staff person and asked me to start a Men’s Ministry. For the next two years I was full time at Fasen Arts, a full-time student at Bethel, quarter-time pastor at Central, and making babies with Lona. It was an exciting and busy time.
In 1997 I took the big plunge and quit the manager job at Fasen Arts and became a full-time pastor at Central. My first year there I was the Director of Adult Education, which meant I was responsible to create and implement the Saddleback-like classes called 101, 201, and 301. These were seminars designed to help people in the church learn about spiritual formation and getting connected with Central. That was probably my best year of ministry. All I did was create and teach (my winning combination). The second year the staff was restructured and the supervisor role just above me became open. I was “promoted” to become the Director of Adult Ministries. Suddenly I stepped into a middle-management role and supervised 7 pastors and three administrative assistants. Our department’s task was to create small groups for adults in which people would find good community and spiritual formation.
From Mega to Micro
Over the next few years the church grew rapidly and we built a $24 million facility. Our congregation grew from 1200 people in 1990 to 8,000 people in 2002. My education was coming to a close. I found myself on a staff of 100 people, sitting in a big office with a big window, attending meetings, running meetings, and feeling very unsatisfied. My theological perspective about church had been changing over the past few years. I discovered that my personality did not fit well with the mega-church culture. I am not very good at stepping in line and following the drum beat of the army, especially if I have certain “issues” with things and felt that I wasn’t free to speak my mind. It’s that whole artist, non-conformist thing that always conflicts with corporate America. It is not about good and evil, right or wrong, its about personalities and style compatibility.
In 2002 two significant things happened. First, I graduated from Bethel after 8 years of study. Now I had a degree that would qualify me to teach at the college level. I quickly applied to the only accredited christian college in Vegas; Bethany University. I began teaching there as an adjunct instructor that fall. The second thing was that I felt God telling me that it was time to leave Central and move in a new direction.
I wasn’t sure where I was going, I only knew that I could no longer function in a mega-church environment and maintain internal integrity philosophically and theologically. The only way I knew how to make money other than being in ministry was through art. So, in July of 2002 I incorporated Spot Productions and set out on a new adventure. I knew that I still needed to be in an intimate community so I invited a group of close friends to gather together in a home on Sundays and experiment with being a house church. I knew two things at that point: 1) my theological imagination was running wild with ideas about what the church could be like, and 2) I really did not want to be a “pastor” again. I just wanted to be in a community that loved Jesus and loved each other in a simple and authentic way of being.
The core group that started this house church — called Hart Haus — really enjoyed it. It was fresh and different. We all moved from a Mega experience to a Micro experience overnight. We were a multi-generational group that shared a Sabbath rest together on Sundays by having a time of worship, prayer, Bible discussion/teaching, lunch, and recreation. It was great.
We loved it so much that we opened up the group to let anyone come in. And in they came. Within three months we had over 40 people cramming into the house. By March we had “birthed” a second house church. By the end of that year both of the house churches were bursting at the seams with new people and we knew we had to birth again. At that point it dawned on me. I hadn’t started an art business and become part of a simple community, I had started a church and was its pastor. I spent more time working on the church stuff than I did on my art jobs and the church was bailing me out financially every month. In January of 2004 I gave in to what seemed my destiny and became the “full-time” pastor of Hart Haus. We birthed another house soon after that, and for two years functioned as a network of three house churches that met separately in homes each Sunday and collectively once a month. Each week I spent most of my energy producing a daily Bible Study and distributing it to all the members of Hart Haus as well as a larger network of friends and family that requested to receive the studies.
In 2006 things changed. For various reasons, some healthy, some unhealthy, our numbers dropped and most of the people left the community. I realized that my gifting and passions are not the implementation and management of a system. I am the idea guy and the teacher, not the overall leader of a group. Hart Haus conflated to one house church again in the spring of 06 and coasted there for the rest of the year. During that time I reinvested my energy into Spot Productions in preparation for an imminent change. In January of 07 Hart Haus officially ceased its operation. I am thankful for the time we spent together in the experimental community called Hart Haus.
An Emerging Perspective
In 2006 I was exposed to a theological language set that gave words to much of my thinking. I realized that I have been involved, internally, in something called the “Emerging Church” for some time. Through the writing of people like Stanley Grenz, Spencer Burke, and Brian McLaren I found a group of people and a language set that helped me communicate with people more clearly some of the changes that had been taking place in my theological perspective.
In 2007 I moved my business and family to Minnesota to be near family. I spent three years as a freelance illustrator and writer. That was an important time of healing and refocusing for me.
A Journey with Grace
In 2010 I joined the staff of Grace Lutheran Church in Andover, MN as the Director of Spiritual Formation. I transferred my ordination to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and was officially rostered and installed in November, 2011. I am now the Pastor of Spiritual Formation. I also entered into the PhD program at Luther Seminary in the fall of 2011 in the field of Congregational Mission and Leadership. I intend to defend my dissertation in the spring of 2015.