I cracked open the door to the auditorium just enough to see a glimpse of the crowd. I caught my breath at the sight. Close to three thousand people were finding seats on the gymnasium bleachers. They were there to hear me speak. "I can't believe this is happening," I said shaking my head in amazement. It was a dream come true.
I was 21 years old. The last four years had been a wild ride. When I was 17, my goal had been to build a national magazine for homeschool teens. By God's grace it happened. Each issue of New Attitude was being read by thousands of people. At the same time our teen conferences were growing beyond all my expectations. In many cities we were met by sold-out crowds. What I had worked for and prayed for had actually become a reality.
Impressed? I was for a while, but then I made a life-changing and perspective-shattering discovery. Big dreams by the world's standard aren't necessarily big in God's eyes. I used to think that doing "big" things had to involve huge crowds, large numbers, and the attention and admiration of lots of people. I was wrong. This is not to say being famous and doing things on a massive scale is wrong (one of my heroes is Billy Graham, someone who has shown it can be done with integrity). But what the Lord began to teach me is that running after those things for their own sake was idolatrous.
And that leads me to the vision that I'm throwing my life into today. It might surprise you, but magazine publishing and conference speaking isn't what I'm most enthusiastic about. While I'm still speaking at conferences, my growing passion and the thing that's burning in my heart, is the local church.
I know what you're thinking. "Okay, what's the punch line? The local church is your dream? Booooring!" That's probably how I would have responded five years ago. It scares me how many of my peers still have that reaction.
Too many people my age have lost a vision for the church. To us it's a building, not a living community of believers walking out their faith side by side. It's a place we go to on Sundays and Wednesday nights for youth group. It's run by a bunch of adults - their show. Some of us go because we have to. Others go because all our friends are there. What we've forgotten (or never knew) is that the church is the structure God established to make disciples, strengthen families, and steadily advance His Kingdom throughout the world. The church was God's idea - it's what He's passionate about. And He calls every person who believes in Him to share that passion and commitment. You and I are called to play a part of service with our gifts and abilities in a local church. We're not the youth group, guys, WE ARE THE CHURCH!
My dream is to be a part of bringing the church back to the place God has always meant for it to play in our lives. Ephesians 1:23 states emphatically, "The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ's body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence" (The Message). Commenting on Ephesians John Stott writes, "If the church is central to God's purpose, as seen in both history and the gospel, it must surely also be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? How dare we push to the circumference what God has placed at the centre?" I realized I had been taking the church lightly and needed to change my course.
At the beginning of this year I left behind magazine publishing to pursue training for the ministry. I moved from my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to Gaithersburg, Maryland, where I'm serving as a "pastoral intern" at Covenant Life Church. While still conducting conferences, God has graciously given me the chance to learn about pastoring by studying and working in a local church with men committed to training and discipling me. This year I'll also be attending the Pastors' College the church is sponsoring. It's being attended by twenty guys (at least six of whom are former homeschoolers) from across the country. The training is being modeled after the school Charles Spurgeon ran for young men who felt called to the ministry. Right now we're studying systematic theology. In the next ten months we'll cover everything from church history and homiletics (preaching) to biblical counseling and Christian ethics. But the most important part of our training is that it's taking place in the middle of a growing, vibrant body of believers that is built on solid, accountable relationships.
Someday I hope to pastor a church or serve under another man in whatever position I'm best suited for. I don't know all that the future holds, but I want to be in on the action, and I believe the action is in the local church.
For some people my choice might seem inexplicable, even foolish. Why leave something "big" and successful for something away from the spotlight? The answer is simple. There's no bigger dream, no greater goal than the one God places in your heart.