Authenticity Strengthens Michigan Church’s Impact on Community
By John Mattern
Pastor Matt Stone arrived at Greenville First Church of God in Michigan as the “youth and music guy” in the spring of 2010. His love for people drew him toward building relationships, coaching football, and becoming a fixture around town. Stone started asking open-ended, “wondering” questions in his various ministry roles from the high value he placed on authenticity. He worked to make room for the real-life challenges, struggles, and joys that people faced.
By September 2019, the “youth and music guy” was voted in as the congregation’s new lead pastor. Over the years from arrival to this lead ministry, Stone found himself walking with people through the difficult things in life rather than striving to provide simple answers. The question, “What does genuine community look like?” reshaped his approach. Stone didn’t rush to answer that question by himself. Instead, he “Rejoices with those who rejoice” and “weeps with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), seeing where God leads.
God’s leading helped Stone reimagine Sunday school, which is now called “After Church” as a place for genuine community and looking beyond simple answers. The goal was creating spaces for meaningful discussion and dialogue. With the pandemic and move to online services already undertaken, Matt shifted “After Church” to a Zoom meeting. The gathering is a talkback time framed around a few open-ended, wondering questions like those important to Stone. Typically, around fifty-percent of the church participates from week to week. Matt says, “It’s nothing crazy. It’s just real-life application; the shared experience of wrestling with what Jesus is trying to teach us.” This method creates proximity, which Stone sees as necessary for finding unity. The result is a community where people can be vulnerable, ask questions, and face the world together in Christ. Matt does not pretend everything is perfect. He says simply, “It’s honest, real, and endearing.” That is a space where God works.
These wondering questions about community, authenticity and love in action also challenged the church to partner with “Feeding America” to provide a monthly mobile food bank. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Way and City Church stepped in to help make weekly food distributions. Stone saw the need increase from the 120 families typically served to 280 families in the first week of the pandemic. Matt sees how the church’s long-standing faithfulness in authentically serving their community enabled them to expand when there was need. As he says, “Never miss out on an opportunity to be the kingdom of God right here, right now.”
Stone has recognized the questions offered to the church had to be ones he also asked himself along the way. He observes, “People aren’t polished works of art to be admired. People are complicated. I am complicated. There is more going on in me than I know. You can’t squash the complicated inner soul-work.” Stone points to the question Jesus once asked a sick man (“Do you want to be made well?” from John 5:2–9) as a personal guidepost. He does not see how he can help others engage the messiness and complexity of community life without first engaging his own. Matt has become “woefully transparent” with his struggles, triumphs, questions, doubts, and thoughts. He feels that God has “called me to be me” and invites others to do the same.
An example of how this challenge to authenticity helped him personally was taking his own health more seriously. He started intentionally working out, began to eat right, and lost 150 pounds. Transformation happened. Spiritually, Stone leaned into the love of Jesus. He regularly works out at a gym, meets people for lunch, and talks with others at coffee shops. He has become “sort of an unpaid employee,” as he puts it, at the local Third Wave Coffee.
Matt comments on how significant the Greenville church has been in his growth and development. In his experience, “Faith, church, and life do not follow a simple formula. It sounds like it should be easy, but it isn’t. Simplicity isn’t simple.” Stone says that the Greenville community needs God’s people living authentic lives and practicing humility. “I love this place. The church people, the community, and the area.” Open-ended, wondering questions, grounded in his high value on authenticity, has led the church to practicing real life, real connections, real compassion, and real change.
Help churches like these respond to urgent needs in their communities as a result of COVID-19:
To read about Matt’s weight loss, visit https://healthbeat.spectrumhealth.org/living-a-better-life-losing-weight-healthier-life-gastric-sleeve-running/. To learn about Third Wave Coffee, visit http://thirdwavebelding.com/.
Rev. John Mattern and his wife Emily pastor First Church of God in Saint Johns, Michigan. This is one of the oldest congregations in the Church of God founded 1889.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.