In September of 2003, I first walked through the doors of Centennial Church in Forest Lake, Minnesota, and found a spot on a metal folding chair. I was an eager, idealistic college freshman. I loved Jesus passionately and wanted to make a difference, and I was looking for a church where I could both grow and serve. The warm welcome and gospel preaching I experienced made me think I’d found a good church for my college years.
I didn’t realize God was planting me in a place where my roots could grow deep for the long haul—and where I’d realize just how much I needed from others.
When people hear that I’ve been at my church for twenty years, they usually comment either that it must be a really great church or that my church must really love me. And while I do think our little congregation is something special, and my family experiences genuine love there, I haven’t stayed because everything’s been wonderful. Our church has seen hard seasons. So have I. I’ve stayed because this is where God has placed me, and because these people have become my family. And in the process, I’ve seen the simply, un-flashy blessings of staying put.
Millennials have been called the job-hopping generation, always looking for better opportunities. This shows up in frequent church-hopping too. My generation is not known for staying put.
Part of this is an “I deserve better” mindset, and part of it is just easier. If you stick around anywhere for the long haul—whether in work, relationships or church—things get hard, and it’s tempting to bail. But repeatedly Christ calls His saints to patient endurance and faithfulness (Rev 13:10, 14:12), and those character traits do not grow when things are quick and easy. The Spirit develops them in my heart in the years of waiting when nothing seems to be happening, the labor of working through misunderstanding and conflict, and the pain of walking with people through suffering and loss. While not pleasant, it is primarily in those seasons that I have learned contentment, patience and trust.
I’ve always wanted an apple tree in my backyard, but I didn’t plant one at my first house. I knew it could be years before it would produce fruit and I wasn’t sure I’d be there long enough to see it. In ministry as well, some fruit can take years—even decades—to show up. (Even then, sometimes it’s hard to see growth.)
One of the blessings of being in one place for 20 years is the fruit that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see. There are students in my youth group whose baby dedications I witnessed. The teenager who graduated, came back as a leader, got married and is parenting their own kids in intentionally gospel-centered ways. The high school senior who taught an expository message one of his last Wednesday nights after sitting under that teaching for so many years. The college student who moved to a different country to do missions work because of the seeds planted from a youth group short-term trip.
Of course, sticking around gives me plenty of opportunities to see the seed that falls on other soil, too. The ones who look like they’re growing in their faith and even leading others and then suddenly fall away. The ones who are excited about Jesus until something of the world catches their eye and chokes their growth. And the ones who hear the Word week after week and it never seems to take root.
But this is exactly what Jesus said would happen, and I remind myself that I’m called to plant seeds; He is the only one who can cause faith to grow (Matt 13:1-23).
The biggest blessing of sticking around is the long-term relationships. I watch the adults who invest in my kids on Sundays, and I’m overwhelmed with thankfulness. Many of these adults are the same people who took me under their wing when I was learning ministry, were witnesses at my wedding, prayed through our years of infertility. Their kids went through my youth ministry. We have a shared history. We can look back together on hard seasons and celebrate how God brought us through—and that increases my confidence in God’s faithfulness in the future.
Of course, relationships can be the most challenging part of church, too. With so many different people, conflict is inevitable. But while disagreements and misunderstandings can be incredibly hard, the process is formative—both for my heart and for the relationship. Reconciliation, after all, is a picture of the gospel (2 Cor 5:18). Our God is a God that reconciles and a God that sticks around.
As we choose to stay in relationship and work through challenges, we become more like Him. Our character is deepened, and often our relationships are, too. A new level of understanding and appreciation can come only after we’ve seen each other care enough to put in the hard work of making things right. I’ve had my perspective broadened and grown in understanding and compassion as I’ve learned from others who are different from me.
When you’re in ministry, it’s easy to have circles where people see only the polished side of you, the side that can teach or write or manage well. It’s nice to be respected in those circles, but God knows it’s not what I need. I’m thankful for my church, where I’m no celebrity, just a sister in Christ. My church family sees my strengths but also knows my weaknesses and burdens. They check in with me in difficult parenting seasons, pray for me when I’m facing tough decisions, cry with me when I receive a hard diagnosis, and gently point out when they see my attitude or actions need correction. It’s been abundantly good for my soul to be in a place where I am known.
Through the seasons
As I reflect on the 20 years I’ve been at Centennial, I’m grateful for the ways I’ve seen God work, both in me and in our church. The years have been marked by varying seasons: times of drought and times of abundance, times of growth, pruning and waiting. This is just life, isn’t it? And it’s the life of Jesus’ church here on earth. People move, and I have to re-create my community. People fall away, and I grieve. Culture changes, and I need to creatively adjust.
All of this happens more than I’d like. But it reminds me that the church has not yet been perfected. There’s a “not yet” in this redemption story. But God has been faithful in all of it, even when I couldn’t see it at the time. And eternity awaits.
Yes, there have been seasons the grass has looked greener elsewhere. (It would sure be nice to have a better location, a bigger youth group, an administrative assistant, easier relationships, etc.) But if I chase greener grass, I’ll probably always be discontent. Instead, I’ve learned to appreciate where I’m planted and to seek the flourishing of this place.
God called me to this place and it’s my family.
In other seasons, when I look outward at “the American evangelical church,” I can grow discouraged. The internet posts seemingly endless stories of moral failures or faith deconstructions; it can make me feel disillusioned about “the Church.” But when I turn my eyes to my particular church—to those I have watched walk faithfully with Jesus for decades, quietly following God’s Word and loving the people around them—I see God’s people at work. My faith is strengthened.
During one particularly hard season in our church, someone asked me why I stayed. I didn’t have a profound reason. God called me to this place and it’s my family. But also, I said, as I study the New Testament, I don’t see any category for people leaving their church simply in search of a better one. There are certainly times God does call people to move on, for His kingdom purposes (Jesus and Paul both lived pretty transient lives—but it wasn’t for their comfort or preferences).
Still, I wonder how much fruit we might see in our lives and churches if we were willing to let God grow our roots a little deeper in one place—however imperfect the place might be.
I hope I have another few decades in this place to find out.
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