Meet Steve

Steve SjogrenI was raised in Wichita, Kansas as the first child of a highly driven father who was an over-achiever. My dad was a type A-person and then some, but I mean that all in the best sense of the word and with all the admiration of my heart. By the time he was 37 he had worked his way up the corporate ladder to become the president of a 400-employee plastics company.

I remember regularly entertaining at our home CEOs of companies such as Black & Decker, Zebco Corporation, Toro (the largest lawn mower company in the world), etc. My job was to play bartender. By the time I was 10 I could mix, from memory, dozens of drinks for my dad’s guests at our custom built home in the nicer part of town. My dad’s job wasn’t just his job – it was all of our family’s lifestyle. I wore Dockers, tassel loafers, and medium starched shirts to school on most days.

All of this came to a crash one summer when my dad came down with a cough. The doctor’s first call was that he had walking pneumonia so they loaded him full of antibiotics. The cough only got worse, and on top of that, there was a strange spot on his chest x-ray. Then one day, his birthday curiously, the yogurt hit the fan: My dad had lung cancer. His years of hard living and heavy smoking had caught up with him. He had smoked since he was 14. In his day, the common thinking was that smoking was no big deal, in fact doctors were often used in cigarette commercials!

Now, years later, one thing that the medical pretty much agrees on regarding cancer is that antibiotics actually cause cancer to spread rapidly throughout the body. His doctors, had, in effect, done everything wrong. Within weeks the cancer had spread all over his body. His case was deemed hopeless. My life, not just because my greatest model in life, was dying before my eyes, but my mom wasn’t the sort of person who could lead the family in my dad’s absence – and I knew it even at age 12.

My dad died exactly 5 weeks after they told him that he had the disease.

The day my dad died I was more than anything relieved that he was out of his misery and suffering.

I recall my mom coming home from the hospital that Sunday evening, she had been crying, she told me that he was gone and I walked into the house with my basketball under my arm after playing a little 2 on 2 with my neighbors across the street. As I walked into the house I had my first profound spiritual experience. As I placed my hand on the door I had what I call an “inspired thought” – a thought that came to me several times over the next few hours. It came out of the blue so I don’t think it was my imagination making this up. The thought was this: “From now on, I will be your Father.” I thought, “Huh. That’s interesting. God, or whoever spoke to my heart just now, said that he would be my father from now on. That’s pretty cool.”

It wasn’t for years and years later that I read in the Bible that nearly those exact words are stated time and again in various places in the Bible. Essentially it says, “He is the Father of the fatherless and the husband of the widow.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have been in counseling for over a dozen years trying to processing the loss of my dad. I wonder if I’ll ever get over that loss. It’s about as big a loss as person can go through – a boy losing his father at that age.

My mom has worked for years as an anesthetist, a job that traditionally is in short supply. So she had plenty of job offers. We decided to move out to the Phoenix area to be near her family. We moved to a small copper mining town called Globe where I attended high school. That move turned out to be good for me and my entire family. Two of my three sisters ended up marrying locally and live there with their families still. I was a great student and ended up receiving a scholarship to attend school in Europe for a year right out of high school.

It was during that year that I had a spiritual encounter that changed my life in a dynamic way. If it hadn’t been for that year away from friends, family, all that I knew to be comfortable and familiar, I don’t think I would have been “set up” to have that encounter. All of the sudden, I was open to things that I had previously been pretty much closed minded to, things I had even made fun of. I was away from all that was familiar – I was even taken away from my own language! All of that shook me up to the point that I was open to new things in general. The receiving of that scholarship to go to school in Europe was an amazing spiritual thing – definitely put together by God.

After interacting with people who have had profound encounters with God similar to what I had (coming into a personal relationship with Christ) I have found that each person’s story is unique. It is best to not try to imitate someone else’s experience.

In my case, I began to read the New Testament – the last third of the bible – the part that deals with the stories of Jesus’ life and doings as well as the letters that the early followers of Jesus that were called “apostles” (literally “sent ones”) wrote to new churches that were springing up in various places in Europe and the Middle East. Most of those letters were written by one man – a surprising convert who used to capture, torture and kill Christ-followers called Paul.

I had an amazing interest in Jesus because, coming out of a New Age background, I had always revered him and seen him as the ultimate “together” person who had walked the earth. And it was during that time, the early 70’s, that there was a lot of talk in the general media about how Jesus was changing lives. I remember reading a LIFE Magazine story about a journalist and photographer who went to investigate the so-called Jesus Movement in Southern California. Both of them, after a couple of weeks of working closely with these people, both became Christ-followers themselves! Jesus was moving across the earth in profound ways, but it was apparent that the traditional Church wasn’t keeping up with this move that was going on – I found that not surprising. My view of the Church was that it was out of touch, boring, impractical, self-serving, full of people politics as well as right wing politics – shall I continue… I didn’t relate.

But I was taken by this person of Jesus.

I quickly read the stories of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are distinct stories of Jesus but they differ slightly in their details. They don’t disagree in any point. They are more like four accounts of a single event – from four angles. Together they offer the story of Jesus in surround sound.

By the time I had finished the fourth story – John’s gospel – I was ready for more, but the next book, Acts, looked rather boring, so I skipped over it for some reason to the Book of Romans.

Many historians and students of literature consider the Book of Romans to be one of the most profound pieces of literature ever written. It presents a series of statements / arguments / points aimed at convincing the reader that he / she is in need of God’s salvation in a big way. The primary argument that Paul sets forth is found in chapters 1 thru 8. By the time I had finished chapter 8 I was stricken to the heart. I remember the moment I finished that chapter. I was heartsick. I remember throwing the New Testament across the room and crying out aloud, “Oh God, I wish I had never picked up this stupid book to begin with! I was going to hell in a handbasket, but at least I was in ignorance. Now I KNOW the truth about my spiritual state!” For the next couple of days all I could think about was my sinfulness. I was being, what the bible calls, being “convicted” of my wrong doings and sin before God. Keep in mind that no one, not one person was saying a word to me. This was completely, 100% between God and me.

After 2 or 3 days I finally relinquished my life to God.

I prayed, as I have already stated above, “Well God, here I am.” That prayer seemed to be appropriate to me, though no one had ever coached me in this sort of thing before. As soon as I prayed that I felt the power of God flow through me for a few moments – something like a slight charge of electricity. Since that time, over 30 years ago, I have felt that same feeling when I have prayed for people who were sick, or who were in need of more power in their lives to become more effective. The bottom line here is this: God is a God of power and a God of encounter. Again, he is unique. Your experience may be completely different than mine. We ought to never make the mistake of seeking an experience or seeking to have the same experience someone else near us has had. That isn’t the way that God works. He treats each of us uniquely! There are a lot of verses in the bible that back up that very idea.

After finishing my year in Europe studying, I came back to the States with a great desire to study the bible – to become fluent in the content of the bible and hopefully become capable of teaching the bible to others. Through a series of events, and what eventually became an invitation (I have come to see that God almost always leads his people through invitations… if you look back over your life at the BIG things that have happened – where you went to college, what you majored in, who you married, what house(s) you bought, where you went to work, etc. – they were almost always invitations that came to you – that’s the way that God leads, through invitations – that insight takes a lot of pressure off of us when big decisions lie before us – look for the invitation!).

I went to a two-year school in downtown LA that specialized in the teaching of the scriptures and that was all they taught. I loved it. It was a tough time, but very rewarding.

After finishing that schooling time, I went to a liberal arts college in the Midwest, where, again through an invitation that was clearly made to me, I ended up majoring in Elementary Education. During one of my practice teaching sessions, I spent a month in the Los Angeles area teaching the 4th grade in the town where my mom lived. My love for coffee brought me into a specialized coffee store in that town where I met a waitress. I ate, bought a couple of pounds of coffee and left a BIG tip. I have always made it a point of leaving big tips – at least 30% — often 40-50% because I have worked for years during college as a waiter and I understand the typical scenario of under-tipping. Well, she remembered me.

The next time I came in she was talkative. I asked her if she just graduated – she said yes. I meant high school, but she meant college. She looked a lot younger than she was. We started to date when we figured out how old each of us were really. We struck it off immediately. We married a year later!

When I finished my college work, we moved back to the LA area and I taught school (the 4th grade) for a couple of years. That was a good experience, but not something I wanted to do for a living.

During that time I was also working part-time as an intern pastor at a large Vineyard Church near the campus of UCLA. After a couple of years, at the age of 27, Janie and I struck out to begin planting new churches hither and yon. We planted congregations in Los Angeles (of course), Oslo, Norway, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.

We have been in the Cincinnati area for a bit over 20 years now. Out of this location we have planted over 20 new churches that have similar values as we have held onto from the beginning of our trek – generosity, kindness, outwardness, practicality, teaching that is aimed at challenging lives and changing the world and giving people an experience with the Living God, not just a series of traditions that have little to do with changing the lives of people or life around them.

Cincinnati is not the kind of place that I would have chosen to move to 20 years ago. It is conservative. It is typically not open to new ideas. People are hard to get to know. For the most part, it isn’t a friendly city. But through the planting of seeds of kindness and generosity over the last 20 years – we have planted about 5 million seeds of kindness – we have made an impression on the city… and things have changed… for the better.