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Students Learn from Local Pastors

Mikayla Gainor

A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the work that goes into preparing for PRM ICO trips. Now we get to hear a snippet of one team’s experience over break. In the Rust Belt Region, my team visited five churches over six days. Reflecting again on the team’s vision statement, it was neat to watch how the themes of learning and serving played out to ultimately provide mutual encouragement in the faith for both pastors and students alike.  

Living Faith Baptist Church Pastor Mark Sentell

On Saturday morning, our team of twelve loaded up into two vans and headed down to Fombell. We made introductions to Pastor Mark and the assistant pastor, Wade Henderson, over coffee and delicious homemade banana bread. Then we got to work helping with various tasks around the church. Some people painted, some did yardwork, and others cleaned. This was a rewarding time of working with our hands and diving into good conversation in the smaller groups we paired up with. During lunch, Mike, a faithful member of the church, shared his heart for service and the car ministry he developed. In describing how this ministry came to be, he especially emphasized God’s goodness and ability to use broken people for his glory.

After lunch, we broke up into groups again and set out to canvass Fombell. As we drove around knocking on people’s doors, we had the opportunity to hear first-hand perspectives from the people living in that community. The primary goal was to get a glimpse of the joys and the struggles of the town, in order to understand how the church could best serve them and meet their needs. We encountered many responses, but in almost every case, people expressed that they loved living in Fombell because of the open space, the beauty of nature, and the quiet and separation from other people. Homes are fairly spread apart, and there are beautiful hills and winding backroads in this area. The main problems people commented on were bad roads and unreliable internet. In a few cases, some people invited us into their home and expressed their desire for more community events.

Churches thrive when they spend time in the place they do ministry. You can’t understand the context or the people you are serving unless you are right there with them.

Pastor Mark Sentell

In the evening, Pastor Mark and his wife, Lise, graciously had us over for dinner, and we had the privilege of hearing their story and vision for their church. Their emphasis is on integrating each member of the body – single, divorced, married, child, adult, etc. – in a meaningful way to create a church that feels like one big family. Being a smaller church, they encourage intergenerational relationships where believers can learn from each other in various walks of faith. Pastor Mark also explained his vision for teaching parents how to instruct their kids in the way of the Lord, knowing that parents often have the most influence in their kids’ lives and the ability to bring them up biblically.  

On Sunday morning, we experienced the family feel that Pastor Mark had described. It was special to see how the kids engaged in the service alongside the adults. There was a unique level of comfortability people had with one another, especially in sharing prayer requests with the body as a whole. Over lunch, the Sentells, along with their daughter, Tessa, shared about the importance of living where you serve, especially in their rural context where families stay in the same place for numerous generations. Pastor Mark said that “Churches thrive when they spend time in the place they do ministry. You can’t understand the context or the people you are serving unless you are right there with them.” Tessa also encouraged us to live where we work and worship with the people we work with. “Street cred goes a long way,” she said, “in being able to have an impact somewhere and having people embrace you.”

The remainder of the evening was spent running a youth group event. After many fruitful conversations, it was exciting to then tap into middle school energy and run around with the kids shooting nerf guns, sharing testimonies, and smashing whip cream pies in people’s faces. We were thankful for the time we had to experience Fombell, learn from Pastor Mark, Wade, and their families, and connect with the youth in that community.

Mosaic Community Church - Pastor Nate Keisel 

At Mosaic Community Church, we met Pastor Nate Keisel and Joseph Joiner. We spent a few hours helping them organize different areas of the church, create a Sunday school lesson plan, and package some food boxes. The rest of the time we were blessed to sit with them, learn about their ministry philosophy, and encourage one another through prayer. In 2017, Mosaic began meeting in a home. Then they rented a building in 2018. By 2019, they bought their own building and have been meeting there ever since. You can read specifically about Nate’s life story in an earlier blog post, “From Prison to Church Plant.”

As we gathered around Nate in comfy couches where the teens usually meet, Nate explained why they had decided to create a church plant there, in the heart of such a town. To understand the significance of this, one must understand the context of Jeannette. In the late 1800s, Jeannette was a booming industry nicknamed “glass city” due to the numerous glass factories that were founded there. In later years, however, things began to shut down, and it is now an impoverished city. The schools there are ranked about 650 out of 700, and the town does not even have its own grocery store. Shops have gone out of business and people see escape from the town as the only way forward in life. Interestingly, while still being a rural area, Jeannette has the feel of a city. Nate described it as a rural town with urban issues but no urban resources.

Knowing that people primarily want to leave this town makes it especially significant that Nate and others chose to move there with their families, settle down, and start a church plant. In explaining this decision, Nate described his philosophy of missions and, like Pastor Mark Sentell, emphasized the importance of living where you serve. When you do not live where you serve, you are often not as concerned about the needs in the community. Nate gave the example that if your kids aren’t going to the same schools as the people in your community and therefore are not experiencing the same issues, you are less likely to be concerned about it and less likely to strive after change.

When you do not live where you serve, you also are not the most appropriate resource. In looking at Jesus’ ministry example, Nate pointed out that Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Matthew 18:11), which meant being accessible to those he served. “Resources don’t matter if they’re not accessible,” Nate explained. Jesus left Heaven and relocated to earth as a man in order to dwell among us and become one of us. At the core, his ministry was relational. He sat, ate, and talked with people. He understood their true needs and performed signs and miracles to satisfy them. Nate shared that “the best thing you can do for the poor is plant a church in their midst. The government can give handouts, but the church has the ability to get to know the people and help them overcome whatever is keeping them from thriving.” 

We are not a melting pot. We are a mosaic because each piece adds together to create a beautiful image and reflect the glory of God, even in our brokenness.

Pastor Nate Keisel

Another goal of Mosaic’s ministry is to promote cross-cultural community by maintaining the integrity of the different ethnicities in their congregation, rather than blending groups, which actually diminishes the value of cultural differences. “We are not a melting pot,” Nate explained. “We are a mosaic because each piece adds together to create a beautiful image and reflect the glory of God, even in our brokenness. Everyone is made in the image of God, and we are made with diversity in order to reflect his vast, deep, and rich nature. No one person can accurately represent the fullness of God’s character. It takes all of creation – past, present, and future – to even come close to doing this.” 

If we are going to do cross-cultural ministry, we need to ask ourselves, “What are you willing to sacrifice to make this work?” It is easy to assume that our way of doing things is the only or best way, so it takes a lot of humility, listening, and understanding to appreciate that people’s experiences are different. We need to be willing to give up our personal levels of comfortability, so long as we remain gospel centered. Challenge yourself to consider which issues are actually sin issues versus preferential differences. 

First Presbyterian Church of Jeannette – Pastor Dawn Sherwood  

On Tuesday, after meeting once more at Mosaic to hear Joseph’s life story and talk on identity, we went right across the street to First Presbyterian Church of Jeannette. Church officers ushered us in the doors with a hearty welcome. With great gusto, they led us in singing some songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” to keep up the energy until we did introductions with Pastor Dawn Sherwood. We then wasted no time in jumping into our task: a prayer walk through the city of Jeannette.

Pastor Dawn took the lead as we made our way through town, first stopping to pray with the mayor and then at local businesses. Though cloudy at first, the sun soon began to shine, and other members of the church joyfully joined our excursion. While some businesses turned down the offer for prayer, others were moved by it and thankful we stopped by. Among other things, we especially prayed for revival in the town, restoration of its profitability, and a renewal of hope in the community. Along our way, we stopped at the community garden. Like Nate, Dawn explained the need for healthy and accessible food in Jeannette. While her church has some food for emergency situations, these green spaces provide a slightly more consistent option for people to grow their own produce. Lastly, we walked down the streets where people lived, prayed with them, and asked what they thought could make Jeannette better. One person wished that people took more pride in their community; people tend to throw trash everywhere which only reiterates the lack of care in that town. Others agreed with Pastor Dawn that learning certain life skills could be helpful.

When we returned to the church for dinner, we learned more about Dawn’s story and congregation. There are about 30 members, most of which have grown up in that church and function as a faithful tight-knit community. Pastor Dawn is incredibly committed to her church and makes it a priority. Her desire is for everyone to feel welcomed and loved there. When considering vision, she often goes back to this question: “If our church disappeared today, would our community miss us? Would we have made a difference?” Her goal is to be active in helping the community and making a difference. Her hope for the future is to partner with other churches to meet some of the needs in the community. In her mind, each church has its own strengths. For example, their church is gifted musically, while others might be more gifted with cooking, etc. She hopes to work together as the bigger Church to serve the community’s needs, understanding the various gifts that each member of the body offers.

Lastly, our team joined some members of the church in an online Bible Study on forgiveness. It was special to engage in their community and see the healing that God was bringing through individual stories of reconciliation. 

Rose Point Church - Pastor Charles Brown

After a morning of rest, fellowship, Lectio Divina, and prayer as a team, we drove to Rose Point Church in the afternoon. Pastor Charles explained to us how his church began with mostly dairy farmers in 1868 after WWII; their church is one of the oldest in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. They are a very traditional church that practices exclusive psalmody, and their main ministries are prayer, worship, and fellowship. Pastor Charles expressed his gratitude for the congregation and their faithfulness in the midst of the increasing secularization of America. Being an older and smaller community of about 60 people, he appreciates the healthy family dynamic and active participation of members.

Pastor Charles commented on the vital importance of believers committing to a local church, and he has been encouraged to see God at work through people’s commitment in their body. Similarly, he has enjoyed partnering with PRM and has been encouraged to see college students using their break to serve local churches. It is exciting for him to see how God is using young people as well and to know that the gospel will continue to spread!

After our conversation with him, our team did some cleaning and organizing in the attic. During dinner, we met the rest of Charles’ family and some members of their congregation. It was sweet to experience their hospitality and interact with the kids. To finish the night, two members from our team, Brooke Hosler and Emmaruby Whiteford, led the congregation in a Bible Study on prayer.

Mount Chestnut Presbyterian Church – Pastor Ron Schermerhorn (PC USA) 

On our last day, after some team reflection time, we met Pastor Ron Schermerhorn at Mount Chestnut Presbyterian Church. With spunky energy, he welcomed us in and learned all of our names. We then set to work doing different tasks around the church. Some painted, others organized rooms, and others shredded paperwork. Later that evening, the youth group kids joined us for dinner, and we played some fun circle games. We sang and worshipped together, and then a couple of people on our team shared a message.

The last portion of our time there was spent talking with Pastor Ron. He shared that one of the reasons he loved being a pastor so much was that he had the ability to take truth from Scripture and explain it in a way that was practical and applicable. He commented on the necessity of doing so when one preaches because if it does not have relevance to people’s lives, it will not create change. A motto at their church comes from asking, “What am I going to do with what I learned?”

Good ministry is a matter of trust. People want to know that the person in the pulpit is the same as the person at their bedside when they’re sick or at their table for dinner.

Pastor Ron Shermerhorn

Pastor Ron also emphasized the importance of being authentic – in yourself and in God. “Good ministry is a matter of trust,” he said and “not necessarily the amount of time you spend there. People want to know that the person in the pulpit is the same as the person at their bedside when they’re sick or at their table for dinner.” Rather than seeking to please man, seek to please God first. “Life is too short to try being someone you’re not,” he explained. Time is of the essence when it comes to sharing the gospel, and to do so requires authenticity. He left us with this final advice: “Be yourself and get to know Christ. Love everyone. The longer you get to know Christ, the more you’ll hear his voice. Draw near to Him and He will draw near to you.”

Concluding Remarks

            While there is no way to fully capture the conversations and experiences we had, it is my hope that you were able to get a glimpse into the beautiful moments we witnessed and the meaningful lessons we learned. I hope that you too learned something new and were able to connect with the stories of the people we shared. Stay tuned for an update on the Appalachian team and more student reflections!

Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a junior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.