This is the amazing true story of how the Lord led me to the Church of the Saviour. I had seen the pope in Philadelphia about a year earlier in Philadelphia. Enjoy – and give the Lord all the glory!
This story begins in September, 1977. I was in my last year at Villanova University. Up till this point, I had been a Roman Catholic all my life. In fact, one of the most important reasons that I went to Villanova was the fact that it was a Catholic school. I had been in Catholic schools since the first month of second grade. But I wasn’t content in the Church – I was actively searching for the Lord.
In my last year, I had to take a Humanities course to fulfill my requirements to graduate, so I took a course called “Cinematography.” I was always interested in movies, so I thought I would enjoy it. Another reason I chose it was because it was taught by Dr. Chris Sharrett, who just happened to be the brother of a priest I had as a teacher in high school, Father Victor Sharrett. I was right: I really enjoyed the course and learned a lot.
The major project of the class was making a movie. The movie I worked on, as many will remember, was an anti-development fantasy, sort of like Rip Van Winkle, but without aging twenty years. I won’t try to describe it – that was in my environmentalist wacko phase. Well, the reason for bringing all this up is that it led me, for the first time in my adult life, to Wayne, Pennsylvania. To do our project, we needed a place to buy our movie film and a place to get it developed. I was told by Dr. Sharrett that “The Wayne Camera Shop” was one place nearby like that. So, after class one day, I drove two miles west on LAN-caster Avenue to Wayne, looking for the shop.
I finally found the camera shop – it was about one block north of the town square, on the left hand side of North Wayne Avenue. Well, I went in and came out very quickly when I got a good look at the prices: too rich for my blood. So I got back into the car and decided to head home.
Now, being an adventurous type, I thought I would try to find a way home directly from Wayne instead of going all the way back to Villanova and then going home. I knew that I had to go North – but I didn’t know any of the roads. Well, North Wayne Avenue went North, but I didn’t know where it came out. Another idea I had was: you know, somewhere between Wayne and Norristown was King of Prussia. I thought I might be able to find the “Northwest Passage” – a back way to go to the K of P Plaza. What the heck – Northward Ho!
After going under a bridge of the Paoli Local Rail Line, I found myself in a forested area pretty quickly. There were some expensive houses here – it was the Main Line area, after all. I came to a light at an intersection: there was a sign for Cabrini College; in front of me was the Valley Forge Military Academy. I just kept going straight when the light changed – North! Ever North!
Ahead of me, on the right hand side of the road, was a break in the woods. There were houses on both sides, but the trees were cleared away for some construction up there. As I got closer, I saw a brown wooden sign that caught my attention. The sign had a fish symbol carved in it, with the words next to the fish: “Church of the Saviour.” I looked at the sign as I drove past – I couldn’t see any other information – no denomination, no times, no names, no nothing. It was just that intriguing fish symbol and the name with the British spelling of “Saviour.”
As I drove by, I tried to get a look at the church building itself: it looked to me, for all the world, to be an office complex. It was a low brown wooden building set way back off of the road. In front of it were several layers of some kind of terraced parking lot – it definitely did not look like any church that I was used to seeing. Later on, I found out that the church had not even opened yet; it was still under construction. But I didn’t know that then. I just noticed the odd sign and the strange building. I didn’t slow down or stop driving at all – I just kept going on my adventure. Weird…
Well, I never did get to the Plaza that day. Later, I found out that if I had done the counter-intuitive thing when I came to the end of North Wayne Avenue and had turned left, I would have eventually found my way there. As it was, though, I thought right was the logical choice – and I ended up at the Valley Forge Shopping Center, too far north of the Plaza to make it worth my time to go back. So I just headed home, forgetting all about my failed attempt to take a short cut.
Or so I thought…
Well, lots of things happened in the next couple of years. I graduated the next spring… helped coach the Plymouth Phillies to the Little League championship… drove cross-country with Spig… and I got my first “real” job in the Quality Control Department of the factory that made McDonald’s hamburgers in Folcroft, PA. All this time, the Lord was drawing me to find out whatever truth I could learn about Him. My curiosity led me to read books by Josh McDowell (“More Than a Carpenter”, “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”) and C. S. Lewis (starting with “The Screwtape Letters,” then to “Mere Christianity” and to a number of other books). Above all, I started listening to Christian radio on my way home from work.
Finally, one day in the second week of January, 1979, I had just left work, headed for my daily drive home on the “Surekill” Expressway. I got a strong premonition: I felt sure that, as Spig often said, my “number was up” – I was going to die that afternoon. As I stopped at a light, anticipating my doom, I, for the only time in my life, heard a voice. It wasn’t the radio – I had turned that off. And it wasn’t anybody else in the car or on the street outside – I was alone (so to speak). I also knew that I wasn’t hearing it from the outside – it was like someone “wiretapped” my auditory nerve and spoke two words directly to my brain:
I knew at that moment what that meant. I had learned a lot of “head knowledge” about Christianity, but I had not yet “given my life to the Lord.” I knew that that was exactly what I had to do – so I did. And I know that really was the moment of salvation in my life because my life changed instantly on that day – and I’ve never regretted it.
The light turned green. But even though I could hardly see the road because of the tears in my eyes, I knew I was safe. I was in His hands – and there was nothing anybody could do to pluck me out of them.
Well, at first I felt no need to leave the Catholic Church. In fact, at first, I got more Catholic. I even was happy to go into Philadelphia to see the pope. Besides, I didn’t know anyone else who was a “born-again believer” in any other church. I didn’t even know of any other churches I wanted to join. But gradually, I began to realize that I needed to find another church – a church where I could be fed the spiritual food I was craving; a place where I could actually talk to people about my new faith and the Bible. I kept devouring every book on Jesus I could get my hands on; I kept listening to Christian radio; and I started listening to tapes I sent away for by a new preacher I had started listening to: John MacArthur.
As Providence would have it, in 1980, my parents decided to move to North Carolina. I had already started back to Villanova to get my Master’s degree – I believed that the Lord wanted me to train to become a teacher. I decided to stay behind in Pennsylvania, at least until I graduated in a couple more years. So, after spending time with the family in North Carolina, I headed back to PA, determined that I would finally make the break. I was finally ready to, once and for all, leave the Catholic Church. But where?
I had a few thoughts on the matter, but nothing too solid. In August, I had gone to hear John MacArthur preach at a good church in Alden, PA. But that was too far away from where I was living to be practical. I wanted a church like that, but something closer.
Actually: what DID I want in a church?
First of all, I wanted a Bible-believing church – that seemed pretty obvious. I wanted a pastor-teacher who was as close to MacArthur as was possible – I wasn’t planning to move to LA, so it couldn’t be the real thing. I wanted a pastor who believed in expository preaching: just picking a book of the Bible and preaching through it. Not that he couldn’t preach the occasional topical sermon, but as long as the Scripture was preached, it was OK with me.
I wanted a church family of people with genuine faith who really were serious about their relationship with the Lord.
I wanted a large church – for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I wanted a degree of anonymity. It was going to be hard enough leaving the Catholic Church; I didn’t want any extra pressure. A lot of people say they’re looking for a “friendly” church; I wanted nothing of the sort. Just stay away from me; I want to do this on my own!
In my imagination, I envisioned stepping into a small church and being descended upon by the people. Here came the pastor: some Brylcreem prophet in a three-piece suit. “Hi!” he’d say, “I’m Pastor Billy Bob Johnson!” Then I’d be sunk. What would I do? If I didn’t like the church, I didn’t want any pressure to come back. But if they ask me how I liked their church, what could I say? If I didn’t like it, I couldn’t say something like: No, I hated it, ya bunch of hicks and hayseeds! Who’s your choir director – the kid from Deliverance? No, I would have to be polite and say I liked it. Then, the most feared question: Are you coming back next week? If I said, No, they would ask me why – and I’d have to insult them. If I was polite and said, Yes, then I’d be compelled to come back. How could I lie to my new brothers and sisters in the Lord? No – it had to be a big church.
I also wanted a church that had traditional music, but also appreciated the kind of contemporary Christian music I had been enjoying.
I wanted it to be missions-minded because I knew that was something that the Lord wanted and because it was an important sign of a healthy church (like the church of Philadelphia in Revelation). The Lord had also given me a desire to become involved in missions.
I wanted a non-denominational church because I was leery of the different groups of Protestants. I knew very little about the differences between a Methodist and a Baptist; between a Episcopalian and a Presbyterian. I DID know that many main-line type Protestant churches were liberal in their theology – I didn’t want to take the chance that I would walk into one of THEM.
Finally, I wanted two more things that may have been mutually exclusive: I wanted a church close to home, for practical reasons – but I wanted nobody there who knew me. I couldn’t handle walking into a church and hearing someone I knew say, “Oh look! It’s Joe Scotto! Hey, aren’t you a Catholic?” I would be mortified – this move would be hard enough without people knowing what I was doing before I really had decided where I’m going. Plus: I was very sensitive about the anguish I would cause Catholic family members with this move. I wanted to be the one who told them when I was finished searching. I certainly didn’t want this to get out in the form of rumors – no one singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” When I’m ready, I’ll let them know.
So, with all these requirements in mind, I went about finding a church. OK, where? The Phone Book would have a lot of names, but not very much information. So I decided that I would look up church advertisements in Saturday’s newspaper. I took the issue of the Today’s Post (a local Montgomery County newspaper) I had and I opened to the Sunday services section. I spread it on the floor in front of me, knelt over it, and prayed. Then – nothing. Well, not exactly nothing: of all the churches listed there, exactly two appeared to fit my criteria. One of those two was a little too far away, so the choice was made: the closer one. I wasn’t real enthusiastic about it – but it was all I could find.
That’s it! That’s the one! I checked the service time and – OK! It’s settled! I went to bed confident that I had made the best choice.
Or so I thought…
I got up the next day: Sunday, September 28, 1980. I left with just enough time to make the service – which wasn’t difficult, since the church was less than two miles away. It would take five minutes, tops. But as I approached the church, I started to feel uneasy…
What if somebody knows me! I know a lot of people around here, from Little League and other things over the past 16 years…
What if I hate it? How can I tell people who know me that I’m not coming back?…
That’s a small church! That’s a REALLY small church!…
What about… the Pope? What if…
Just as I reached the place to turn in to my right, I realized something to my horror on the left – Walton Road! Oh, no! That’s where Epiphany is! There seemed to be about 500 cars spilling out, turning toward me – ALL (it seemed to me) people from Epiphany who KNOW me… What if one of them sees me going in here? What am I gonna say?
What if they tell… MY PARENTS! I was not ready for that! And especially if I didn’t like the church.
And then – I did it.
I chickened out.
I didn’t turn in… I just went straight, trying to make it look to all the people from Epiphany who saw me there that I had no INTENTION of going into the parking lot of that… Protestant church. I just went straight.
OK, Lord. Now what?
I was now headed down Mall Hill, with the Plymouth Meeting Mall in front of me.
What, Lord – The Church on the Mall? I knew I wasn’t supposed to go there – that was the most liberal church I knew.
So, where can I go in this direction? The only church I could think of, besides the CotM, was about 10 miles away – the Church on the campus of Villanova. You want me to go THERE, Lord?
Just then, as I plunged aimlessly down, it was as if the Lord reached into the file cabinet of my mind, pulled out a file, and opened it up to show me where He wanted me to go…
You want me to go THERE? That… Church of the Saviour? There’s one big problem with that – I don’t remember where it is! I had driven past it exactly once almost three years ago to the day. (I couldn’t even remember why). All I could remember about it was that strange brown sign with the fish symbol on it and the building that looked like an office complex. And… trees. Lots of trees… I remember it’s around Wayne somewhere, but … where?
Oh, well. What have I got to lose? I have no other ideas. The Church of the Saviour it is…
Since I didn’t know exactly where it was, I headed toward Wayne the only way I knew how: to Villanova, then west on LAN-caster Avenue for a couple of miles. (Remember: I never did find that “Northwest Passage” back-way). Later on, I measured the shortest route between where I was staying and the Church to be about thirteen miles. I knew where Wayne was because I went down Route 30 – its Main Street – from Villanova sometimes to do two things: get gas from the cheapest gas station anywhere around (an ARCO station, which also happened to have the best Philadelphia-style soft pretzels anywhere around), and get books and music at The Mustard Seed, a Christian bookstore I had discovered. Both were right on the main road, so I didn’t explore anywhere else in town when I went there.
Finally, I reached Wayne, headed west. I passed the ARCO station on my right, then The Mustard Seed bookstore on my left. At last, I was at the town square. The next question was: OK, now which direction do I turn? I had no idea – I couldn’t remember. So I just took a shot – I turned left onto South Wayne Avenue.
And I immediately knew I was wrong. I sort of remembered the road being straight, but this turned sharply to the right after one block. Wrong way… I’ll have to turn around and go the other direction. So I made a left at the first corner, intending to go around the block, come back to the square, and go the opposite way.
I made a left on the next street, which connected back to Route 30. In that block, to my left, was a very large, very old-looking stone building. It was a church… a Catholic Church. It never really fully developed in my mind, but the thought hit me in that instant: Well, so the day won’t be a TOTAL loss! But I never got to even give it a good look.
Just as that instantaneous thought flashed inside my head, something strange happened. As I was passing the Catholic Church, on the left hand side of the street there was a newspaper truck. Now, that was not so unusual. In those days, because there weren’t many stores open on Sunday, many churches sold Sunday newspapers in the lobby or the foyer. After Mass (or services), a person could get a paper on the way out. That was what this guy was doing – delivering a stack of one of the Philadelphia papers to this church. But just as I was passing the truck, he charged at me, cursing and screaming. I thought he was literally going to attack my car, so I sped up to get away from him as quickly as I could.
What is your PROBLEM, mister? As I approached the end of the street, I realized what the problem was. According to the sign I just then noticed, I was going the wrong way up a one-way street! Well, the sign said it was one-way only for a few hours a week: from 7:00 AM until 2:00 PM on Sunday morning. The Catholic Church must have been so big that they had re-routed traffic Sunday morning during Masses, making it less congested to get in and out of the parking lot. But, even then – OK, I innocently was going the wrong way. Why did that guy have to take it so personally? Whatever the reason, I got to the intersection and turned left as fast as I could – for all I knew, the guy was still chasing me! (Later on, I figured out that this was the Lord’s way of telling me, “Don’t even THINK about going back to the Catholic Church!” Message received.)
OK, so when I got back to the square, I turned right, up NORTH Wayne Avenue. And… this didn’t look right, either. There were stores on either side, with no church anywhere. Well, it does go straight… maybe I’ll see something at the top of the hill. And I did see something: the railroad bridge for the Paoli Local that went over the road… and a Dairy Queen on my left… and then – trees! I kept going.
When I got to the intersection, I saw the sign for the Valley Forge Military Academy – that seemed vaguely familiar. I headed straight – and then… trees… and a break in the trees ahead! That must be it! Sure enough, past the break in the trees, I saw cars parked along the road – that’s GOTTA be it! And – yes, that sign! “The Church of the Saviour” – I’m here!
The first impression I got of the place was that it was … crowded. No, more like popular – there were a lot of cars there, not even counting the even larger parking lot out behind the church that I couldn’t even see. I checked out the sign – the same one I had seen nearly three years earlier, but now it had information on it. I noted that there were two Sunday morning services, and the second one had already started. So, of course, I decided to… leave.
What! After all that? Yes, that would be correct. It was because – well, I had no idea where the sanctuary was, and I had no idea whether there were windows that look out into the parking lot. Remember, I wanted to slip in as quietly and as anonymously as possible. I imagined that I would go driving past the building, tires crunching loudly on an imagined gravel road. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching the Catholic park his car, get out, and come into the service unfashionably late. I didn’t want to take any chances of that happening – I vowed to come back the following week, so early that no one would see or notice me. I checked the times again, and I headed north – homeward bound. (And yes, I nearly got lost again on the “back roads.”) But I would be back…
The next Sunday – October 5th, 1980 – I got up early and headed back to The Church of The Saviour. Down to Villanova… west on Route 30 to Wayne… right turn up North Wayne Avenue… and there it was again. Only this time, I got there around 8:45, 45 minutes before the early service started at 9:30. I’m safe. I’ll sneak in, settle into a quiet pew, and just observe. Nobody will bother me… I hope. There were cars there, but the parking lot wasn’t nearly full yet. I found an out-of-the way parking place on (what seemed to be) the front side of the church. I went into the nearest entrance, with still no idea what kind of church this was. In fact, other than the sign, I knew almost nothing about this place. I did know one thing for sure, though – the Lord led me here, so He must want me here. So here I go!
I went through the door and into a kind of lobby. The sanctuary was off to my left. There were a few people milling around, but no one seemed to notice me… Great! So far, so good! Now I could see a couple of odd things: the lobby arched away behind the circular seating area, and there were these strange wooden boxes sitting around. They were like podiums spread around, with just a small opening at the top. Just as I was about to pass the first one of these boxes, I noticed a guy walk out from a side hallway and put his Bible down on it. I wanted to duck him, but it was too late – he saw me. He stuck out his hand a little timidly as I tried to scoot past. I didn’t make it – I had to stop and shake his hand… I can’t be rude, at least not yet!
He introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Joel Grossman.” I introduced myself to him and told him it was my first time visiting. And within what seemed to me to be about a five minute conversation – it was probably close to twenty minutes in reality – I had already learned all I wanted to know about the church and a whole lot more.
Joel, who was a Messianic Jew, had been coming to the church for about two years – about as long as it had been open. That morning, of all things, he had wanted to go to Sunday School at 8:15, but didn’t get there on time, so he was just going to wait in the lobby until the service. (He didn’t know that the Lord had an appointment for him to meet me when I came in. As I later got to know him, I also realized that he was not an outgoing type of person; his being there to greet me was a bit unusual for him – isn’t the Lord amazing!) I also found out that the church had a very large singles ministry – so big that they had a pastor just for single adults OLDER than College age. There were three groups under the category of singles, with the youngest group numbering over 200! I didn’t realize it at the time, but just one of the singles’ groups had more in it than the total number of people in many churches!
He had to do something else before the service, so he excused himself while I headed into the sanctuary. This was incredible! I had only been in the building a short time, and I had not only learned about the singles’ ministry, but I had learned that this church had many of those things I had been looking for. For one thing, it was one of very, very few evangelical Christian, Bible-preaching churches in the entire Philadelphia area. I was also invited to a home Bible study closer to where I lived – I would eventually end up in several, with the maximum of three a week! And this church was on FIRE for missions – with the highlight of their year known as COSMOS (Church Of the Saviour Missionary Outreach Series).
I quietly made my way into the semi-circular sanctuary and found a seat in the middle near the back. (Those boxes, I later found out, were the churches’ way of taking the offering – kind of like the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. They soon would replace them with a more conventional system of passing the plates). I read the bulletin and read the information on the church I had picked up in the lobby (“What We Believe” and so on). I just sat there observing until the first service was about to begin.
And what a service! The choir was magnificent – led by a guy named “Shorty” Yeaworth. And the hymns were ones I had never heard before, but they seemed to be especially chosen for me (one of about 300 – 400 or so people, I estimated).
“O Worship the King” and “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” were awesome, but I nearly lost it when I heard the words (for the first time) of “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”:
• And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
• ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
• He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
• No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
And Pastor Hogan’s sermon – preaching through the Gospel of John (that’s expository preaching!) – was the high point of it all! He started by quoting the verse from Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Needless to say, I was shortly thereafter in their membership class and remained a member until I moved to Central PA in August of 1982. I was there less than two years – but the Church of the Saviour had a profound effect on the rest of my life.
And – to show my commitment – a week later, on October 12, 1980, the Phillies were playing the Houston Astros in the deciding Game 5 of their 5-game National League Championship Series. And what did I do? I went to the evening service and stayed for the Singles Ministry Fellowship time afterwards. I got home to see the game from about the 5th inning on.