Every spring since 2007, young people from around the world have flocked to Mammoth for the Lighthouse Church’s global gathering.
With Lighthouse churches in New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and France, the Mammoth Lighthouse will host anywhere from 150 to 225 people during this year’s event, taking place April 23-26.
Throughout the weekend, the group will attend church services, gather for meals, and play outside while catching up with friends both old and new.
So how did a small church from Mammoth grow into this global community?
It all started in Pastors’ Dave and Stevie Nelson’s living room in the manager’s unit at Viewpoint Condos in the 1980s. Anywhere from 25 to 60 young adults would gather for a Bible study—cramming into the hallway, the kitchen and down the stairwell just to be a part of it.
“The young people were always searching, like we were, for purpose in life,” Stevie said. “They were moving to Mammoth to have fun, but all of them had the same question: what are we supposed to do? And we liked hanging out and talking about that.”
Stevie came to Mammoth in 1969 for a two-year break “to escape having to commit to grad school or a career,” she said. Dave came for spiritual reasons in 1971, as Albie Pearson, a retired shortstop for the Anaheim Angels, was pastoring a group of young Christians in his home in Mammoth, which eventually became Church on the Mountain in Crowley Lake.
“To the dissatisfaction of my parents, I went from being a born and raised atheist to a devout Christian and moved to Mammoth in one year,” Dave said, chuckling.
The Nelsons were a part of Church on the Mountain for 25 years before starting the Lighthouse in 1998. As an associate pastor at the time, Dave regularly met with all the other pastors in Mammoth and realized “They didn’t have any young people in their churches, but we had a ton in our front room,” he said. “So they supported us and encouraged us to gather the young people and to be a place for them.”
Dave and Stevie styled the church for young adults—night meetings to accommodate people who work on the Mountain, chairs set up around small tables much like a coffeehouse, and the worship music played by a full band under stage lights. “The whole concept was not a church for tourists but for people working and living in Mammoth,” Dave said.
The Lighthouse began renting what was originally the Cornice Ski Shop on the corner of Main Street and Mountain Blvd. across from the 76 Station (the building has since been knocked down).
The church is currently located in the former Oaktree space on Old Mammoth Rd., which it purchased four years ago.
The Lighthouse started with 40 or 50 people and currently fluctuates between 60 and 100 people each Sunday. But numbers don’t drive Dave and Stevie, who have watched hundreds of people come and go over the years.
“That’s the fun part,” Dave said. “It’s not about the church, but about the relationships. All these kids were coming into Mammoth for a month, six months, or a couple years, and they really needed family, needed community, and needed a home. And that’s actually what grew from Mammoth into places of connection in other nations.”
These international friendships are what led Dave and Stevie’s daughter, Natalie McLeod, to move to Wanaka, New Zealand in 2004 to help locals start the next Lighthouse Church.
“We realized from the people coming through the Lighthouse in Mammoth that there really was a group to start up in New Zealand because of the ski areas there,” she said.
McLeod said the ski and snowboard culture fosters global relationships as instructors, athletes and enthusiasts all travel around the world from ski resort to ski resort. “People from around the world who were a part of the Wanaka church would do back-to-back winters from the northern to southern hemispheres,” she said. “A lot of the people who came through connected with the Mammoth church and then started Lighthouses in other countries.”
Willy Wakelin met people from the Lighthouse while traveling through Wanaka in 2005. “I really felt accepted and welcome right from the start; kind of like one of the family, even though I was only there for a few weeks,” Wakelin said. He now lives in Laax, Switzerland, running a Lighthouse with his wife, Moni, and Esther Naujoks.
Naujoks first encountered the Lighthouse in Mammoth. “As we walked in that church the first time, we were blown away—this was something we always dreamed of,” she said. “Passionate riders, worshipping God … It was like finding the tribe you want to be a part of.”
Both Naujoks and Wakelin return to Mammoth each April for the global gathering. “It’s a once-a-year opportunity to meet up with lots of these friends from around the world all at once in the same place. It’s like a family reunion in a way,” Wakelin said.
Martin Kristoffersen, a Norwegian who helped start the Lighthouse in Åre, Sweden, first met people from Mammoth in Wanaka as well. “We felt at home in our friendships with the people in the Lighthouse right away,” he said.
For him, the global gathering is not only a place to catch up with friends but also a great place to “get inspired by what God is doing in other ski resorts around the world. We always return from Mammoth encouraged,” he said.
“People don’t realize that doing church in a resort community can be difficult, as the people are highly transient, and they don’t have any money,” Dave said. “The whole concept is to build a global community to create stability and support where people can go from one community to the next and continue to have connection … and the conference is the yearly gathering to reinforce those connections.”
Although connected to the Mammoth church, each Lighthouse is an autonomous organization, Dave said. “We’ve never wanted Americans to be leaders in other countries. It’s not about sending out missionaries, it’s about supporting locals in their own ski resort,” he said. (McLeod returned to the Mammoth Lighthouse in 2011.) “But the Mammoth Lighthouse has been here the longest and it gives sustainability to the others.”
In addition to the weekend in Mammoth, the Lighthouse community gathers each fall in Europe, as well as staying in contact through Skype, its website (lighthouseglobal.org), and social media. Plus, Dave and Stevie often travel to the other churches, although “we’re not really world travelers,” Dave said.
“The Lighthouse really just took on a life of its own,” he concluded. Although he admitted it was never his intention to start a church, let alone a group of international churches, “We kind of just watch the vision happen as God has bigger intentions then we ever did,” he said.