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I grew up in Wheaton and attended Wheaton Bible Church ’til my freshman year in high school, when we moved to Kansas City for my dad’s work. My aunt and uncle, Mike and Peggy Lowe (now Wheaton Bible Church missionaries), were really involved at the church, and that’s how we got connected here.
I have five younger brothers and an older sister, and I was homeschooled until high school.
You were in church all your life, but when did you realize you needed to make a personal faith decision?
One summer, after one of the Neighborhood Bible Clubs my mom helped with, I was talking with her about what I’d heard and thought, Okay, I want to be part of that. And I prayed with my mom to accept Christ as my Lord.
What started you down the path toward youth ministry?
My mom picked me up from Herd (what our Junior High Ministry was called when I was in middle school). She asked me how it went, and I said, “Someday I’m going to work here as a youth pastor.” That was when I first felt called to youth ministry.
Soon after that your family moved to Kansas City?
Yes. That was one of the hardest times we went through as a family. A couple of years earlier, my second-youngest brother was born with Down syndrome and a lot of other health complications. He almost didn’t make it. That was hard on my family emotionally and financially, but as part of Wheaton Bible Church, we felt so supported, and the experience brought us together in a wonderful way. God was doing a lot of redemptive work in both my immediate and extended family through that time.
Then we moved to Kansas City when I was eleven, and we virtually lost our support network. The culture was different, and we didn’t find a solid, healthy church to be part of. The people at the little church we attended were friendly, but that was about as deep as it went. All of us were craving friendship and a place to put down roots but not finding it. When we joined the youth group there, my family doubled its size. With that move, everything changed. At that point, my sister and I started attending the public high school because we wanted to play sports.
I ran track and played soccer, basketball, and tennis and anything else that was available. It was a smaller school, so I made varsity in most things.
Did Athletics make life better for you in high school?
Although sports were fun, they were mostly just something to fill my time so I didn’t have to be home and remember that I didn’t have friends. I was in a popular crowd, but no one really knew me.
Those years forced me to face the realization that my faith wasn’t as solid as I had assumed and caused me to ask myself, Is this what I believe and have affirmed my entire life? It wasn’t so much, Do I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior? It was more, Do I want to reflect that in my life? I have never doubted that the Bible is real or that Jesus is my Savior. But at times I wondered, Can I live life doing what I want and then come back after the fun’s over or after I try to figure it out myself? Those were rough and lonely years.
What brought you back to the Chicago area?
After high school graduation I went to Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, where my sister was attending.
I had never lost my goal of working in youth ministry, and my plan was to go there for two years and then transfer to Moody Bible Institute. But I wasn’t really getting the education I was looking for in Kansas City, so I applied to Moody and was accepted. But paying for that first year of college had basically wiped out my finances, so my first goal was to earn some money. My family and I were praying about it, and we believed
God was calling me to the Chicago area for some reason. So I worked for a semester and then did a semester at College of DuPage, and I was able to volunteer in Student Ministry at Wheaton Bible Church that whole time.
My grandparents still lived in Wheaton, so when I decided to move back, they were more than happy to take me in, and I was able to help take care of them.
Did you find a job?
I got back here with no job lined up, just praying, “Lord, be faithful; provide for me.” Within a week my grandmother got me a full-time job painting interiors and exteriors of houses. And Chris Mitchell, a family friend I knew growing up here, gave me a car. When he saw me riding a bike to work, he said, “You need a car. Take it. Fill it with gas, pay for the insurance, and we’ll call it good.” So God provided. In one week I got a job and a car and started volunteering in youth ministry.
What did you study at Moody?
I started in youth ministry, but I really wanted to be more grounded in teaching and expositing Scripture, so I switched to biblical studies.
The next big event was your marriage to Jaella?
Yes. We had met at Moody. She actually had been there for a year when I got there, and by that time she had some friends who lived on my floor. I was interested in her before she even noticed me. As far as she knew, I was just an annoying freshman guy who was hanging out with her friends.
I had never dated anyone, and neither had she. But even though I was interested in her, I believed God had called me to be a youth pastor, and I wanted to put all my effort into my studies. I certainly didn’t need a girlfriend.
The summer before my junior year, my grandpa got really sick, and my family was praying about what to do. I realized I needed to take care of my grandparents, whatever that meant. I met with some advisors and asked them if there was a way I could move off campus, commute into the city, and take care of my grandpa. When they told me no, I asked them to start the process of withdrawing me from school for that year.
Just before classes started, Moody called and said they had reevaluated my case and were going to allow me to live off campus. So I took eighteen credits, worked in the city, and commuted every day.
What was your schedule like?
Monday through Friday I went to classes during the day; at four I’d go to my job in the city. I’d get done just before one in the morning and catch the 12:54 train home. I’d get to bed about two and then catch the 5:00 train back to school in the morn- ing. My grandparents would leave me a note about something they needed done, and I’d do it before I went to bed. Saturdays and Sundays I did everything I could to take care of them and help around the house.
I was also helping out with the junior high kids on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. I had no time to even think about having a girlfriend, but Jaella and I did have some classes together, and we became good friends.
When did you get your schoolwork done?
On the train and on lots and lots of all-nighters, the only times I had to write papers or study for tests. It was intense.
When did Jaella become more than just a friend?
Before my senior year I had applied to live off campus again because I wasn’t sure my grandparents were ready to get along without me. But my advisors said, “It’s been good for you to do this for this year, but we need to have people on campus.” I considered taking a year off, but my dad called and said they had been praying about it and felt I needed to be at school.
I was concerned about sacrificing my time to study God’s Word. Before I even thought about dating, I wanted to make sure I was growing into the man I needed to be, to be a husband, to be a youth pastor. So every day I prayed, “Lord, if it’s Your will, remove one of us from the school. I can’t stop thinking about this girl, and I can’t do anything about it. So even if you need to make it so I fail all my classes and have to leave school, make me fully focused and dependent on you.”
Senior year came, and I was still asking God to not allow things to work out for us if that wasn’t His plan. In the meantime, Jaella was being asked out left and right and turning the guys down.
She later told me that she wasn’t looking for a husband at Moody and was pretty determined to graduate with no dating relationships.
By October, I was ready to do something, so one evening I invited Jaella out to get a milkshake and go for a walk. She had no idea what was on my mind, so when I asked her to be my girlfriend, she was surprised, but she said yes. I had already known I wanted to marry her.
We dated for a year, and I proposed after I started working here at the church. She was in the middle of her last year of a five-year major in classical guitar performance.
What is she doing with that degree now?
She is a gifted musician who teaches guitar and piano at the Chicago Music School through Moody. She also teaches a few private lessons here in the suburbs.
How did you come to be our high school pastor?
When I first heard about the opening here, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to walk into a position just because everybody knew me; I wanted to go where God was calling me. So when friends told me about the job, I didn’t think this was where I was supposed to be.
I headed to Loveland, Colorado, for several months for an internship, but when Scott Murray, then the Junior High Pastor, texted me and asked if I was interested, that got my attention. I started praying and reading—and rereading—the job description, preparing mentally to consider whether this was something God had for me. Then I talked with Jaella.
I told her I wanted to marry her someday, and I wanted to know whether she would be part of the consideration if I pursued this job. That was the first of many conversations about what God was calling each of us to do. It was kind of a defining moment for us.
I told those I’d volunteered with in Student Ministry that if it wasn’t too late, I would send my résumé. They were already well into the process and couldn’t guarantee anything, but I sent it anyway.
The job description said they wanted somebody with three to five years of full-time ministry experience, but I was just out of college. I felt underqualified for the position and humbled to even be considered.
Long story short, I got back from my internship, had my first interview the next morning—and two months later was offered the position. God brought me here, and Jaella was very much onboard—understanding that at some point
I was going to propose. (She hadn’t yet said yes, and we knew the Lord could take us in a different direction, but we were going to act as if that was where we were going.)
I joined the Student Ministries staff in September of 2013, and in December—on New Year’sEve—I surprised Jaella with a proposal.
What is your philosophy of student ministry?
My role, as I understand it, is to be a shepherd and an encourager. If the ministry is successful, we will see students owning and living out their faith among their peers and in their homes. We will have leaders who are empowered to run with the gifts they have. My heart is to see leaders empowered to lead and students empowered to step up and reach their community— their friends and people they don’t know—for Christ.
What are the challenges to achieving that vision?
A lot of kids want to be involved in as many as things as they can. Every moment of their day is filled. They want to go where their friends are. So they may go to their own youth group one night, a friend’s group another night, and something else another night. They’ll also have soccer or tennis or whatever in the mix. But real growth takes place when they feel a sense of ownership about their ministry, feel this is a place they want to be—and where they can invite friends to join them. That’s what we’re trying to do with our House Groups, where several small groups—guys and girls of different ages—meet together each week and build relationships and experience community.
What’s the most rewarding part of your ministry?
What’s most rewarding is what I see happening in kids’ lives. This year I saw a group of junior girls who had been led well through their high school years. When we started the House Groups, we knew the structural change would be tough for them, especially when they would have to work through the growing pains of the change but might not be around to see the rewards of it.
But the girls’ attitude was, “Okay, we may not see the rewards of this ministry in our time as students here, but we can play an important role of being the foundation for this.” They have invited friends from work and school, both guys and girls, into the ministry of their House Group.
One girl comes to mind—usually quiet, a little shy—who does not feel she is very vocal about her faith. But she was sharing her faith with one of her friends and said, “Hey, can you drive by Wheaton Bible Church?” She had been telling her friend about her House Group and about our church and what we do. The two of them walked into the church, and as they walked past the Prayer Tower, the friend, who has a Hindu background, said, “I want to come to Jesus.” And the two girls prayed in the Prayer Tower.
Later, this same quiet girl brought a friend from work who is a Christ follower but hadn’t found a youth group where he fit in. Now he loves this church. He went on a mission trip and was reflecting Jesus to our group and owning his faith, stepping out, reaching out to kids he’s never met.
It was amazing to see these things, all because a quiet girl was willing to ask people to be a part of something. It’s so reward- ing to see students “get it,” even if they aren’t fully confident but are willing to jump in and run with it.
Why are house groups worth making a structural change?
In the past, if guys were friends with girls who didn’t haveany interest in church, or girls with guys, they couldn’t bring those friends to their core group because the groups were all girls or all guys. But House Groups are places where students can bring their friends of both genders to a welcoming and accepting place. We’ve seen those friends who were invited start coming on their own, whether the one who invited them could make it that day or not.
This model also brings our leaders together as a team. As a volunteer leader for four years, I never knew the other people I was leading with. I might have seen them at a retreat, but I had no relationship with them. Now there’s camaraderie between leaders because each house is made up of eight leaders who are in the trenches together. My leaders say, “I’m friends with six leaders I never would have known. I don’t feel alone.”
Core groups were intentional about building relationships within their own group, but House Groups are continuing the small-group relationships in a less isolated way. We’re not sacrificing intentionality, but we have open arms for the new people who come in, some of them students who wouldn’t have come before.
What are you excited about for the fall ministry season?
This is my first week back in the office after a month of mission trips with high school and junior high students. Students are texting me, “I cannot tell you how excited I am about what’s happening in our student ministry.” “I feel like this is where I want to be.”
I’ve heard from kids who have decided to drop sports and other activities in order to be more invested in student ministries. They’re giving up other time commit- ments because, theyare saying, “this is more important. I want to see what God’s doing here.”
God is moving in the hearts of students. ■