Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

Gospel Hope After a Church Burning

Strangely enough, the fire has recentered people on the hope of the gospel. God’s timing is infinitely kind. I think this could be a severe mercy from the Lord and may open up tremendous opportunities. When we were sitting on folding chairs in the fellowship hall on Sunday, I thought, This feels like a church plant to me.

The 911 call came in just before 11:00 p.m. last Saturday.
Someone driving by the historic College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi—the one founded nearly 180 years ago, the one that served as a Civil War hospital, the one where William Faulkner got married—had spotted smoke.
Firefighters arrived within a few minutes, but the building—including the original pulpit and pews—was already aflame.
“The fire was in full blaze by midnight,” said Clint Wilcke, who works as catalyst for the Mid-South Church Planting Network of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Since College Hill Presbyterian is between pastors, he also preaches there a few times a month, organizes their pulpit supply, and shepherds the elders and staff. “It seems there was an electrical fire in the back of the church, but it’s still under investigation.”

Wilcke’s phone was set to silent, so he didn’t hear the news until he saw a morning text from a friend. “So sorry to hear about College Hill,” it said.
Uh-oh, Wilcke thought. What’s he talking about?
“I reached out to some folks, and we drove straight there,” he said.
He remembers pulling in. “I thought there would be more of a structure left,” he said. “It was hard to look at—just devastating. It was a complete ruin.”
The brick walls, which had been reinforced in the 1940s, were still standing. But the interior walls and roof and original wood pews were ashes. The communion table and hymnals and stained glass windows were gone. The pulpit was a charred stump.
But not all was lost. No one was hurt. One of the firefighters grabbed the Bible from the pulpit—the Bible pastors had been marking up and preaching from since the 1860s. And the fellowship hall, which had been built much later, was untouched in a separate building 200 yards away.
That’s where College Hill Presbyterian Church met on Sunday, seven hours after the fire was extinguished.
The Gospel Coalition asked Wilcke about that service, the reaction of the congregation, and how he’s seen God’s faithfulness over the past week.
What was the church service like on Sunday?
A lot of people were flat-out weeping and really struggling, because they were married in that church, and baptized there, and came to Christ there. Place matters.
But there was also tons of hope and encouragement. The elders have done a good job of listening and praying and coming alongside the members. The longest-standing ruling elder, Bill, was preaching that morning. He never even went out to the fire; when he heard about it, he knew he had to work on the sermon instead. I really appreciated his focus.

Some of the other elders went out to the fire and then put together emails in the middle of the night. Sunday morning, everyone jumped in—moving chairs and hymnals over to the fellowship hall. There was some crying and hugging and looking at the ruins in disbelief, but then everyone was focused on worship.
Bill’s texts were Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:15–22, and 1 Peter 2:4–10. He did a great job celebrating the history of God’s work and reminding us that we are the church, the building, the body, the bride of Christ.
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The Christian Reformed Church Corrects Course

If you watched the synod delegates speak, it sounded more or less like an even split between those for and against the codifying of biblical sexuality. But what didn’t split evenly were the ages of those speaking. Often, those who argued for the welcome and inclusion of homosexual lifestyles had grey hair and wrinkles. Many of those who spoke for biblical sexuality were visibly younger.

Last month, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) voted 123-53 to affirm that “unchastity” in the Heidelberg Catechism includes adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex. The move wasn’t just an affirmation of biblical sexuality but also a call for church discipline for congregations that dissent.
You’d think, with numbers that decisive, that no one would be surprised by the outcome. You’d be wrong.
“No! Seriously! Only 53?” one woman tweeted, and she wasn’t the only one caught off guard.
“I was very surprised!” said Mary Vanden Berg, a Calvin Theological Seminary professor who was on the committee asking for the vote. “I had no idea there was that level of support.”
The CRC synod met in June in Grand Rapids, Michigan / Photo by Steve Herppich. Copyright © 2022 The Banner, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission. //
I was at the TGC women’s conference when I got the text from my husband. We’d been watching it closely—it felt like a watershed moment for the denomination we’d both been born into.
The CRC was founded in 1857, arising from a group of Dutch immigrants who split off from the Reformed Church in America over arguments about sound doctrinal preaching (the CRC said the RCA didn’t have enough) and accommodations to American culture (the CRC said the RCA was doing too much). Since then, the Grand Rapids–based denomination has grown—and then declined—to around 200,000 members in about 1,000 churches, and includes Calvin University and Calvin Seminary among its denominational institutions. It’s the third-largest Reformed denomination in the U.S.
Six years ago, a committee was appointed to wrestle through the church’s stance on sexuality. They submitted a 175-page report—in both English and Spanish—essentially clarifying and upholding the church’s historical teaching.
Honestly, I thought the delegates to synod (the CRC’s annual leadership convention) would vote to accept the report, but I had no confidence they’d affirm the confessional status of biblical sexuality and put church discipline behind it.
Five hours after the first vote, they did.
“They told Neland Avenue CRC to immediately void their appointment of a deacon in a same-sex marriage,” my husband texted.
I couldn’t believe it.
To me, the actions read like a sharp correction in a denomination where Neland’s ordination of a married lesbian deacon was done with “assistance from church advisers from Classis [Grand Rapids] East,” according to the church publication. Where a third of the faculty at Calvin University—the CRC’s flagship school—said this vote would hinder their academic freedom. And where just six years ago, a different report—one that allowed CRC ministers to officiate civil same-sex marriages—was submitted to synod.
Synod delegates worshipping together / Photo by Steve Herppich. Copyright © 2022 The Banner, Christian Reformed Church in NA. All rights reserved. Used by permission. //
The CRC’s sexuality struggle isn’t really news. As same-sex marriage was legalized and became more common, I’ve seen most denominations wrestle (and sometimes split) their way through sexuality debates. Even the leftward shift of the denominational leadership and educational institutions sounds typical for a lot of denominations.
But there are two things that stand out to me about the CRC.
First, it’s unusual to have a denomination on the path to liberalism yank itself around. It can be done (see the Southern Baptists) but it’s not normal (see the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and even the Africa-heavy Methodists).
Second, statistics are clear that in America, the younger you are, typically the more liberal you are. Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to be comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, believe same-sex marriage is good for society, and identify as LGBT+.
But at synod this year, it wasn’t the young people voting against biblical sexuality. Judging by those who stood up to share their views, it was largely the older generation asking for sexual inclusion and the younger crowd pointing back to the Bible.
What’s going on in Grand Rapids?
Watershed Moment
The last time the CRC had a battle this big was a generation ago. In the mid-1990s, after two and a half decades of committee meetings, synod effectively moved the denomination from complementarian to egalitarian. Reasoning that both views “honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God,” synod said each church could decide for itself whether to ordain women to church office.
Chart created by Neil Carlson of DataWise Consulting
“It was a watershed moment,” C. J. den Dulk told me. He’s been pastoring at Trinity CRC in Sparta, Michigan, for the past 32 years. “It changed the hermeneutic way of approaching Scripture. And a lot of people said if you change [the church ordinances] on women, homosexuality will come later.”
He could’ve left the CRC back then. A lot of conservatives did. In 1996, 36 complementarian churches with about 7,500 attendees left to form the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). Over the years, more conservative CRCs have joined them. By 2021, the URCNA held 130 congregations with more than 25,000 attendees.
“[A number of churches] decided that, at least from a human perspective, it didn’t seem that the direction of the denomination as a whole is going to change,” Godfrey said then.
In one sense, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without the pull of a substantial conservative caucus, the CRC began to list leftward. Nearly 30 years later, about three-quarters of CRC churches ordain women deacons, and more than half ordain women elders. Synod said churches didn’t have to meet twice on Sunday, teach through the creeds and Reformed confessions, or wait for children to profess their faith before welcoming them to the Lord’s Supper. Students and faculty at Calvin University wrote about being pro-choice, openly queer, and welcoming and affirming.
But over time, something else was happening too, so quietly that it took me a while to find it.
What’s Going On: The Kids
If you watched the synod delegates speak, it sounded more or less like an even split between those for and against the codifying of biblical sexuality.
But what didn’t split evenly were the ages of those speaking. Often, those who argued for the welcome and inclusion of homosexual lifestyles had grey hair and wrinkles. Many of those who spoke for biblical sexuality were visibly younger.
I wasn’t the only one to notice.
“We’ve been seeing that over time,” said Chad Steenwyk, CRC pastor and chairman of the Abide Project, which formed in recent years to support the CRC’s historical teaching on biblical sexuality. Of the hundreds of church leaders associated with the project, most are in their 30s or 40s, Steenwyk estimated.
“It’s taken a while to raise up a new conservative generation,” he said.
Some of those young pastors are coming from conservative seminaries outside the denomination—Reformed Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, or Westminster Seminary California. Of the leaders at synod this year, president Jose Rayas, vice president Derek Buikema, and the chair of the advisory board for the human sexuality report Tim Kuperus are all Westminster grads.
Even Calvin Seminary, which is run by the denomination, has historically been more conservative than the university, Steenwyk said. (The seminary has not made a public statement on synod’s decision.)
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Transformation of a Transgender Teen

One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20). A surprising number of them—40 percent of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.
Eva was in a church luncheon when she got an email from her 12-year-old daughter Grace. (Their names have been changed.)
“Mom and Dad, I need to tell you I’m not actually a girl,” she read. “My pronouns are they/them.”
Eva couldn’t breathe. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She hadn’t seen this coming—in fact, a few months before, Grace had shared on social media her belief that God created people male and female.
Back then, Eva was sure that statement was going to earn Grace—who attended a progressive public school—some social problems. Instead, it seemed to blow over right away.
“I would’ve gotten bullied,” said Grace, who is now 16. “Instead, they decided to reeducate me. I got invited to groups where all they wanted to talk about was the transgender stuff. Over the course of a few months, I decided I was going to be agender. And then I ended up deciding I was a boy.”
Grace was experiencing what is often called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” in which friendship groups begin to experience similar gender questions at the same time. One in five Gen Z Americans now identify as LGBT+, double the number of millennials (one in 10) and quadruple the number of Gen X Americans (about one in 20).
A surprising number of them—40 percent of Gen Z and millennials—also identify as religious. Increasingly, Christian pastors, youth pastors, and parents are fielding questions and declarations from young people examining their own gender or sexual orientation.
“Martin Luther King Jr. talks about the long arc of justice,” said Falls Church Anglican rector Sam Ferguson, who has spent time with multiple transitioning young adults and their families. “The Bible also envisions the long arc of redemption, which aims at the resurrection of the body. There is continuity—the end reflects the beginning. Our Creator doesn’t need to start over. If your child has an XY chromosome, then he’ll be raised from the dead as a male. We need to work along the arc of redemption, not against it.”
That takes patience, Eva and her husband Seth found. (His name has also been changed.) For more than two years, they prayed for Grace. They searched the Scriptures. They built their relationships with her. They drew boundaries around how she could express herself. They took her to counseling and to church. They started homeschooling her. They asked her questions.
Basically, they played the long game. And when she was 15, Grace desisted—that is, recognized her body is female and switched her identity back.
These days, Eva and Grace often talk with other families whose children are transitioning.
“The church is the only place that has the freedom to address this, because the activism around this has been so powerful and well-funded,” Eva said. “When I think about where we were three years ago, and where we are now—God doesn’t waste anything.”
‘Ended Up Deciding I Was a Boy’
In many ways, it’s surprising that someone like Grace would struggle with gender identity. Her mom and dad love Jesus and each other. She’s got a couple of siblings, a strong church family, and a sharp mind. For as long as she can remember, she’s believed in God.
When Grace was 12, she logged onto a social networking site called DeviantArt. “At first, I was posting artwork with my friends, but eventually the ‘gay is good’ message became unavoidable,” she said.
She’d never heard of someone being transgender before. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, there are guys who are actually girls, and girls who are actually guys, and some people are actually neither.’”
Grace asked her mom about it, and Eva explained they didn’t agree with those categories of thinking. Grace, who is on the autism spectrum and thinks in black and white, told her online friends she didn’t agree with them.
They didn’t fight her or bully her. Instead, she was invited to the Gender & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) club at her school. Eva thinks she was targeted, and that’s not a crazy idea. Teachers in California have shared recruiting tactics, including “stalking” students’ Google searches or conversations for any indication they might be open to joining the faculty-advised, student-led clubs.
Grace began going to the weekly unsupervised lunchtime meetings, listening to other kids from her middle school and high school talk about sex, gender, and how they felt uncomfortable in their bodies.
Being a 12-year-old girl, Grace felt uncomfortable in her body too. She also didn’t like the tights, short shorts, and crop tops that other middle school girls were wearing.
“I believe strongly in modesty,” she said. “I started to associate womanhood with being sexualized. I wasn’t even really thinking male vs. female, but non-sexual vs. sexual.”
She thought maybe she was agender, which means not identifying with either sex. But as time went on, Grace realized she’d prefer to be male. After all, she’d love to be as tall and strong as her brother. And it seemed like all she needed was some testosterone.
“Nobody in the GSA club had gotten prescription hormones yet because we were all fairly young,” she said. “Nobody knew about all the side effects of giving girls testosterone—the bone demineralization, increased rate of cancer, heart attacks, and vaginal atrophy.”
Instead, what everyone talked about was the drama of coming out.
Coming Out
National Coming Out Day is October 11, and it has expanded to include National Coming Out Week and even National Coming Out Month.
“All my friends on social media and I were going around with each other, dramatizing coming out,” Grace said. “I made it way more dramatic than it had to be. I emailed my parents with my announcement and my pronouns.”
She’d already asked to cut her hair short and quit wearing skirts, but that was all the warning Seth and Eva had.
“It was a nightmare,” Eva said. “I’ve never suffered from anxiety before, but the first two weeks [after Grace’s announcement] I didn’t eat or sleep.” She couldn’t believe this was happening—didn’t kids who identified as transgender come from broken families or abusive childhoods?
Eva took Grace to the school counselor, to the pediatrician, to the principal. “They all tell you you have to affirm or your child will commit suicide,” Eva said. “But my background is in education and psychology, and I knew that didn’t make sense. I could think of 15 reasons [other than being transgender] why a young girl might do this.”
It took two weeks before she found her first ray of hope. “It was a blog run by liberals, but it had all kinds of gender-critical resources,” she said. “I found it in the middle of the night, and I just started crying. I was like, I’m not crazy.”
Theology of Gender
That website was a confirmation of what Eva already knew.
“My husband and I talked it through,” she said. “What do we know about God? We know he created us male and female. Are there true transgender people? Well, if there are, they’d be in the Bible. What about eunuchs? Jesus is certainly aware of bodily brokenness—he acknowledges people born as eunuchs in Matthew 19:12—but two distinct sexes are his good design. . . . So if we believe God is sovereign and doesn’t make mistakes, what does this mean for us?”
She couldn’t find many Christian resources—and while there are some now, they’re still few and far between (and not always allowed on Amazon). Her pastors weren’t able to help much, either. “The church helped us find a therapist, which was huge,” Eva said. “But otherwise, we did not get much support. . . . No one at the church had any guidance for us at all. I understand that, because this was all out of left field for everyone. But instead of feeling like we were working together to figure this out, I felt mostly abandoned and ignored.”
Although many Christians know someone who is struggling with gender identity, few churches are well-equipped with policies, counseling, or a deep theology of identity. The transgender movement is both young—entering the mainstream around 2015 when Bruce Jenner announced his transition to Caitlyn—and constantly evolving. Even more confusing, the transgender questions and assumptions are different from the homosexual ones.
The question isn’t “Whom do I love?” but rather “What does it mean to be human?” said Mike McGarry, founder of Youth Pastor Theologian. “The gender identity conversation is really about the created order, and turning it upside down.”
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The Growth of Christianity in the World’s First Atheist Country

In the space of three decades, nearly all of Albania’s officially atheist population claimed or reclaimed a religion—by 2018, self-identified atheists dropped to less than 1 percent of the population. People primarily sorted themselves into their family’s pre-communist religions—about 75 percent are now Muslim, 11 percent are Catholic, and 7 percent are Orthodox. While the number of evangelicals expanded from 16 to around 17,000, they’re still less than 1 percent of the population.

When Asim Hamza was growing up in communist Albania in the 1980s, it was the third poorest country in the world. The farm technology hadn’t been updated since the 1920s. Lines for milk stretched 80 people long before dawn. Pharmacies carried nothing but aspirin. Electricity didn’t reliably turn or stay on. Religion was outlawed—making the sign of the cross could land you in jail for three years, owning a Bible was five years.
Hamza had no idea anything was wrong.
The government-controlled television, during the two or three hours it was on each day, showed images of children starving in sub-Saharan Africa. “We were told that was happening everywhere,” Hamza said. “They said, ‘You are the happiest kids in the world.’ And we believed it. We were so thankful to the Communist party leader.”
“I remember I was in a meeting in Holland with all the global missions agencies,” Mansfield said. “At the time, I didn’t know anything. They were talking about what was going on, and I raised my hand. I asked, ‘How many believers are there in the country?’”Back then, “Albania was one of the three most closed countries in the world, along with North Korea and Mongolia,” Campus Crusade for Christ missionary Don Mansfield said. He became Cru’s country director for Albania in 1991, when the communist government began to topple. He’d never been there before.
He was expecting a guesstimate, or maybe a percentage of the population.
“Do you know Sonila?” one person asked.
“Kristi?” suggested someone else.
“Maria is a Christian.”
“People were throwing out names, and I got to 16,” Mansfield said. “Everybody looked around and went, ‘Does anybody else know anyone else?’”
No one did. But today, Mansfield could name hundreds. The Joshua Project estimates there are 17,000 evangelical believers in the country. While half of that growth came in the first decade the country was open, the evangelical growth rate is still nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (4.6 percent compared to 2.6 percent).
To be sure, “we’re still small, and we’re not significant in the eyes of this world,” Light Church Tirana lead elder and TGC Albanian Council member Andi Dina said. “But we have a big God, and we worship him. We know he’ll build his church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.”“It’s been a remarkable story of seeing what God has done in one lifetime,” said The Orchard Evangelical Free Church senior pastor and TGC Council member Colin Smith, who spoke at the region’s first TGC conference in 2019. “It’s an amazing change.”
World’s First Atheist State
Even before supreme ruler Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheist state in 1967, evangelicals were few and far between. The population was primarily Muslim (70 percent, a heritage from the Ottoman Turks), followed by Greek Orthodox (20 percent, primarily along the border with Greece) and Roman Catholic (10 percent, mostly along the sea that separates Albania from Italy).
The evangelical Christians—by one count there were about 100—were largely gathered around a Baptist mission in the city of Korce. But the week after Pearl Harbor, the government kicked all American missionaries out. (Italy, a member of the Axis, was then occupying Albania.)
Foreign missionaries wouldn’t be allowed back for another 50 years. Hoxha, who came to power after World War II, didn’t just believe religion was opium for the masses. He also saw it as an issue of state security—Roman Catholicism meant influence from Italy, Orthodoxy came straight from Greece and Serbia, and Islam meant interference from Turkey. To allow Protestants would mean meddling from the West. Not only was practicing religion illegal, then, but so was believing it.
Hoxha’s enforcers started by burning four Franciscan priests to death, then turned mosques and churches into factories (minarets became chimneys) and shot an elderly Catholic priest for baptizing children. Hundreds of clergy were tortured and imprisoned for decades, forced to do hard labor in mines and sewage canals. Government-produced films that accused clerics of corruption, corroborating with foreign powers, and arranging forced marriages were broadcast over and over on the television channel. Newspapers mocked religious leaders on trial for being traitors.
Eventually, Albania’s borders were sealed so tightly—against both the democratic West and the communist Soviet Union and China—that nobody could get in to see what was going on, much less evangelize.
But that didn’t keep the Bibles out.
By Air and Sea
Albert Kona grew up in the town of Durrës, on the Adriatic Sea. In his childhood photos, you can count his ribs. He remembers his parents getting up at 2:00 a.m. to stand in line for bread or milk.
His family had been Eastern Orthodox, though he didn’t know that. One day, when playing in an antique wooden trunk of his grandmother’s, he found part of an old book with some pages ripped out. In it, he read about Peter and John.
In 1985, an Operation Mobilization (OM) ship anchored 12 miles off the Albanian coast, just far enough out to be in international water. Those on board dropped copies of the Gospel of Mark, freshly translated into Albanian, into gallon-sized ziplock bags. They blew each bag up with air so it would float. Then when the tide was just right, they plopped the Bibles into the water, praying they’d wash up on shore. In Kosovo, OM staff were standing on the banks of rivers that flow into Albania, doing the same thing.He wasn’t the only one to get his hands on Bible stories. After World War II, some American GIs flew over Albania and tossed out Bibles attached to parachutes. Most of them were gathered up by the government, but one man found about 12 chapters from the Gospel of Luke. “He understood who Jesus was and what Jesus had done,” said Kona, who met the man years later, after the country opened up. “He had a true and simple faith.”
“That was about all you could do,” Mansfield said. Some Swiss Christians had tried to smuggle Bibles in on a rare visit, but when they got to the airport, all the Bibles they’d surreptitiously given out were returned to them.
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The Amazing Story of Frank Barker and Campus Outreach

In its 40 years, Campus Outreach has seen 55,000 students at evangelistic events. Staff and volunteers have discipled 15,000 students over weekly Bible studies and worship times—1,447 of them have gone on to serve in ministry or missions. Over the last 12 months alone, 712 students have professed their faith in Christ.
More than 20 years ago, Olan Stubbs was trying to share his faith with two guys in his freshman class at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. It wasn’t working.
One sat on the dorm steps outside and smoked weed. When Stubbs attempted to explain verses to him, he said he didn’t believe the Bible. The other was a football player “who could articulate the gospel better than I could. But he was often coming in late at night, drunk. Obviously there was some kind of disconnect.”
Stubbs didn’t know what to say or do. Then he heard about two RAs on the second floor who were leading a Bible study. They’d led someone he knew to Christ.
“I’d love to learn how to share my faith like you guys are doing,” he told them. They handed him a booklet by Navigators founder Dawson Trotman and told him to “get involved in Campus Outreach.”
Campus Outreach was famous for its evangelism, founded by a church famous for its evangelism, planted by a man famous for his evangelism.
Stubbs was hooked. Today, he’s one of nearly 750 Campus Outreach staff serving on 122 campuses in 11 countries. In its 40 years, Campus Outreach has seen 55,000 students at evangelistic events. Staff and volunteers have discipled 15,000 students over weekly Bible studies and worship times—1,447 of them have gone on to serve in ministry or missions. Over the last 12 months alone, 712 students have professed their faith in Christ.
Stubbs works at Briarwood Presbyterian Church, where Campus Outreach began. The church was planted in 1960 and grew to 4,000 members largely on the strength of personal evangelism. “The Great Commission has been our heartbeat,” the website says, and it’s not kidding: Briarwood partners with more than 100 mission boards and organizations and more than 300 ministry staff.
Briarwood got that heartbeat from its founder.
“If you meet a Christian in Birmingham who is 60 or older, and you ask them how they came to Christ, I’d bet my money that at some point they’ll mention Frank Barker,” Stubbs said.
The 86-year-old Barker has led many thousands to Christ—his daughter Peggy Townes estimated 10,000 personally and hundreds of thousands through his ministries. But it wasn’t because he loved talking to people. He’s not a gregarious personality or even a compelling speaker.
“I’d like to just settle in and read a book,” he said. “But the Bible tells us to reach out to others, so I had to discipline myself to do that.”
Turns out, that was catching.
Later to Faith than to Ministry
Barker came to ministry late, and to faith even later.
Beginning in high school, “I was living a pretty wild life morally,” Barker told TGC. From lying to his parents to throwing eggs at people to drinking too much (and then driving), Barker knew he wasn’t living a good life, but couldn’t pull himself out of it.
Playing tennis restricted his rowdiness, but not a lot and not for long. He went to college on an ROTC scholarship, then became a jet pilot in the United States Navy.
One weekend, while in flight training school, “I came back up to Birmingham and had a wild weekend,” Barker said.

On his way back to Pensacola, he fell asleep at the wheel, and when the road curved, his car sped onto a rutted-out dirt road. When he finally got the car stopped, the headlights picked up a sign nailed to a tree: “The wages of sin is death.”
“I thought, You know what? I think God is trying to tell me something,” he said. “I started trying to straighten up. I felt I’d been so bad that if I was going to get to heaven, I was going to need to be a preacher.”
Barker kept swinging between resolving to do better and partying until one night, when he felt God was actually listening to the rote prayer he tossed up. He told God he wanted to follow him.
Barker began to stay home from the wild nights with his friends; after his tour of duty, he enrolled at Columbia Theological Seminary. A month in, he inherited from his roommate a preaching gig at an Alabama church.
“The first year, nothing particularly good happened,” he said. “At the end of that year, I thought, Something’s wrong. I wonder if I’m really a Christian.”
It was an awkward question to ask his professors or congregants, but he knew an Air Force chaplain, and asked him. (“Joe, how can I make sure I’m a Christian?”)
The chaplain gave Barker a tract and told him to put his trust in Jesus and receive salvation as a gift.
“That’s wrong,” Barker told him. “God’s not going to just give this thing away! You’ve got to work for it.”
The chaplain insisted, and Barker began to realize “I had totally missed that salvation was about grace. I surrendered my will and transferred my trust from me to Christ. When I did that, life began to change dramatically.”
Storefront Church
Among the first people Barker tried to evangelize were his parents, who were already saved. Then he told his sister, who accepted Christ. He told the handyman. He told his friends. He told his congregation, which began to grow.
After seminary, the Birmingham presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States asked Barker if he’d organize a new church in the rapidly developing area of Cahaba Heights.
Intent on a PhD, he told them no.
They asked for the summer.
Just the summer, he agreed.
Barker knocked on doors and found so much interest in a new congregation that he skipped the Bible study stage of church planting and went right to the rented building, setting up in an old barber shop in a strip mall. That first Sunday, 70 people showed up. Three months in, Briarwood Presbyterian Church was chartered with 90 members.
Barker packed out the storefront church. Three years in, with 290 members, Briarwood moved into its own facility that could fit 400. (It was there the Presbyterian Church in America held its first meeting in December 1973.) A few years later, a 1,000-seat sanctuary was added.
In 1988, Briarwood moved into a facility that could fit 4,000. By the time Barker retired in 1998, membership had grown that large.
But they weren’t necessarily drawn in by the preaching.
“Kind of Boring”
“My father was not a dynamic orator by any means,” Townes said. “He’d shuffle up to the pulpit and say, ‘Uh, turn in your Bibles to 1 John 3,’ and then quietly read it and start preaching. There was nothing dynamic or big about it.”
“When I first visited Briarwood as a freshman in college, I was like, ‘This guy’s kind of boring,’” Stubbs said.
But Barker had the zeal of a new convert and the discipline of a Navy pilot.
“I had to train myself” to evangelize, Barker said. “You know, you get on an airplane thinking about the person you’re going to be sitting next to.”
At first, he didn’t know how to share his faith—“I didn’t learn it in seminary”—so he just kept telling the story of his own conversion.
“A lot of people in the 1960s could really identify with that, because they had a religious worldview: ‘There is a God, and I’m supposed to be a good person,’” Stubbs said.
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