By Chris Moon
If you’d told John Wagner years ago he would end up leading the church he grew up attending, he never would have believed you.
“I never thought I’d go back,” Wagner told Christian Standard.
Wagner left his boyhood church and hometown, First Christian Church of Union, Mo., in 1984 to attend St. Louis Christian College. He went back long enough to be ordained by the church’s elders and then embarked on a ministry career of more than 30 years that took him to Illinois and back to Missouri. Nearly 20 of those years were with First Christian Church in Versailles, Mo.
But things change over the years, and the elders at FCC in Union called Wagner when they were struggling and in need of a minister. How could he say no?
“We all look older, and life has gone on,” Wagner jokes. He took over as minister in October 2019.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
But Wagner’s not the only one to “return home” to First Christian Church in Union.
Wagner’s associate minister is Alan Hannaford, who pastored the church from 1972 to 1982—when Wagner was a child and teen. Hannaford served as the church’s interim pastor just before Wagner arrived.
“He came in to fill the gap—he never thought he’d be back in Union [either],” Wagner said. “It’s kind of a childhood dream come true to be serving with one of the fathers of my faith.”
Meanwhile, Rob Rash serves as worship and discipleship minister with the church, after previously serving there from 2008 to 2013.
Also, Shaun Ratcliff, the church’s student minister, became a Christian at the church nearly a decade ago—he grew up in his faith there—before joining the church’s staff.
Wagner said the plan wasn’t to build out the church’s staff with former pastors and homegrown ministers, but it has worked out well.
Being familiar with the community is helpful—as is being familiar with the culture of the church. Wagner notes that the church’s staff members come from different eras in the church’s history, and so they collectively know the life and times of FCC in a comprehensive way.
“There’s that uniqueness,” Wagner said. “You don’t have to wonder what I have to do to be loved. You’re home, even though home has been remodeled a little bit.”
DEALING WITH COVID-19
The benefits of a homegrown staff have been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, which broke out shortly after Wagner returned. The church is averaging more than 200 people in Sunday attendance, down from about 300 just before the pandemic began.
Wagner said he’s pleased with that, and the church has gained quite a few families who began watching the church online during the shutdowns.
One of the church’s signature ministries during the height of the pandemic was called “Preserving the Faith.”
Ladies in the church put together preserves, and leaders dropped them off at the homes of every church member. They prayed with those who still were staying at home and asked how the church could serve them during the trying times.
“That was exciting,” Wagner said. “The church here is doing really well. I don’t know what’s caused it other than God’s blessing.”
PLANNING A CONVENTION
Meanwhile, Wagner is serving as the president of the Missouri Christian Convention.
The convention normally hosts about 1,000 people at the Lake of the Ozarks, but the event is going virtual this year. The convention will take place March 13 and feature main-session speakers Brian Jennings and Victor Knowles.
Wagner said the biggest drawback of an online conference is the inability of attendees to fellowship with each other as they normally would.
The theme of the convention comes from John 20:21, where Jesus told his disciples,
“Peace be with you.”
“The idea of peace is what our world needs today,” Wagner said. “There’s so much animosity and anger and hatred and [discomfort]. The only thing that can resolve this is the peace of Christ.”
Individuals and churches can register for the conference at www.mcconvention.org.