“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? Then said I, ‘Here am I, Lord. Send me.” Isaiah 6.
“I was not disobedient to that heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).
I was 21 years old and a senior in college. Our church was having a revival of the type you never hear about any more: Two weeks long with over 400 people saved. Pastor Bill Burkett baptized 250 of them. On Tuesday night of the second week, the living God found me singing in the choir during the invitation. “Jesus Paid It All.” We were singing it non-stop as the flow of people to the altar seemed unending. (We sang the same invitational song every night, so there’s no question on what we were singing!)
Suddenly, it felt like a curtain was being opened in my mind. And the voice of God, that strong presence that I would come to know intimately over a long ministry, registered His presence and His message: “I want you in the ministry.” A thought completely new to me. Something from outside, yet inside me. Surprising, unexpected, not my voice. But just as surely, I knew it was the voice of God.
It felt right. Assuring. Powerful.
I thought, “If this is really the Lord–and I know it is–it’ll still be here tomorrow night and I’ll go forward and announce it to the church then,” as was our custom. And just that promptly the answer came: “This is the Lord and you know it is the Lord and there is no point in waiting.” I remember thinking, “That’s true.” I stepped out of the choir, walked down to the floor level, took the hand of Pastor Burkett and said, “God has just called me into the ministry.” I have no memory of what he said. He presented me to the congregation a few minutes later, along with all those who had come to be saved. My friends came by to speak to me.
I was the only one surprised.
“We’ve seen it coming,” they said. The one who mattered more than any other–the 18-year-old who would become my bride almost exactly a year later–seemed pleased and not at all disappointed to learn that being joined to me would mean a lifetime of dealing with church congregations, search committees, deacons, and denominational agencies. Looking back, I now know Margaret Henderson had no idea what she was getting into. But when she was perhaps 10 years old, she had told the Lord she’d be willing to be a missionary if that was what He wanted. In a real sense, that’s what she became.
I was a history major at Birmingham-Southern College, a United Methodist institution, a mile from West End Baptist Church, and just entering my senior year. My plans had long been to eventually become a history professor in college. I loved history and enjoyed working with young people, so it felt right. However…
More and more over the past couple of years, my interests had turned more toward the church than the classroom. I loved history and enjoyed the courses I’d taken on my major as well as the English and speech minor. But less and less could I see myself as a college professor. I had not reasoned out what that meant and what I should be planning to do.
I’m not a big planner. Do what seems right at the moment and tomorrow will take care of itself–seemed to be what I lived by.
Later, looking back, it became clear that the Lord had been moving me toward this moment.
In September 1959, I had joined West End Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Avenue in Birmingham and been baptized. (I’d come to know the Lord as an eleven-year-old in our Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, 60 miles north of Birmingham, but had never been baptized.) Immediately, I found myself among a crowd of great teenagers and college students. Without realizing what was happening, I quickly became a leader of the youth. I promoted events, encouraged the young people, spoke up in meetings, and they made me editor of the youth newspaper. It just happened. And I loved it.
I felt like a potted plant cooped up in a hot apartment for all its life suddenly taken outside into the sunshine. I thrived.
The church people were happy, the pastor was wonderful, and they all supported their young people. Our youth choir ran fifty or more and for the first time in my life, I sang in choir. Two, actually, because I joined the adult choir as well as the youth singers.
The following May, when the church observed its annual Youth Week, they chose me to be the Youth Pastor. Bear in mind I’ve been a member of this church and a Southern Baptist less than a year. The major responsibility of the youth pastor was to bring a sermon on Sunday night, the culmination of the week’s events. I brought the sermon, such as it was, and no one complained.
I was growing. Next, I participated in the denomination’s speakers’ tournament. Three of us competed in our church. Leigh Anne McGrady beat Brenda Mitchell and me. But it was great fun.
I found that I loved speaking before groups.
I remember once when Ron Palmer, minister of education, approached me with a strange request. “Joe,” he said, “we’re going to be having a stewardship emphasis in the church. Could I ask you to give your tithing testimony?” I said, “What?” “Tithing testimony.” I said, “What is that?” He was aghast. Since Ron had grown up in nearby Southside Baptist Church, the son of Godly and faithful parents, tithing was second nature to him. This was my first time to hear the word. He had to explain what a tithe was. I did not give a testimony that time and struggled with the practice for a few years before finding out the delights of becoming a regularly and generous giver to the Lord’s work. .
Two Saturday nights a month our church sent its young people to the Birmingham Baptist Youth Rally. The young people–mostly junior and senior high students–met at churches throughout the Birmingham area. There would be 600 or more and it was better than any pep rally ever. The evening was in two parts: a worship service led by the young people themselves, usually with a local pastor bringing a sermon, and a fellowship provided by the host church, often with some kind of fun activity and always with refreshments. Our church hired a city bus to take as many as 50 kids. It was my first time to be exposed to such activities and I was in love. This was the best thing ever to happen to my spiritual life.
Then one day, our minister of music Larry Andrews told me something.
“Joe, they want you to be program chairman for the youth rally.” “What is that?” I asked. “You’d be responsible for planning the programs for each rally.” “Wow. Are you serious?” “But not by yourself. Bob Ford, the assistant pastor of Ensley Baptist Church is the pastor advisor. He will help you.”
And that’s how it happened that for the next two, nearly three, years I planned the programs for this great meeting of young people, two Saturday nights a month. The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be chairman, I wanted to be president of the thing. The president was the public figurehead, the one who presided over the meeting I put together. Eventually, when it became apparent I was not going to be made president, I realized I had the best job anyway. I was the one who connected with pastors and lined up speakers and saw to a hundred details to make sure the evening ran well. Without knowing it, I was getting some great hands-on training for becoming a pastor.
Then, I worked up a speech and for the second time entered the speakers’ tournament. This time, I won in the church, won in the competition for the western section of Birmingham, won for the city, and then was eliminated at the district competition. The girl who won the district had never competed against anyone. But it was good. I had had a great time. Once again, it had been a growing experience.
That district competition at Pell City where I lost out was a Monday night. And the next night, Tuesday, God called me into the ministry.
I remember those events so well, and we’re talking about April of 1961. A long time ago.
God calling people into the ministry, I have heard, is like the cream rising to the top of an already rich harvest. Or, put another way, no dead and dry church has young people being called into the Lord’s work. It’s like He selects the best of the best (in my humble opinion!).
I’ve heard ministers say they have sometimes doubted their salvation, but they’ve never doubted their call into the ministry. I know the feeling.
I run into people who say God called them into the ministry when they were young and they ran from it for years, decades even, before yielding. I don’t understand that. The call to serve the living God will always remain the greatest honor of my life.
I think of what Amos told the backslidden priest of Bethel in the Northern Kingdom. “Go away to the South,” said Amaziah. ‘We don’t want you up here! They’ll pay you a good income down there. Leave! You’re making everyone uncomfortable.” (See Amos 7:10-17). Amos said to him, “I was no prophet. I was not the son of a prophet.” (My dad was a coal miner and a farmer.)
“But the living God took me as I followed the flock. And the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel!”
He said, “When the lion roars, you will fear. And when God speaks, you will prophesy” (Amos 3:8).
Amen. And a double amen.