Saturday, May 30, 2015

You CAN go home again: 50 years later,
evidence of rich returns on a church's
investment in its youth

Last week, I went home. Or at least it sure felt like home. And, with apologies to Thomas Wolfe, I found you CAN go home again. No, things aren't quite the same, but there were times it almost felt like I had been transported back to the 1960s, when I was growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. As I drove through my old neighborhood, I half-expected my parents - who have been with the Lord for many years now - to come walking out of the house we called home back then.

Kansas City was a wonderful place to grow up, and - though it's been over 40 years since I last lived there - I still consider it my hometown.

The occasion that brought me "home" last weekend was the reunion of the youth group that grew up together at Bethany Baptist Church in Kansas City. The church isn't the same these days. As those 1960s youth grew up and moved either out of town or to the suburbs, the neighborhood grew older and the church's membership decreased dramatically. I drove over to the church last Friday and was greeted by the two pastors (the church now has two congregations, one Spanish-speaking and one English-speaking); they were astounded when I told them that when I was growing up there, Bethany ran around 700 weekly in Sunday School. I'm told that the two current congregations can barely fill a Sunday School classroom. The youth and education building, which in those days was bustling with activity - Sunday School & Training Union classes, youth fellowships in the basement, as well as the church offices - was sold many years ago.

But there was a thriving church in the 1960s that is now scattered - in the lives of the youth who grew up there - throughout churches in the Kansas City area and well beyond. We had a vibrant youth group. Our Chapel Choir - under the direction of Joe Dell Rust - went on choir tours almost every year and required two buses to make the trip. In 1965, we were the featured choir one evening at Glorieta Baptist Assembly in New Mexico; on the way there and on the way back, we sang at churches in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. There was a fellowship among those youth that continues today.

At the reunion last Saturday - held in a park in nearby Leawood, Kansas - I saw some old friends I hadn't seen for almost 50 years, and we reconnected as if 1965 were yesterday. After being led in prayer prior to digging into our pot luck lunch, we sang "Blest Be the Tie That Binds (Our Hearts in Christian Love)," and we meant it. The folks in that group have been through a lot the past 50 years - the usual life experiences, such as divorces, deaths of spouses and other loved ones, health challenges, faith journeys that have run into some bumps and detours along the way, and so forth - but they've made it well into the 21st century with a spirit, a winsome, Christ-like spirit, that can't be quenched.

By the magic of Skype, I used my cell phone to bring Joe and Martha Rust - who have lived in North Carolina since leaving Bethany in 1969 and were not able to make the trip to KC - to the reunion, live and on a video screen. For about a half-hour, my phone was passed from one person to the next, as these "youth" - mostly now in our 60s - talked to Joe Rust and helped him to "catch up" on their lives the past 50 years. I eavesdropped on an occasional conversation and was moved to hear one after the other thank Joe, usually with a catch in their throats, for investing in their lives during their most formative years.

I was also moved by one of those former youth who shared with me that his parents were not Christian, that he had no Christian influence in his life until he visited Bethany and got involved in our youth activities, including the choir. He accepted Christ and was baptized at Bethany, and says that Bethany Baptist Church changed his life forever.

Joe Rust, of course, didn't do it alone. There were numerous Sunday School & Training Union teachers, GA & YWA leaders, RA leaders - in fact, one of our RA leaders, Rex Weese, showed up at the reunion. Then there were our pastors during those years, first Luther Dyer and then Richard Wallis. Well, the list is endless . . . so many people, including of course our parents, helped us to grow up, invested themselves in our lives, and the payoff is evident 50 years later.

What a blessing to visit with old friends and find that there is still a "tie" that binds us together. I found myself rushing to hug some of those folks I hadn't seen in so many years. We even had a reunion of the "three beats" - Mike Eaton, Robert Ingold, & yours truly - of the Three Beats and a Half-Note boys' quartet that frequently sang in church and even sang at the state RA convention one year. (Only the "half-note" - Jerry Eaton - was unable to make it to the reunion.) Then there are also a few with whom I've stayed in contact over the years, like Dave Eikenbary, Donnie & Gary Willey, and Bill Woolsey, my longtime buddies whose friendship means so much to me.

In the 21st century, youth leadership is faced with even greater challenges than when we were growing up. Church has a lot of competition from other activities. Just instilling a desire for a life of faith, a life of sacrifice, and a love for Christ is more challenging than ever before.

But if my experience in Kansas City last week tells me anything, it is that investment in our youth - and today that goes right up through college age and beyond - is worth any sacrifice we can make. We must see these youth not where they are today but where they can be in the years to come . . . even 50 years down the road. No matter how hopeless the task may seem at times, God continues to work in the lives of young people. But we must be His voice, His hands, His feet, His heart, investing ourselves in their lives.