What Matters Most
I grew up going to church in a small Midwestern town. It was a medium-size congregation that was extremely traditional. I went to Sunday school, sat in worship services, participated in confirmation during my freshman year of high school, and was involved in the music ministry of the church.
I learned a lot during those years, mostly by observation. At the top of the list were the many things I didn’t understand about church. I didn’t understand why confirmation took a whole year and why I didn’t actually learn anything during those two hours each Saturday. I didn’t understand why the choir and the pastor wore robes over their Sunday best, why the pattern of worship was the same every week, or why the organ was the instrument of choice for accompanying congregational singing. I didn’t understand why people’s personalities changed the minute they walked into worship. I would regularly watch some choir members engage in minor bickering as they were lining up to process into the sanctuary, then see a smile the size of Montana appear on their faces as they stepped off to the first word of the opening hymn. For all I knew, walking and singing in a robe made them really happy.
During these years, my time spent in worship consisted of making sure I followed the norms while fighting to stay awake. Toward that end, I counted the number of lights on the chandeliers in front of my pew—every week. A typical boy, I would also try to figure out where the chandeliers would fall if the chains suspending them from the ceiling should break. I observed the norms and could follow them, but I couldn’t understand them. Neither could I fully understand the God that was communicated through them and words that often had no meaning to me, even during the few moments I was engaged.
When it comes to faith, there is much many of us don’t “get” but want to—no matter how old we are. In the movie City Slickers, Curly tells Mitch that the secret of life is one thing. It makes sense of everything else and if he sticks to it, nothing else will matter. Many of us have been searching for that one thing for so long that we’re ready to stake our lives on it when we find it.
I met Joanna when she was a sophomore in high school. Dressed in black from head to toe with the only contrasting color being her pale skin, Joanna confidently, quietly, and visibly announced her presence at youth group one night. She kept coming. She understandably didn’t believe in God, having escaped in the middle of the night with her mother, twin sisters, and brother from their abusive father. So why did she choose to be in a church doing Christian things with Christian teenagers? Because she had friends there.
Fast forward a year and a half. Joanna had slowly traded her black-and-white ensemble for one that was vibrant with color. Her frowns became smiles. She put her trust in Jesus Christ and was baptized. The visible change was a glimpse of the inward transformation God was bringing about. In the midst of chaos, Joanna discovered the one thing that made sense of it and she staked her life on it. Paul writes about it in Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT): “For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.” Another way to say it is: One God calls us to one life to be one people for the good of one world.
Joanna grabbed on to this truth the same way I did. It wasn’t through the stuff of church but rather through people in church who showed us who God is. At the end of the day, is there anything else that matters?
Jack Radcliffe is a husband and father, a pastor, and an adjunct professor at Martin Methodist College. He is also a ministry consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and a seminar presenter for ParenTeen (www.parenteen.com). He has an MDiv from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio and a DMin in Youth and Family Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.