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A New Song: Even as She Fought for Her Life, Sarah Rijfkogel Worshipped God

Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Sarah Rijfkogel continued to praise and worship God and, ultimately, made it possible for other young people to use their musical giftings for God's glory.
“It’s stage four colon cancer.”

No one is ever prepared to hear those words about a close family member, especially when that loved one is only 25.

As parents, we felt as though the ground had collapsed beneath our feet. We could only imagine what was going through the mind of our precious daughter, Sarah, as she faced this diagnosis.

Sarah first sensed God’s call to music ministry at age 12 during a Michigan Ministry Network family camp where I was speaker. She told me after the service God had directed her to Psalm 33:3: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

From that time on, Sarah worked to hone her God-given musical talent. She participated in Fine Arts, winning the national Award of Merit for female vocal solo in 2012.

After high school, Sarah enrolled at the University of Valley Forge in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, to pursue a degree in music. At 20, she left college early to serve as associate worship director at the church we lead, Grand Rapids First (Assemblies of God) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Sarah sang with an anointing and confidence only God could give. She and our worship pastor, Drew McElhenny, had been singing together since they were teenagers.

McElhenny is the grandson of Wayne Benson, who pastored the church for 25 years before us. He and Sarah represented a legacy of ministry passing from one generation to the next. Their blend of voices and the Spirit’s anointing on them made for powerful worship each time we gathered. They were a pastor’s dream team.

Then, during the summer of 2020, Sarah started experiencing some medical issues that led to her doctor ordering a colonoscopy. Pandemic protocol meant we couldn’t go in with Sarah but had to wait for her in the parking lot.

To our surprise, however, they called for one of us to come into the facility. The doctor explained they had encountered an obstruction and asked us to bring Sarah back when the biopsy results came.

A few days later, we heard the cancer diagnosis. Sarah needed an extensive surgery to remove the six-inch tumor and 80 percent of her colon.

Our faith was strong, but we had never been challenged like this before. We stood on Joseph’s words in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Leaning on the prayers of our church family, we trusted God to work in the midst of this trial.

Sarah scheduled her chemotherapy for Mondays so she would have strength to sing each Sunday. She told us at the beginning of her battle she had heard a popular worship leader say, “Worship like your life depends on it.” Sarah said she now understood what that meant. The sicker she became, the stronger the anointing was on her.

There is a video on YouTube of Sarah singing Maverick City Music’s “The Story I’ll Tell.” Three weeks before we recorded that video, Sarah had an exploratory surgery to determine the extent of her tumors. Afterward, the medical team told us this disease would take her life. Nevertheless, Sarah believed God would heal her — and so did we.

She sang:
Believing gets hard
when options are few.
When I can’t see what You’re doing, I know that You’re proving
You’re the God who comes through.

The tumors kept growing in spite of the chemo, so Sarah started a clinical trial in December. She was in the hospital five times from October through December. The day after Christmas, doctors said there was nothing more they could do.

We brought Sarah home to hospice care. Our fun-loving, loud-laughing, Spirit-filled daughter was confined to a hospital bed in our living room.

The day Sarah came home, a sweet couple from our church family started a foundation in her name. When we asked her what she wanted to do with the Sarah J. Rijfkogel Foundation, Sarah told us to make sure the next generation knows Jesus and worships Him.

Worship was Sarah’s passion. One of her last requests was to go to Social Dallas church and lead worship with Chandler Moore, the church’s worship pastor and a member of Maverick City Music. She was too sick to make the trip, however. Five days before Sarah died, Moore and his wife, Hannah, showed up in our living room, along with Robert and Taylor Madu, pastors of Social Dallas.

Moore sat down at the piano, and we all worshipped together. As Sarah raised a hand while we sang “Because He Lives,” we knew she was doing what God created her to do.

It has been nearly two years since Sarah went to be with the Lord. Her foundation funds colon cancer research and gives a $25,000 scholarship each year to the female vocal solo Award of Merit winner at Fine Arts. It is also building a recording studio called Studio 33:3 (named for Psalm 33:3). This state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to open in spring 2024.

We miss Sarah every day, but we know where she is, who she’s with, and that she is singing a new song of praise.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine. Used with permission.

Sam and Brenda Rijfkogel

Pastors Sam and Brenda Rijfkogel are lead pastors at Grand Rapids First (Assemblies of God) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.