Youth finding God outside of church

A few weeks ago I attended a banquet in Atlanta where a few young people were recognized for their recent accomplishments. All of these youth had troubled backgrounds that included an assortment of criminal activities. The purpose of this banquet was to affirm the change in directions all of these youths had taken and to encourage them to continue along their new constructive paths.

It is very difficult listening to someone who is still a teenager talk about how dangerous they used to be and how much they have changed. It makes you wonder how young the person could have been before he became such a nuisance to himself, his family and society. Even though the media is saturated with stories about juvenile crime and the proliferation of gang activity has become so common that it is rarely news worthy, it is still unsettling to sit and hear the live testimony of reformed teenage “gang bangers.”

As I listened to these kids who had seemingly missed all aspects of childhood, I was impressed with their descriptions of their individual transformations. Each of them had experiences that could qualify for a feature length movie. Every one of them realized how close they had come to death. All of them had been engulfed in lifestyles that had felt cool for a while but that had finally proved to be more like quicksand than quick fixes for tough circumstances. Initially, they had felt like victims with no options other than street escapades and criminal capers. By the time I met them they had been rescued from their personal pits and they now believed they were living in the zone of possibility and second chances.

The most striking aspect of our encounter was that I heard all of them attribute their changes to religion. But none of them mentioned a church. They believed that God had protected them – that God had spared them – that God had delivered them – and that God had changed them. But they also believed that God had used a little woman who was not a pastor, who had no church or any of the other trappings of religion. All this woman had was a small organization that she started in her home and a handful of volunteers who, armed with faith and love, served them when others had given up on them. There were lots of tears shed at this event – and they were all tears of gratitude, hope and joy.

After leaving this amazing evening I read an article about an Atlanta church that had just purchased a new facility that included fifty one acres of land with seven buildings, including a 6,000-seat main auditorium, a large fellowship hall, offices, classrooms and a theater. The acquisition cost $17.6 million dollars. I am certain that this complex is absolutely stunning to see. But I also know that more people would have good feelings about churches spending that kind of money purchasing those types of campuses if they knew that those churches were impacting lives the way that little woman is helping those young people working from a little humble facility with very little money. Perhaps that great big church can invite that little humble lady to its campus and let her teach them how to use it to help kids change their lives.