Each semester, Christian college students venture out into the world to find a church. For students with a calling to be future pastors, they’re looking for a place to get mentored, something to add to the resume and maybe a networking connection. Likewise, my friends and I visited various churches but nothing felt quite right until my friend Sara told us of a church where she was involved. She started playing piano during the worship services at a little church called Westside Assembly of God. When we asked her what the church is like, she responded “it’s full of old people, and I love it!” She told us how she felt something special while approaching the building even before she entered. Somehow, this felt like home. She was met with open arms and before you know it, she was playing piano every Sunday.
Westside Assembly of God was not unlike many older churches in America that decline in attendance each year. It wasn’t quite in the country but still felt out of the way. It was a simple rectangular building with a parking lot that could fit about 15 cars. The pastor and the congregation were all in their elder years and there were no children or teenagers. A typical Sunday service had about 8-10 people. That is, until the semester that a group of college kids showed up to get involved. By the time I began attending, Sara and some others had started an outreach to the local community and a weekly children’s program as well as a youth service. Our friend Matt became the worship leader and got a bunch of us to join the band. Every Sunday, those same 8-10 old folks now were joined by college students, teens and children. They sang along as Matt lead the congregation in modern rock praise and worship songs and old hymns set to the music of U2 and Radiohead. But there was still the occasional special song by Sister Betsy. One Sunday, she got up to sing and asked Sara if she knew “The Pentecostal ABC’s.” Sara just shrugged, and then watched as Sister Betsy grabbed the mic and started singing… “A is for Atonement…B is for Bless-ed…C is for the cross…” and on it went up to “Z is for Zion.”
One weekend we were cleaning out some rooms in the back to make more room for the children’s ministry and we came across an old broken piano that was collecting dust. We wanted to get rid of it but were told we couldn’t, because Sister Martha had donated it to the church. When we asked “who is Sister Martha?” Sister Betsy replied “Oh she hasn’t come to this church for over 15 years.” We all shrugged and laughed it off. Some time later though, some of the guys did drag that old piano outside and smashed it with axes, Office Space style.
Then there was Pastor Ted – a joyful old man, full of the Spirit and love for his people. What was left of his hair was white as snow and he was portly and jolly like good ole’ Saint Nick. I suppose he was a typical small country pastor. He wasn’t trying to build a mega church and wasn’t interested in attending any conferences. He would often unintentionally make us laugh by referring to “Semen Peter,” using analogies that were lost on us, or continuing to pace around with the microphone even after the cord popped out of the socket.
There were a lot of moments at Westside that made us laugh, but even more that made us smile at the warmth and pure love of that tiny community. They embraced change: new youth and children’s programs and a band of college kids leading worship on stage. They opened their hearts and wallets to help purchase clothes and supplies for the poor children of the surrounding neighborhoods. And as much as our presence brought new life and encouragement, they blessed and encouraged us in our efforts as well.
The church wasn’t flashy or modern, but it had heart and was full of the Spirit. We could’ve competed with other students to be volunteers at the large or popular or cool churches, or try to build connections and network for future careers. Instead, we served a small community church that most people would otherwise pass over and in the process, we probably learned more from that experience than any other internship or college course.