Zero visitors in eighteen months.
Not a good statistic for a congregation, but that was our reality at Escalon Covenant Church after I was installed as Pastor in 1985. The article introducing me in the Escalon Times weekly newspaper could not overcome the talk around town – that church is circling the drain.
The good news? No one was leaving. But neither was anyone motivated to take their first walk up the ten stairs to the sanctuary.
We were averaging thirty-five gifted and generous people on Sundays, but the savings account was on life-support. One morning, when twenty of us gathered including some children, we moved the chairs into a circle for our worship service. A prophetic move, you might say – we needed to take a hard look at ourselves and at our future.
In May 1987, the church council made two decisions. If the current trend continued, we would close our doors at the end of the year. More importantly, we encouraged the congregation to pray – both individually and in groups – for our numbers to increase.
If you read my last post, you know the church did not close. Less than two weeks after our call to prayer, Harry Smith joined us in worship. The following week, Jeanette Devecchio, a mom with two young boys, began her journey with us. Two weeks after that we welcomed the Veldstra family, Rick and Janet and their three sons. Each of these dear friends – and many others that followed – participated in the life of the church for years.
As you might imagine, we were a lighthearted fellowship during the summer and fall of that year. But I believe that rejoicing – our prayers are answered! – is best accompanied by reflecting – what just happened?
Our people had been praying for months prior to the council’s call; what broke free the logjam of visitors? God could have brought us new members anytime. Was there a lesson for congregation?
This week’s post will be a learning laboratory on prayer, as I share three more instances over the course of the next ten years where we could trace God’s active hand on our congregational life. We’ll do some in-depth reflecting about these events at the conclusion of my post, but here’s a short summary: Prayer is an interaction to which we are invited to engage with our benevolent and wise father. It is much more than an action we undertake, simply following the prescribed steps.
Here’s my shorter summary: seek God’s face always.
The second lesson in prayer came just a couple of years later. Our weekly attendance had reached around eighty people, which allowed us to expand our ministries to children, youth, and the community. But the troops were tired and needed reinforcements.
Once again, we called the church to prayer. But this time we got specific. We needed some mature believers who were ready and able to shoulder the load and shore up the budget. Lord, please bring us three new families.
God’s response to our prayers? How about six?
Just three days after our prayer gathering, Grant Thompson, a friend and civic leader in the community called and asked to meet with me. Over lunch he shared his story and sought my counsel.
Grant’s family, and several others, attended a congregation in a small farming community ten miles north of Escalon. The leadership of the mainline denomination that had nurtured his family for generations was advocating for changes that the Thompsons did not feel were aligned with God’s best plans for his people. Grant shared his heart: We’re thinking about joining your congregation; what should we do?
In my best pastoral demeanor, I resisted the temptation to shout boy howdy! The door is open! I knew that one congregation’s joys can be another one’s sorrows, so I didn’t tell him straight out about our recent prayer meeting. I encouraged him, and the other families he represented, to consider their steps carefully and speak candidly with their pastor.
Over the course of the next couple of months, Escalon Covenant Church welcomed those six family units, which brought new energy to our fellowship. Over the course of the next year, our worship attendance grew to one hundred and fifty. We added a second service, as the sanctuary was pretty small.
I was quick to lead the congregation in praise for the wonderful answers to our prayers, keeping in mind the Psalmist’s declaration: I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly. *
But I did conceal something else, a private reason for some of my joy. I’m outta here! I had long figured that if the congregation could get to stable place, they could survive a pastoral change. In my estimation, that time had come. As you may remember, I was fluent in Christianese, so I imagined myself in a few months saying these words: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Escalon, but I have now received a call from the Lord to serve another congregation.
I’m not sure how much “prayer” went into my deliberations, but I remember vividly the events that followed. I called Dotty Anderson at the denominational offices and asked her to send me a floppy disk upon which I could enter my pastoral profile. (Remember, this was the early 1990’s). Three weeks later I hadn’t received the disk, so I called her back. We assumed it got lost in the mail, so she promised to send me another one.
Nope. I could understand the disk being lost once, but twice? That’s where the prayers started. What’s up, God? I’ve done what you asked me to do. I’ve been here about six years. Do you want me to stay? If so, why?
That last question was crucial, one for which I already knew the answer. Back in the 1960’s, the congregation had tried to move out of their impractical and oddly constructed facility – the parking lot had only six spaces, and the interior stairs were too steep – but the land purchase fell through. I felt responsible for carrying the church all the way through to a new day – purchasing land and building facilities – which meant the Wiele family would be parked on the steppingstone named Escalon for a long time.
I was committed to keeping the church centrally located. However, finding a parcel of five to seven acres to build on was a problem. Escalon is not a big city, encompassing just less than 2.5 square miles within the city limits. I was firmly opposed to having the church relocate to an orchard somewhere outside of town. I even had some theological justification for my stubbornness.**
Years passed, many prayers were lifted, the church celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, and average attendance topped the two-hundred mark, but it wasn’t until around 1997 that we had enough capital to consider buying land.
One day, on a whim, I approached veterinarian Max Palmer about his fourteen-acre parcel in the heart of town, directly across Escalon Avenue from the high school football field and parking lot. I asked Max if he would sell half of his land to the church. He was firm; yes, he would sell, but would not split it up. He asked me to get the entire lot appraised, and that would be his price.
That’s where things got interesting. I discovered something that Max had not realized. Several years prior the City Council had designated his undeveloped property as an urban preserve for an endangered hawk, which reduced the value of his land by more than fifty percent.
Bad news for Max, but a windfall for the church. Instead of his land being worth the going rate of $50,000/acre, we paid approximately $22,500/acre, including a signed agreement with the city that the church would contribute to a reserve fund for any of the acreage that we developed. We purchased fourteen acres of land for less than the price of seven. Wow.
On January 28, 2001 we held our first service in our new facilities, and I remained with the church until July 2005. I am incredibly blessed to have been entrusted by God to serve the congregation and the surrounding community for those wonderful twenty years, more than half of my years in the pastoral ministry.
So, let’s talk about prayer. Can you see why I call prayer an interaction to which we are invited to engage? God was intimately and creatively working with our congregation in more ways than we ever knew, and every few years he gave us a little glimpse of his involvement on our behalf.
Life with God is supposed to have everything we experienced: unanswered questions, unfiltered protests, never-ending gratitude, overwhelming joy, mind-boggling dilemmas, and most of all, open hands to receive unimagined possibilities.
But if we’re not careful, our prayers can become narrow and formulaic, akin to placing an online order with a celestial provider. We decide on our preferences and hit the submit button … with a spirit of humility, of course. Please, God, if it be your will. If our request goes viral -- our family, friends and church submit the same order – then there’s a greater likelihood your prayers will be answer. Snap your finger – the order is filled.
No. No. No. Yes, pray without ceasing. Yes, enlist friends and family to pray with you. But no, we must not box God into our prayer formulas, where we know what we want and convince ourselves we have the faith to make it happen.
Why have I shared these instances? Because maybe, just maybe you will draw a straight line to connect our experiences as a congregation with the puzzling predicaments and the heart-wrenching decisions of your life. All those verses from the Bible are true and good – God will direct your paths. But it happens with the shepherd walking beside you in the darkest valleys, not with well-marked streets and road maps.
Yes, he loves it when you pray. But may you know that he’s actively working even before you start and will continue to work when you’re done, or you give up. You may not get what you want, but you will get something better – a tender hand by your side for the rest of your life.
Just open your hands and receive.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21
Benediction of Blessing
May God give you the grace to believe the truth of God’s love for you and his commitment to walk with you through life.
May you say yes to his invitation to interact with him in every sliver and corner of your life.
May you grow in your ability to seek God’s face and trust your benevolent father’s plans for your life, your family, your work and your church.
* (Psalm 40:10)
** The Word became human and made his home among us. (John 1:14 New Living Translation). This is incarnational theology, choosing to dwell among the people God loves. I believe it is also Jesus’ model for the church to follow: live among and serve the people.
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM