In churches, senior pastors can often have the connotation of being uninterested in children’s ministry. This is definitely not the case with Toni James, Senior Pastor of New Vision Church of the Nazarene in LaGrange, Indiana.
For a decade, from 2005-2015, Toni served as a children’s pastor. She has served on staff as a children’s and family pastor at churches in Muncie, North Vernon, and Anderson, Indiana; Sacramento, California; and Jefferson City, Missouri. She loves ministering to children and families and saw herself continuing in that position her entire ministry, but God had other plans.
“God called me to minister to the entire family and help them understand the gospel of Christ, but to do so in creative and active ways,” Toni says. That call led her to become the Senior Pastor of the New Vision Church plant in November 2016, and the church officially opened in January 2017.
Both as a children’s and family pastor and now as a Senior Pastor, James has had the vantage point of an underdog. “When I was a children’s pastor, I felt a bit like an underdog because generally the children are somewhat hidden in most churches,” she says. “I felt like I had to often be promoting the ministry so we would not be forgotten.”
New Vision is a small church plant that is trying something very new. All services try to keep participants of all ages–the whole church family–engaged for the entire church service, so that whether you are 5 or 85 you can actively participate and engage in the service, rather than sitting back in a pew and simply observing. Services incorporate many of the types of worship activities one might find in children’s church, such as games, music, and small group discussion, done in ways geared for the whole family.
“We sit around tables that are covered in butcher paper to color on and manipulatives to play with to help those of all ages focus on the day’s sermon,” she explains. “We use object lessons, but often they are done at the individual tables so that any children or teens who join us are seeing their parents be the spiritual leaders of their families, even as the parents follow the instructions I am giving. We want to teach them how to lead their families to the Cross from the very beginning of their walks with the Lord.”
Because of New Vision’s original approach, in many ways Toni still carries the underdog flag.
“As the senior pastor of this new church plant, I feel like the underdog because I don’t know of anyone else leading services quite like ours,” she says. “New Vision is a bit of a prototype and that’s exciting, but it’s also a huge challenge because we are laying the path that hopefully others will follow in the future. It doesn’t fit the mold of what most people see as traditional church, but I firmly believe that God has big plans for New Vision, and I’m thrilled to be on the journey wherever I might lead.”
Toni has wise advice for others who feel like underdogs in their ministries. “God loves the underdog,” she says. She believes that God uses underdogs in ways we would never think possible, if we are willing to follow where God leads. “So, if you feel like an underdog,” she continues, “be proud of your underdog status. And hold on tight, because God has big plans for you: it’s going to be an amazing journey. Be strong, be brave, and be ready to watch God move mountains!”