(Originally posted May 2016)
Last summer we had the opportunity to visit one of Tim’s favorite childhood spots – Sand Bar State Park in northern Vermont. This park, built on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain, offers a very unique and memorable swimming experience.
The water in this area, which would normally be around 150 feet deep, was naturally filled over time with sediment from the Lamoille River as it drained into the lake. The resulting wide area of shallow water makes the swimming area perfect for small children (and people like me who don’t like to get wet!).
As you take a few steps into the water, your brain automatically expects it to get deeper, but you keep going and it barely seems to change at all. It’s a crazy feeling to walk a hundred feet off the shore and still be only a few feet deep!
Last week I had the incredible opportunity to attend a children and student ministries conference in Atlanta, GA. One of my favorite sessions was led by Pastor Andy Stanley as he shared about how the church saved his life.*
In his message, he explained that it wasn’t one message, one program, or one person that made the difference for him – but rather the cumulative effect of many years of being influenced by his church as he grew up. Andy shared that the church informed his conscience and view of God, showed him that his life had purpose, helped him form lifelong friendships, gave him a window into God’s activity in the world, and taught him generosity.
Some of my earliest childhood memories have to do with church. Every Sunday, even in the crazy infant and preschool years, my mom would pack us up and we would spend all morning singing Bible songs, going to Sunday School classes, trying to stay quiet in church, and hoping it was a “coffee hour” Sunday (because that meant one thing: baked goods.)
As I reached my late teen years, though, I began to see a Christian world outside of my small-town church and became increasingly discontent with where God had put me. I saw newer worship styles, heard more relevant messages, and met people my age who shared my beliefs. I suddenly felt that for all those years I had been missing out, so I wanted out.
But, 20 years later and now, as a parent myself, I, like Andy Stanley, look back and realize that God used that imperfect little congregation to save my life! It wasn’t one dramatic drop-off into the deep-end moment – but gradual, step by step, week by week, almost imperceptible changes in my growing heart and mind.
So thank you, First Baptist Church of South Londonderry, for informing my conscience and my view of God. Thank you for teaching me the same Bible stories over and over again and for making me memorize John 3:16 and Psalm 23. Thank you for teaching me that, “Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above; Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Savior’s love”** and for showing me that it was possible to forgive just as I had been forgiven.
Thank you, First Baptist, for showing me that my life had a purpose beyond myself. Thank you for telling me the stories of men and women who gave their whole lives to serving God – and for encouraging me to take steps toward that life. And thanks for letting the students take over that service that one Sunday where I gave my first message 😉
Thank you, First Baptist, for faithfully putting your tithes and offerings in those little envelopes so that I could go to summer camp, where I met people my age who loved Jesus, too. Thank you for giving so that I could be surrounded with friends who showed me what a personal relationship with God could look like at my age.
Thank you, First Baptist, for teaching me that “Jesus loves the little children of the world,” and for showing me pictures of a world in need – not just to open my eyes to their plight, but to show me that I could do something to help.
And thank you, First Baptist, for planting in me seeds of generosity that helped me understand that love was meant to be given away.
In Ezekiel 47, the prophet is shown a vision of a river, flowing out of the temple – the place where the Spirit of God was known to dwell. As he is led to walk through this river, he points out that after 1,000 cubits (about 1/3 of a mile) the water is only ankle-deep. Then after another thousand it’s still only knee-deep. After another thousand it’s now waist deep. And then another thousand cubits later, the water is finally over-his-head deep.
Like walking into the Lake Champlain sand bar, the depth increase would be so gradual it would be almost impossible to feel the difference from one step to the next. But over time the river grows to fullness and in the end it “enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” (Ezekiel 47:8-9)
As Spirit-filled believers, we have rivers of life flowing out of us – and when we pour into the lives of children and students, we have the potential to save lives. It may not feel like you’re making a difference because the effect is so gradual – I’m sure there were times when my Sunday School teachers thought that nothing was sinking in, but it was. The fresh waters of the Spirit flowing through people like you into the hearts of the next generation has the potential for so much life.
You don’t have to be a superstar, you just need to show up. You don’t need to create the best church, you just need to be the church. You don’t even need to work directly with kids if they’re not your thing – you can give financially to ministry activities, support parents, or just be an example of what it looks like to be a growing follower of Jesus.
The love and support of an active, involved local church congregation could change everything for a child. It did for this one and I will be eternally grateful.
*Andy Stanley, Orange Conference 2016, “Save A Life”
**”Wide, Wide As The Ocean”, C.A. Miles, 1914