BUTLER, AL (BP) – It was late one Saturday night when Terry Long plunged into his darkest hour. He stood alone in a small church in south Alabama, plunging his paintbrush over and over into a can of paint, hoping to change the color of his surroundings. In the metaphorical sense, it wasn't working. Things still looked bad.
After being forced to take a stand at the church where he served as pastor, Long had been asked to leave. In order to keep food on the table, he had taken a painting job hours away in Alabama while his wife and four children stayed behind to try to sell the house. "It was my lowest point," Long said. "I felt completely lost." And as he kept the brush moving, the phone in the church kitchen next to him began to ring over and over.
"It finally dawned on me that someone might be trying to get in touch with me," he said. So he picked up the phone. And on the other end, a familiar voice said, "Hey, Terry, it's Cliff." Cliff was a chicken farmer Long had become friends with back when he was serving as a pastor in Arkansas more than a decade before. "We met at 5 a.m. once a week to study the Bible before he went to work," Long said. "I had poured into him as best I could."
And around the same time Long moved, the farmer moved too, up to Tennessee. The two lost touch. "I've been trying to find you for two weeks," the farmer said. "God spoke to me and said, 'You need to call Terry Long and tell him what's happened since he discipled you.'" What had happened was that the farmer had immediately begun to do with someone else what Long had done with him -- he led a man to Christ, then stuck with him for six months to show him how to walk out his faith. Then that man did the same with another, and that man did the same with yet another.
"There are three generations of men in Tennessee who are godly men, active in church and solid in their families because you took the time to invest in my life," he told Long. And it didn't stop there. The farmer had then moved from Tennessee to Kentucky and did the same thing again. Then he moved to Missouri and did the same thing again. "He said, 'I don't know what you're doing now, but there are men in three states who are faithful to God and faithful to their families because of what you invested in my life,'" Long said. "I can't put a price tag on what that meant to me."
Long, now director of missions for Choctaw Baptist Association in Butler, said that moment of clarity snapped him back to a reality he knew deep in his heart -- that pastoral ministry is important, but discipleship is the core of what all Christians are called to do. "What I've learned is that as I've invested in men on the back burner apart from my public ministry, God brings long-lasting fruit," Long said.
He noted he was in his 20s before he heard the concept of one-on-one discipleship explained. "I had been a Christian for eight years before I ever heard anyone talk about discipleship. I didn't have a clue what that meant," he said. But in 1984 at a conference in Atlanta, a missionary to Brazil shared a message that changed Long's life and changed his whole approach to ministry. In Brazil the missionary had worked out a way to come alongside new believers for six months and help them learn to walk out their new faith. That thought got buried in Long's mind and he carried it back with him to his church in Picayune, Miss.
"I had been witnessing to a young man in the church who was about my age, in his mid to late 20s," he said. "His name was Danny and his wife attended our church but he wouldn't come." After that conference, Long went to visit him with new motivation tucked in his heart. "After pleading with him for about an hour, his excuse was that he believed all of it but that he didn't think he could live it. He thought he would fail," Long said. "I said, 'Danny, if you knew someone who would meet with you and pray with you and help you along the way, would that change anything?' And he said if that were the case, he would be saved right then."
So Long told Danny he would be that guy. "I told him I would walk with him for six months and help him get grounded in his faith," Long said. "And what was to be six months turned into a year because we became very close friends." It wasn't so much that Long was the teacher and Danny the student as it was that they were friends who invested in each other's lives. They fished together, read the Bible together and got their families together on a regular basis.
"This was all off the radar," Long said. "It wasn't a public program -- that's the beauty of discipleship." But people began to notice Danny and how fast he was growing in his faith. "He was changing. His whole life was different," Long said. "So I began to see that there really was something to this discipleship thing. And I was benefiting from it as well." In the last decade or so, the two had lost contact, but a few months ago Long got a call at his office from Danny's wife.
"She said, 'If this is the Terry Long who was a pastor in Picayune, please call me,'" Long said. "So I called her back, and she told me Danny was extremely ill with heart problems and other physical issues and knows his time is limited." When Long gave him a call they reunited and reconnected. "He thanked me for the time I invested in his life in 1985," Long said. "He's asked me to preach his funeral when the time comes. But for the last 33 years, he's been living a faithful life."
All that from just a promise to walk beside him as a friend who pointed to Jesus, Long said. "It's not flashy. It's on the backburner. It's quiet," he said. "There comes a time that every pastor in ministry has to make a decision -- go for the applause of men or decide I'm going to invest my life in men and people in a way that results in long-lasting fruit."
The second is what Jesus wanted when He gave His disciples the Great Commission, Long said. "Every pastor can do this. Every Christian can do this because you don't have to be a speaker. You don't have to be on the platform," Long said. "It's not a church program. It's a relationship. When you try to make a program out of it, you lose something." That's what he remembered again that night as he hung up the phone in that little church kitchen and got back to painting -- that the brightest spots of his ministry weren't the times his church drew the crowds. "It's the time invested in those men's lives and how I've seen it affect their children and their grandchildren," Long said. He's done this over and over across the years. He's got several men he's pouring into now, right where he is in Choctaw County.
"I pour my life into them. I try to be transparent with them," he said. "The guys I've invested in personally, I tell them, 'This is who I am and this is what it's about, and you're going to fail, but I'm going to walk with you no matter what.'" And that, he said, is how it was always meant to be. "It's not about a program," he said. "It's about just having a heart for people."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grace Thornton is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist (thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.