Anne and Steve Thomas drive all the way from Delaplane in Fauquier County to attend Shepherd Gate Church in Chantilly — and they're glad to do it.
"We just love this church and wouldn't dream of going anywhere else," said Anne. "My husband and I were the first couple that Dan [the Rev. Dan Duis] married in the church, in August 1976. And our son Ken's wedding, to his wife Jocelyn, was the first second-generation wedding that he performed."
SO NATURALLY, they were among those celebrating this non-denominational church's 20th anniversary, Jan. 29, at a special lunch reception. People of all ages attended, sharing food and fond reminiscences of their many years together.
The Thomases have been members since the church's beginning — it's an offshoot of Christian Assembly in Vienna. Steve leads the men's ministry and Ken's a deacon.
"We like the integrity of this church's leadership, the wonderful sense of family and the warm welcome to new families," explained Anne. "It's based in the Word of God and the Scriptures, and we also wanted our children to grow up in this church because of its wonderful children's ministry. And as our sons have grown up, they've wanted the same for their children."
Rob Andrews, director of youth ministry, is a 1989 Chantilly High grad and grew up in the Pleasant Valley community where the church is located. He and his wife live in Centreville's Historic District, and he counsels and organizes activities, weekly meetings, teachings and Bible studies for about 60 people ranging from teens to young marrieds.
He attended Christian Assembly for seven years, and Duis asked him to come to Shepherd Gate, 1 1/2 years ago. Happy to do so, Andrews described the church leadership here as open and accepting, as well as community-minded and family-oriented.
"You can't get lost," he said. "You're going to know people [who] care about you."
Don Jahn is a church elder, and he and wife Becky have been members since the church began in Vienna. "There have been lots of new members, but there's also a strong core group," said Don. "We're a mission church; and now, not only are our young members being sent out to places like Ghana, China and Russia, but a couple of our older members, too. And we'd like to be able to do the same thing right in our own community, too."
Becky noted that the church is getting "more international" in its membership. Just like Fairfax County, it now has members from China, India and Pakistan. As for Duis, she said, "We have a wonderful pastor — very wise and grounded."
"HE'S TRULY a shepherd," added her husband. "He's reliable and dependable and is there for individuals. You can find a lot of people with strange ideas out there, but this is a safe place for people to come. Here, religion is purely on a Biblical basis, and we're consistent with that."
David and Barbara Williams of Reston have attended for 20 years and have enjoyed getting to know all the church's members, their children and their friends. "Old members came back today, and it was a blessing to see them," said David. "I was one of the original deacons."
Recalling how Shepherd Gate rented space for eight years at Sullyfield Circle in Chantilly, he said, "It was a warehouse, and I helped build it and turn it into a church with a sanctuary and classrooms." Added Barbara: "Everybody's so friendly, they're just like family here."
Good thing — because when she turned 70 last year, her husband announced it to the whole church. Said David: "She was singing [during the service], and I noticed she was singing in harmony. And I realized she'd been doing that, her whole life, with me."
Oak Hill's Tom and Bonnie Nusbaum have also attended this church since its beginning and, said Bonnie, "We like the sincerity of faith and the friendliness. Our two married sons and their wives worship here, too — and that's pretty cool for such a transitional area."
Their boys were just 5 and 8 when they started coming to Shepherd Gate, and Bonnie said it was exciting being part of its 20th anniversary celebration. Tom's an elder and, for the last few months, he and the other elders have been immersed in discussions about the mission and vision of the church, as well as a theme for 2006.
They'll soon "roll it out" to the rest of the members, he said. "But what's kept me here is the absolute certainty that God has a big vision for touching many, many lives in Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the world beyond, through us."
A relatively new member of the church is Sharon Tyson, who's lived in Pleasant Valley for two decades. "I was drawn to this church a year ago," she said. "I wanted a place of worship close to home." But more than proximity keeps her there.
"I GREW UP Baptist, but came here when they were celebrating their 19th anniversary, and the church service was different from the Baptist services," she explained. "It was a very uplifting experience, and I kept coming and coming and coming. I like the contemporary feel of the worship service; It speaks to us in today's terms."
Meanwhile, longtime member Thelma Keener likes the church's heart for missions. "You don't really think about it until you realize all the people who have gone on mission trips," she said. "[My husband] Dale is in the back country of Ghana now for two weeks, showing 'The Jesus Film' by Campus Crusade. It's been translated into their own language."
Among her fondest memories are the church retreats in Prince William Forest. "The ladies have a retreat every spring," she said. "Those are special; there's such a camaraderie among the women. You get to know each other and also get to grow spiritually. And I know the teens look forward to their camp, too."
Mike Kelly of Loudoun's Brambleton community attended the school associated with Christian Assembly and, when he and his wife moved to this area, they were "searching for a church with people our age that we could form relationships with."
And at Shepherd Gate, they've done just that. "It's a friendly church," said Mike. "It embraces anyone who come in."
Charter members Ted and Diane Lane of Greenbriar also have only good things to say about Shepherd Gate. "We like the terrific people, the camaraderie, the love of the Lord and the single purpose of making Christ known," said Ted.
"We're so blessed with our pastor and his wife," said Diane. "They live their lives in a way we're supposed to, in their caring for one another and having a focus on God."
During the anniversary celebration, the members watched a video made when the church first began and showing children who are now grown and have children of their own. "It's amazing," said Ted. "Two of those kids have become deacons here." Added Diane: "We see how the influence of being here has been life-changing for these kids and has given them a real purpose."
Brian Lawlor, of Centreville's Braddock Ridge community, is a 12-year member and says Shepherd Gate is "just the right size for our family. Our kids are involved in Vacation Bible School. And on Saturday nights, the parents meet for Bible studies and [advice] on parenting and various topics, and the kids have a blast together."
HE'S ENJOYED the church throughout the years although, he admitted, there was one bit of awkwardness. "Diane Lane was my math teacher at Chantilly," he said. "So it was months before I could call her Diane, instead of Mrs. Lane."
Leesburg resident Min Jekal got married at Shepherd Gate, last June. He and his wife previously attended Christian Assembly, and its senior pastor, Darrell Emerson (now retired), performed the ceremony.
Therefore, said Min, "Coming to this church is like a reunion because the people in our wedding attended both churches. And Rob Andrews was my wife's youth minister at Christian Assembly, so that was a big draw for us. And with all the kids, young adults and older members here, it's a good blend of all the generations."