On a cold Minnesota February day in 1966 — 54 years ago — I found a letter in my seminary mailbox that shaped my life, and the course of our family. The letter was an invitation from Bud Weniger to consider being his youth pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Normal, Illinois. I said to myself, “ Boy, I’d like to do that!” But how could it be possible? I was not slated to graduate that spring, but I was intrigued by the idea of going to Normal.
I began to research seminaries relatively close to Central Illinois where I could earn credits that could be transferred back to Central seminary in Minneapolis for my degree completion. This was obviously in pre-internet days, but at that time Christianity Today magazine published classified ads that included summer studies in theology. Two schools were advertised: Winona Lake School of Theology in Indiana, and Temple Baptist Seminary in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Winona Lake did not offer what I needed, but Temple did. So, in early June I drove our new Ford Galaxy 500 Coupe all the way down the old two-lane U.S. 41 to Chattanooga, and Connie followed two weeks later on the train after fulfilling her teaching contract. We had no idea that 30 years later our not yet born daughter would become a life-long resident of that beautiful city on the Tennessee River. But God was leading and directing our journey.
Those were the hay days of the legendary Highland Park Baptist Church, and Tennessee Temple Schools, led by the dynamic Dr. Lee Roberson. We became exposed to a whole different cultural world from our Minneapolis and Chicago backgrounds. That summer we explored the history rich area and spent many hours studying and hanging out in the school’s air conditioned library, because our rental house had no cooling, except for a box window fan. It was an experience.
Then at the end of August we took up residency in Normal and began four years of fruitful ministry. Actually, it was an amazing ministry experience. When we arrived, the church was running a little over 200 in attendance, and four years later it was averaging 600. We started with a very young youth group, because seven young people from the church had just graduated with most going off to Bible college. Four years later the youth group had grown tremendously with often 75-100 teens attending our youth activities. It was an exciting time.
Those years in Normal were truly unusual, and not normal at all. The growth and spiritual development of Calvary Baptist during those years was truly remarkable. Many adults, university students, teenagers, and children came to Christ during those years and following. The church was thriving with activity and outreach. We led the youth group on four adventurous Colorado Camping trips that were spiritual mountain top experiences. It was a blessed time of God’s grace in our lives.
At the same time, Calvary attracted many people who had been faithful members at a number of area churches that were slipping into theological liberalism. A robust and growing economy, plus expanding employment opportunities, brought new move-ins to the area. Several of these folks, although from varied church backgrounds, found Calvary to be a welcoming environment for their biblical convictions. The church grew numerically and spiritually.
Pastor Weniger was a tireless worker, and he drew people in with forceful preaching and exposition, but he also recruited and motivated members to put their hands to the plow and work to build the church. Thousands of dollars were saved on building expansion projects through volunteer work days and nights. Additionally, those work projects brought the people together in purpose, and fellowship.
They were great days of working, learning, growing, and serving. Looking back now I realize what a great privilege it was to be part of a not-so-normal ministry experience. Our participation in the church and youth ministry at Calvary was a crucial step in God’s leading down the Grace Journey road that we have been traveling all our life. What a privilege!