I bounced un-tethered on the blue vinyl seat in the back of our 1967 Plymouth Fury as we navigated the gravel drive for the first time. The sound of loose pebbles crunching under the tires of a car would become as familiar as my mother’s lullaby in the 26 years that followed. It led to the first home I remember. A simple abode nestled under the shadow of a steeple topped by a cross that glowed with white neon light.
Built in 1950, in a largely underprivileged community, the tiny pink stucco house trimmed in chocolate-brown with a little church to match was my paradise. It was the fall of 1972 and I was 2 years old. I was blissfully unaware that the meager handful of souls who faithfully sat in the blue theatre seats Sunday after Sunday, could not generate a salary for their pastor, my dad. When my father stood behind the pulpit to deliver the sermon each week, his fingernails were caked in grease from his job as mechanic to the phone company fleet; the gig that paid the bills. Four years later, his fingernails were clean for the first time in my life. Attendance was up and the church was finally self-sustaining. We moved out of the house under the shadow of the neon cross so it could be used for classrooms in the growing Sunday school program.
It can’t be said that our little church ever achieved critical mass, but it was a place where the broken could come for healing, and the outcast could find refuge. It was a place where everyone counted. If you were missing on Sunday and hadn’t told the pastor you’d be gone, you got a personal phone call from him that week to make sure you were okay.
Over the years, my family took in to our home an assortment of folks in need without a second thought. I watched my dad stand firm in our doorway as an abusive husband tried to gain access to the wife we were harboring. My life as an only child was intermittently disrupted when families of five or six found shelter on our sofas, our floor and sometimes even giving up my own bed. I had an older sister for a season when a young woman came to live in our home after her marriage was suddenly and heartbreakingly annulled. I have deep and reverent admiration for my parents because of their generosity. We had very little money, so we gave what we had. We gave our lives to those in need and I think that was a better option.
It wasn’t all beauty and meaning though. It wasn’t always easy to partner with my parents in ministry. What I never noticed as a child, became obvious as I came of age. Our church was small. There weren’t many young people my age. Among my peers at school, it seemed no one had ever heard of our church. The students who were part of the larger youth groups in town had camaraderie that I envied. At an age when it was important to fit in, I felt like I didn’t. At city-wide youth rallies or summer camps where students were representing their respective churches I felt small, insignificant, and frankly a little embarrassed and I am ashamed to admit it. I envied the large circle of friends and support my acquaintances from other churches had. My paradigm had shifted to the self-centered land of teenage-hood and I had lost sight of the big picture.
What I failed to notice, was that lives were being changed for good through the work of our small ministry. People were being delivered from lives of addiction and abuse, others were being called into full-time ministry. If statistics could speak, the percentage of sustained life change as a result of the faithful work done by my parents for God’s glory would vastly overshadow that of the largest churches in town. I understand now why my mother would often quote Zechariah 4:10 “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…”
I just celebrated Easter last week in a stadium where my current church had over 8,000 people in attendance. It was electric and inspiring. Hundreds of people responded to the Gospel message and decided to put their faith in Jesus Christ. Now the staff of this church must figure out how to make personal contact with each of these precious souls to help them begin this new life in Christ. As a former church staffer at a medium-sized church, I know that this is a daunting, almost impossible task. Not so in the life of a small church. Not one soul would be left to flounder and find his/her way on the path of light alone. Coming alongside each other was a natural response to doing life together. I can appreciate the value of the ministry my family poured into the lives entrusted to us. I am honored to have been part of it.
The truth is, I love my ginormous church. I love the resources available to do big things for God. I love the energy exchange every Sunday morning as thousands gather with one mind. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the local church, no matter the size, is its own unique expression of the bride of Christ in the communities they serve and should be respected as such.
Our small ministry built character and humility into my young life. I learned by example what it means to be a living sacrifice. I am fortunate indeed to have grown up under the light of a neon cross in a home filled with love.