By Debbonnaire Kovacs and several members of the Paw Paw (Michigan) Adventist Church, posted July 20, 2017.   Photo: Paw Paw Pathfinders on their way to Pathfinder Fair last May. Used by permission.    

When Adventist Today Executive Editor Dr. Loren Seibold first sent me a lead saying he’d found a church where “these people are saints!” I was intrigued, especially since what he sent me was a business card for a senior living residence. I called, and after introducing myself said something like, “Um, there’s supposed to be some really cool church?”

Immediately the young man said, “Oh, that’s probably the Paw Paw Church.”

“Pawpaw like the tree?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“Cool! I have pawpaw trees!” (I admit this isn’t particularly germane, but it was another intriguing note for me. Curious, I learned from Wikipedia that the village was named for the pawpaw trees that used to grow along the Paw Paw River until the shade canopy they require was lost to modern development.)

Chuck Randall, the man I was supposed to contact, was not there, but the young man would give him my email. My interest grew further when Randall emailed me that he couldn’t talk to me right then because he was golfing with the church league. A church with a golf league? A church which immediately comes to mind when someone asks about a really cool church?

Looking the church up, I found a Facebook review in which someone said,  “This is where I go to get filled back up when the broken world sucks the life out of you.”

I sent Chuck Randall a list of general questions anyone could answer in case we couldn’t get in touch by phone. What followed was an avalanche.

I have been trying to figure out how to shape this article for two weeks now. First, someone mentioned Churches of Refuge almost casually, which led me to the story last week, (and if you haven’t read it, you might like to before going on). That gave me another week to consider…and what I decided is simply to let the people speak for themselves. Here, with some minor editing and some interpolated comments of my own [in brackets] are the descriptions I was sent of a church we’d all love to be members of.

First we’ll hear from Chuck Randall who, with his wife, are some of the longtime pillars all churches have, but not all longtime pillars are as welcoming and flexible.

Chuck Randall, 42-year member

After moving to the area 42 years ago Barb and I joined the Paw Paw church. There were several loving members who carried the church and then along came several couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s. We began to call ourselves a church of refuge because through the years hurting people came looking for love and acceptance.

[I learned that these “hurting people” include families who, with their children, have been hurt by other churches. Some were made to feel that young people had to be kept away from adults until they were somehow “good enough” to worship with adults. The term “fear tactics” was mentioned by one.]

Years went by and Ron Whitehead began COR (Church of Refuge) and we were the first adopters. 

[Whitehead confirmed this. He said this was one of the churches who were already doing most of the things the young adults in his survey asked for, adding, “As soon as they heard they said it made sense. They saw themselves intuitively, as a congregation, as a place of refuge.”]

In my opinion this program made us really think and become more intentional. We developed a mission statement and even our own church logo.

[You can see the logo and their “Worship. Belong. Learn. Proclaim.” on their website or Facebook page.] 

Early in our membership here we began a Christian Education program without a school. [This is called PPAC Promise and will be further described below.] We have members in many area church schools and we pay about 90% of tuition. We also have a worthy student fund for those who can’t afford the remaining expense or who don’t qualify for our regular program since one has to be a member for at least a year to qualify. We reaffirm this program every six months and are very careful to operate within IRS guidelines. We also have a Christian Education foundation we have set up so that we can help insure the program continues. Members and non-members alike have left part of their estates and we anticipate many more such contributions in the future. We currently only have about $130,000 in value, but we anticipate it will grow.

[Only!]

Another healthy sign is that the leadership of our church comes from the 30-50-year-old members and not the 60-80-year-old members.

I’ll let the others tell their story, but this has been a wonderful congregation to raise our family in.

Juanita Moses Campbell, first elder

My family is relatively new to the Paw Paw church (three plus years). Our family are 3rd-4th generation Adventists, and have grown up in Michigan. We are strong supporters of Adventist education; my father taught his entire career in it, and it is also where my husband and I met! Through my lifetime, I have been a member of (or at least actively attending) TEN Adventist churches throughout Michigan before coming to Paw Paw.

We have good friends who had recently joined Paw Paw, and drove a long distance to attend there; they encouraged us to consider joining. We decided to check out the church by accompanying them on a mission trip with ASI to the Dominican Republic. It was a refreshing change to see how the members interacted with each other even on a busy mission trip!
Needless to say, we joined the Paw Paw church and have been blessed beyond measure! My daughter refers to this church as “a bit of heaven on earth”!

Having changed churches over the years, I was well aware of the “honeymoon” period when you first joined a church: This is the first year or so where you are blissfully unaware of the issues at the church, and can just enjoy worship. On the flip side, it is also the time when you have not yet developed the close encouraging relationships that are essential to a church. Thankfully, we already had friends here that we had met in our youth (due to Adventist education!) and this church family is so open and welcoming.

Three plus years into our journey here, I am still learning how this church intentionally works to love God and one another. I am actively engaged in this mission, and am grateful for the opportunity to serve.

My children are involved in a youth praise team that leads the congregation during praise time every other month; any young person that is interested in being a part of it is encouraged to join. The youth take this responsibility seriously, and spend time choosing music and practicing their various instruments, currently including piano, cellos, violins, guitar, percussion, and voice. This is purely youth-led; adults may provide transportation to practices, but the youth take the initiative, including planning times to practice! It is clear that they feel they are not only welcome, but encouraged to participate in worship.

Paw Paw also has been blessed with a teen leader, Jan Bermingham, who has the gift of sharing God through drama. She uses her talent, and writes skits and programs that the youth are encouraged to participate in and present to the congregation on a routine basis. My children have really enjoyed this opportunity, and we are grateful for the expansion of their view on ways to share their faith.

Paw Paw has wonderful Pathfinder and Adventurer groups that truly encourage our children to grow closer to God. My children had been involved in these groups at another church, and they have told me they prefer the approach that Paw Paw takes—more encouraging rather than controlling. Not surprisingly, they thought this approach was much more effective!

Early on in our experience at Paw Paw, one of the elders was introducing our church to a conference official who was the guest speaker that day. One of the ways he described our church was “a church that does not fight”. I did not think that was possible, as I had never experienced that culture before at church. Over time, I have realized that it can happen!

[A sad commentary on many supposedly Christian churches!]

This is a church that takes Jesus’ commandment to love one another very seriously. People treat one another with respect and kindness, and that is very evident in the different way we approach problem-solving. If there is disagreement on how to proceed with something, we encourage people to give their input, and then may agree to try one way for a period of time; if that doesn’t work, we try another way. This level of consideration is given even by members with strong opinions. The underlying sentiment is that there is no need to CONTROL others. It is such a refreshing change, and a method that I believe is in accordance with how Jesus showed love.

Another phrase a union official used to describe our church was “a church focused on their youth”. I have never seen this played out so well as at the Paw Paw church. This church feels that the youth are an “integral part” of the church, not just the “future” of our church. Our young people are not just up front once a quarter, or at an annual youth Sabbath; our platform participants include youth almost every week. In addition to strong Sabbath School and Pathfinder/Adventurer programs, we have a strong commitment to Adventist education…through the PPAC Promise, a program that provides significant assistance with tuition costs at the Adventist school of their choice. We encourage our youth to be part of all aspects of our church, including representation on our church board. As you are probably already aware, Paw Paw is a CYE Church of Refuge; we are committed to every facet of this.

We are often referred to as a “Destination church” because many members drive a significant distance to be a part of this church family. I think there are many reasons for this, in addition to those mentioned above. This is a church that enjoys spending time together! We have an active social committee which plans opportunities to do just that. In fact, this weekend, we are going on our annual church campout!

Due to being spread out geographically, we arranged small groups based on location last year that we called “Refresh” groups. We gathered together for Bible studies that helped us better understand our Adventist beliefs within the central theme that God is love. Our sermons each week corresponded to the study we were doing that week. Our family enjoyed the experience so much, that we have continued a young adult small group, where we have recently been discussing various tough issues relevant to us as Christians in our current society. 

This is also a church that accepts people where they are, and encourages them in their walk with Jesus. We feel it is more important to encourage someone, and let God work, than to try to force them to change according to our preferences and schedule. We pray for one another, and even have a group messaging system and Facebook page to keep people current on issues we are praying for.

I also enjoy the way Paw Paw reaches out to the community in so many ways, including active involvement in the local Eleanor’s Pantry (a community organization to help the needy with food and clothing), and participation in a local festival as music groups lifting up our God in song, as well as staffing the First Aid tent.

There are many more things I could add, but I will pause here. My journey has led me to Paw Paw, and I am grateful for this blessing. I have a meaningful appreciation for this group of believers! And I will continue to encourage growth in our commitment to “love God and love others!” (This was on the shirt worn by the volunteers staffing the First Aid tent.)

And finally, Pastor Michael Taylor

I’ve served PPAC as pastor for just over 4 years. Having served as an intern pastor for a few years while I was in seminary, I was really intimidated when I got the call to interview with a larger congregation for my first district on my own. The church leaders were very friendly and encouraging from our first meeting, and I immediately felt at ease with them and I knew it would be a good fit. The day after our interview, the elders even sent my wife a bouquet of flowers with a nice card to welcome her to the congregation too.

Because of my mathematical mind, I started to look at the numbers of the church to get a basic idea of strengths and growth areas. I mapped out where the members lived, and found that just 24% of members lived within 10 minutes of the church. On the other hand, we had members who would drive an hour to worship with us in person (including a family who would drive across the state to be with us!), and several friends of the church from all across the country who regularly worshipped online with us too. I ran demographics of our membership, and found that the average age of a member was in the low 40’s. Once I factored in the dozens of unbaptized children, that average dipped into the upper 30’s! There were plenty of “more experienced” members around, but they were all passionately supporting the new generation of leaders as they took ownership of the congregation that they loved so much. And finally, I looked at the history of the congregation and found that membership had steadily grown for many years, even as pastors come and go. The church wasn’t growing because of the preacher; it was growing because the church had created an atmosphere that was magnetic.

The culture of the Paw Paw church builds itself around a single simple idea: they want to help every man, woman, and child become a disciple of Jesus, and are intentionally using a few core areas as the basis for this process.

  1. They strive for inspiring worship services which are designed to reach beyond various cultural boundaries and minister to the hearts of all ages, races, and backgrounds. It’s a rare Sabbath to not have a child, teenager, or college student on the platform. There’s a joke that “the first time you come, you’re a guest; the second time you come, you’re on the platform.” The elders intentionally seek out new faces each week to invite over for a Sabbath meal, and will often include their new friends in the ministries of the church right away. And even though the musical tone may change from week to week, their services always have the same thing at their heart: a biblical sermon that further impresses God and His ways upon the hearts of the attendees.
  2. They also place a high value on Adventist Education. Everyone who is a member of the church for at least a year, and is actively engaged with the congregation is eligible for our education program. Decades ago, a few pillar families decided that it would be better to support all of our area church schools than to build their own. They had the students and the money to establish a school if they wanted, but they opted to help strengthen the programs around the area instead. Because of this ministry, we now have 30 kids in 6 different area schools! This program doesn’t just appeal to families who struggle to pay bills; we’ve had several families who regularly contribute to the fund who don’t have any children of their own but see the value in “educating for eternity”.
  3. Finally, the church leaders have worked to create a sense of “community” among its members where all people can feel like they belong. Members work together, camp together, eat together, run together, play together, and grow together. I’ve personally flown model planes, bounced on trampolines at Skyzone, camped, kayaked, tried Chinese food, been on a mission trip, been hit in the face with a pie, and welcomed my 3 children into this world with members of my church by my side. PPAC isn’t just some place that my family goes to on a Sabbath morning; it’s the people who make up my closest friends and spiritual family. This fellowship also extends into the religious realm; we occasionally offer semesters of our home small group ministries, known as “Refresh Groups”, for further bonding and nurture.

There’s so much more I could say about the church, but that’s where I’ll stop. I look forward to serving with this congregation for many more years to come.

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