I must admit that to this day, I’m still growing spiritually. God’s still working on me. My knowledge of who the Lord is and the application of His expectations for me is a constant pursuit.
My discipleship story includes my profession of faith, my time of doubt, a life-changing knock at my door, my school choice, my call to preach, and my life in Christian ministry.
My Profession of Faith:
It was a June day in 1988 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was nine years old. I was sitting on the grass next to a park bench where my mom sat. My 3 younger sisters were playing on playground equipment off in the distance. As I sat in this park near Orchard Lane Elementary School, I was paging through a small book about the Milky Way Galaxy. My school had assigned the task of memorizing the planets in order from the sun. Looking at some of the pictures in the book, I began to ask my mom questions about the planets. She used my questions to explain to me that God hangs the planets in outer space. She explained that He is not only the Creator and Sustainer of the planets but of us also. My mom used that opportunity to explain the gospel to me. She told me that I was a sinner. Who knows better than your mom that you’re a sinner? She then told me about Jesus. She explained that He died on the cross as a substitute for sinners like me. She briefly explained God’s wrath against sin and God’s love for sinners. It was on that summer day that I prayed and admitted that I was a sinner and called on Jesus Christ to be my Savior. It was there, sitting on the grass in that small park that I professed my faith in Christ.
Although I didn’t fully understand all of the gospel’s implications at the time, it was on that day that I received eternal life and became a new creature in Christ with my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life. That day changed my eternal destination from hell to heaven and practically speaking, that day changed every day of the rest of my life.
When I was 12 years old, I began to doubt. I didn’t doubt Jesus or the Bible. I didn’t doubt my mom or any of the gospel truth she had explained to me, but I did doubt me.
At that point, I wasn’t attending church. Maybe I attended church once or twice as a young boy at Christmas or Easter and even though my mom led me to Christ, there was no significant source of discipleship in my life. My biological father left us for jail when I was two years old and the stepdad in my life provided no positive spiritual guidance at all and ultimately he also left us for jail just like my bio dad.
My doubts began as I started to look at the sin in my life and I assumed that I must not have been saved. After all, I thought, “Christians don’t sin like I was sinning so I must not really be saved.”
As a kid growing up in the inner-city of North Minneapolis, even though I was only 12, I was surrounded by the temptations that are typical in an inner-city environment. As a result, I felt like I grew up faster than most people my age.
I remember feeling overwhelmingly convicted about the sin in my life to the point that it brought me to tears. I was in the basement of our house in North Minneapolis sobbing and trying to sort out my salvation and my relationship with God. It was a spiritual checkpoint for me. I remember praying all the same things that I had prayed when I was nine years old and then I realized my salvation was not about my works, but it was about the work that Christ had done for me. My works were bad but His work on the cross to pay for my sin was perfect. I realized that the faith I professed at nine years old was saving faith, but it was then that I rededicated my life to the Lord. It was a spiritually formative moment in my young life.
The Knock at My Door:
Within a few weeks of my rededication, there was a knock on our front door. Pastor Mike Monte, and a member of the church he pastored, a veterinarian named Dr. Keith Hedges, were together knocking on doors in North Minneapolis and inviting kids to their Vacation Bible School. At the time, Calvary Baptist Church was meeting in a small store-front building. Approximately 30 members made up that congregation at that time. Together that little church was hosting their first VBS. Pastor Mike, in his mid-20s at the time, recruited some of his college friends to help the church host the VBS.
I heard their knock on my door in inner-city Minneapolis. My parents weren’t home: just my sisters and me. As the oldest child and as the big brother, even though I was still only 12 years old, it was my responsibility to answer the door. I opened the door and Pastor Mike and Dr. Hedges stood on the front doorstep. They explained that there would be a dunk tank, fun games, and Snickers bars at this Vacation Bible School. Thinking at the time that I was going to be the next Nolan Ryan or Orel Hershiser, throwing a baseball at the target on a dunk tank appealed to me. As they described the fun that VBS would be, my sisters gathered around, behind me at the front door. The two men explained that they would send the church bus to pick us up, and they encouraged us to attend every night of the week-long VBS. My sisters and I did just that. With eager anticipation, we waited as a few days later the church bus arrived. It was an old white Ford bus with red stripes. (God can even use Fords in His service.)
In our minds that church bus was a symbol of fun times to come. For numerous reasons, getting away from our home environment was important to my sisters and me.
When we arrived at the store-front building, the bus workers led the group of us through the building and out the back door to the dunk tank in the parking lot. One of the college guys that Pastor Mike had recruited was dressed in a devil costume and propped up in the dunk tank. It was time to play, “Dunk the Devil,” but only if I could hit the target.
That silly dunk tank, those Snickers bars, and the good spirit of the people that comprised that little church family ministered to me and my sisters in ways that we did not fully understand at the time but in ways for which I am very thankful to this day. After that, I occasionally rode the bus to church on Sunday mornings. Although, I was not attending regularly, I was being influenced in Christlike ways, every time I attended. The two men who knocked on my door, the VBS hosted by those faithful Christians, and that old Ford bus driven by members of Calvary Baptist, all planted relational seeds in my heart that would soon begin to grow.
My School Choice:
As the summer winded down, my seventh-grade school year was approaching quickly. Back then, when a student finished the sixth grade, he was finishing elementary school and seventh grade was considered the beginning of junior high.
For me, a public-school kid, this meant leaving Orchard Lane Elementary School and heading to North View Jr. High School in Minneapolis.
I was not a good student at all. Actually, I didn’t pass the sixth grade. I completely failed it. I struggled with reading and because of that, I struggled in every other subject. My mom was very concerned about me both academically and spiritually. She went to the administrators of Orchard Lane and appealed to them to pass me through, even though I didn’t have a passing grade. She later explained to me that the principal agreed to advance me for the sake of my social development even though I really couldn’t read. From what I understand, inner-city public schools do this type of thing a lot.
Mom was glad that they agreed to advance me, but she was concerned about the worldly influences that were throughout North View Jr High School. At this point, even though we couldn’t afford it, my mom really wanted her children to be in a Christian School.
As that seventh-grade year was approaching quickly, my mom gathered information about Fourth Baptist Christian School in North Minneapolis and scheduled a tour. I remember walking through that building and hearing the tour guide explain the school’s sports programs. That was all that interested me. I saw their trophy case and athletic awards displayed on their hallway walls. I envisioned my name on one of those plaques or trophies.
Of course, they did explain the benefits of Christian education to my mom and explained the cost of the tuition. None of that mattered to me, just the potential of good times playing organized sports.
Within a few days of that tour, my mom heard that the little church that had previously hosted the VBS which I attended, had moved into a different building, and was about to open a tuition-free Christian school.
I remember my mom having a conversation with me. She explained that I was NOT going to North View, and that I needed to choose between these two Christian schools. She said, “Take a few days and think about these schools and let me know which one you would like to attend.”
I didn’t need a few days to think about it. I already knew, but I waited a few days and then explained to her, “I want to go to Fourth Baptist Christian School and play sports!”
She said, “I gave you the choice, but you chose wrong! You’re going to the free one.”
Although the little tuition-free Christian school didn’t have a sports program, I was about to benefit from the Christian discipleship I needed. Calvary’s school opened with just 14 students and my three sisters and I were among them.
I definitely learned a lot at Calvary’s Christian School. The first year or so, Pastor Mike, the same man who invited me to VBS, was the main teacher for the students. But, soon the church and school grew and Mike’s twin brother, Marc Monte, would arrive and serve as the Youth Pastor and he became my primary teacher.
Both of the Monte brothers offered the students a solid education. They themselves graduated with honors and are extremely intelligent individuals, but all of the educational issues I had from the public elementary school were carried with me into that Christian school environment.
Even in that environment, I found ways to avoid schoolwork yet still advance. Because the Christian school was small, the environment was relaxed. Often, I could talk Marc Monte into taking class “field trips” to the local Dairy Queen. Many times we whittled away entire school days walking from that church building to “field trips” in the area. No longer were we formally learning academic things but instead, Pastor Monte would tell us his stories of “Monte Moments” as we walked.
On days that I was late for school, skipped school altogether, or didn’t have my homework done, if I would bring Pastor Marc a bagel from Einstein Bagel, all was forgiven.
In spite of what I’m describing, a reasonable academic education was offered, but by no means did I receive it in the way that I should have. However, I did receive friendship, discipleship, and male mentorship, which I desperately needed.
I was 15 when my stepdad left us for jail which meant that my mom was going to move from Minneapolis to live with her mom, in Charleston, South Carolina. Having established strong relationships with my pastor, youth pastor, and the people of Calvary Baptist, I did not want to move. Marc Monte offered to my mom that he would take me into his home. She agreed and he became my foster father. Pastor Marc and his wife Kelli were raising their two toddler-age biological sons and they made huge sacrifices to bring me into their home where I lived for the next two years.
Having experienced an extremely dysfunctional home life growing up, I was now getting to observe a Christian home in action.
Although academically I was a terrible student, the schooling I received became immensely practical. When Marc Monte took me into his home, I wasn’t just hearing facts about the Bible, but I was seeing biblical principles lived out before my very eyes. I observed their strengths and weaknesses and in my mind, their strengths far outweighed their weaknesses. I saw how they navigated their times of struggle, and how their faith in Christ impacted their decisions. I saw things in both Marc and Kelli Monte that I wanted in my own life. I wanted a marriage like they had. I wanted to raise my children with the love and guidance that they provided for their children.
By no means was it easy for Marc and Kelli to have me in their home. When they allowed me to move into their basement, at 3901 Zane Avenue in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, I brought with me all of my emotional baggage. Personal insecurities, emotional volatility, verbal outbursts, and my overall spiritual immaturity were often on full display. Unfortunately, many of the actions and reactions that I observed from my mom and stepdad growing up, were the same ways that I responded to Marc and Kelli during those years.
I’m sure those sports programs at Fourth Baptist would’ve been fun, but the life lessons I learned through that tuition-free school were invaluable. To say that another way, the school was free but to me, the things I learned were priceless. I will never be able to repay Marc and Kelli Monte for their personal sacrifices and loving investment in my life. My school choice was made for me by my mom. Clearly, she made the right decision.
My Call to Preach:
Every year, Calvary Baptist Church would take their teenagers to a large youth conference. For me, it was inspiring to see literally thousands of other teenagers who believed the way I was taught to believe.
The spirit of that youth conference was enthusiastic and fun. I loved it! I remember one year specifically when the host pastor was preaching. He preached about the importance of stewarding your abilities as unto the Lord. He explained the privilege it is to be involved in the work of the ministry. Then, he invited anyone who felt the Lord calling them into full-time ministry to come forward and dedicate themselves to the Lord’s service. I remember slipping out from that pew and walking the aisle. I knelt down in the front, along with hundreds of other teenagers, and I asked the Lord to use me in His service. I was very aware of my glaring educational deficiencies. My personal insecurities were numerous. I explained to the Lord how intimidated I was to stand in front of a crowd. I told the Lord that if He would help me overcome my reading issues, and if He would calm my heart, that I would preach His Word with whatever ability He gave me.
I’ve heard Christians debate about whether or not a preacher is called by God, or whether he just surrenders to be used of God. For me, I believe it was both.
God called me to preach and then I surrendered to that call.
1 Timothy 3:1 explains that “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” God used the preacher at that youth conference to highlight the desire I had for full-time pastoral ministry in my heart. Sometimes God calls us through the desires He puts on our hearts. (Consider Psalm 37:4)
Once I sensed His calling, I knew I had to surrender. I felt like Isaiah must have felt in Isaiah 6 when he said, “Here am I, send me.”
Indeed, God used the preacher at that youth conference to highlight my calling but that desire was already being cultivated in my heart through the ministry of Calvary Baptist Church and Mike and Marc Monte.
I will never forget the many ways that church family showed love to this inner-city kid. I remember thinking that one day, if the Lord would use me, I wanted to lead a church family to show that kind of gospel-focused love to other people in need.
Throughout my time at Calvary, I watched my pastor and youth pastor closely. I observed them during both the mountains and valleys of church ministry.
The Monte brothers made ministry look like a lot of fun. They clearly enjoyed preaching the Bible and they both had an enthusiasm for life that I found inspiring. That’s not to say that their ministries were free from difficulty. Like everyone, they faced their share of heartache. I remember when our church split. I remember as a teenager grieving for my pastor as I watched him grieve over the pain that the church experienced during that time.
My call to preach culminated with my surrender at the youth conference, but my desire for pastoral ministry was cultivated over time as I watched the way my pastors conducted themselves. I wanted to be like them. I wanted God to use me in the ways He was using them. I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life, the way they had made a difference in my life. Even though they had difficult times, they always modeled a tenacious God-honoring character, when I was watching.
As I said, my call to preach culminated with my surrender at that youth conference, but God used that precious church family and my pastor and youth pastor to grow my desire to be in His service For that, I will forever feel a debt to those wonderful people who made up that wonderful church.
My Life in Ministry:
My goal in Christian ministry is to make disciples. As I’m writing this, I have now spent over 22 years in full-time Christian ministry.
My first vocational ministry opportunity was in an inner-city rescue mission environment; Good News Ministries in Indianapolis. I began by serving in their Youth Center in May of 2000 and continued there until April of 2008. Having grown up in the inner city myself, what a privilege it was to minister to other inner-city kids.
In April 2008, God allowed me to serve as the senior pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana. I served there until April 2016. That work was in need of revitalization. The church was just 19 people when I arrived, and it quickly grew to 14 people. Sometimes, not everyone likes the new pastor. In spite of that, over the eight years I was there, the church saw people saved, baptized, discipled and added to the church. The culmination of that revitalization was that the church would ordain a man and he would carry on the work there. Today Pastor Ben Lang is doing a wonderful job among the sweet people of Temple Baptist in Muncie.
In April 2016, God allowed me to begin serving as the Pastor of Pine Forest Estates Baptist Church, now known as NorthStone Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. Just about every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, I am privileged to preach the Word of God from this pulpit here in Pensacola.
As I look back at my discipleship story; my profession of faith, my time of doubt, the life-changing knock at my door, my school choice, my call to preach, and my life in Christian ministry, I recognize that IT’S ALL BY HIS GRACE!
And, for the last 23 years of my discipleship story, my wife Britan has been my heaven-sent helpmeet. She has co-labored with me at Good News Ministries, Temple Baptist Church, and currently at NorthStone Baptist Church. In so many ways, she has discipled me. Often, she inspires me to pursue Christ-likeness.
Proverbs 18:22 explains, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord.” Britan’s Christlike example has been a “good thing“ for me and no doubt about it, her presence in my life is “favor of the Lord.“
My discipleship story is not over. He’s still working on this inner-city misfit kid, to make me what I ought to be, for His honor and glory! For this, I am sincerely thankful.
Click the graphic below to read a biblical definition of "True Discipleship" by Pastor James C. Johnson.