Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

By Chris Collins

Nathan Neff has spent most of his life preparing to lead a congregation as its pastor.

In a special service at 7 o'clock tonight at the church where he grew up and attended private school classes taught by his parents, the 32-year-old will be ordained and transition to the role of leading the congregation of the Apostolic Lighthouse Church.

"It's part of our culture," he said of his call to the pulpit. "It's who I am. I grew up loving God and wanting to serve him."

As an apostolic Pentecostal church, the 25 to 30 people who attend regularly are "apostolic in doctrine and we are Pentecostal in experience," Nathan Neff explains.

Members aim to follow the doctrines established by the apostles in the New Testament of the Bible and that includes receiving the Holy Ghost with evidence of speaking in tongues, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ and separating themselves from the world, he said.

Nathan is the oldest of Nate and Gewnett Neff's two sons. Brian, 31, lives at Billings, Mont., where he works as an estimator for an electrical company.

The 59-year-old Nate Neff, who passed the 25-year mark as pastor of the Lighthouse Church at Seventh and Broadway streets on April 10, said his son began preparing for the transition about two years ago.

And while Nate won't actually be retiring, he'll serve the Lighthouse Church in a different capacity in the future. He will oversee his son's work in the role of bishop and he and his wife will travel toother apostolic Pentecostal churches.

Nate also lectures at the Apostolic School of Theology in Sacramento, Calif., where Nathan attended for two years as part of his preparation to be ordained. Nate's lectures are recorded and posted online as part of the School of Theology's instruction.

Nate says he strongly encouraged his son when he expressed an interest in following in his father's footsteps.

"It definitely was a delight to me," he says.

Nathan has been involved with the congregation he will be leading for the past 11 years. During that time he also served in the National Guard as a medic and served a year in Iraq (he has since left the military after 13 years, attaining the rank of captain).

He also completed a nursing degree through Oregon Health and Sciences University at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in 2007 and works as a surgical nurse at St. Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City.

Nathan and his wife, Kristin, have four children: Briana, who'll turn 11 in November; Gentry, who turned 10 in September; Cole, 6; and Logan, 5. They are home schooled by Nathan's mother.

Nate says his son is well prepared for the transition to pastor.

"He has developed a strong rapport with and support from the people and definitely has their respect," he said.

Nathan and Kristin and the elder Neffs lead worship with music and song in a weekly Wednesday night service and a morning and evening service each Sunday. Nathan, Kristin and Nate sing as a trio, with accompaniment from Nate on keyboard and Gewnett on drums.

The music is lively as evidenced by a father-son display of their talent during the interview for this story with a run through the gospel hymn "I'll Just Throw Up My Hands."

"We have a good time," Nate Neff said afterward.

The elder Neff grew up in Bend and heard God's call as a teenager after trouble in the church he attended with his family caused a split in the congregation.

"I had a definite experience," he recalls. "As I was praying, the spirt of God moved on me.

"From that point on ... I began to feel like I needed to start helping people," he said.

He and Gewnett, who was leading a church youth group in Eugene when they met, married when both were 24 and headed to Portland. Nate served as an associate pastor there with Paul Dugas of the Abundant Life Church, who had been a Bible college instructor.

"He became my boot camp," Neff said. "He was a father in the Lord to me and a father figure.

"He was a tremendous man who was able to get me on track and build me."

The Neffs served in all aspects of the Portland church, including driving buses through the housing developments of the crime-ridden neighborhoods of north Portland where gangs operated.

After 8? years, Neff said he "began to feel like it was time to go and start a church."

He and his family traveled to different communities in Oregon, from Newport to Newberg and Madras, before deciding Baker City was where they needed to be.

"We checked out real estate and did our research," Nate said. "We were depending on God, but in city after city it wasn't right. I didn't feel a burden for that place."

A trip to John Day to visit his wife's parents brought them to Baker City and the chamber of commerce office.

"I came out and said 'This is it. I know. I feel it. This is where we need to be.' I knew the spirit of God was right there in the car."

The church organization paid for the price of the U-Haul to move the family from Portland and the Neffs headed to Baker City with their two boys, who were 6 and 7 at the time.

"From there it was sink or swim," Nate said. "I didn't know anybody. I didn't have a job."

They rented a house and by June they were conducting services in their living room.

By then, Nate had started working for the former Baker City business Rouse's Home Furnishings where he made deliveries and installed appliances.

After a year of worshipping in their home, the church moved to a small storefront on Dewey Avenue, which housed a barber shop next door.

And in 1990, the handful of people in the congregation made the move to the present site at 2085 Seventh St. Neff and his wife and another man painted the building "from top to bottom" and insurance covered the repairs needed after a leaky roof had sent water through the ceiling and onto the floor.

Neff worked in construction and built cabinets to bring in money and the church conducted fundraisers.

"We sold pizzas, peanut brittle, a variety of things," he says.

In 1993, the church opened a Christian school, starting with eight students and growing to as many as 35. In the aftermath of the mill shutdown, enrollment declined and the school eventually closed.

This fall's transition has brought a resurgence to the church, the Neffs say, with 13 people "receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost since April."

They look forward to welcoming new members and believe their skills will complement each other.

"We've been doing this for a long enough period now - I know him and he knows me," Nathan says. "We're total opposites. He's easygoing, and while I consider myself a nice person, I'm not easygoing."

Nate says in the past he had looked to others to bring the evangelistic exuberance that Nathan possesses to the congregation.

"I needed someone who could get down and get to the heart," Nate said. "As time developed, it became apparent that this was the direction for him. That's where God's calling was."

The church's motto challenges the community to "Come and Experience the Power of Pentecost" with a mantra of "Going Beyond," Nathan says.

"Going beyond today and looking to the future," he said. "Getting people to go beyond what they can do on their own and into a relationship with God."