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From Drug Dealer to Church Planter

Tobias Weinhold on Unsplash
Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

I’m an unlikely church planter. My résumé better positions me for prison than for the pastorate.

When I was 21, if someone told me that one day I wouldn’t only pastor but actually plant a church, I would’ve insisted they had the wrong guy, then excused myself with a chuckle.

From my experience growing up in the church, pastors were stiff, weak, and naive to the ways of the real world. As I saw things, I didn’t have time for that nonsense. I had a life to live.

Pride, Then Fall

By age 21, I’d already dropped out of high school and college. I was a lucrative drug dealer, distributing large quantities of marijuana across state lines, traveling the Northwest of the United States in my ’69 pop-top van, chasing whatever promised to bring me pleasure.

As far as I could see, this was the good life. My world revolved around me, and I liked it that way.

But pride has a peculiar way of bringing you low (Prov. 16:18). I’d been doing my own thing for a decade, made surprising sums of illegal money, avoided getting arrested, and had a group of longtime friends.

I had everything I wanted, and it wasn’t enough.

But in spite of all this, I felt incredibly alone. I had everything I wanted, and it wasn’t enough. Four years later, at 25, I found myself on my bedroom floor, transferred from darkness to light by a sovereign God who isn’t stiff, weak, or naive to the ways of his world.

Brokenness to Freedom

A few weeks earlier, I’d bumped into an old youth group friend from the church I grew up in. We hadn’t seen each in other in close to 10 years, and he’d just become a youth pastor at a church plant in town.

He needed another male chaperone for an upcoming youth winter retreat, so he took a gamble by inviting me to help out (while encouraging me to leave my party lifestyle behind for the weekend). For some reason, I obliged.

I left on Saturday morning my normal self, but returned on Monday night in a wrestling match with God.

What happened that weekend still baffles me. I left on Saturday morning my normal self, but returned on Monday night in a wrestling match with God. The speaker wasn’t only speaking to the students; God was using his message to speak to me. I began to understand the depths of my sin, which was dreadful in light of God’s holiness and purity. And yet here God was, calling me to himself.

I woke up on Tuesday morning to find a copy of The Purpose Driven Life by my bedside. My mom had given it to me a few weeks earlier, but I had yet to open it. By God’s grace, I opened it that morning. The first sentence broke me: It’s not about you.” Up to that point, my life had only, always, ever been about me.

With those words shouting from the page, my knees gave way, and I was down on my bedroom floor, as a mix of snot and tears and words of repentance spilled out of me. As I lay there, I recalled the gospel I’d heard for 15 years as a kid in church and now again over the weekend, and it wrecked me.

But at the same time, it freed me. All my life I’d known in my head that I was a desperate sinner and that God’s grace was more than enough, but now this belief had penetrated my heart and was starting to change my life. For the first time in a decade I experienced true freedom—Christ-exalting, life-giving, soul-consuming, joy-inducing freedom.

Local Church

The next Sunday, I started going to church. Over the course of the next 10 years, God grew my love for his bride through consistent Bible teaching, serving opportunities, and faithful brothers and sisters in my church.

I was also listening to the early episodes of the Acts 29 podcast. They were great as an additional Bible-teaching resource in my life. But I also found that I could translate the general church-planting principles to the business I was developing at the time.

Eventually, God led me to shut down my business and dive headlong into church planting. But in his purposes, my business venture wasn’t useless. These experiences helped me in the early days of church planting. Even some of the “business” principles I’d learned as a drug dealer would be redeemed by Jesus. I’d proven I could get a legal business off the ground and pay my growing family’s bills. Now Jesus was calling me to organize people around his gospel, where he would pay their debts.

We’re three years into our church plant, and God is growing us as his people. It’s been a slow plod, and I’m thankful for that.

We’re three years into our church plant, and God is growing us as his people. It’s been a slow plod, and I’m thankful for that. Nearly every church planter begins with dreams of grandeur, and I’m no different. But God, in his infinite wisdom, uses the weak and foolish to shame the strong and wise. I thought we’d just teach the Bible on Sundays, gather in community groups, throw up some signs on the road, and the masses would flood in. (It didn’t work like that.)

Never Saw It Coming

In the early days of our church, one of my mentors told me: “Sometimes the person Jesus most wants to save in your church plant is you.” He’s onto something.

I’m learning, in new ways, that I’m justified by faith in my Savior, not the size or “success” of my church. I’m learning that the Holy Spirit and not road signs will draw people, and that faithfulness to the Father looks like devoting time—time to understanding, believing, and teaching his Word to hungry people, staying faithful to my family, living a praying life, and laboring for the good of his church, all the while relying on his power (Col. 1:29).

After working the soil for the first two years, we’re starting to see choice fruit in the life of our church family. People are being baptized, not-yet-believers are gathering with us each week and being drawn into our community, and stories of repentance and rejoicing are becoming more common.

The gospel is also transforming the lives of families: husbands are pursuing Christ, which is yielding a culture of sacrificial leadership in their homes; and wives are pursuing Christ, which is forming a culture of love and respect in their homes.

Additionally, several men are discerning and pursuing God’s call to love and serve his church in elder and deacon capacities. And we’re committed to seeing more churches planted across this region in the coming years, for the glory of God.

I’m writing this in the final week of my 39th year. I’ve been at an alpine lake in Montana to seek the Lord and ask him what’s next in my 40s. By God’s grace, we’ll see more unlikely church planters and teams raised up and equipped. I pray they’re filled with men and women who never saw it coming but are so glad it did.

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