I was sixteen.
Up to this point, I had regularly attended church despite my best efforts to conveniently be sick on the Sabbath. Every Sunday my parents would funnel my brother and me in to remotely nice clothes, and usher the family to church. It was a small church with a big heart, but as a kid with wild dreams, a congregation made up primarily of women above the age of 75 did not interest me in the least. I was confident in my knowledge of God, and agreed with most, that Jesus did in fact sacrifice his life in order to absolve my wrongs, but there was a prominent issue with my outlook. I in no way had a relationship with Jesus. I could tell you the stories in the Bible, no different than I could tell you how osmosis works, or even recite the opening paragraph of “A Tale of Two Cities.” For me, it was simply knowledge and nothing more. I saw the people around me with their hands lifted toward the sky, and some even spoke in tongues. I distinctly remember a man who was so passionate about Jesus, that he began to run atop the pews in the sanctuary. I have memories of a pastor who, when people would go down for prayer, would push their head back until their equilibrium gave way, and they would “fall out in the Spirit.” None of this interested me. I was a literal thinker in a spiritual world, and up to this point, those two things had not learned to cooperate with one another.
Like many, I saw the hypocrisy of people’s actions Monday through Saturday, only to see them back “praising the Lord” on Sunday. The youth group at the church was very small. Maybe there were twelve kids in attendance on a Sunday, which was thought to be a success. Of those twelve, one impregnated another; multiple got drunk on the weekends; and it was one of the most inclusive groups I have ever come across. With a sense of arrogance, I took issue with this. At school, I was well thought of. Everyone knew who I was, yet I would come to church and feel like an outsider. Now let me first clarify, I WAS NOT PERFECT. Actually, I was quite imperfect. I would go to parties, dated way too many girls, and tended to be quite inclusive myself, at least with my group of friends. Basically, I was judging them for living the same life as myself. I could write an entire book (as could you probably) on the irony of how we judge others, yet overlook our own flaws, but that’s not what this is about. I just wanted to get across the mental state I was in at the time.
Full of frustration, I went to my parents to have a talk. The initial problem here was that I didn’t care what they had to say back, I was only interested in having them hear me. It went something like this:
“I hate that church. It’s obvious to me why people don’t want to become Christians because that place sucks. The people are jerks, they are all fake, and I NEVER want to go back. There are two options: We can continue to attend that church and let my bitterness grow, where when I turn eighteen, I will NEVER step foot in another church, OR we can try to find a new church, with normal teenagers who I can relate to, and that isn’t so small that I can tell you everyone’s middle name.”
As soon as I had said all of this, the ramifications of my words began to flow through my head. Was I going to get slapped? Was it time for a lecture? Are they ever going to speak?
My parents sat there silently for a moment. My mom looked at me and, with hurt in her eyes, said, “We will try a new church next Sunday.”
I didn’t know how to respond. This isn’t what I had expected. I was only a kid. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember what I said next. It all still seems like a blur in my mind, but I know for sure that we were at a new church the very next week.
We drove twenty miles west, to the outskirts of Dallas to try a church my parents had heard of, but when we arrived, the service had already started. They didn’t want to go in late, so we decided to try another church not too far from there that my aunt attended. We walked in, and immediately this church was different. First of all, it was in a gym. I mean, they had raised the basketball goals up, and chairs lined the floor, but you could still see the three-point line. On the far side of the “sanctugym” was a stage lined with instruments. The lighting was dimmer than I was used to, and banners hung on all four walls.
I began to look around at the people. I saw families. Moms and Dads in their thirties and forties with kids, and not just little kids, but there were teenagers too. In fact, the first seven rows in the middle were filled with teenagers, probably forty or fifty if I had to guess. The service hadn’t started, and many people were still jauntily bouncing around and saying their “Hellos.” Keep in mind; I have made all of these observations in about twenty seconds. As we take our next few steps, we too are now directly in the crossfire of the jubilant bunch. People came from every direction to welcome us, shake our hands, or even go a tad too far, and hug us upon first meeting. While I could have lived without the hugs, one thing was for sure: I felt welcomed.
We took a seat towards the back, and the band began to play. This wasn’t what I was used to. This song wasn’t from the “Hymns of Glorious Praise.” Matter of fact, this wasn’t a hymn at all. It was upbeat, and wait, is that what I think it is? Yep, there was a guitar solo, and it sounded like rock music. Just to clarify, not so much Metallica rock, probably closer to Phil Collins, but when you are accustomed to hearing old women sing off-key, this was pretty amazing!
After the worship portion of the service concluded, the pastor’s wife took the stage and made some announcements about upcoming events and so forth; pretty standard stuff. I haven’t really mentioned the size of the church yet, but I would guess that there were close to five or six hundred people in this service, which is important for what happens next. The pastor took the stage, and before he began to preach, he scans the crowd:
“Well it sure is good to see Bobbie Kay’s family here today.”
Those were his words. Bobbie Kay was my aunt. He scanned a room full of hundreds of people, and took notice of us being there for the first time. I was impressed. It almost seemed superhuman to me. Twelve years later, in a church of two thousand, he still does this, and I still don’t understand his sense of awareness.
So the pastor preached a message good enough for me to remember it positively, and I definitely had liked what I had seen so far. After service, we were headed out the door, and a guy who looked my age, chased me down and said something along these lines, “Hey bro, my name’s Steve. I was going to see if you wanted to play football with us this afternoon.” Being a teenager, I gave the obvious answer, “Uhhhh… maybe.”
I really didn’t know how else to react because I had not seen that coming. Truth be told, I was ecstatic at the thought, although I was a little nervous, which was unlike me. I was out of my element I suppose, which was probably a good thing. We went home as a family and had lunch together, and I think my parents could see the difference instantly. For the first time, I wanted to be back at church, and I had just left. When I made my way back out for the football game, there was a group of probably eighteen guys, and we had a blast. For two straight hours we played smash mouth, full speed, tackle football. Some of you may read that and think it sounds idiotic, and maybe it was, but I loved every second of it.
I went home later that evening feeling a sense of fulfillment. I felt as if I had just experienced something that I wanted to be a part of, and in doing so, I dove head first into intertwining myself with this church and the amazing people who comprised it. The love of Jesus had made itself known to me through a particular gathering of His people, which resulted in my life shifting course. My knowledge of God became practical, and at a youth retreat a couple of months later, I felt the Holy Spirit’s presence for the first time. It wasn’t condemnation or some ‘inner voice’, although the Holy Spirit has that ability as well; it was a warm feeling of being loved by my creator, and reciprocating that love with my hands raised and tears flowing down my face. God had used this transitional period, which seemed as if it came from some sort of rebellious act, to forever alter the lives of my family and myself.