Usually, when pastor Rick Countryman goes away on vacation, he asks a nationally known speaker or another pastor on his staff to preach at Big Valley Grace Community Church. This year, he gave up his pulpit to four senior pastors from other denominations in town and asked them to preach on the theme of “Unity.”
He invited an additional 11 pastors to speak to youth and men’s groups in June.
“The idea was born out of when I was a high school student in town and I didn’t know Jesus,” Countryman said. “It seemed to me that churches were competing with one another, and it didn’t make sense to me. My perception was that they weren’t on the same team, and that’s always bothered me.
“I’ve seen churches in this town do some really great things together. I thought I’d take it a step further. I wanted our people to see that we have brothers and sisters in other locations in town. We all love Jesus. We may worship a little differently, we may talk differently, we may sing different songs, but we’re all one in Christ.”
The guest pastors crossed racial, cultural and denominational divides.
One week, Glen Berteau of The House in Modesto (formerly Calvary Temple) spoke. Cliff Traub, who recently retired after decades of service at The One Church (formerly Bethel Church) was honored during the same weekend services.
Other weeks featured sermons by the Rev. Mark Krieger, Modesto Covenant Church; the Rev. Carl Bryant, Greater True Light Baptist Church; and pastor Bob Irwin, Mill Creek Community Church.
Scott Nelson, Covenant Grove Church; Nathaniel and Rita Green, Christ Unity Church; and Chuck Adams, The Carpenter’s House; also were introduced in the worship gatherings.
Speaking to a men’s group were Johnny Kinimaka, First Baptist Church in Newman; Tim Giannosa, Calvary Community Church in Manteca; Marvin Jacobo, Youth for Christ; and Vince Tye, Old German Baptist Church. Youth pastors participating were Erik Anderson, Modesto Covenant; Dan Navarra, Trinity United Presbyterian Church; and Wade Patton, The Salvation Army Citadel Corps.
“Everything I heard was positive, not only from our people, but from their people, too,” Countryman said. “I think all of them had some of their people come over to hear them preach, which was cool, too.”
BVG executive pastor Bobby Fisher said, “The whole issue here is that this is what the church should be. They all brought their own styles and stories, and it was so cool. We’re not in competition with them; we’re in a partnership with them for the glory of God.
“One of Rick’s real strengths is building relationships with other pastors. He feels we’ve been blessed and are here to be a blessing to other churches. We took a special offering last Christmas and gave gifts to other churches in town that don’t have the resources we do. We did it because we care.”
Finding substitute speakers was not his goal, Countryman said. “I was only gone for two of the weeks; I was here for the other two. That wasn’t the main deal. I truly believe the Scripture says we are one in Christ. I was thrilled with how the Lord put it all together.”
Irwin said, “The experience was wonderful. The people of Big Valley were very hospitable and welcoming.”
He said the theme of unity is a critical one.
“The topic is very important to God and our community,” Irwin said. “I believe what pastor Rick and his staff did will make a ripple effect, not only in our city, but possibly throughout the country. I’d like to see this done on a citywide level next summer.”
Bryant, who usually preaches to a congregation of about 30, said it is not unusual for him to be asked to speak at other churches. This time, he focused on a message of unity despite racial differences.
“I think the main point is that we are one in Christ, but we are not the same. We do see color. But when we get into those intimate relationships with Christ, we don’t say, ‘I don’t see color,’ but rather ‘I see Christ in you.’ That’s the diversity of Christ.
“I used my own experience about being one in the body of Christ across racial lines. People came up afterward and shared some of their own concerns they had seen in the body of Christ. It was special.”
Berteau said he “felt at home” as soon as he walked into the church.
“I had many people come back to the BVG visitors room (after the service) and thank me for coming,” he said. “The comments I received were so positive. It reinforced the heart of Christ; that we all wear the same uniform and play on the same team. We are teammates. When it was announced Saturday evening and Sunday morning to my congregation that I would be speaking at BVG, I was told that my church applauded and everyone stopped and prayed.
“I thought it was an outstanding statement of pastors and churches in our community displaying what the word of God says about unity.”
Krieger said he has preached at a sister church in Modesto, but this was his first time at a church outside his denomination, and the first at a Saturday night service. He called it a “great” experience.
“Every church is different in terms of size and worship traditions,” he said. “Yet, while the setting was different, Big Valley Grace is part of God’s Kingdom and our brothers and sisters in Christ! I was blessed to be with them, and I hope they were blessed to have each of us speak.”
He said his own congregation supported his time away from them.
“I had many, many positive responses and our people were very supportive,” he said. “Our church felt a oneness in Christ through my involvement at BVG.”
The bottom line, said Bryant, “is this is God’s church and not ours. We’re co-neighbors working for God.”
He had praise for Countryman, too.
“For a pastor to feel confident enough to open up his pulpit speaks volumes to his character,” Bryant said. “We can talk about being one in Christ all we want, but until we use action, it’s just words. If churches are going to have an impact, it will take something like this to get it done.”