Just before we moved from Ohio to Philadelphia, the church we had planted had grown enough to need to raise money to build our own permanent building. Two years earlier I honestly didn’t think we were going to survive. Instead, by God’s grace, we began to grow, and over time the church flourished and became a beautiful community of Jesus’ followers. Along the way we added staff, bought eleven acres of land, and were ready to impact the community in an even greater way. The only thing that stood in the way was money for a new building.
With the help of an outside consultant, we decided to run a fund-raising campaign that would end with a large banquet where financial pledges would be collected and announced. Committees were formed. Flyers were distributed. I preached for weeks about stewardship and how this building would enable us to reach more people with the message of Jesus. Commitment forms were passed out. The atmosphere in our church was euphoric.
The banquet was held in one of the nicest hotels in Dayton. Everyone dressed up. The meal was catered, and the worship team from a sister congregation came and sang. It was quite an event.
I had instructed the ushers to seat any latecomers to the banquet at my table, but I was surprised when a man our church had helped move off the streets walked into the banquet hall with his entire halfway house. Of course he was welcome, but I thought maybe he had misunderstood the purpose of the meeting. In the announcements that morning, had he heard the phrase “free meal” and stopped listening after that?
The group was a sight to behold. The former homeless man, Pete, was wearing a suit jacket, but his pants were ripped and stained. His tie was bunched around his neck in a knot. Pete was flanked by his girlfriend who, when she laughed, cackled so loudly that everyone in the banquet hall turned and looked. When she smiled, you could see the food lodged in between her teeth. To Pete’s left was another friend, who sat down and said, “I’m glad Pete told us about this free meal.” (I thought to myself, This meal’s not free!)
At first I was a little perturbed by the lack of return on investment represented at my table at this fund-raising event, but as the evening continued my mood went from slightly embarrassed to inspired. Every time an announcement was made, my table, the halfway house gang, cheered wildly. Pete would scream, “Oh yeah!” and pump his arms up and down. His friends would go around the table and high-five one another. My wife and I just laughed.
At the end of the evening, the campaign chairman came forward and said, “This is the moment we’ve all worked toward these last four months. Inside this envelope are our campaign commitments!” I happened to look over at Pete, who was bouncing in his seat the way a five-year-old does when he is seconds away from being handed a present he’s wanted for months. For some reason, right at that moment, instead of turning my eyes back toward the campaign chairman, I kept staring at Pete. The envelope was opened, the commitment total was announced, and in what seemed like slow motion, Pete shot out of his chair and screamed with everyone else in the room, “We did it! We did it! We did it!”
I was immediately mobbed by other people in the congregation, who were all ecstatic. I got up and hugged everyone on the committee, the speaker, and anyone else I saw. After the celebration calmed, Pete wiped a tear out of the corner of his eye, laid a huge bear hug on me, and said, “We did it, big guy. We did it. I just knew we’d do it.”
That’s when it hit me.
The reason God had moved my family to Ohio to start a new church was more than that building. Maybe all the pain of the early years of planting that church—all the heartache, all the discouragement, all the days I yelled out to God and begged him to let me quit—maybe all of that had a point to it. Maybe God had a reason behind everything that happened to me those first two years, and maybe that reason was standing right in front of me.
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