When I returned to school after my first year as a camp counselor, I was just beginning my new walk of faith. I started looking for a good church to go to. My one requirement was that it had contemporary music. The only church I found was a charismatic church, a movement I knew nothing about. The pastor, Derek Miller, took me out to lunch and challenged me to let Jesus be Lord of my life. When I questioned him about what that meant, he quoted Jesus’ words in Luke 9.23-24, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” Derek asked me, “Ryan, are you seeking to save your life, or have you lost it for Jesus?” That question prompted a week of intense soul searching. At the end of the week I committed to lay down my life for Jesus. Months later I would look back to that decision as the point where I was truly born again.
Just a few weeks after I started attending church, I received a personal prophecy that has been foundational in my life. We had a guest preacher who began calling people up after his message to give them a prophetic word. I had never seen anything like this before, and the first person he called up was me! He told me I was called to be a theologian, warning me that it would be easy for me to get puffed up on intellect. God gave me wisdom to challenge the vain philosophies of this world and that things that are holding people in bondage. “I sense you being able to do that… crying out to God, saying, ‘What is the key that would unlock this prison door?’ And it’s going to really challenge you intellectually… But the fruit of it and the reward will be well worth the price paid.”
When I look back on the next three years, I am amazed at how much God did in my life during those days. It was as if every week brought new insights and revelations about God. Most of my personal stories about “what it really means to be a Christian” come from this period. I was amazed at all the wisdom the Bible contained. I had already known the gospels pretty well, but suddenly I discovered the treasures that were kept in the rest of the Bible, especially the epistles.
God continued to stretch me when I moved in with three Christians from a non-charismatic, fundamentalist church. The four of us learned a great deal from each other, not the least of which was how to deal with conflict biblically. But we all had a sense of the profound unity we had in the gospel despite any doctrinal disagreements.
It seemed that God was always bringing up things in my life that He wanted changed. I remember three specific occasions. The first happened during church, which was meeting on Saturday nights. Derek announced that instead of meeting in the building, he was giving us an assignment to go hand out tracts, and we would meet back at the church when we were done. I had never passed out tracts, and I didn’t want people to think I was a weird religious type. My group ended up being Derek, and his wife, and me. I went with them and watched them hand out tracts, but I was not ready to do it myself. That night on my walk home from church I worked up the courage to give a tract to a convenience store worker. I was so excited that I called the pastor when I got home to tell him, “I did it!”
A second challenge occurred a few weeks later during worship. I was glad to have found a church with contemporary music, but I was not too excited about all this charismatic stuff: lifting hands in the air, shouting spontaneous praises, etc. That’s fine for them, I told myself, but I would not worship like that. But during one of the songs I felt the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit to lift my hands in worship. I was offended that God would ask me to do such an undignified thing. Then I remembered all the sin in my life that God had forgiven me for, and how undignified that was in His eyes. Yet here I was, unwilling to worship Him, the very thing I was created for. I went into the bathroom and locked the door so no one could see me. I repented before the Lord and lifted my hands in worship. As I did, I felt a flood of the power of God come over me. This was a crucial test of obedience for me.
The third challenge came when I started dating Rachel, who was beginning to dabble in witchcraft at the same time I was beginning to live the Christian life. I was somewhat of a nerd, so I had never had a girlfriend before. In just a few days I went from innocence in relationships to feeling totally defiled before God. At the end of the first week I came under such conviction before God that I broke down weeping before Him. I repented for being “unequally yoked” and broke off the relationship.
I believe challenges like these are important in every new believer's life. For me, they were crucial for preparing me for vocational ministry.