Growing up in the south made it very easy to go to church on a regular basis, especially when your dad is a pastor. Not only was it easy, but it was expected. I was very religious, but I found my life was not very different than that of my friends, even those who didn’t go to church. To me church was boring, and I often thought that almost everything else was much more fun. As a matter of fact, I only went to do my religious duty, and then I was free to do something enjoyable.
As I got older, I even found I could do things I knew were wrong and still go to church without even feeling guilty. I convinced myself because of this that God must not care, and hence I was okay and still going to heaven. After all, wasn’t everyone going to heaven? And even if they weren't, I wasn’t a murderer or anything. Certainly God graded on a curve, and I knew I wasn’t the worst sinner in town.
I eventually graduated high school and left for the University of Tennessee where I was taught that God didn’t care, or matter, and to some didn’t even exist. I found going to church to be dryer and dryer. I decided that if this is all Christianity had to offer, and that God didn’t really care anyway, why go to church at all. At least partying was fun, and I didn’t have to dress up. I left church completely at this time and began to play music professionally in restaurants and clubs. I found that women were easy to come by, drinks were free to the singer, and people in the audience were more than willing to do drugs with me. As a matter of fact they not only did them with me, they gave them to me for free.
At last, I had everything the church couldn’t give me, women, parties, and popularity. But after a while it all became less exciting and I began to wonder if this was all there was to life. I was becoming emptier and emptier as the days drew on. Sure, being popular was nice, but would they still like me if I didn’t play a song? And the women, they seemed as shallow as my life had become. With the drugs it took more and more to satisfy me, and the effect was no longer pleasurable. This drove me to head out west to "find myself", but I didn’t like what I was finding. I used to think I was a pretty good person, but now I felt dark, empty, and all alone. I then made contact with my childhood sweetheart out west and she invited me to attend a church with her that was being held at a hotel. Seemed strange, but my life was strange, so what could it hurt. As I arrived I immediately noticed that they were different than any church I had ever attended. First of all they weren’t dressed up. They actually had on blue jeans and even shorts. But the most alarming thing I saw was that they took their Bibles to church! I had never seen this before in the churches I had attended and it had me concerned. But if that wasn’t bad enough, they actually seemed to believe them! Hadn’t they been to college? Didn’t they know science had proven the Bible wrong? Didn’t they know you can’t take the Bible literally? After all, man, not God, wrote it. Right?
Well, to say the least, it disturbed me so much I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to escape. You see, if they were right I was wrong, and my pride would not allow that. While in Phoenix my life became more hollow and meaningless. "But Mark, you’ve got everything that the world says will make you happy. Every college buddy would seethe with envy to see you now. You’re a walking Budweiser commercial. Fun, fun, fun!" But I began to realize that Budweiser and the world had lied to me and now I was trapped in a world that seemed inescapable.
A year and half went by in my misery and I finally decided that if I was going to do anything with my life it had to be in music. So I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to make it big. I played in a couple of places and got a bartending job at a local restaurant to help cover the bills but I still felt this hole in my heart. Certainly if I make it in music I will be happy, won’t I? Then suddenly I remembered that group of Christians out west and wondered why they seemed so happy and fulfilled when I understood so much more than they did, or did I? I decided to pray for real for the first time in my life. I asked the Lord that if I could really know Him personally and have my life changed like those people in the "hotel church," that He would reveal Himself to me. But I knew that I couldn’t just leave the lifestyle; the drugs and alcohol, without His direct intervention, so I asked for His help. I said, "Lord, if you want my life to change and to be set free from drugs and alcohol, You will have to do it, because I can’t."
A week later I was invited to a gig in Murfreesboro where a friend of mine was playing so I cordially accepted and went. During the course of the evening I became extremely drunk as usual and my friends begged me to stay the night and not drive. I agreed because as best as I can remember they took my keys and I had no choice. But somehow I found my keys and left when my friends were not around. How I got home I’m not sure, but when I got a mile or so from my apartment I lost control of my truck and totaled it in a church parking lot. I felt myself unexplainably held into the seat during the crash. When I came to a halt the first thing I saw was a church steeple, the next was a pair of blue lights. For right across the road sitting at a 7-11 was a police car. They proceeded to handcuff me and put me in the back of the squad car. They took me to jail under D.U.I. charges.
I know this may sound strange, but this was the best day of my life. For had it not been for this day, I would have not fallen on my knees and asked Jesus Christ to come into my life and save me. As I did, I was overwhelmed with the reality that I was not only saved, but also forgiven of everything. For the first time I understood what weeping meant. I felt as if 1000 pounds had fallen off of my back. And not only that, I finally understood what those people out west meant when they said you could know God personally. I talked to Him, and He actually talked back! Not in an audible voice, but in a voice in my heart that was as clear as ever. And for the first time in my life the Bible started making sense. I actually understood it now. Since then I have had a burning passion to share what I have found with others. I especially have a desire for the unsaved religious person, of which I used to be. I eventually moved back out west for several years of training, and God sent myself, and my family back to Knoxville to teach His Word. Hence, the birth of Calvary Chapel of Knoxville. By the way, not only did God give me a new life with Him; He even gave me my childhood sweetheart back as a bride.
We arrived in Knoxville in June of 1997. Although we knew only family, for the most part, in this area, we moved forward quickly in response to God’s call. We rented in an apartment complex that agreed to allow us to use the clubhouse for our Bible study and we were off. Needless to say it was a very interesting beginning. I had no degree and no vocation that would pay nearly enough to support a wife and two children, soon to become four over the next three years! So I went to the only other thing I knew well which was waiting tables. I had done it for years before. Our yearly salary was somewhere around $13,000 so all the rest was simple faith. As always God showed Himself faithful. We received surprise gifts and unexpected letters in the mail on a regular basis until the church was able to support me. When it came to the study we also had many disadvantages. With no real advertising and few people who had heard of a Calvary Chapel we were definitely walking by faith. But when God is doing a work physical disadvantages don’t matter. We put up flyers on our apartment billboard and set a starting date. It was on a Thursday. We decided to begin only with a midweek service and chose to avoid the traditional Wednesday so that we would not interfere with already established churches in our area.
On the first night we were shocked to find out that our landlords had double booked the clubhouse and we were the losing party. The others had paid to rent. So not giving up we went around back to have a Bible study at the swimming pool. No one came except my wife, my sister-in-law with her new baby and me. I was somewhat discouraged but after a moment someone who was swimming joined us. We ended up with four adults and one baby, but we had officially started. It didn't take long to figure out we needed a kid’s ministry as well. The problem was we had no one but my wife to do it. And with four children of our own and only one room in which to meet, our apartment quickly became our kids' church and nursery. And my wife became our kids' ministry leader. But that was okay. I was wearing multiple hats as well. I was the greeter, worship leader, pastor, and counselor. We grew personally tremendously during this time. But the good news is so did the study. After a year we had grown to about 20 people. We also expanded our meeting times to Sunday night where we were allowed to use a local church that had no service in the evenings. The problem was we were either going to have to recommit to another year at the apartment complex or move on. We knew that if the study kept growing we might not have enough room for another year, so we began to pray for a new place to live and to meet. While we were praying I was looking for a one-size-fits-all building. A place we could meet in, but also live in. I pictured a big room with some type of dividing wall for our living quarters. But as always, God has a bigger and better vision than I do. This is where the story really gets interesting.
It was not too long after that we got an unexpected phone call. There was someone coming to the study that knew a couple who needed a house-sitter until their home sold, and they asked if we would consider the job. When I say "job" I don’t mean it was a paid position, but the responsibility of watching over the place. We heard it was nice so we went to look at the place. To our amazement and shock we found a mansion in the wealthiest part of town! It was a four story 10,000 square foot home with a pool and tennis court! What a great church! We took the offer and promptly moved in. We now had a place we could afford - it was free! And we also had plenty of room for the church to meet and grow for a while. We used the top floor for our kids' ministry, the next floor down for our living quarters, the next floor down for the adult services, and left the basement to its own. There was a room on the west wing that held 50 chairs and they soon began to fill. By now we were getting help with the ministry load as others were stepping forward and this freed my wife and I up in many areas. We ended up staying at this location for a year and a half, and by that time we had close to 90 people coming to the church. It was now time for our next move.
As I began to look around we came upon an old shopping center that had burned down and only the shell had been rebuilt. It looked like a perfect place although there would be lots of work involved. We talked the landlord into purchasing the materials if we would do the labor. It was a win-win situation for both of us. About 70-80,000 dollars later and 6 months down the road we were in the place. It was perfect for our needs. There was plenty of space for kids' church, and a large sanctuary that could easily house around 250 adults. We had grown to right around 100 by this time, and although it was a little big we had room to grow. We now had a worship team and multiple teachers for our children. We were finally becoming more established. After the first year we had doubled in size. Different ministries are popping up on a fairly regular basis as God continues to grow us. We now have a junior and senior high youth group with different leaders, which enable us to reach into the local schools.
What’s next? Only God knows. But as always, serving the Lord is a privilege and an adventure. And after seeing what He has done so far, we look forward to what God is going to do in the future.
May God richly bless you in your pursuit of the Lord, and may you know the One Who sets the captive free.