Feature

Let’s Get Real

Authentic relationships are the heart of the Church

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On a nippy spring morning I approached an Alliance church in the eastern part of our fair country with anticipation. I had been asked by the pastor, Mark Jones,* and his wife to help the leaders figure out why they were not retaining visitors. Since I was already in the area for a conference, I was delighted to use my Sunday morning serving this church. I walked into the front door in my oft-worn cowboy boots and was greeted by a tall, rather formidable, middle-aged man whom I assumed was the pastor.

“Are you Mark?” I asked.

“I’m Pastor Jones,” he responded.

I gulped and shook his hand. At 5’10” I’m not petite, but Pastor Jones seemed to tower over me. Clothed in shined shoes, a suit, tie and cuff links, he looked like James Bond. I also quickly decided I was underdressed and this morning was going to be a challenge.

Pastor Jones informed me that I had 15 minutes in the service to talk about the 4/14 Window and kid’s ministry. (See “A Movement Among Us,” alife, Jan. 15, 2012.) He gave me full reign to say whatever I wanted.

I wandered around the church, purposely looking awkward, to see if people would greet me. They did. I looked through the lens of a visitor to see if I could find important things like the restrooms. I couldn’t. I stuck my head into random rooms to discover what they were used for and then headed for the sanctuary.

I sat in a pew and continued my prayer for help that had started the moment I met Pastor Jones: “O Lord, O Lord, O Lord. Wisdom, wisdom, wisdom.” (I lack eloquence when I’m nervous.)

I am always honored when I’m invited into a church. I don’t take that lightly; I don’t take the call of God upon my life lightly either. He has clearly gifted me to speak truth, shed light and call for action on behalf of our little ones.

The 4/14 Window is not a geographical region like the 10/40 Window. It is demographical. Kids aged 4 through 14 are the largest unreached people group in the world. Studies have shown that the United States is among the top 10 countries with the most unreached kids. The window is in our own backyard.

The 4/14 Window is also a call to action. In an era in which the Millennial generation is leaving the church at alarming rates—and grandparents are bringing their grandkids to church—we have to consider ministry differently; we have to rethink how the Church is called to look. The definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Our world is changing, our families are changing and our kids are changing. We as the Church must be willing to change, too—not our truth but our methods.

I sat in my pew in that little church praying for divine wisdom and shaking in my cowboy boots. I knew that whatever I said was going to fly in the face of how this church and its leader had been doing ministry for years.

When Pastor Jones called me forward, I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to say. As I took my first step up on stage God clearly said, You do your thing. For 15 minutes I spoke vision, statistics and truth. I talked about the fifth grade girl I had met at a camp who had been cutting herself, the second grader who was on depression medication and the families who knew “Jesus” only as a flippant profanity, not as a name with power. And I called them to refocus, not just for the sake of our kids but for the sake of the Church.

After I spoke, a 14-year-old girl sought me out. “Miss Mel, I heard you speaking up there about cutting.”

While that was not at all what my message was about, I simply said, “Yes.”

She looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve been considering cutting myself. I have friends who do it, and I think I might start, too.”

Then this sweet girl did something I’ll never forget; she bared her soul to me. “Actually I lie in bed every night with a pillow over my face and try to quit breathing. My dad tried to kill my mom, and I live with my grandma. I hate my life so much I just want to die.”

She went on to tell me her story while tears welled up in my eyes.

Over lunch with the church leadership, I shared many of my observations, promising a full report later. I then told them what the 14-year-old had said. Pastor Jones’s wife whispered in my ear afterward, “Mel, she’s been coming here her whole life and we had no idea that was her story.”

A church full of people who don’t operate as the Church leave students feeling lonely and unsafe. There is no room to face real issues because members are too busy doing they’ve always done. No wonder teens and young adults are leaving in droves. This girl saw a stranger in cowboy boots and thought, I can tell her my story. I can talk to her. Authenticity is always returned with authenticity.

I looked at Pastor Jones, gathered all of my courage and said, “You, sir, are a little intimidating.”

“I am?” he rumbled.

“Um, yes. I suggest that you go a little more casual and lose the suit and possibly even the tie.”

“That’s never going to happen. I don’t preach without my suit and tie.”

Fearing I had lost that battle, I went on to help them see the community outside their church walls. I encouraged them to find their niche and serve their neighbors, suggesting they allow the community to drive their vision instead of being frustrated that the community didn’t adjust to them.

I always ask God for a picture of hope for every church I visit. Honestly, I drove away from this church with the faintest glimmer. That tiny bit of hope was contingent on my guess that in order for God to work, the pastor was going to have to get out of the way. Harsh but true. I just didn’t see Pastor Jones as a man who would, or even could, willingly change.

During the next six months, I heard tidbits from Pastor Jones’s wife but in general had not communicated with the church since I submitted my final report. When I walked into another eastern Alliance church for a day of disciplemaking training, I was shocked to see Pastor Jones. Not only were we not in his state, but we weren’t even in his district. He looked incredibly different, sporting a sweater vest, a giant smile and a nametag that simply said “Mark.”

“Mel,” he said. “We had to come and tell you. You’ve changed our church!”

The leadership had taken my report to heart and followed every suggestion to the letter. From restroom signs, to greeters, to paint—they had done it. Beyond that, they were reaching their community and helping meet basic needs. Mark was talking so fast I could barely keep up. Then he grinned and said, “I even preached without my suit and tie!”

My mouth fell open. “How was it?”

“It was weird.”

During the training, and with Mark’s permission, I spoke about the teen girl at his church. Mark wanted to tell the group “the rest of the story.” There were tears in my eyes as he shared how she had made a complete turnaround. She now loved coming to church and serving alongside the other members. When she accidently put a quarter cup of salt in the mashed potatoes for their community dinner, the group laughed with her and embraced her.

“That,” I told the group as my throat swelled with emotion, “is the Church. That is what this generation needs—authentic communities of faith, where we’re allowed to make mistakes, have doubts and process life with people who love us unconditionally. If you hear nothing else today hear this, ‘Be the Church.’”

The story could end right here and be life changing. But it has a God-ordained twist.
In March 2014 I received an e-mail from Mark with the subject line “It’s all your fault.” I opened it with trepidation—but I had little to fear. In it, Mark told me God was calling him to children’s ministry:

I can’t believe what you have done to me or, better yet, what God has done to me because of you. I have clearly felt the call of God to be a children’s pastor (I never thought I would ever say that). Now I am scrambling to get a Christian education in Christian education. I can’t believe how excited I get when I pray about this.

I came out of the grocery store the other day and there was a little girl, sitting on the sidewalk with her beagle puppy. I asked her the name of her puppy and she told me Annie. As I walked away I felt a pang in my heart, wishing I could tell her about Jesus. That’s when I knew that I was called to be a children’s pastor. So there it is. You have completely won me over. Where it goes from here I hesitate to think.

Isn’t that so like our God? He uses us in ways we could never imagine. Mark was possibly the last person I would expect to make such a drastic change. He is, quite unexpectedly, a different man.

Reaching this generation and raising them up with faith for a lifetime—not just for a season—requires us to have a commitment like Mark’s. Because he was teachable and open to change, God began the work in him. He was quiet enough to hear the heartbeat of his Savior and to realize he could change for the sake of this generation. It took Mark being humble enough to admit there might be a different, even better, way of doing ministry for the church he serves to begin to be the Church.

God is a God of new things, a God of new stories, and yet He’s the same God who in the Gospels indignantly admonished His followers, saying, “Let the children come to me. Do not stop them!” He’s always been a God who has noticed the littlest ones.

May our hearts beat more like the heart of our Father.

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