by Dani Dubois
Dani Dubois: Will you tell us about your success story as a Whitworth alumnus?
Rob Fairbanks: First of all, in high school I was a very poor student. I won’t tell you what my GPA was, but I couldn’t have gotten into Whitworth. I was recruited to play basketball at several places, but the community school is where I ended up, primarily because of grades. So I went to the community colleges, both of them here in Spokane, and then from there I went to another school to play basketball. I became a Christian during that period of time, and my value of education changed dramatically. I finished playing, came back to Spokane and I went to what is now Moody Bible Institute. I went there for a year, but it wasn’t really accredited, I was challenged to think about Whitworth. I transferred in as a quasi-junior, and I studied theology with a philosophy minor.
Dubois: How did you know you were supposed to get into the ministry?
Fairbanks: I was one of those radically converted college students. Discovering Jesus was discovering that revolutionary life that I was longing for. I knew I was supposed to do something, I really wanted to serve him somehow, and because I was an athlete I thought it would be through coaching or education. Never did I imagine being a pastor – I didn’t even know what a pastor was, to tell you the truth. This little church out north of here [Springdale Community Church], after graduation, started asking me to come speak. I’d made a vow with God that if anybody ever asked me to talk about Him, I would. So I stayed there a couple years and then I went and planted another church in another city, and then I was a youth pastor and a worship leader at another church near Seattle before we came back here in ’91.
Dubois: And that’s when you planted New Community?
Fairbanks: Yeah, my vision was built around doing church different, a small-group-driven approach. I really believed that we were supposed to embed with the poor but also engage the collegiate. And a lot of people didn’t get it because they didn’t see the two connecting, but for me it made total sense: College students are still idealistic, still feel like they’re supposed to change the world. And this was way back before social activism for Christians was sexy. What happened over time is that those two things did merge. So New Community has had an effect on the city, I think, and beyond. We really weren’t always like that, though, we were kind of what we call a 10-year-overnight success. We struggled for a long time and I wanted to quit numerous times, but we didn’t and God was faithful. Now I think it’s a beautiful representation of what a church can be.
Dubois: You said you think New Community has had an effect on Spokane as a city, what do you mean by that?
Fairbanks: We’ve really had this perspective that our church is a missionary to the city. It isn’t just that we’re sending missionaries out, but we as a community of believers are a missionary to the city. The thing we’ve always thought is what we’re trying to do is not build our church, we’re trying to extend the kingdom in Spokane. We pray the prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and we contextualize that prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done in Spokane or in our lives here, just like it is in heaven.”
Dubois: How did you become involved with Christian Associates?
Fairbanks: I’m a restless person anyway, but these past four or five years that restlessness kept going in tighter circles and I had been feeling like maybe God was asking me to do something else beyond the local. I was working on a doctoral program and taking a class in London at the time and I ran into this guy (Linus Morris) who was doing church planting in Western Europe. We began talking and I was exhilarated by what they were doing. Then he asked me what I do and I told him I pastored in Spokane and we had this weird ‘aha’ moment where he goes “You’re from Spokane? I’m from Spokane!” We became fast friends and I was introduced to this organization called Christian Associates, a church planting organization that was started in Geneva. A couple years after meeting them, Linus, who was 70, began to make a succession plan, and I ended up being the person to succeed him. We’re really trying to do church for people who don’t like church or who don’t have a church. We’ve really targeted a post-modern crowd, similar to what New Community has done.
Dubois: What exactly do you do as president of Christian Associates?
Fairbanks: Outside the organization, I’m the president. Inside, we talk about what I do as an advancement team leader. In other words, my role is to make sure we stay true to the vision that we have committed to for church planting, and to continue to push out and develop in different parts of the world. I spend a lot of my time on Skype talking with people who don’t live here. Or I travel and have meetings with people who live in different countries. It’s a great opportunity to be involved in — these are some of the most committed and innovative people that I’ve ever been around. They’re going for it, on the ground, in some of the most difficult mission fields in the world. I don’t know if there’s any place as difficult as some of the urban centers in Western Europe at this time. The percentage of churched is as low as you’re going to find anywhere in the world.
Dubois: How do you think Whitworth has influenced your success?
Fairbanks: Whitworth introduced me to a depth and passion in Christianity that was outside of my smallish world at that time. Something that I discovered at Whitworth was a latent appetite for learning. I started a trajectory of learning while I was here that has not stopped and it continues to get more aggressive as I get older. Then the other thing was exposure to great thinking in Christianity that I hadn’t been exposed to. It was deeply formative for me.
Dubois: What advice do you have for current students?
Fairbanks: First, go to class – it really helps. Second, take advantage of the opportunity to really concentrate on learning, because once you graduate you have lots of other draws and connections. This is the beginning of learning and hopefully you’ll stay aggressively learning until you stop breathing. And enjoy the time – it’s fantastic. For the Christian student, I would say get involved in a community off campus. Embed yourself in a local community that’s not all college students, and a community that will do missions in our city. Often times the bubble is a great learning environment, but it’s tough because you’re not around a diversity of people.