It was a late night, we were at church and I did not want to be there. As a thirteen-year-old boy, the last place I wanted to be on New Year’s Eve was at church when my friends were at home celebrating with their families. Growing up, we went to church every Sunday and I normally enjoyed going. Sunday school classes were a place to make new friends, to compete in Bible memorization quizzes and to enjoy the creative ways that my teachers explained Bible truths. As I entered my teen years, however, church attendance became more tedious and harder to explain to my friends in school. I faced new temptations and began to lead a double life. In school, I could curse and joke like a sailor, but on Sunday, I was winning prizes for Bible memorization. I was beginning to learn that all too familiar adult skill of compartmentalization and I was good at it.
So here I was sitting in church again at the precipice of a New Year and I was squirming. I was angry at my parents, I was angry at God and I was angry at myself. I knew I was leading a double life and it made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t see any other way to keep both my church friends and my school friends. It seemed like the only answer was to be a better performer and to keep these two worlds separate. Then the preaching started and I knew I was in trouble. The pastor was preaching from Revelation 3: 15 & 16 and talking about the concept of being lukewarm and how God wanted something different for us, but it meant making a choice. It was as if the pastor had peeked at my diary and knew what I was wrestling with every day. I felt like I was an audience of one and he was speaking directly to me. If I was going to take my faith seriously and no longer live a dual life something was going to have to change.
In that moment, it became clear that there was only one path forward if I truly was going to call myself a Christian. I had to surrender my will and see that Jesus was more than just my savior, He was also my Lord and that had implications for my daily life. It meant I was going to have to take risks, possibly alienating some of my friends, and to be willing to talk about my church life with my school friends. Something happened that night that changed the direction of my life forever. A pastor took a risk in challenging his congregation, preaching a hard message on a night when many might have expected a light, joyful and hopeful presentation. I don’t know how many others were affected, by I was never the same again.
As I look back now, I realize that night was only the beginning of a long journey. In an attempt to live for Christ, I leaned into performance and “doing things for God”. I led Bible studies at school, talked about my faith, prayed more and read my Bible. I was a different person, but in many ways, I was also falling into a different trap. I was becoming a good Pharisee and really good at judging others who had not made similar choices in their lives. It took many years for me to understand that what happened that night was the work of the Holy Spirit and not just a choice I had made. I was surrendering my will to a sovereign and holy God who loved me as his son and did not “need” my good works.
In studying that passage of scripture as an adult, I even came to see that it might not have been properly exegeted. So here I was a kid that did not want to be in church, listening to a sermon that might not have been a completely accurate theological interpretation. And yet, God did a marvelous work in my life. For all the pastors that wonder if their messages are making a difference, I am living proof that preaching matters. For all the parents that wonder if making kids go to church is the right choice, I am here to cheer you on. Keep it up. You never know what God has in store for your child. He truly does work in mysterious ways.