My family moved to Kentucky for the first time in 1978, about a year before I started Kindergarten. While they've considered it home since that time, we moved around so much during the next few years that we really didn't settle in there permanently until the fall of 1984. It is, even still, the single place I've considered home for the longest time (although my current locale of Southern California is becoming a close second!).
Having finally settled into a permanent location in '84, my family was finally able to find a church home (we did start going to church more regularly the previous year, but that was another 9-month deal), and my parents chose a particular church for two reasons. 1) It was Presbyterian, which has been my father's home denomination for most of his life. [Although it should be noted for accuracy that the current PC(USA) came into existence in 1983 with the merger of the two largest Presbyterian denominations extant at that time.] 2) Two long-time friends from our early time in Kentucky also called this particular church home.
Although we had finally found a permanent home, we were the only members of our extended family to live there. The closest relatives, geographically, were my great-grandpa and his daughter (my great-aunt) who lived in Chicago, which is a good 5+ hour drive north. So finding a church family took on increased importance. Although my siblings and I always felt somewhat like "outsiders" in our youth group among people who had grown up around each other their whole lives, we've made a number of friendships that continue to this day.
Especially important among these friendships was the bond created between our pastor (who arrived at our church only a year after we did) and our family. The pastor's son was about three years old when they arrived, and despite the age difference with my younger brother (who would have been about 10 already), they hit it off immediately. My pastor and my dad shared an interest in model trains, and so our families had occasion to spend a lot of time with each other. The relationship took on a lot more character of "friend," than of "pastor-parishioner." Although he and his family have since moved on to serve another church, we still keep in touch.
A few things happened to me, personally, during this time that have taken on increasing significance in the passing years. As I got ready to enter high school, my youth group took the first of what would be several week-long trips to Montreat, North Carolina, to participate in the annual youth conference. Another was my involvement in the Louisville Presbyterian Youth Council.
Montreat is a small town of about 700 people, mostly known for being the home of evangelist Billy Graham. It is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is an absolutely beautiful part of the country. The youth conference is the major event each year for the Montreat Conference Center, which is one of the major PC(USA) conference centers in the country. The youth conference attracts about 1000 high school youth (plus their adult sponsors) for each event. The conferences have grown from one, one-week event in the 70s, to three separate events during my first year there (1988), to what I understand are six separate events in Montreat, and a couple of "satellite" conferences in other parts of the country. Without question, it the largest event the Conference Center plans each year. Although the entire group meets in the morning for a keynote message, again at night for worship, and other times throughout the week for games, concerts, and other events, the most important part of the conference is the small group sessions. These sessions bring about 20 strangers together at the beginning of the week who (more often than not) will have formed close bonds by the end, sharing mailing addresses (in the age before e-mail) to keep in touch after they have returned to their homes throughout the country.
The youth conference was a major awakening for me. Much of my spiritual background was formed through the messages taught there. In particular, the sermons of my second year (1989) were absolutely amazing, and my church purchased copies of those sermons, which I've listened to many, many times over the years that have followed. In the near future, I will begin posting excerpts from these sermons, which I have obtained permission from the pastor to transcribe and post, to give you a feel for what happened during this time.
My involvement in the Louisville Presbyterian Youth Council gave me some experience working on camps and retreats, which led to my appointment to the planning team for the 1992 Montreat Youth Conference. I was able to meet with a group of youth, elders, and pastors (some of whom I'd known of from previous conferences) over a period of about a year and a half to do the planning and execution of some of the very conferences that had already been such an important part of my Christian story. It was a wonderful time that I still count as one of the highlights of my life.
By the time I graduated from high school, these and other experiences had already worked to define my call to church ministry. Aided in preparation from our pastor friend, who has since become a mentor, I enrolled for college classes at the place that had already been so important to me: Montreat.
But that's a story for another time....