I was raised in Northwest Alabama in the heart of the bible belt. I was blessed to grow up in a culture where most people at least verbally affirmed that the Bible was the word of God. Church attendance on Sunday was culturally accepted. The grace extended in such a wonderful environment was sweeter than grandmother’s sweet tea. Everyone knows that Alabama natives love their sweet tea. My love for Jesus and the church is much deeper and beneficial to me than my love for southern culture.
As a young boy, I became a disciple of Jesus as a result of the faithfulness of my youth pastor. Although he is not actively serving in youth ministry right now, his impact on my life through those Sunday morning bus trips to church forever changed me. You see, I fell in love with the church before I actually experienced a new birth through faith in Jesus.
Once I became a Christ-follower at twelve years old, my love for the church only grew over time. By the time I was sixteen years old, I answered God’s call to vocational ministry. Three factors contributed to my decision to become a minister all those years ago.
- Jesus gave a young boy with a broken home life hope through the Gospel. Immediately I had a desire to share the “reason for my hope” with others.
- I was invited to help participate in both the nursing home service as well as the monthly youth service. In fact, I cut my preaching teeth on five minute devotionals at the assisted living facility in Hamilton, Alabama.
- While attending youth camp, I came under deep conviction, much like I did when I first came to Christ in 2005. The camp evangelist, who pastors faithfully in North Carolina today, said, “Some of you need to give Jesus the blank check and allow him to write on the lines what he would have you to do.” That was the moment I sensed an internal call to pastoral ministry.
In high school, I was an athletic manager. I was privileged to learn, grow, and serve under the leadership of my Christian coaches. Apparently my coaches saw something in my athletic management abilities, which eventually led to a scholarship offer at the University of North Alabama. Keep in mind that I had answered the call to ministry. Also note that my family had limited means to support me in college. The prospect of a scholarship deeply appealed to me.
I declined the scholarship opportunity, though.
See, I thought I would study education and maybe become a school teacher to support me in the ministry. Men I love and respect deeply are bi-vocational pastors. Even though I knew some “full-time” pastors, most of the men I grew to love preaching under were bi-vocational and had minimal ministry training. To this day I have immense respect for brothers who get up at 4am to study the Bible before going to work at a job to provide for their families.
Even though I had been offered a scholarship from UNA, I scheduled a campus visit to what was then known as Free Will Baptist Bible College, now Welch College. I knew immediately upon arrival to the historic West End campus that God was calling me to FWBBC. I am not sure if it was the historic Welch Library, the rose garden, Tina Tolbert’s hospitality, or my conversation with the Free Will Baptist “prince of preachers”, Terry Forrest that compelled me to study at Bible College.
Before high school graduation, I struggled with whether I would attend UNA on scholarship or FWBBC on faith. I will never forget the day Terry Forrest called me on the phone, knowing my struggle. He said,
“Son, if God has called you to preach, why don’t you just preach and follow God? You know, sometimes God calls us to count the cost to follow him like Elisha did. You will remember the story of Elisha from 1 Kings 19:19-21, where God told Elisha to burn the oxen and plow to follow Him. Dustin, God might be calling you to burn the ox and the plow. I am praying for you to have discernment.”Bro. Terry Forrest
So I answered God’s call, rejected a scholarship offer, and moved to Nashville on faith. Sometime I’ll tell you about how God provided my full tuition for my first semester in just four weeks, a lot of prayer, endless conversations with financial aid, and overall Providence.
When I made this decision people in my small Alabama town immediately questioned me. They would say things like, “If you have the call of the Holy Spirit, why do you need a Bible college education?” The intention behind this statement is heartfelt. Ministers should rely on the call and leading of God’s Spirit and not human accolades. That word stands true today. (See Paul’s words in Philippians 3!) Even though the intentions behind this statemeent were pure, they were not all that helpful to a young man who was attempting to say “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go”.
You see, faith is a prerequisite in being a disciple of Jesus. The Spirit draws us but ultimately we must all say yes to God’s first call to come and be a disciple. We are all called to ministry service, whether it is one’s vocation or not, no Christian is exempt from ministry service. (One reason the church in America is in decline is that we rely on professional pastors to do everything while ordinary believers sit on the sidelines and watch.)
It does not make sense in worldly way of thinking why I turned down a scholarship to study at Bible college. From a worldly perspective, it does not make sense why I decided to move on to pursue Master’s Level studies after I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts. Why would anyone spend thousands of dollars on a theological education?
It all goes back to answering God’s call. Faith and reason are interrelated, yet sometimes we are called to be obedient even when it does not make sense. What might God be calling you to do as a demonstration of your faith? Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac. What’s your Isaac?
I have just over thirty hours remaining on an 86 hour Master of Divinity. I am excited to transfer my credits from NOBTS to SBTS this spring!
Whether you are a fellow seminary student or a lay church member, I hope you will observe the connection in answering God’s call and theological training. Everyone does not have to attend Bible college or seminary, but I can assure you one of the most beneficial aspects of theological training is growth in personal sanctification. Through the fire of seminary and rigorous academic work, God is molding me into a more obedient and persevering disciple.
Sidebar: I used to watch men like Adrian Rodgers, Steve Gaines, and Kevin Hamm while getting ready for church during those church bus kid days. All the men I wanted to be like as a young man who answered the call ALL had seminary training. While I am more comfortable in my own skin these days, I cannot ignore the influence the education of these men has had on my own life and ministry. Now I look up to men like Matthew Pinson, Barry Raper, Garnett Reid, Kevin Hester, Matthew McAffee, Ron Callaway, Chuck Kelly, Jamie Dew, and Rhyne Putman. I want to influence the next generation and that’s one reason I’m on this journey of theological training. And more importantly I’m on the journey of answering God’s call. Are you saying yes to Jesus, no matter what?