As young church planters, Jan and I knew very little about what it meant to plant a church. We had a calling and a measure of faith and that was all. When we entered the ministry very little was available in resource materials on how to plant a church. I think our early ministry embodied the phrase, “winging it.”
When we arrived in Kalispell, Montana we set up our home and then I went around town trying to find a place to hold our church services. If we were to do it all over again we would have started in our home, but this was the model for church planting in our day.
I found a local hotel called the Outlaw Inn. The Outlaw Inn had rooms to rent so I secured a room to seat 50 people and had the chairs set up for our first public service. They gave us the Colt 45 room. I revisited that room a few years ago and wept as I pondered all that God has done in our lives since our awkward start.
For the next six weeks we never knew where we would set up each Sunday for our church services. The hotel could see we weren’t happening so they moved us around to whatever room was available. We would arrive early on Sunday mornings and check in with the front desk to find out our newly assigned room.
For the following six weeks, as we were moved from room to room, we had only one person attending our meetings. Her name was Gladys. Gladys looked to be in her late 60’s. She had lived a rough life. She couldn’t drive so our church meeting, located just across the street from her home, was a good match for her needs.
Gladys liked to have a nip of gin each morning. Looking back, I think Gladys was a lonely and functioning alcoholic. For the six weeks our church met in the Outlaw Inn, Gladys faithfully sat next to my wife, Jan, on the front row with my two kids as the remaining 46 empty chairs stared back at me while I led worship (Acapella - without instruments) and preached the Word.
At the end of each service this dear little drunk lady would walk up to me, look up into my face and as she exhaled her gin-infused breath into my face would say, “Thank you, Pastor. I needed to hear that.”
As I look back on those words of thanks I can appreciate them now at many different levels. I did not appreciate them at the time. At that time in my life I had a vision of ministry success that did not include empty chairs and drunk people.
About four weeks into our church planting adventure, I felt like an utter failure. In my naivety I believed that if you mixed enough faith with a passion to plant a church one would magically appear. It didn’t and I began to get depressed.
At week four I asked God why all of this was happening. Why are only drunk Gladys and my wife and kids showing up? Then the Lord spoke to me and said, “If you learn to love this one, I will send you more.”
Two weeks later we had enough of the revolving meeting room issue and decided to move the “church” into our home. Within weeks a trickle of new faces began to arrive on our doorstep and growth began.
I never saw Gladys after we moved. She either disappeared or we simply lost contact with her. Of all the great things I have had the privilege to learn over my 30-plus years of ministry, what God taught me through Gladys is one of the most profound. “If you learn to love this one, I will send you more.”
I needed to learn how to love. I thought I knew how to love people until God sent me Gladys. God can only entrust the precious lives of people He loves to shepherds who will love them as well.