Looking in From the Outside

In Episode 31, we spoke with Tina Semmens, and an interesting story came up. She had a paper to write for an English college course, and she decided to sit in on a service at the church where I was serving and interview me afterwards. That morning, however, I let the congregation know that I was resigning from my position as Youth Pastor. She understood what I was doing, and she wrote a paper that even to this day I still read with anticipation. This is not a political, religious, one-sided, “get fired up on what I have to say” kind of blog. This is just my attempt at honoring someone who wrote a wonderful paper and said some things about me that I don't deserve. Most importantly, it keeps me grounded and focused on why I left the institution of "church" and why I feel I must continue forward with this endeavor of ForgettingWalls. 

 So to all of you who read this, understand that even though at my core I may be a "bit" narcissistic, this isn't an attempt at lifting myself up. I want to share a pivotal point of my life that immediately caused drastic change. I want to share this so you can get a glimpse into the origin of what we call ForgettingWalls. I also want to share this to be a constant reminder to me that I have a passion, and it is for people and for them to know love.

 So a big thanks to Tina for joining the show and writing this paper that I get to share now.

I hope you enjoy! 

 The Radical Shepherd

            A long driveway leads straight to a spacious parking lot, about half full of cars. I only see one other person, though, because I am almost late. I am here at Shallotte First Baptist Church to attend a Sunday morning worship service and interview the youth pastor, Keith Wilson. As I enter through the large glass front door, I notice the similarities to most of the other churches I have attended. The foyer is striking, with a marble floor and high ceiling. There is a table set up with brochures and information about the church and the various activities available to attendees.  I think about taking one of the folders laid out for potential parishioners because it has a nice pen in it, but then think better of it.  A friendly man greets me at the door of the worship center and invites me to find a seat. I sit down near the back of the room, because I am here to observe. It will be an interesting morning, I think.  Keith Wilson will be submitting his resignation to the church today.

            The service is typical of hundreds of churches on any given Sunday morning.  We stand when instructed to do so, and sing worship songs while following the lyrics on the large overhead projector screen at the front of the room. We sit when we are told to, and pray along with whoever is leading at that particular moment. At least, I think we are all praying.  It is impossible to know for sure. During one of the worship songs, I notice a small boy, maybe four years old, clapping his hands together. He doesn’t seem to be clapping to the music, but he is enjoying himself, anyway. His father reaches down and motions for him to stop. The boy obeys and, five seconds later, does it again. This time, his father takes his hands and gives him a stern look. He does his best to control himself after that. I can’t help but wonder what he is learning.

            After the closing prayer, the pastor, a conservatively- dressed man, asks everyone to sit down.

            “Keith has something to share,” he declares smoothly. Because I already know what it is, I search for emotion or an indicator of what he is thinking in the pastor’s voice. He doesn’t seem disturbed. Even if he were, I don’t suppose he would want the congregation to know about it. Keith stands up and reads his letter of resignation. He struggles at first, but then his voice becomes stronger and he speaks with authority, as if with each word he becomes more certain he is doing the right thing. There is silence after he finishes, and I can’t tell what the reaction is from the congregation.

            Afterwards, I go to lunch with Keith and his wife Kim, and one of their daughters.  Keith has already informed me that the wait staff knows him by name.  And it’s true. When we get there, every one of the waiters who sees him greets him with familiarity. It is loud and amusing, because he engages in a comical repartee with each one of them. This is Keith’s favorite Mexican restaurant. There is another one on the other side of town where lots of people go to eat every Sunday after church, but he likes this one better. We sit down in a booth and talk while we wait for our food.

            Even seated, Keith gives off an aura of intensity. He is a big man, at least six feet tall.  He has brown hair that grazes his eyebrows and his eyes are clear and direct. He tells me he is thirty-seven, but he doesn’t look that old. His manner of dress is youthful and contemporary; he wears small gauges in his ears and three necklaces of varying lengths on leather cords. Wearing blue jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt, he seems perfectly capable of fulfilling the role of a minister to young people. He and his wife complement each other, with a familiarity that allows them to interrupt each other and finish the other’s sentences. It is obvious that they are deeply committed to each other.

             Keith is articulate and passionate about his work and ministry. He has had a rough day so far, but he is convinced he is doing the right thing by resigning his position. He goes into detail about why he feels he is being moved on to something else and is adamant that it is God who is leading, not himself or any other human.  “I will not give victory to man or myself for what God has done,” he says firmly. We talk about what he believes youth ministry should be. His purpose is to “teach kids how to worship. The idea is to transition youth into young adults who will lead the church.” But he does not refer to church in the sense of the big brick building on the corner with a cross on the lawn. He means a body of believers, the worldwide church, consisting of any and all who put their faith in Jesus Christ.

            When I ask him how he came to work in youth ministry, he laughs. He tells me that in 2003, he and Kim began helping out in a youth Bible study class as volunteers. Soon after, the teacher quit and the responsibility fell on their shoulders. After working with the kids for a short time, Keith began to feel a definite call to continue working in youth ministry.

            “I’ll never forget it,” he says slowly. “On New Year’s Day, God spoke to me and told me to quit my job and do youth ministry forever.” And so he did. This is one of the most arresting things about Keith Wilson. He absolutely believes that the Spirit of God is alive and well, actively participating in his life, as well as the life of anyone who is willing to heed the call. This becomes evident within minutes of initiating a conversation with Keith. Talking about God and Spirit is as natural to him as breathing. His belief is so strong, he can walk away from a good job with nothing planned to replace it and still be comfortable in his decision. This confidence is not based solely on ideology, however, but on events that have taken place in his own life; events that have solidified Keith’s faith. According to Keith, he grew up as “white trash.” Or rather, other people considered him to be so.  And as far as the direction his life has taken? He does not give himself credit for any of it.

            “Up until God called me into ministry, I never knew what I was going to be.”  After making the decision to follow that call, however, things took an upward turn. Keith is now an ordained minister and will complete his bachelor’s degree in religion from Liberty University, a highly respected and well-known institution, this year. Such is the power of faith.

            Things have not always been easy since he began a full-time ministry. For the entire first year of his tenure at Shallotte First Baptist, Keith struggled to define his purpose as a pastor and found it very difficult to adapt to being a staff person in a church of that size. Eventually, he found his way and was able to build a fulfilling ministry. When we begin to talk about what he actually does with the youth he works with, he lights up. Keith is passionate about teaching and seems to want more than anything to teach them about the true nature of God: loving, powerful, and personal. How he accomplishes this is difficult to define. There is no clear process, because he is dealing with the messiness of life from a young person’s perspective and all the difficulties that go along with that. But the focus is to teach about the relevancy of God in today’s dysfunctional culture and to demonstrate how spiritual concepts can be applied to everyday life to effect change of enormous proportions.

            When I ask Keith what he views as the most troubling problem facing the modern church, he hesitates for a moment, taking a deep breath. Releasing it, he tells me that he feels it is the failure of the organized church to truly recognize the Holy Spirit.

            “It is the supernatural part of God that people don’t want to admit,” he says, as if the thought grieves him.  He feels that people are too caught up in tradition, and are trying to solve spiritual problems with human answers. Churches are looking for converts and big numbers, but are not teaching those already in the church. In addition to this, many people who have lost their faith in the institution of church are falling by the wayside, unable or unwilling to fit into the society of church life.  This has helped to create a new breed of believer, one who is seeking much more than what is available currently in most churches: a relationship with God on a deeply personal level and the availability of ministers who seek this at all costs, without pursuing the constraints of tradition. The church does not need a building or a symbolic cross or fancy clothes to exist. What it needs are passionate believers who are willing to give up worldly modes of thought and ideals in exchange for an intensely personal, one-on-one relationship with the Spirit. In the words of Jesus:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” John 14: 16-17 NIV.

            Keith Wilson is part of a new breed of ministers who are rising up in response to the inability of the traditional church to reach people outside of its societal confines. He is a passionate believer in the Holy Spirit, and lives to teach others, especially young people, how to connect to God in a truly personal way. He does not value himself by society’s standards, nor does he value other human beings that way. He sees each of us as a unique creation of God, with an individual purpose and limitless possibilities of growth. I am fascinated and genuinely encouraged by his willingness to step outside of the societal norm and follow his individual path. It is an example I hope to never forget.