At six years old, sitting on the couch between my dad and sister, across from my mom who was expecting a baby, I read aloud a letter Dad had written explaining to us that we would be going to a new church where he would be the youth pastor. It was a small church perched on the outside of a bend in a country road, and that church would become my second home for the next sixteen years.
Everyone told my mom she was surely expecting a third girl. But the elderly lady who sat in the same spot in the row behind us for the sixteen years we were there told my mom “You’re having a boy.” She was the only one who was right, and my brother spent the first sixteen years of his life at this church. He learned to walk in that sanctuary with the red carpet, red curtains, and red-cushioned pews. All three of us sang in the children’s choir, had roles in the Christmas plays, went through Discovery Club, slid down the giant plastic “water slide” during VBS, rode the school bus from the hills of Harford County to the mountains of Brevard, North Carolina to camp at the Wilds.
My Sunday School teachers were the sweetest ladies you would ever meet. We went on field trips, and went to their house some Sunday afternoons for swimming or pizza parties. The first time I went to Kilgore Falls was with my 5th-6th grade Sunday School class. We memorized verse after verse, learned the importance of prayer, and listened to our teachers pour out their heart during the lessons.
My love of music and appreciation of hymns began back then. I joined the choir as soon as I was old enough, mostly because the boy I liked was already in it. I had already been singing with my family multiple times a month. I was finding the harmony line while singing in the children’s choir. My family practiced around our old upright piano, Dad and Liz on melody and Mom and I on harmony. Liz and I frequently got to play the piano for the offertory. I sang one of my original songs for the first time when I was fifteen. Even though I started choking at the end and fled the stage in a rush of embarrassment and tears, vowing up and down that I’d never play or sing on my own again, that was just the beginning of facing fears and singing and playing alone.
When I say that church was my second home, I’m not joking. Many weeks, we were there nearly every day at some point. And I loved it. Vacation Bible School week, and the weeks leading up to it, were the best. Everyone came together to make the biggest week of the year a success. Revivals, banquets, decorating for holidays, cleaning – any reason I could find, I wanted to be there, and I wanted to help.
When Dad’s role changed from youth pastor to senior pastor, my parents had lots of conversations with us. “Things will change, some people are leaving, but we are here to serve the Lord.” But I don’t remember much changing. Everyone who stayed continued to be supportive of my family. While I was dealing with a host of angsty, early-teen problems, my church was my constant. When I accepted Christ at age fifteen while at our yearly summer trip to the Wilds, though I made a profession of faith and got baptized at age eight, my church rejoiced with me.
My years in youth group were a roller coaster. I was a bubbly, giggly, hyperactive, homeschooled teenager, whose father was – for a little bit – my youth pastor. There were many, many drives home that went something like, “Bee, if you want people to be your friend, you can’t say/do dumb stuff like that.” My parents didn’t try to squelch my personality, but they also knew I needed to be reigned in. They never said, “You’re a pastor’s kid. Straighten up.” But they lovingly reminded me that we do have a testimony, as believers, and want to make sure we exemplify Christ at all times. I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of little stupid things as a teenager. My parents and my church family loved me through it all.
Throughout little league, insecure high school years, graduation, my first job, and my first boyfriend, my church family encouraged me and prayed for me. I’m so grateful for their faithfulness. We were a small church, but we were definitely a family. So many of these precious people checked in with me frequently. Because we were so small, we knew so much of what was going on in everyone’s lives. I know that type of church isn’t for everyone, and I don’t know that I would want to go back to that, but God knew that was what I needed at that time. I could make my rounds checking in with nearly everyone at almost every service.
When I decided at age nineteen to not go back to college, to quit my job and spend six months in the Caribbean as a missionary-teacher, my church was there to both financially and prayerfully support me, and continued to send cards and care packages while I was away.
When I returned from Grenada, I was abruptly jobless, directionless, and single, and of course profoundly changed. During that season, before heading to fulfill a life-long dream of counseling at camp, God answered two specific prayer needs at that time with my church.
When I returned from camp, deeply affected and in a new relationship with a handsome man from Mississippi that few in my church had met, everyone wanted to hear about my summer (and when the heck they were going to meet this new guy). And then the very day he proposed, we had church that night and Joshua got to announce our engagement to my church family himself.
When I returned from my second summer at camp, this time with my betrothed in tow, everyone couldn’t have been happier about Joshua moving up to Maryland and us starting our new life together.
Though many of the dear ones who prayed for me and enriched my life have since gone home to meet Jesus, I’m thankful for the stories and impact of my church family when was I growing up. From age six through twenty-three, I got to know so many wonderful people. They were flawed, some had rocky pasts, but they loved Jesus. The faithfulness of those members is a rebuke to me even now. As I read Ordinary by Michael Horton, I couldn’t help but think of those dedicated believers who watched me grow up.
My wedding day was the last time I was at the church where I grew up, until I attended the funeral of one of the dearest ladies, back in March: nearly three years to the day since my wedding. I think it very appropriate that those are my last two memories there.
There were challenges. Ministry is hard. (Understatement of the year.) Where there are people, there are problems. But I wouldn’t change any of it. Every instance, every obstacle, every hard conversation has shaped me into who I am today. It breaks my heart that so many of the young people I went to Sunday School, VBS, youth group, or camp with no longer want anything to do with Jesus. I don’t know why that is the case for each of them individually, but I get it.
If I focus on hurt that may be caused by other people, I won’t want anything to do with Jesus either. But He is the reason I do what I do.
He is the reason we went to that church in the first place, twenty years ago. He is the reason my parents chose to stay faithful in spite of unfaithfulness. He is the reason they love the way they do. Because I saw Jesus in my parents, and in many of my church family members growing up, I want to serve Him. I want to walk with Him and be in full-time ministry.
I am who I am today because of God’s grace, and because of choices I’ve made. Many of those choices were made because of how I grew up, and my church was an enormous part of that. It was not perfect by any means, but it was where God had my family for over sixteen years. And for those reasons, I’m grateful for the church that built me.