KATHLEEN -- Pastor Steve Wood tells the story of a guy who came to his church, The River, after being invited again and again for six months.
Wood said the guy used plenty of excuses: He couldnt come because he didnt have the right clothes; he couldnt wear his hat; he didnt want to stay through a long service; and the church might cave in if he walked through the door.
Wood told him none of those things mattered. He didnt have to wear fancy clothes, he could wear his hat, the service was just an hour and he was sure the building would survive his visit.
When he finally decided to visit, Wood said the man parked in the farthest parking space and watched people to see how they dressed and acted. When he decided to come in he sat by himself on the back row.
Wood said he came back. And came back again. He said he found the people friendly but not bothersome and the messages intriguing, useful, even enlightening.
This guy who hadnt been to church since his high school days kept coming, met Jesus, was baptized and became a part of the church, Wood said. There are tons of stories just like that. People come, and people graciously love them just the way they are.
Wood said thats the reason The River was begun: to reach out to people -- mostly in the 18-to-35-year-old range -- who had never been to church or who for one reason or another just didnt think they liked church.
I saw so many people like that, Wood said. The Lord strongly laid it on my heart to begin a church that was less traditional and more relevant to those people. What music were they listening to on the radio? Not choir music with organs. We use more contemporary, guitar-driven music. How did they learn? Maybe not in the traditional way of teaching the Bible. I teach from a needs-based perspective. What are peoples needs? I start there and then take them to what the Bible says.
So in 2006, Woods left his career as a youth pastor, the previous 11 years of which had been at Central Baptist Church, and began The River with meetings at Houston County High School. After about six months, they moved to a church facility being vacated on Ga. 127 near its intersection with Houston Lake Road.
Woods said though its a young church with a young demographic, people of all ages have caught the vision and come to be a part.
We work at being welcoming, he said. Were very relaxed -- a come-as-you-are type of place, and we try not to be pretentious. We believe people matter to God more than how they show up.
That people matter is the first of The Rivers eight core values. Wood said the others are that teaching should be for life change; life change takes place best in small groups; real Christ-followers grow; God is honored in excellence; methods change but the message is unchanging; every member is a minister; and focusing on things that unite rather than divide is important.
I could talk all day about the people here, Wood said. Theyre awesome. Such a giving and loving group of people. Our arms are open to any and everybody. We have such a variety of folks from the tattoo artist who comes and loves it here to the 78-year-old man I baptized who hadnt been to a church in 50-something years. We love Jesus and want others to fall in love with him. Thats the thing, to know Jesus.
A native of Texas, Woods is a graduate of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. He and his wife, Lynn, have two children.
Contact Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.