When I was in grade school, a young couple, Rich and Cheri, were hired to pastor the youth at our little First Baptist Church. They were students at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, and in exchange for housing, they served part-time at our church.
As a part of their job, they would hold a children's church service every Sunday morning in our slightly mildewed church basement. I don't remember if we were dismissed from the adult service entirely or were sent down just before the sermon, I do remember that we loved it.
The group of about 30 kids, kindergarten to 6th grade, would rush down the linoleum steps as quickly as we could to take our place in the rows of metal folding chairs. They were arranged like a mini-sanctuary with a wobbly wooden podium front and center, the upright piano pushed to the right. We were squirmy and energetic, a hum of nervous energy in ruffled bobby socks and clip-on neckties.
Cheri would get us started with the singing. We had plenty of audience participation songs "Stop! and let me tell you" was one of our favorites. Volunteers would hold up the cardboard STOP and GO signs as we sang along to the peppy tune. Sometimes I would try to accompany the group with my limited piano skills, stopping and starting as I hit the wrong notes.
As kids, we were encouraged to participate in all parts of the service. We sang solos, played piano or our new school instrument, and passed the offering plate. Rich would give us a mini-sermon. Cheri would help us memorize a Bible verse - wiping away words on a blackboard as we tried to remember the disappearing sentence. We would have "sword drills", struggling to find the location of Bible verses in our King James Bibles. If we won a contest, we would "fish" for prizes behind a blue sheet with an actual pole. They were imaginative and fun, but it was still in the style of church.
Our favorite part was at the end of the service when they revealed who had been sitting in the "quiet chair." They had selected one seat in the "audience"...if you had been in that seat AND had also been quiet and well-behaved, you received a beautifully-wrapped present. If not, well....I don't remember that part.
Rich and Cheri inspired us because they took us seriously and helped us learn to "do" church. They taught us that we were the church, we didn't just attend it. We were a part of it, included. They modeled Christ to me, even at a young age.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Rich on the phone. I am in my late 40s, and Rich and Cheri now have grown children and grandchildren. I work at a Bible college, the same college from where they graduated, and they were just about ready to head back to the mission field. They have served in the Philippines and now are teaching and leading the church in the Ukraine. Rich is teaching the local church about the role of missions. He said some of the pastors are learning about evangelizing outside of their home country for the first time. Cheri has hosted the first-ever women's conferences in the Ukraine, spreading over the borders into neighboring countries. Women are hungry for that encouragement and the fellowship of other Christian leaders.
They are serving God and returning to the Ukraine, even during a time of fighting and persecution. They realize that their task this year won't be easy.
As I listened to that same calm voice that had spoken of God and the church to me so many years ago, I was profoundly thankful. I am glad God sent Rich and Cheri into my life at such a young age. I am glad they took the time to invest in children who grew up to care about Jesus and taught me that the church is so much more than just a building. I am glad He has honored their lives of service and that they are still serving God so well today.
I want to be like them when I grow up.
They truly represent Church to me.