Small Town Church: Big God

Peter Olson works with youth in Burns Presbyterian Church in Erin, Ontario.

It is a Friday night in the fall of 1997 and the group of children and their leader walk up the old stairs to the sanctuary of the church that has stood for 150 years. Being after 7 p.m., the church is dark and the stairwell is filled with shadows and the smell of century-old oak. The children titter and push as they climb to the sanctuary level and then they enter. The leader reaches to turn on the lights. The chandelier system is run on three dimmers so the church comes to life slowly. The children hush and watch as the room appears before them. One little boy, Cody, looks around with eyes wide like saucers. He has walked past the church many times but has never been inside. After a few quiet moments, Cody turns to the leader and asks, with great reverence, "Where does the Lord sit?"

On another Friday night later in the fall, a group of about 25 children sit in the basement of the same church. It is "Israel Night" and the leader has set up what appears to be a Bedouin tent with a fireplace (rocks and candles), trees, platters of fruits and nuts and a little snake. The children are quiet as they share flatbread and dates and listen to stories from the Bible about creation and John the Baptist. When the leader (dressed as a Bedouin) gets to the part where John baptizes Jesus, little Cody speaks up again. He asks, "What about Jesus? Tell us about Jesus." And so, these children hear the story of Jesus and what he has done for us, some of them, for the first time. When the leader gets to the part where Jesus dies on the cross, the room is so quiet one could hear a pin drop. Little Cody lets out a deep sigh and mutters, "Oh man!" The little boy beside him leans over and says, "It's okay. There's a happy ending." Cody looks at him and says, "Really?" Then the children hear of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that his life, his death and his resurrection bring to us if only we believe. The tension in the basement turns to wonder.

It is now the fall of 1998 and the growing group of children has just started another evening in the basement of the little country church. As with every night, the leader has asked for prayer requests and has heard everything from new kittens to new babies, poor marks to poor health, and playground strife to world peace. As they all bow their heads to pray, a tiny voice speaks out. Little Mark is five years old and perches, as always, on the leader's lap during prayer time. He says, "I got something to take to the Lord." He proceeds to tell us about his friend, the garbage man, who cut himself on some glass and Mark asks for God to heal him. The look in his eyes speaks of a faith so deep and a conviction so strong, that if we simply take this to God in prayer, his friend will be healed. And so, we all bow our heads to pray.

The church is Burns Presbyterian Church in Erin, Ontario. The youth group is called Kids For Christ (KFC). It started in 1997 and was designed for the church youth only, which numbered about 8 to 12 children. The first night, each child brought a friend and there were about 18 kids. Now, the group has grown in registration of over 80 children ages 5 to 12. Snack time is a zoo, the singing times very loud, but the Christ-centered teaching and activities go on.

Out of this group has sprung a teen ministry called Teens Encountering Christ (TECh) and a touring theatre group called "admit one", which is made up of children and teens and usually carries a cast and crew of about 20 individuals. TECh meets on Sundays at the church but after the children's story, heads over to the local coffee shop and sits to discuss biblical issues there, for about 45 minutes. They also get together once a month, for an event such as a concert or camping or whatever. "Admit one" has had two successful runs playing in Presbyterian churches in Brampton, Mississauga, Toronto, Norval, Hillsburgh and Erin.

My name is Peter and I am the volunteer Youth Pastor at Burns. When I came to Burns in 1996, things were very quiet from a youth ministry perspective. There were, maybe, eight to ten children in the church and a wonderful, yet small, Sunday School program. It is clear to me now, that God is very interested in the children of this community. Now, on a Sunday, there are more than 25 young children in Sunday School and maybe a dozen teens in the TECh group. The children involved in the KFC program, from 50 to 80 children, are from various churches or are unchurched children. Teens from the community come out on KFC nights, to help. Just last month, I spoke to the children about a commitment to Jesus, that he sacrificed his life for us and he desires us to commit to him, wholeheartedly. At the end of the evening, some of the children approached me and asked for Bibles of their own.

God is very interested in all of our children. He desires us, as parents, to raise our children to be Christians. He desires our hearts' commitment and theirs. He has moved powerfully in this little country church and he has affected the hearts of both the children and the adults in these programs. These youth ministries are not based on any one person's ability but on God's desires and his servant's willingness to listen to him.

It is not a numbers game, or a race to fill the programs. It is not based on the energies of the people involved to make these churches programs viable. It is not based on the gifts of the people running the programs. The reality of these situations is that God is sovereign and Lord over us all. He asks and we answer. He instills in our hearts the desire to glorify him through various means. With heads bowed, and through much prayer and listening on our part, God can accomplish many wonderful things. He gives the gifts, he draws the children, he beckons hearts and, sometimes, we have the privilege of being a part of his will. He is a big God, even in a small church.

Ephesians 3:20-22: "Now to Him, who is able to do immeasureably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power, that is at work within us; to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, throughout all generations, forever and ever, Amen."