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Good Intentions

Christine Yount Jones

There's a driving purpose behind everything Craig Jutila does as he shepherds 16 paid staff, 600 volunteers, and 2,400 children at one of the largest churches in America.

It's sunny Southern California, upscale Mission Viejo, and I'm at one of the largest churches in America, trying to learn everything I can from its children's pastor, Craig Jutila. As we walk through clumps of kids, adults, and parents dropping off kids, Craig fires back answers to my questions as quickly as I fire them off to him.

Then his eye catches sight of his volunteers. He holds up his hand and says, "Excuse me. Can you hold on a minute? I need to 'touch' some people."

Craig goes from person to person "touching" them. People's eyes light up when they see their tall, slender, cheerful children's pastor.

"Hey, man! How are you?" he asks enthusiastically and swats one guy's back.

Craig leans over to another person and whispers something in his ear. A wide smile breaks out on the volunteer's face. And then Craig's up on stage interrupting the worship band's warm-up session. I can't tell what he's saying, but he looks almost conspiratorial. The band leans in and listens with rapt attention. They all break out into loud guffaws.

And then he's back. He accomplished his mission. He touched the people in his ministry to let them know that they're cared for.

In this mega-church, "touch" is a critical issue. Saddleback Community Church has 14,000 attendees who pass through four services each weekend. Craig oversees 16 paid staff who oversee 600 volunteer staff and minister to 2,400 children weekly in the Saddleback All-STARS children's program. It's easy for people to float in and out of a church this size, never plugging in and never feeling cared for. That would be the cardinal church sin for 33-year-old Craig Jutila.

One of the foundations of Craig's ministry is that people need to be "touched." "Touching" volunteers isn't a gimmick; it's a philosophy. Craig believes that people gravitate to the point of care--to where they feel loved. There has to be "touch" for real pastoring to occur. It's not enough for volunteers to be successful in their ministries, Craig wants them to be successful in all of life.

Understanding this pastoral priority is hard for many children's pastors, according to Craig. Although they're the children's pastor, they're really the pastor to the adults who work with the children. Craig and his staff understand that.

"If something happened in one of my volunteers' lives, who would that person call?" Craig asks. "I think it'd probably be me. If something were to happen to someone who was close to Julie Hibbard [the elementary coordinator], they'd probably call Julie."

"We try to get all of our staff 'touching' those people so that when something happens, the connectedness is to us," Craig explains. "Touch" is not a manipulative tool to hook people into programs. "You're not making the 'touch' to say I've got all of these people. You're making the 'touch' because that's the right thing to do and that's what God's Word say--to encourage one another."

Growing up in a single-parent home, church was a mora--not a life-changing--experience for Craig. "At that time, my mom's philosophy was that we should go to church an hour a week and it was the right thing to do. We weren't Christians. We went and the most significant thing I remember about church was a person--not a lesson. That helped with the whole touch issue."

For Craig as a sixth-grader, it was a guy named Mike Smits who is now a missionary in the Philippines. "I remember his personality and that he loved me. That's what brought me back."

But then Craig checked out of church and years later checked into a hospital for surgery. Confronted with his mortality and uncertain of his eternal destiny, Craig went to church as soon as he got out of the hospital. "I wrote down on a piece of paper 'how do I get to heaven?' Either nobody taught me, or I wasn't there when they did. I walked up to the organ player and handed her the note. I figured she probably had to know. She's up front; she's doing something. She said, 'Sit in the front row and after the service we'll talk.' "

She and a man named Phil Wagner sat down with Craig. True to form, Craig's analytical mind was engaged. "I said, 'I have, like, nine questions.' I said, 'Are there angels? Who do you pray to?' And number five or six was 'how do I get to heaven?' I knew that was the key, but I was trying to warm them up," Craig laughs.

When they explained that Craig had to pray to God, he said, "Let's do it right now!" So they did.

Craig lets me in on one of his favorite twists of God's sovereignty. With a little smile he says, "Later, Phil Wagner, the guy who led me to the Lord, I married his daughter. Mary and I started dating later and I ended up haunting him. Watch who you share Christ with--they may be related to you some day!" Craig teases.

After receiving a Christian education degree at Biola University in La Mirada, California, Craig had a major decision to make: Class A Minor League Baseball or ministry. "Oddly enough, they paid about the same," Craig jokes.

Craig, an on-purpose kind of guy, weighed where he could go that would make the biggest impact. Church ministry won out.

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