Zach Nerison was born and raised on Whidbey Island, went to school in Chicago, but when it comes to really growing up, well, that happened in Alaska.
After heading north to adventure after Bible college, he signed onto a big fishing boat but had to be airlifted off when the ship’s captain had a medical emergency. A friend connected him with a family that net-fished from shore, and it was there that Nerison said he learned some important life lessons — like when the family put him on a tractor and told him to haul a thousand pounds of fishing cable to the beach.
“It probably wasn’t the best idea,” Nerison recalls with a laugh. “They said, ‘you’re old enough, you’re responsible — be careful. Get it done.’ I was like a kid when I showed up there, and they definitely helped shape me into the man I’ve become.”
And now, at age 26, Nerison is the pastor at the oldest church in Onalaska, the venerable Presbyterian church commissioned and built by the town’s timber baron founders nearly a century ago.
Longtime members of the congregation say that Nerison has reinvigorated their church, deepening its ties to the community and helping bring in younger attendees.
Two of them are Nerison’s own children, both still in diapers, including a child born this spring.
“I told them I’d bring in young people,” Nerison jokes.
‘He’s Not Afraid to Challenge Us’
Nerison began his service as pastor in Onalaska in August 2018.
His wife, Celina, said the Onalaska community has opened their arms to their young family.
“As soon as we moved here, the whole community was, ‘We’ll be your friend,’” Celina Nerison said. “They’ve been really welcoming. It’s awesome.”
As Nerison marked his one-year anniversary, congregants say he has led them with a three-part vision: making the church a welcoming place for families; helping them apply the Bible to their lives on a practical level; and getting the congregation involved in the community.
“He’s brought life back into the church,” said longtime church member and worship team member Cathy Murphy. “He’s not afraid to challenge us and we need it. He’s been an answer to our prayer.”
Glady Larson, who has been a member of the church for more than 50 years, said she loves seeing more young people coming to church.
“I can’t wait to see the pews full again,” Larson said.
Nerison said he’s focused on expansion in people’s hearts.
“The church is changing a lot, it’s undergoing a lot of growth. Not necessarily in numbers, but people are growing spiritually,” Nerison said.
He’s also trying to combat the idea that the church needs nothing more than a jolt of youthfulness.
“What hurts me about that is they don’t see that God is calling them to the same thing he’s calling me,” Nerison said. “I don’t see them as, ‘you’re old and I need to get young people in here.’ You’re just as capable. You have these huge family networks you can reach out into, you have all these connections to the community.”
Casting Out His Nets
Part of Nerison’s agreement with the church is that he and his family can take a month off each summer to go back to Alaska to replenish his spirit, spend time with his wife’s side of the family (she grew up near where he landed that first summer as a fisherman in Nikiski, Alaska, just north of Kenai) and even make some extra money by rejoining the old fishing crew.
So given that Jesus drew his disciples from the ranks of fishermen, are there Christian insights he gains from his life as a fisherman?
Nerison said that the enterprise of fishing is a group activity, with plenty of time for building relationships and reflecting on the natural world around you.
He added that there are good years and bad years in fishing. You can’t let a poor summer’s catch ruin the rest of your year.
“You have to practice the peace the gospel gives us,” he said.
Ringing the Bells
Services in Onalaska are held in a white-painted church, built from planks made in the town’s once-booming lumber mill. Before each service children are invited to pull the long rope connected to the church’s bell, sending peals across the community.
Nerison, with short hair and a long red beard, gave a recent sermon from the book of Phillipians, delving into the apostle Paul’s hopes that his suffering leads to an advancement of the gospel.
In other sermons he’s been focusing on “praying the scriptures” — composing prayers that aren’t just requests of God, but that are the words of the Bible itself.
“I think people are rediscovering the mysterious side of the church,” Nerison said. “That’s been really neat to watch. ‘Wow, there’s a reason for me to be here.’ We’re here to meet the risen Christ. People have really been receiving that.”
Toward the Future
Ryanne Murfitt, 23, said that several years ago, she was the only member of the church between the age of 10 and 40. She and her husband Gabe, 29, considered leaving, but decided after prayer to stay a little longer at the church that she used to attend with her grandparents, Britt and Florence Haskin.
Now in the past year the Murfitts have become much more involved. She is the church’s youth leader, and he is the worship director. Their son Henry, 14 months, loves to sing along in worship in church.
“My favorite change is seeing more young families come in,” Ryanne Murffit said.
Mike and Kelsey Lause have been attending several times a month for the past half a year. Their 6-year-old son, Ethan, loves the Sunday school, and his parents enjoy the way Nerison preaches, taking a deep look a biblical passages.
“He’s great,” Mike Lause, 41, said. “I don’t really care how old he is — how he explains the different concepts is helpful.”
As he enters his second year, Nerison said he sees himself staying in Onalaska for a long time.
“I think it’s really good to commit to things and stay long-term,” he said. “I think you see a lot of fruit you wouldn’t see otherwise.”
Brian Mittge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.