Have you ever visited Seattle? It is a magical place. 

In Seattle, the coffee tastes better (skip the green mermaid, you can’t get her here), the soccer is better (Go Sounders!), and even the views are better (when it’s not raining). But it wasn’t always like this. Seattle used to be a difficult place to live, and it was saved in part by an innovative decision 130 years ago. 

Seattle was founded near today’s Pioneer Square, on Eliot Bay at the end of Yesler Way. One hundred and fifty years ago, this was the location of Henry Yesler’s Sawmill. Timber from the Pacific Northwest would skid down Yesler Way for processing in the sawmill, then it was sent to outward-bound boats. This situation was great for the mill except that the whole area was a swamp. And well, there are problems with starting a city in a swamp, like snakes, bears, and, of course, tides.  

For the residents of 1800s Seattle, ocean tides caused major problems. Living at sea level meant what toilets and plumbing they did have could not function during high tide. Problems like this would have sunk the city were it not for the lucrative timber industry. City leaders wanted to fix the problem but hesitated until the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

On June 6, 1889, Seattle burned down. Great fires happened in many cities during that era, including Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, and Tokyo. In October of 1871, approximately 300 people died in what is now called the Great Chicago Fire. But in Seattle, no one died, and city leaders wisely used the rebuilding period to make significant changes.

The most significant change came when city planners and engineers decided to lift the streets and sidewalks of Seattle 11 feet so that the city was no longer at sea level. This much-needed change required crafty leadership to implement because it took more than 10 years to raise all the streets. Residents could not wait for every street to be elevated to reopen. They needed to rebuild their homes and businesses immediately. Within this constraint, an elegant solution opened up: build new doors. 

Every new and rebuilt home and business was constructed with a second-floor entrance above their first-floor entrance. This allowed businesses to open at their current street level and then shift things upstairs once the city was able to build the new sidewalks and roads. And it worked! Today, you can take an Underground Seattle Tour in Pioneer Square and visit some of the original entrances to the buildings rebuilt after the great fire of 1889. 

I share the story of Seattle because church leaders recognize that the once-familiar pathways seem to have moved. The post-war industrial boom that shaped the culture and fueled the growth of many of our churches has left us ill-prepared for streets that feel on a different level than we remember. 

Some church leaders took the new streets to build somewhere else. But as the pastor of a traditional church, I cannot imagine Oxford Baptist leaving behind our resources, gifts, and people, even though our city’s streets have changed. Many churches like mine have gifts to offer; God is at work here. There is still life in our bones and space in our heart, but we definitely need to build some new doors. Is your church is the same way? 

Unfortunately, I cannot simply show you new doors to meet the streets in your community because building new doors is contextual. When it comes to determining how to build a new door in my ministry, I am learning to rely on the insight that comes from a design-thinking process. 

A design-thinking process is an empathetic, constraints-recognizing, action-driven, and iterative process that assists in creating new outcomes and possibilities. Design thinkers acknowledge the need to listen carefully to people and they anticipate that creating solutions will not result in perfect outcomes on the first try. But the beauty of a design-thinking mindset and the design-thinking process is that it allows us to discover things we didn’t know about ourselves, our systems, and our community. It also allows us to create from the resources we have, even when the constraints we face seem impossible. When we work a design-thinking process well, we can find amazing possibilities in places we never imagined. 

The Church is a magical place, just like Seattle. I love the church’s energy, creativity, and culture. Sometimes I wonder if what I love about Seattle today was written into the city’s DNA 130 years ago when they decided to build second-floor doors. Whether such innovation is baked into their DNA or it happened just once, I remain inspired by how they prepared themselves for their tomorrow, and I think the church is able to do the same thing if we discover new tools, frameworks, and practices to help us frame new doors. As the streets of my community change shape each day, Seattle reminds me that God has countless places we could put the next door; we simply need to be willing to work out how and where we will build it.  

Chris Aho
Chris is the Pastor of Oxford Baptist Church and is involved in service and leadership in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Chris is a graduate of Baylor University, Duke Divinity School an an alumni of Wilshire Baptist Church’s Residency Program. He received his coaching training through the Center for Congregational Health in 2011 and works with ministers and churches to help them positively move forward with their unique ministries. He is a coach for CHC.