As young church planters, Jan and I knew very little about
what it meant to plant a church. We had
a calling and a measure of faith and that was all. When we entered the ministry
very little was available in resource materials on how to plant a church. I
think our early ministry embodied the phrase, “winging it.”
When we arrived in Kalispell, Montana we set up our home and
then I went around town trying to find a place to hold our church
services. If we were to do it all over again
we would have started in our home, but this was the model for church planting
in our day.
I found a local hotel called the Outlaw Inn. The Outlaw Inn had rooms to rent so I secured
a room to seat 50 people and had the chairs set up for our first public
service. They gave us the Colt 45 room.
I revisited that room a few years ago and wept as I pondered all that
God has done in our lives since our awkward start.
For the next six weeks we never knew where we would set up
each Sunday for our church services. The
hotel could see we weren’t happening so they moved us around to whatever room
was available. We would arrive early on Sunday mornings and check in with the
front desk to find out our newly assigned room.
For the following six weeks, as we were moved from room to
room, we had only one person attending our meetings. Her name was Gladys. Gladys looked to be in her late 60’s. She had lived a rough life. She couldn’t drive so our church meeting, located
just across the street from her home, was a good match for her needs.
Gladys liked to have a nip of gin each morning. Looking back, I think Gladys was a lonely and
functioning alcoholic. For the six weeks our church met in the Outlaw Inn,
Gladys faithfully sat next to my wife, Jan, on the front row with my two kids
as the remaining 46 empty chairs stared back at me while I led worship
(Acapella – without instruments) and preached the Word.
At the end of each service this dear little drunk lady would
walk up to me, look up into my face and as she exhaled her gin-infused breath
into my face would say, “Thank you, Pastor.
I needed to hear that.”
As I look back on those words of thanks I can appreciate
them now at many different levels. I did
not appreciate them at the time. At that time in my life I had a vision of ministry
success that did not include empty chairs and drunk people.
About four weeks into our church planting adventure, I felt
like an utter failure. In my naivety I
believed that if you mixed enough faith with a passion to plant a church one
would magically appear. It didn’t and I began to get depressed.
At week four I asked God why all of this was happening. Why are only drunk Gladys and my wife and
kids showing up? Then the Lord spoke to me and said, “If you learn to love this
one, I will send you more.”
Two weeks later we had enough of the revolving meeting room
issue and decided to move the “church” into our home. Within weeks a trickle of new faces began to
arrive on our doorstep and growth began.
I never saw Gladys after we moved. She either disappeared or we simply lost
contact with her. Of all the great
things I have had the privilege to learn over my 30-plus years of ministry,
what God taught me through Gladys is one of the most profound. “If you learn to
love this one, I will send you more.”
I needed to learn how to love. I thought I knew how to love
people until God sent me Gladys. God can
only entrust the precious lives of people He loves to shepherds who will love
them as well.