How My Grandfather Inspired Me to Embrace Change

As Christians, why is it that we celebrate transformational change in the life of a person and yet resist transformational change in the life of a church? The reality is that we serve an unchangeable God who changes everything He touches. The power of God is synonymous with change. When an individual experiences the power of God, he/she changes and becomes transformed. The same is true of a church that experiences the power of God.

The Church of God holiness movement believes that personal transformation is evidence of an infilling of the power of God through the Holy Spirit. The early years of the Church of God were marked with not only a burning desire to see souls transformed through the proclamation of the gospel, but also a pioneering spirit of risk taking for the sake of the lost. The church embraced all sorts of new-fangled ways to expand the kingdom of God: they used the novel idea of a church publishing house to get the gospel to masses; they retrofitted a boat christened the “Floating Bethel” to evangelize along the banks of the Ohio River; they set up tent meetings, camp meetings; they preached from street corners; they embraced the medium of radio and broadcast the message of the Church of God to millions.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Church of God wanted to reach out to the mass of immigrants coming to America. They specifically targeted immigrants who were making their way to the Ohio River Valley to work in the blast furnaces and mills that lined the riverbanks of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia (places that years ago the Church of God had planted congregations in part through the ministry of the Floating Bethel). After World War I, a young man named Karl Matas left his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his extended family to immigrate from what is now Slovakia to America in the hope of a better life. He made the voyage across the Atlantic in a ship that once served Kaiser Wilhelm but now was owned and operated by the victorious Allies. As the ship entered New York harbor, he stood on the deck along with thousands of other passengers from Europe and saw for the first time the towering Statue of Liberty. He was processed through Ellis Island and then made his way to the bustling steel town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with hopes of working in the hot blast furnaces and steel mills that lined the Stonycreek River in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. He sacrificed everything for the sake of freedom and the hope of a better life. In Slovakia, he was a peasant from a family of peasants. In America, he was a free man who could determine his own future.

The Church of God had planted a Slovak-speaking church in Johnstown complete with hymnals and Bibles all printed in Slovak. The church reached out to my grandfather and for the first time he heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and his life was transformed. Through the church, he met and married Mary Rusnak, a beautiful young Slovak immigrant. In the years that followed, Karl and Mary had sixteen children and raised them in a four-bedroom house with a backyard that abutted the foot of a hill (a mountain to folks in Indiana) and a front yard that faced a massive rail yard with a steel mill beyond the tracks. The story would be great if it ended there, but there’s more. Karl was called to pastoral ministry. For years he worked swing shift in the mill, raised his children, and served as pastor of the church in Johnstown.

Karl Matas was my grandfather, and I’m thankful for the willingness of the 19th and early 20th century Church of God to take risks—to transform itself so that it would be effective in its mission to reach as many people as possible for Christ. Today I’m a follower of Christ and a minister of the gospel, and I owe much to the Church of God and how it embraced transformation so that lives could be transformed.

There’s an old saying, “The only constant is change”. As we go through life, we realize that change is inevitable. We can resist it, but there’s no stopping it. In fact, God designed life so that change is built into it. Everyday we encounter change, both good and bad. In fact, you don’t have to go looking for change; just stay where you are and change will come find you.

Transformation is at the heart of God’s mission for us as individuals and it is at the heart of his desire for the church. A person that is changed by the gospel will have a holy impact on those around him/her (spouse, children, family, work, school, and neighborhood). A church that is experiencing transformation will likewise have an impact on individuals, neighborhoods, a city, a county, a region…maybe even globally. There is something sad about a church that claims to embrace personal transformation and yet stubbornly resists corporate transformation. A life that is transformed is evidence of the working of the power of God. A transformational church is also evidence that the power of God is active and working in the local body. A follower of Christ whose life bears little evidence of personal transformation has little or no Holy Spirit power in their life. A church whose life bears little evidence of corporate transformation bears little or no evidence of the Spirit’s power.

What’s the alternative to transformational change in the life of a church? It’s to fall into a rut of doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different outcome. If we remain faithful doing what we’ve always done then maybe one day God will reward us by having two Greyhound buses full of people arrive in the church’s parking lot on a Sunday morning. It’s divorcing the relationship between being faithful and being fruitful. Far too many churches laud faithfulness without fruitfulness. It’s as if we have taken the Parable of the Stewards and awarded sainthood to the third steward who avoided all risk by burying his talent. Sadly, that has become an accepted definition of what it means to be faithful.

Every church is busy, but few are making an impact for Christ. Rather than be missionaries to our communities for Christ, we are content to go in frantic circles. Yet God calls us to make a transformational impact on the world, not for us to engage in exhaustive activity that is just internally focused.

I write all this, not to bash the church, but to nudge it awake—to rekindle the fire that once burned brightly within it. I love the Church of God. I’m thankful it once took tremendous risks to reach out to the lost and the dying. I’m here today because in the early 1920s, the Church of God took some risks; engaged in ministries that were innovative and new. They loved people more than methods; and they risked it all. Those early pioneers of the Church of God have already heard the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” They have passed a legacy on to us. And the question remains, “What will we do about it?” Will we stand on shoulders of giants and reach higher and further for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom or will we resist change and dig our ruts deeper?

During a Matas family reunion, my grandfather sat everyone down and began in broken English to share his testimony. He talked about risking everything to come to America and about the first time he heard the gospel of Christ through the Church of God. He read the twin parables of The Hidden Treasure and The Pearl of Great Price found in Matthew 13:44-46.

[44] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

[45] “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, [46] who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

My immigrant grandfather understood all too well the idea of risking everything for something that was precious. When he heard about Jesus, he was willing to leave everything behind. And he heard about Jesus through the efforts of the Church of God who was willing to risk everything for the sake of the gospel. What will be our legacy?

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2 Comments

  1. April 4, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Greetings Jeff. Well written. I’d like to challenge you to post a follow-up with some specific examples of the change you’d like to see in the church. I think you’ve written well here about the philosophical change, being open to change, being open to experimenting with new ways to spread the Gospel and make disciples. And you provided some specific examples of how the old church accomplished this philosophy. How can the modern church fulfill this today?

    As a technologist, I tend to think in terms of technological solutions. And I’m sure there’s a place for some technological solutions here. But I believe the problem is not technological, rather it’s sociological. How can we persuade non-Christians and dormant Christians, more influenced by popular culture with its morals of possession and entertainment, of the modern relevance and supreme value of a life devoted to God?

  2. Pat Combs said,

    April 5, 2013 at 3:45 am

    I so enjoyed your testimony of faith and how your Grandfather stepped out in faith to make that trip here, not knowing what to expect when he got here. It is such a touching story and I know he must have been a true saint to have the faith and courage to do that!! I am sure he is so very proud of his Grandson right now, for following him, to spread the word of God to unbelievers! If only people didn’t take it so lightly anymore, and realize how real it all is!! I just want you to know that I was so touched by this, and tell you how much I admire you and your love for our Lord. Just know, I am praying for you always, and all of your sweet family!! I love you all so much! Pat


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