I remember when I was a student pastor (we called them youth pastors in 2006) and I was taking my students to a district youth rally in a small rural town called Unionville in middle Tennessee. I was quite the hotshot in the denomination I was saved in and had a pretty large group, especially for the size of our church. I was the tattooed, ex-punk, rock-star-turned-youth pastor, and I kind of reveled in that identity.
As we got to the rally, we went in for the service with maybe twenty or so other churches from our district and had an energetic worship night with some preaching at the end. I met some of the other youth ministers, one being the host youth pastor from the Pentecostal church in Unionville that was only a fraction of the size of my home church. Yet, oddly enough, the youth pastor of this smaller church had a huge group of middle- and high-school-aged kids! Not just that; he was a complete nerd! He was going bald, he tucked his t-shirt into his jeans, and he couldn’t play sports worth a flip at the after party in the gym following the service.
But as I watched this nerdy, uncoordinated student pastor with his kids, God convicted me and taught me a huge lesson that night. This guy was deeply involved in the lives of his students. He embraced his nerdiness, and the kids loved him! The visitors that his students had brought were magnetized to him, and God was using him in an amazing way. I was stunned and humbled that night. This guy wasn’t trying to be anything other than what God made him to be, and it was working!
“This guy wasn’t trying to be anything other than what God made him to be, and it was working!”
I learned a lot of good lessons that night:
- God can use anyone that is humble and willing.
- Most people don’t care how cool you are; they just want to be loved and valued.
- Loving people in a biblical way will lead them to Christ. We think we know that, but we don’t live it!
We work with several churches in New England, an area of this country that has less church participation and affiliation with Christianity than anywhere else in America, sometimes getting as low as 1 percent church attendance. As we have worked with these churches for the last six years or so, the excuses some of the churches give us for their lack of growth sometimes frustrate me. I love this area very much, but we have even parted ways with several churches because of their lack of desire to do things differently. And though we pick up new churches to support in New England, it can be difficult to find leaders who are humble enough to listen to outside suggestions.
We would often hear things like, “Well, this is New England, and it is tough up here.” To be fair, these areas are extremely difficult. It can be a very slow burn approach as it requires a lot of relationship building over a long period of time.
“Most people don’t care how cool you are; they just want to be loved and valued.”
But didn’t the gospel spread in Greece and Asia Minor, and eventually become the official religion of the Roman Empire? I think God can work in any area, but I also understand that growth is relative depending on where one plants a church. Nonetheless, the point remains the same: healthy organisms grow regardless of the location. The biggest problem wasn’t the city in which these churches were planted, but the mindset of the individuals leading those congregations.
As I would interact with the pastors of New England churches in restaurants and as we walked around their cities, I would observe their interactions, or lack thereof. I noticed that I would engage with and get to know more people than they did. Not only were many of these church leaders isolated in public, but their lay leaders and congregations also lacked the drive to create conversations that opened up doors for people to become disciples of Jesus.
I would often get dumbfounded when we would go to a local coffee shop and whereas I was the one creating conversations with the baristas, the senior pastor wouldn’t even introduce himself. How can a church possibly grow without the pastor leading the charge of engaging with the community?
“How can a church possibly grow without the pastor leading the charge of engaging with the community?”
One of the most interesting relationships I created was in Salem, Massachusetts, after I visited the Satanic Temple. I took three of my team members and the pastor from the church in Salem with me to the temple because I have studied the occult extensively and because I wanted to see the reason for all the uproar about this temple.
While in the temple, I got to know the curator. We talked for about thirty minutes about all kinds of things, and of course about how he became a part of the Satanic movement. I told him what I did for a living, which made him laugh out loud. I also told him how confused my accountant at the church would be when she saw the receipt from the Satanic Temple. He didn’t drop to his knees in repentance, he didn’t accept Christ on the spot, but a connection between us was made.
A couple of months later, I was back in Salem to talk with some board members from the church there and help them do some strategizing. Before our meeting I wanted to get some coffee at my favorite little coffee spot in the area. As I was sipping my drink, my new Satanic friend walked in, instantly saw me, and said, “Hey! The pastor from Tennessee!”
I laughed and said, “Hey! The Satan guy from Salem!”
“My new Satanic friend walked in, instantly saw me, and said, ‘Hey! The pastor from Tennessee!'”
What happened in that moment was that this confused young man learned that not all Christians scream at gay people on the streets of Salem during Halloween. What he learned is that some of us are not afraid to engage with people vastly different from us. Some of us even laugh with diametrically opposed people. For some reason we have created a narrative in our culture, both Christian and secular, that we cannot be friendly with people we disagree with. I find this not only troubling but antithetical to the teachings of Christ.
It goes almost without saying that the American church has gone through some tumultuous times in the years that our church, The Experience, has existed. So we started to ask ourselves, as others were asking us as well, What can we contribute to the conversation as to why the church seems to be in such disarray? Though I don’t profess to know all the answers, I have learned through our own tumultuous times that:
- Genuinely loving others, even the most extreme of people, honors God and opens the door for them to have a relationship with him.
- We cannot compromise our biblical integrity for the sake of being accepted. Compromising theology will never lead people into an authentic relationship with Christ. In fact, it will set them up for failure and discouragement.
“Genuinely loving others, even the most extreme of people, honors God and opens the door for them to have a relationship with him.”
Though it may take much work and diligence, we believe that with God’s grace and guidance, any church can become a place that both welcomes the lost and stands strong in biblical integrity.
Excerpted from Corey Trimble, An Authentic Experience: Creating an Inviting Culture with Biblical Integrity (Renew.org, 2020).