Muffled hymns are heard from the white-steepled church as a car speeds through a corridor of yellow corn. On it goes, rushing for the nearest populace, far from Moreland, Ohio.
Inside, the churchgoers sing fluidly as they stand poised between the wooden pews, which are mounted to years-worn red carpet. There are no stained-glass windows, no ornate sconces or crown moldings — nothing to distract the devoted minds of a plain and simple Methodist theology: all need to be saved, all may be saved.
A young Jon Clevenger listens intently to the corporate harmonies ringing in his little ears around him. The practiced altos anchored by the warm basses, evened out by the sharp tenors. He watches the pianist’s fingers rhythmically swim across the keys. His concentration breaks momentarily and he locks eyes with his brothers, who are giggling at a barely audible level and he slants his brows slightly to hush them up. They reduce their giggles to knowing smiles.
Satisfied, Jon anticipates the well-prepared sermon, he feels safe and secure knowing he is surrounded by family and friends he trusts. This is his church. His community.
Adult: (adjective): fully grown and developed. :mature and sensible, not childish. :of or intended for adults.
I think adulthood is a fluid thing, a state of being. Some grown-ups act more like children and vice versa. There’s no age. No arrival.
Maybe being an adult means people take you seriously. Maybe it means they respect you.
Maybe that’s what troubles me more than anything in life right now … being respected in an avenue of life I didn’t plan for myself.
Instead, I’m working for a secular university. It’s not that I hate what I’m doing. I just had other expectations. I thought by now I’d be married, with a family on the way and a teaching job at an elementary school. Teaching children the fundamentals of math and reading and writing and playing nice.
I spent six years getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree in early childhood education. I wasn’t messing around. I knew what I wanted to do and I worked hard to get the chance to do it.
I love everything about being around children — they remind me of my own childhood.
It was happy and I was loved by two parents who love each other. That’s all kids need really. So many of them don’t experience love and I want to be someone that gives a child a good memory. One that follows them all through life. One they’re proud to have.
I became a Christian during my happy childhood because it just made sense. And I’ve had affirmations that I’m on the right track ever since I put that belief into words.
Those affirmations were gentle nudges of growth — skin stretching open to form new space. I remember one of those nudges very clearly.
When I went off to college, suddenly I had to decide whether or not to profess my Christianity. Growing up, when Sunday came around, the family scurried to church like it wasn’t even an option. In my dorm, with my partier roommates, scurrying to church wasn’t an option. I knew I should go somewhere. But it became easy to ignore the chore of choosing a church in an area I was unfamiliar with.
One day, I remember walking to class in the cold. I saw my breath float upwards toward the crow-filled, gray sky and thought, ‘I need … something.’ Apparently God heard my heart because I spotted a flyer advertising something on some night. Something familiar.
I’m still figuring out why I went. Meeting new people has never been my forte. Small talk, questions about my life, opening up, expressing my thoughts … all of that scares me a little.
Looking back, I can start to see the reason. It’s at that thing where my idea of church started expanding. It’s because of that thing my relationship with God became more significant than hanging out with other churchgoers.
Growth: (noun) a stage in the process of growing: the process of growing: progressive development: increase, expansion.
There was something about that night that kept me coming back. The days became weeks and the weeks became months until now I’ve been going to these mini church things for years. Each time I went was a nudge, stretching my child skin slightly, affirmably, until finally it became clear this version of the Christian life was the one I had known existed but had never seen.
Maybe God wanted me to grow.
When I walked in to the thing I saw people I didn’t recognize but I instantly felt a surge of belonging. Someone greeted me right away and suggested I play ping-pong. I did.
Then we started singing. The songs were a mix of old and new. There was something in the singing and playing of instruments that rang differently. I know the truth always existed in the lyrics, but this time it sounded different to my soul. This time it was the point in which that nudge had created new skin.
I remember thinking, this is what church should be like.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the church I grew up in. That church with the red carpet and the friendly geriatric crowd. An aura conducive to forming a firm foundation — one that I naturally grew from.
That thing I went to that night had a name: Something Different, Something Real. SDSR for short. It was. Different, real. We asked questions, we read the bible. We planned outings, we messed up here and there. It was led by 19-year-old students like me and it was my new family.
I eventually felt comfortable enough to start helping out where I could. The first thing I tried was making Powerpoints for lyrics. SDSRs became a regular Friday night thing where we sang some songs, played some games, got serious in the word and made new friends along the way. I was in charge of making sure all the right lyrics showed up on the screen during the songs. I also made slides with announcements for things coming up. I liked being in the background.
Before I knew it, though, I emerged from the background to the foreground. More and more I grew attached to keeping this community in tact. I cared about it too much to let it slip away. What happens when college is over?
When we all get jobs and a family and a house with neighbors?
So I started going to planning meetings. I made my voice heard. And then I became the leader.
At this point, we met almost every day. Bible studies, SDSR, hang-outs. It became hard to imagine not having this community. It worked. We had built a “church,” a family, a community. And then it all slowly fell apart.
Even though we had a certain amount of autonomy, there were authority figures that helped keep us accountable. Those people graduated and then they were replaced. The replacements wanted us to do “it” differently.
It didn’t work. And the community became distant — I could see the family becoming dysfunctional. So I ran away. I didn’t actually go anywhere, just retreated because I didn’t know what else I could do.
But I could feel that gentle nudge. Though gentle, it hurt. This time it wasn’t welcome and I resisted letting it do what it had done before so effectively: teach me something. This time the nudge stretched my skin and introduced steadfastness.
Steadfast: very devoted or loyal to a person, belief, or cause : not changing. : firmly fixed in place: not subject to change. : firm in belief, determination, or adherence.
I stayed. And a year after going through the change, which left the group tattered and in mosaics, the group became smaller but stronger. Different but relevant. And nearly 10 years later, God still uses that group to draw His people nearer to Him. Including me.
Author’s note: Jon still volunteers his time and effort into leading from the background in Awakening Ministries Inc., the grown up version of what it was in his college days. He is one of the founding members and he still faithfully serves by typing up the lyric slides for each and every worship night. He lives and works in Mansfield as a Special Projects Associate for The Ohio State University at Mansfield and attends First United Methodist Church.