If I were to write a new resume, one of the more interesting and unusual items I could list would be that twenty years ago, I helped start a church. Now two decades later, looking back, much has changed. Like the analogy of the big vs little rocks in the jar, my priorities have changed, grown and developed. Helping start Heartland Community Church in Normal, Illinois, is one of the things I have given myself to, a very big rock that has been for my greater good.
I don’t know how many people who started a church began by stating they aspired to start a church, but I cannot say that. That isn’t how my church planting story began.
The men that Jesus selected were a bunch of ragtag fishermen. They were not the educated, the powerful, the rich or the beautiful people. I can almost smell their profession, fish, sweat, sun, and salt. Who knows what else in their lives left an impression on the senses. No matter their aroma, I think of them as beautiful, broken men that God hand-picked to be the servants He used to show and teach about His love on this earth. They aren’t who I would have picked to build an eternal kingdom, but, I like so many of Jesus’s day, wouldn’t have understood His loving plan either.
My pastor said, “There are those who cross the faith barrier, but not the church barrier.” What he meant was that someone believes that Jesus is who He says He is. They trust in Jesus, that is believe upon what Jesus did for them, but they don’t have a church home to mentor them in their faith. That was me.
I wanted a church home. For years I tried to go, but the man I was married to found a reason decline and I followed his lead, not Jesus’. On one of the rare Sundays that we were at church, Easter, the pastor made a plea about our relationship with Jesus being a priority. I KNEW that God had been asking me to put Him first, regardless of what my husband did or didn’t do. I closed my eyes, said I would follow Him and swallowed communion with a new sense of peace. That night I found out my marriage was in big trouble. God knew. He had been gently calling to me to put Him first. He knew that the man I had put first would be leaving. God is a perfect gentleman.
It wasn’t until after my marriage ended that I ended up going to church every single Sunday without fail.
We say that God uses everything (or that He can). Finance was my profession and even though I didn’t go to church regularly, I saved money for Him. Occasionally, I’d mail a check to the mission or when I attended a church, I’d drop a bundle on the plate. I saw it as God’s money and when the opportunity came, I gave. Because I gave a check to the church that I sat in on that beautiful and broken Easter, I was put on their mailing list since I gave them some money. I guess they thought I was serious about “them”.
Several of the mailings were about a church plant. The church would be for people who didn’t really know about God, people who were interested but not sure. A church for people who were intellectuals, who wouldn’t check their brains at the door. It would be a church that would share how God is still as relevant today as He was centuries and an eternity ago, a church that would leverage creative elements to communicate God’s timeless truths to the culture we live in.
My heart said, “I’m in.” Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
We started with 50 men, women and children. Crazy.
Each week we did it all, from unpacking all our stuff from a trailer, to cleaning school toilets,then setting up classrooms and sound systems. We were the welcome team taking supplies out of a Rubbermaid bin then packing it all back up and then confirming our location before set up and did it all over again the next Sunday. We had several temporary homes including two schools and a movie theater before our permanent location at 1811 N. Linden, Normal, Illinois.
Jesus chose a handful of smelly men to do something of earth shattering significance. Jesus saw my great need for Him, my passion for Him and others, and gave me a job that I never dreamed of. My life was messy, smelly even. I was devastated and divorced. Even in that state, Pastor Roger Pryor allowed me to use the gift of leadership, even though undeveloped in the faith-world environment, to help build a church. Although he’s not much older than I am, he is a spiritual father. Thank you Roger and Jean. I will be forever grateful for your love and investment in my life.
I take no credit for the good work that has been done. God had a plan. He always does. When we hang out with Him, and are brave enough to trust Him, He will take you on the most excellent adventures. When you rest in him, He leads you to do things that you would never in a million years think that you would or could do. He gave His own stamp of approval outside of what you think of as necessary credentials.
While I take no credit for the good work, I do accept the amazing amount of joy I have received. I’ve seen lives changed, none more profound than my own. God brought my husband, of now nearly 16 years, to my church–well, I did ask him, but I didn’t know I would marry him!
When we broke ground on our property, our pastor had us participate in an ancient Jewish tradition of standing stones where the Lord did something of significance. He asked us to pick up a rock, state what we were grateful for and stack it in honor of what God had done. My husband picked up the largest rock there and declared his gratitude for me and Jesus. I was baptized and I witnessed my husband and hundreds beyond baptized.
Amazingly, God healed me and my heart from a wound that had kept me a barren woman. After Jesus healed me, I became pregnant six months later. At the age of 40, I gave birth to the most amazing gift God has ever allowed me to steward, our daughter. While the enemy comes to kill, steal, and destroy, Jesus came to give us abundant life. Our daughter was part of the redemption and abundant life that the enemy did not want me to have. God’s bigger! My husband and I had the privilege of participating in her baptism.
As a church, we’ve experienced heartache and loss together too. Like a marriage, we’ve learned to live life together and practice the gospel and the giving and receiving of grace by doing life in close proximity. I stepped down from leadership inside my church for family life and leadership outside the church. Although I used to be there every time the doors were open, there have been hundreds of people who have lined up to take our church into the next days, months and years.
I know Jesus, The Rock, in ways I cannot articulate well enough. He is my biggest priority. I know Him better now and I understand and believe God’s love for me in ways that blow my old way of thinking away. Thankfully, He’s not done with me yet.
I’m grateful that a small community of people had God-sized dreams for creating a church that after twenty years, I still I call home.