Back in the summer and early fall of 1996 there was a lot going on. I had just made the move to Northeast Tennessee, going to college in the mountains, taking my first steps of what felt like independence and responsibility (being 18 will make it easy to see more in some ways and less in many others.) Kurt Russel had just escaped from L.A., the Macarena was the hot new dance on MTV2 (a brand new channel) and ER was the top watched show on television with Seinfeld, Suddenly Susan and Friends just steps behind.
Brooding, angsty teens in plaid flannel and ripped jeans were everywhere.
Moving into college was fun. I enjoyed it. I was the kid who was always looking forward to being another year older, reaching that next milestone. At 13? I have arrived. I am finally a legitimate human being. At 16? I am a legitimate human being who can drive. At 18, I have graduated high school. I am an adult. I am moving out into the world on my own…with my few close friends, social tendencies to play it safe and regular check-in’s with my parents. I was also going to begin my degree in ministry, Youth Ministry, and that first day on campus I would meet the equally mature and responsible and mature 18 year old woman who would become my wife in a few short years.
Moving to a new town meant leaving behind not just my parents and friends, but also my church family. I grew up in a pretty remarkable church. My dad grew up in that church and my grandpa and grandma had been around at the beginning to see it begin. Ever since the doors had opened, this church had been growing. And I don’t mean by one or two people, like many churches, my home church was growing, growing. By the time I was in elementary school it had already outgrown every inch of its original campus, which is a good sized property, multiple buildings, a gym…you name it. There was off site parking, people coming in by bus, multiple services every weekend. It was hopping.
We moved just down the street to a huge, sprawling campus, bigger buildings and way more parking. It was more, a lot more. and by the time I was graduating high school, that campus was over full, and there was no more room to expand…so they broke ground over on the east side of town, in an undeveloped area next to a small cattle farm. And I grew up in that environment. Excitement, growth, programs, movement, building, campaigns, expansion, excellence…and then I moved in to the foothills of Appalachia, and began my search for the place that would be my new church home for the coming years.
So, at 18 and coming from a megachurch environment, I set my eyes toward the biggest church in town. You can see it from the highway, it’s a featured building, and it’s shaped like a big, white Hersey’s Kiss. You can’t miss it. So, we went to check it out. I think it was the default first church visit for many students at my school, and it probably still is. Apart from the church on campus where you can roll out of bed and just amble your way on down on a Sunday morning, it’s a pretty good draw.
So we went, we attended for a few weeks, maybe two months, and then we moved on wanting to make sure we gave a fair glimpse at some of the 777 churches within 45 minutes of our school. Yes. we were told there were hundreds and hundreds of churches where we could settle in and find our place to serve. The big church seems like it had its ducks in a row, and we did want to go somewhere we could get involved, so we kept looking around. One week here, two weeks there, and we eventually come to a little church about 10 minutes from campus that was in the smaller city on the east side of campus. There was something different about this group. This whole church body was smaller than a single Sunday morning class at my home church, let alone the thousands and thousands of people who gathered for worship each weekend.
But my curiosity was piqued.
So we locked in. About 5 of us decided to make this tiny little church ‘our’ spot each Sunday morning. It was quaint. They sang from hymnals, wore choir robes and had pot-luck meals on a very regular schedule. The people, mostly old, were incredibly friendly, and it was pretty obvious that the minister was sticking to Scripture each week, so doctrinal concerns didn’t exist.
We started attending a class on Sunday mornings, went on Wednesday nights for the spaghetti dinners. It was nice, no pressure, no hustle, just people who loved Jesus loving each other, maybe they were still hanging out in the 1960’s. There was a time warp happening, and I loved it.
Growing up in a church that was growing into a megachurch meant that I didn’t experience a lot of what most people experience in their church communities. Add into that the fact that my family was in leadership, and I was pretty consistently abreast of change, aware of new stuff around the corner. Walking into a church family where change was not the word of the day, and where it was more about maintaining a weekly pace, about having a cohesive community, was a huge difference. And one was not better than the other. It was just different.
In my next post, I’ll lay out how some of the differences came across, and what I learned at 18 that was helpful, and what I learned to look out for…because later that Spring I began my journey on staff at a church. I was 18 and I had no clue what I was doing.