I spent my teenage years in a small Baptist church in Northern Ontario. When I graduated from high school and left my small town for university, the church gave me, as a going away gift, a copy of the one volume New Bible Commentary. I have it open in front of me here on my desk and am reading the inscription that they wrote in the front cover. It is one of the most treasured books in my library.
They gave me some other gifts though for which I am even more grateful because those gifts helped shape my life. They are gifts that I might have received in any size church but they came more readily from a small church such as the one that I grew up in.
Gift # 1: A place to serve
When I was seventeen, one of our youth leaders came to one of our meetings with an idea. She told us that she thought that we, as young people, should lead one of the Sunday morning services. She thought that it would be good experience for us and a blessing to the adults who attended.
It sounded like an interesting idea but I had one concern. Knowing that I was the most likely candidate to preach if she was thinking that we would take the entire service, I suggested to her she was probably just talking about the service up to the sermon. She replied that she thought that we could do the sermon as well.
With that response I knew that I was going to preach my first sermon at the tender age of seventeen. We had a young woman with a beautiful voice who sang. Another young person played the piano. In some way or other I think that every person in the group was involved.
I still have that first sermon tucked away. Every once in a while I dig it out and read it and shudder at the thought that I preached it. There was no deep content. My exegesis left something to be desired. It wasn’t much of a sermon but in that small church setting they let me preach it anyway.
That summer the leaders in a small rural church asked me if I would preach each Sunday evening throughout the summer months. I agreed. Those sermons weren’t great either but I was gaining experience.
Since those humble beginnings I have preached thousands of sermons. I like to think that I’m a more effective preacher today than I was back then but without the opportunity to preach my first sermon there might never have been a second one.
My wife helped lead a kids club in that same church when she was in her teens. She has spent her life as a pastor’s wife.
The young woman with the beautiful voice spent her adult life as a missionary in Brazil.
My sister who also played piano in that first service spent her life working with a mission organization here in Canada.
Other members of our youth group have served their churches as adults in a variety of ways. That youth group provided us all with our first opportunities to serve.
Gift # 2: A place to be loved
One of my great memories of my teenage years was a day in which my Sunday school teacher took us to his cottage. “Us” were all the boys in his Sunday school class.
Mr. Kelsall was an interesting person. He was someone who had left our small town, been successful and then returned to retire where he grew up. He had succeeded very well having been vice-president of Canadian Pacific Railways. He had a limited education and still carried with him the rough aspects of his childhood.
He was brave enough to invite the four of us teenage boys to spend a day with with him at his cottage. I still remember him stopping at a little country grocery store and asking us what we wanted for lunch. One of the boys jokingly suggested steaks and to our surprise he came out of the store with his hands full of steaks.
I can’t remember what all we did that day but I do remember that our teacher cared enough about us to spend the day with us. I can also remember being invited to his house on a number of occasions just to spend an evening.
He was also the person who asked me to speak each week at the little country church that I mentioned above.
He was just one of many people in that church who cared about me when I was growing up. I was a typical teenager growing up in the sixties with all that that implies. There were times when I don’t think that I was that loving but I never doubted that I was loved.
No young person should ever attend a small church and wonder if there are people who love her. That is a gift that I have carried with me throughout my whole life.
Gift # 3: A place to make mistakes
One of the more vivid memories that I have from my teenage years was a Sunday service in which two brothers played musical instruments in the service. When it came time to play something struck one of the brothers as funny and he began to laugh.
The accompanist stopped playing until he stopped laughing and then tried again. Once again the giggles got the better of him and he couldn’t play. If I remember right he eventually played the piece on the fourth or fifth attempt but it made for a memorable service.
That small church gave all of us as teenagers the opportunity to try and even more important the chance to fail some times when we did try.
When I look back at that particular service, I remember my friend laughing and messing up the music for the morning but even more I remember the people in the church all pulling for him and giving him numerous chances to get it right. I remember people assuring him that everything was okay. He might have messed up but they were glad that he had played.
A small church is family and in a family people make mistakes.
I am so glad that I was part of that family and that they gave me the chance to grow through the mistakes that I made.
What gifts are you giving to your teenagers
There is a certainty that never fails. It happens in every one of the 30,000 churches across Canada. It is just as true today as it was when I was a teenager in that little church in Burks Falls.
Your teenagers are going to grow up and become adults.
Your chance to impact them only lasts for a few years. Whatever you are going to pass on to them, you need to pass on right now because in a couple of years they will be gone. Your chance to influence them will be gone as well.
In most churches that influence is left to chance. If you were to ask most of the adults whether they wanted to be a positive influence on their teens, they would respond right away in the positive. Of course we all want to impact our young people positively.
As much as we want that to happen, we still leave it to chance.
I have to wonder what would happen if churches thought through the impact that they want to have and the ways in which they can make that happen. What would happen if churches were proactive in this regard instead of reactive?
I am so thankful for the gifts mentioned above. That small church had a huge positive impact on my life and I will always be grateful to those people who were part of that.
May all of your young people say the same thing about your church forty-five years after they have moved on to other things.