By John A. Hampton
“Come and listen to a young man who read himself into New Testament Christianity.” That’s how I was introduced more than once when I was a 17-year-old preacher boy.
I grew up attending a mainline denominational church until that time in my life. While I appreciate the teaching, love, and support that small congregation gave me, I wrestled with the layers of denominational bureaucracy that many of the church’s pastors had to deal with. I also struggled with some of the doctrines and practices that were a part of our proud denomination’s history.
So with a firm conviction that God had called me to make preaching the good news of Jesus my life’s work, I began to read the Bible daily and intently. I remember my mother entering my room unannounced around this time. Mothers appearing unannounced through the closed doors of a teenage boy’s room can lead to unsettling discoveries. My mother found me reading the Bible.
From that day to this one, daily Bible reading has almost always been a part of my life. I just don’t feel right if I haven’t spent at least a few minutes looking at a Bible passage, usually first thing in the morning.
The reading of and reflection on Scripture has changed my life. It taught me new patterns of thinking and living. I come from a low-income but hard-working family in rural northern Kentucky. Neither of my parents finished high school—although at 45, after raising four children, my mother went to night school and completed her GED. That was a proud day for our entire family! Many in my immediate and extended family struggled with problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Sadly, some still do. That predisposition seemed to be in my family’s DNA. But the power of the Word of God put me on a different trajectory that has far exceeded any boyhood expectations I had for my life. I can honestly say I personally know the power of being transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 12:2).
The power of God’s Word also introduced me to a new tribe of believers I have learned to love and feel very much at home with. At an age when many young men were thinking about switching prom dates, I was switching from the church denomination I grew up in to nondenominational, Restoration Movement Christianity.
That wasn’t easy. I grew up in a town of 300 that had three churches: Baptist, Christian, and United Methodist. Because the town was so small, everybody knew where everybody else went to church, or if they went at all. To “switch brands” was unheard of and socially uncomfortable. When a young, promising, outspoken 17-year-old preacher boy jumps the fence, it’s a scandal. But I did so because I believed so strongly in the basic Restoration tenets of “We are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only”; “No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible; no name but the divine name”; “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”
I may not have grown up knowing those sayings, but I quickly adopted them and advocated them. Still do. I love the freedom to live out those principles given me by the Restoration heritage churches I have had the privilege of serving.
(Allow me to digress for a moment: Three years ago, I took part in the most meaningful revival meeting I have ever participated in. The denominational church I grew up in and the local Christian church both invited me to speak at their churches during the same time frame. I obviously couldn’t do both, so I suggested we do a joint series of meetings: three nights at one church building and three nights at the other. Remarkably, they both agreed. The attendance wasn’t record-breaking; nothing spectacular took place. But the spirit of cooperation and the desire to lift the teaching of God’s Word above flawed human personalities and past petty issues was one of the most gratifying experiences of my ministry. I think much healing took place that week.)
The training I received in Bible college gave me the tools and mental framework to continue to grow and develop a biblical worldview. I will be forever grateful to professors such as Steve Hooks, who taught me to value and love the Old Testament; Tom Friskney, who challenged me to study to show myself approved as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15); Sherwood Smith, who seemingly could transport his classes on the life of Christ to the shores of the Sea of Galilee; Larry Pechewar, who taught me in apologetics class that faith has its reasons. There is not a day I don’t draw on something these men taught me about reading, understanding, and teaching the Scriptures.
The Bible continues to shape my thinking and my actions as I learn from teachers who effectively communicate the wisdom of the ancient Word to the worries of the modern world. The love of applying life-changing truth into a person’s often painful reality still gets me up every day, and sometimes keeps me up at night. I value anyone who can help me do that more effectively.
Back in 2005, while ministering at First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio, I was leading the congregation through the 66 books of the Bible in a year. From time to time that year, I would have the congregation stand, lift their Bibles in the air, and say something like this before I preached: “This is God’s Word. It’s living; it’s active; it can change my life. I’ll read it through; I’ll pray it in; I’ll live it out; I’ll pass it on. Fulfill your Word in my life, O God.”
I know it’s corny and astonishingly unoriginal; but I can say with total sincerity and tireless gratitude, those words are my personal experience with the Bible. I pray it will continue to be.
John A. Hampton is lead pastor with Journey Christian Church in Apopka, Florida.