by John Ellis
If you continue reading, you’re going to discover that for a span of time as an adult, I was a drug dealer. You’ll read about how truly depraved I was and some of the truly terrible things I’ve done. You’ll find out about some of the weird and incredible, if not miraculous, events that are not easily explained, but that the Holy Spirit used to draw me to the Father.
However, I suspect that nothing you read in the subsequent chapters will be more confusing and jarring as this current installment will be. In fact, I would imagine that if someone wrote a movie script of my life that was then purchased by a producer, the scene that corresponds with this chapter would be cut.
The producer would gush (presumably), “Great story! Compelling characters, excellent conflict, good rising action.” He would then cynically add, “But, there’s just one problem. The scene titled ‘My Year as a BJU Preacher Boy’ doesn’t fit. I mean, the writing’s fine. But it completely disrupts the narrative arc. Based on everything the previous scenes reveal about the protagonist as well as the scenes that come afterwards, the scene doesn’t make much sense. It’s got to be cut, or, at the least, rewritten for continuity’s sake.”
My self-congratulatory hyperbole contained in the voice of the producer aside, my point is that my sudden reversal in trajectory and many of my actions during the roughly sixteen months covered in this chapter make little sense in light of what came before in my life and what’s revealed in the next chapters. Well, none of it makes sense apart from the Bible’s revelation that the heart is deceitful and that the natural, post-Fall human condition is one of serving and worshiping self. My actions during the Winter of 1995 to Spring of 1996 reveal how ideological purity took a backseat in my heart in order to fulfil the sinful desires of my heart.
On a lighter note, an argument could probably be made that the roughly sixteen months covered in this chapter are when I began my acting training in earnest.
About a month into my second semester as a BJU student, I decided that the time had arrived for me to get saved. The fact that I was close to being socialed for the second semester in a row (socialed = not allowed to hang out with members of the opposite sex, for those who didn’t attend BJU and don’t know the lingo) helped me make my decision. I needed the heat off me, so to speak. I’d also waited long enough so as not to raise my ex-girlfriend’s suspicion. The time was right. But to whom should I bestow the gift of winning me to Christ? After all, for whatever flaws BJU had, undervaluing the importance of the Great Commission was not one of them. Seeing a sinner repent and place his or her faith in Jesus was viewed as possibly the greatest joy and privilege a Christian could experience in this life.
Because of that, I took the question seriously. Scrolling through the list of possible candidates in my mind, I eventually landed on Kyle (not his real name), my society’s chaplain.
No doubt, those who are unfamiliar with the unique universe of Bob Jones University need some catching up. So, a very brief excursus explaining BJU’s societies is in order. Please keep in mind that my information is two decades old. The school has changed a lot; societies as they existed during my time on campus may be a thing of the past, I don’t know. During my freshman year, though, societies were all the rage. Mainly because we didn’t have a choice; we were required to join one.
In brief, societies were (are?) BJU’s answer to the better-known Greek life found on the campuses of most American colleges and universities – you know, fraternities and sororities. BJU students didn’t (don’t?) pledge societies. They join societies.
Societies participated in intramural athletics, debates, and held dating outings and other social events. They also had Sunday school classes that the students were required to attend, unless serving in an off-campus church. As a general rule, the society’s chaplain was tasked with leading the spiritual formation of the members.
My society, Chi Delt, was not known for its spiritual maturity, at all, but we still had a chaplain. Tasked with the unenviable task of riding spiritual herd over a collection of reprobates focused on thumbing our noses at the university’s rules and administration, Kyle did his job admirably. At every society meeting, he faithfully delivered the required devotional, even though most of us were not paying attention. Likewise, he faithfully tried to give us sound Bible teaching during the Sunday school we were required to attend. He also did his best to check our worst instincts without alienating himself from the society. So, in my mind, he was the perfect guy to lead me to Christ.
Being the obvious choice didn’t make the moment of “truth” any easier, though. While knocking on the door to his room, a part of me hoped he wasn’t there. My inner voice screamed to turn and run as I waited for someone to respond to my timid knock. Before I could act on my instincts, he answered the door.
I asked if I could talk to him. Somewhat confused, since he and I weren’t really friends, he invited me inside.
He was taken aback when I told him that I wanted to get saved, but quickly recovered, motioned to a chair, and picked up his Bible. After leading me through the Romans’ Road and then in a quick prayer, we stood up.
He was crying, and I was suddenly unsure about what I had just done. I mean, standing there, I realized that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. I hadn’t planned this out very well.
After an awkward “thank you,” I left and returned to my dorm room.
I quickly recovered because to my delight, both of my roommates were there, as was a friend from the floor above. A mini-audience for my first “reveal.”
After I told them the good news, I made a big show of tearing my Aerosmith poster off the wall and ripping it up. I then turned to my hidden music collection. As I broke the CDs, I heard my friend utter a quiet “amen.”
A couple of weeks later, the dorm counselor asked me to share my testimony in a hall meeting. I was happy to oblige.
My reinvention was a success.
Except my primary reason for getting “saved,” winning my ex-girlfriend back, had gotten lost in the shuffle. Well, not really lost in the shuffle as much as replaced.
A few days after my “third conversion,” while working in the Campus Store, I overheard a conversation between two co-workers. My interest in the conversation was based solely on the fact that one of the participants was the cute girl who had just started working there.
The only thing of importance that I remember from that conversation is that the new girl told our co-worker that God had called her to the mission field, so she was only going to date guys who were majoring in Missions.
As soon as I could, I marched down to the registrar’s office and changed my major to Missions, a theology major.
John Ellis, the guy who had ended first semester with a growing anger directed at Christianity, was now, about two months later, a BJU preacher boy.
Well, technically not a preacher boy yet. I had changed my major, but since the semester had already begun my classes were already set. That didn’t stop me from parlaying my almost-but-not-yet preacher boy status into a position of privilege on campus.
Need someone to lead a devotional at some sort of campus event? I became your guy. Ask for someone to pray before class? My hand would quickly go up and I would strain upward in my desk to increase the chances of being chosen. Overhear a conversation about pop music? I was quick to jump in and reprimand the rebellious interaction with music that dishonored God.
In hindsight, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that so many people, peers and authority figures alike, were so willing to not only allow me to lead in things like devotionals and public prayers but encouraged me to do so. I mean, I was a brand-new Christian. And while specifically applying to pastors, the principal behind Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 3:6 that, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with much conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” does offer some broader commonsense application.
New Christians should be encouraged to focus their time and energy into learning about God and growing in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Setting new converts up as examples and models comes with the great potential to backfire for everyone involved. The temptation to make mini-celebrities out of new converts cuts a wide swath across evangelicalism, not just fundamentalism. This same impulse became a stumbling block to my sanctification years later when I finally did repent of my sins and place my faith in Jesus and well-intentioned people in my church placed me on a pedestal.
That being said, people around me were genuinely excited about and thankful for my “salvation,” and rejoiced at the change in my life. And what a change it was.
I had spent nineteen years preparing for this role, and I threw myself into it. So much so, that I eventually even convinced myself for a brief time that my conversion was real.
Some of my friends were quite taken aback, though. Since I had done a 180 on basically everything, they began to find themselves the objects of my mini-sermons calling them to repentance because they complained about things like not being able to go to the movie theatre.
One such conversation took place in the Dining Common with two girls who worked with me at the Campus Store. During the meal, they mentioned a band we all three liked. Or, rather, they mentioned a band that they liked and that I had liked up until a few days earlier. They sat stunned as I delivered the most passionate anti-rock and roll sermon that they had ever heard. I accused them of not being Christians and begged them to repent. That was the last time they invited me to lunch for a while.
The funny thing (or sad thing) was that the meal had begun with them telling me how happy they were to hear that I had become a Christian. They told me that they, along with many others, had been praying for me. Looking at my old Bible from the time, their names are at the top of my prayer list dated 2/23/95.
However, as much of a judgmental monster as I turned into, I never turned anyone in. I wasn’t a boje, after all (a boje is a pejorative term for those who are extra Bob Jonesy, sometime referred to as a bojo). Even though I had changed, I wanted to be compassionate. After all, I thought, “who else knows better than me the stranglehold that rock music and movies have over people?” I concluded that my wisdom accumulated over years of experience and then disseminated via counsel would serve them better than telling on them.
Another change was my approach to schoolwork. In other words, I actually started doing it. My pre-“conversion” weeks that semester had left me in somewhat of a hole, but that semester and the next proved to be my most profitable in terms of grades.
My love life improved, too. The co-worker who had inspired the change in my major agreed to go on a date, and that date quickly morphed into a blossoming relationship. We even bought and wore matching t-shirts to her dating outing.
Much of our time together was spent discussing and praying about the mission field. As we prayed, we allowed our faces to get close but never past that imaginary line of closeness that crossed into inappropriateness. We were as Bob Jonesy a couple as you could hope to find.
As the semester reached its midway point, I began to turn my attention to the summer. From my perspective, all the best preacher boys spent their summers working at a ministry, usually as a camp counselor. Since I already had a relationship with the Bill Rice Ranch, that seemed like the natural fit.
My parents had instituted a rule that while we were in college my siblings and I were allowed one summer of ministry work; the other summers we were expected to get jobs that paid. Which, to be honest, since they were poor and helping us pay for college was quite generous. I think that if I find myself in their shoes when my kids approach college, I’m not sure that I’ll be that magnanimous.
So, when Bill Rice III’s son, Wil Rice, visited BJU to recruit summer staff, I swung by the conference room he was set up in, told him that I’d gotten saved, and that I would love to work as a counselor that coming summer.
He was delighted and had me fill out the paperwork. It didn’t take long for me to receive my letter of acceptance to be a BRR summer counselor. Being only a few months removed from becoming a Christian was no obstacle to being tasked with the spiritual formation of teenagers (keep in mind, I was still a teenager).
My parent’s desire to have their kids work one summer in a ministry speaks to their hearts’ desire to see their children pursue ministry as a vocation. I’ve already written about how my dad wanted me to be a missionary, so he was thrilled when I told him that I had changed my major to Missions. After the semester ended, during the couple of weeks interim before I had to be at the Ranch, he had me preach one Sunday night. It was my first official sermon.
My text was 2 Peter 3:18, and I still have the Scofield Reference Bible with my sermon notes. The sermon’s title was “Two Keys to Christian Growth,” and it had two points – I. Grace. And, II. Knowledge.
Under “Grace,” I had two subpoints – A. Service. And, B. Growth: Helping Others Grow in Christ. Subpoint A had two subpoints – 1. Specific (individualized) Task and 2. Generalized Task. “Growth” had 2 sub-points, too – 1. Your Communication and 2. Your Testimony or Witness.
The second point had three subpoints – A. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (with two sub-sub-points – 1. False prophets and doctrines and 2. Questions from unsaved and babies in Christ). B. Resist Temptation. And, C. Along with God’s Word Is Prayer.
I took the time to write out my sermon outline for two reasons.
The first is for posterity’s sake if I ever lose the Bible. The second reason I share my outline is to point out that what I wrote above is literally all I wrote for that sermon. When I stepped into the pulpit, those less than 100 words were all I had. My sermon took about 12 minutes to preach, and that’s only because I stalled for time after I realized that I was almost finished.
Regardless of my poor preparation and poor delivery, my mom and dad were thrilled, and I was quite proud of myself. Several of the older members told me after the service that I was on my way to becoming a better preacher than my father, who beamed with pride at my side.
A week later, I headed to Murfreesboro, TN, ready for a summer of serving God as a counselor at the Bill Rice Ranch.
During the training week, I was asked to lead the devotions one morning for the other counselors. Since there were only 5 days of training and about two dozen male counselors, that was quite the honor. Unlike my first sermon, I don’t remember what my devotional was about. Undoubtedly, it matched my first sermon’s level of preparation and expertise.
Throughout the summer, I led room devotions as well as several devotional times for the other counselors. I also became committed to soulwinning while we were in town on Saturdays, our day off.
I stocked my Bible full of tracts and would diligently approach strangers and ask, “If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?”
I even led one homeless man to the Lord. Or, rather, I convinced a homeless man to repeat a prayer after me, and then bought him lunch.
My evangelistic zeal also translated to soulwinning among the campers. At the end of each night’s service, during the altar call, the camp counselors would join the youth pastors at the front of the auditorium to be available to any campers that might come forward. And campers came forward. In droves.
A camping philosophy of the Bill Rice Ranch that I appreciate is that the youth pastors should be the frontline for the decisions made by the campers. After all, they were the ones going home with them and entrusted with continuing their discipleship. The camp counselors were there as backup, so to speak. However, it was a rare night that enough campers didn’t come forward that the camp counselors weren’t needed.
Many of the campers came forward to rededicate their lives, swear off rock music, or surrender to full-time Christian ministry. Those were all well and good, but we counselors wanted campers who came forward to get saved. Those received the heartiest “amens” from our bosses during the wrap-up meetings. The best counselors were those who led the most campers to the Lord.
For the record, if I may editorialize for a minute, I’m not condemning the motives of Christian camps. In fact, I’m not even necessarily condemning the tactics, although I would definitely do things differently if I were in charge of a Christian camp (which would never happen because I’m not a fan of Christian youth camps). But, the fact remains, that the system did encourage an undue emphasis on numbers and emotionalism.
However, in my zealous immersion into my role, I didn’t wait for the evening service in the hopes that a camper would walk the aisle and I would have the privilege of leading him to the Lord. Picking up on cues like dress, discussions about music, etc. I would single out campers and confront them about their rebellion, explaining that not long ago I too had been a rebel. I would then go through the Romans Road to Salvation with them.
I was a model counselor.
Except, I wasn’t. At least by the standards of those who ran the BRR. And I’m not even talking about the fact that I wasn’t even a Christian.
No, something else I learned that summer was the allure of Christian Contemporary Music.
Growing up, except for Petra, I had never cared for CCM. Why listen to the inferior product when I could listen to the real stuff? I mean, I would’ve gotten in as much trouble for listening to DeGarmo & Key as I would’ve for listening to Metallica. May as well listen to Metallica; it was much better music anyway.
At the BRR, though, as a BJU preacher boy, rock music was the enemy. But I still liked it, even with all my denunciations of it. Some of my fellow counselors that summer introduced me to an alternative.
So, instead of secretly listening to Green Day and Nirvana as I fell asleep at night, I began listening to one of the many CCM stations out of Nashville.
We did discuss the contradiction between being counselors at a camp that preached against CCM while we ourselves listened to CCM. Whenever campers would ask us about CCM, we would twist ourselves into pretzels trying not to contradict the preacher for that week while not revealing our own belief. We convinced ourselves that all things considered, as in, considering all the great work we were doing for Jesus, this little inconsistency was okay. We believed that if we toed the line in front of the campers, we were in the clear.
However, the summer brought with it an unforeseen change.
Before arriving at the Ranch for the summer, my girlfriend/co-worker/future-fellow-missionary sent me a letter saying that she wanted to take the summer to pray about our relationship. She wasn’t sure if it was God’s will for her to date me. I was bothered by the letter but assumed that it would resolve in my favor at the beginning of the next semester.
Less than a week into the summer, I decided that the letter was essentially her breaking up with me (it wasn’t, which created for an awkward reunion back at BJU that fall). And I came to that conclusion because another counselor had caught my eye.
By the time that summer ended, the two of us were madly in love and were planning our future. The one of two hiccups had been that she informed me the first week of the summer that she was not called to the mission field. No worries, though, because a few days later I realized that God wasn’t calling me to the mission field but to the pastorate. I decided to change my major to a straight up Bible major.
The other hiccup was that she went to Pensacola Christian College. Considering that I lived in Pensacola, that seemed like an easily solvable problem. Without consulting my parents, I decided to transfer to PCC. My dad, who was amid an acrimonious falling out with Dr. Horton, the founder and president of PCC, would not have approved of my decision. Being hundreds of miles away from him and with my lust-fueled courage, I operated under the assumption that when I did inform my parents, they would simply have to accept it.
Thankfully, another counselor gave wise counsel and told me that making a major decision like that for a girl that I had just met was probably not a good idea. Honestly, even though I would’ve sworn otherwise at the time, I accepted that counsel because it saved me from having to have a hard conversation with my parents.
So, the summer ended, my girlfriend and I tearfully said goodbye, and I returned to BJU for my sophomore year.
The first semester my sophomore year went pretty much the same way that my second semester my freshman year ended.
I had that aforementioned awkward conversation with my previous girlfriend who had concluded after a summer of praying that it was God’s will for her to date me. A couple of weeks later, my PCC girlfriend broke up with me. That semester, I began going on an outreach on Sundays to a church just north of Charlotte (called an extension in BJU language). I was even asked to preach one Sunday evening at that church. And my reputation as a rule-following preacher boy continued to grow.
Those were the highlights, so to speak, of that semester.
As second semester started, though, the strain of being a committed BJU preacher boy was beginning to catch up with me. Not to mention the strain of conforming to the strict ethics of a worldview that I didn’t really believe in, anyway (although, I would’ve denied that at the time).
Although my zeal was beginning to fade, it was a gradual decline. It probably wasn’t even really noticeable to those around me. Which is what made my transition back to my old, true self so stunning to those around me.
As second semester wore on, I began to find myself increasingly irritated during my preacher boy’s class (yes, there was an actual class called “Preacher Boys,” or, at least, that was the colloquial name for it).
One instance that stands out in my mind was the class Dr. Greg Mazak came and spoke. At some point, and probably using hyperbole to make a broader point, he castigated a classmate for having gone to the mall.
The classmate had asked a question, about what, I don’t remember, but I do remember Dr. Mazak interrupting him and shooting back, “Why were you at the mall?”
Put off balance, the student tried to finish stammering out his question, but Dr. Mazak wasn’t letting him get away with it. Pushing him on going to the mall, Dr. Mazak said something about the mall being sinful and filled with temptation.
As I sat there listening to the exchange, undoubtedly completely missing Dr. Mazak’s point shrouded by legalistic-tinged hyperbole, I stewed. I wondered, “Was this who I was now? Was this the perspective that I was aligned with?”
The thing is, Dr. Mazak had touched an old nerve. Since my heart was still stone and not flesh, my old desires were still there wanting to rule me; and as much as I tried to pretend otherwise, I still resented anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do. His crack about the mall was less about the mall for me and more about an identity that was still there, albeit hidden beneath a “costume,” because it was still really me.
Chapel messages became wearisome, too. Especially the messages against pop culture. I inwardly groaned at the speakers’ obvious naivety about rock music and movies. I was also tired of obeying the “no physical contact between the sexes” rule.
My girlfriend at the time was not your stereotypical preacher boy’s girlfriend. She was more like the majority of BJU students who disagreed with many of the rules, also wanted to obey Jesus, and found ways to rationalize breaking the rules with their desire to obey Jesus. They weren’t overt rebels, but they also didn’t really buy into the system. However, they didn’t resent or disdain BJU, they just figured out how to make it work for themselves without too much hassle. I’m not saying that was right nor am I saying that was wrong; I’m just saying that’s how it was.
So, for my girlfriend my strict adherence to the rules was odd, but she simply shrugged off my picadilloes as the cost of doing business with a preacher boy. On the other hand, I really wanted to make out with her and knew that the obstacle to doing just that was not her.
I managed to squash my growing unhappiness for about three-fourths of the semester. I still faithfully went on extension every Sunday to that church in North Carolina. I was even provided the opportunity to preach again. I led prayer group discussions. I purchased theology books that I still own. I obeyed the rules.
It only took a single afternoon to blow the lid off and allow my rebellious true self to come out after a year of suppression.
On a nice spring Saturday, my prayer group made the short drive up Wade Hampton Blvd to the now closed mini-golf place and arcade. Springwell Church now stands where it once stood.
After playing a round of mini-golf, we went inside the arcade and began shooting pool. The entire time we were there, all I could really see were the long-haired, flannel shirt and black boots wearing Gen Xers.
I’m aware of how silly this sounds, but while playing mini-golf, I began to feel like a prisoner, as if I had been kidnapped. My true people were close enough to touch, and I began to desperately want to reconnect. The Bob Jones students I was with seemed like strangers. By the time we began playing pool, a full-on battle was being waged in my heart.
As soon as the opening guitar licks to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” came over the speakers, I was finished as a BJU preacher boy.
That moment stands in my memory as clear as any moment from my past. I stood next to the pool table, made a willful decision to embrace who I really was, and began singing along, feeling like a huge weight had been lifted.
As I sang along with Chris Cornell, the leader of the prayer group (called a prayer captain) eyed me nervously. I didn’t care.
Part of what I felt that Saturday afternoon, besides relief, was a sense of empowerment. In that moment, singing “Black Hole Sun,” I was aware of how my actions separated me from my BJU peers that were with me. It was exhilarating to be the rebel!
Because I was unregenerate, I believed the lie that rebellion was a position of strength and submission to God was a position of weakness.
None of the guys in the prayer group ever said anything about my karaoke performance. But about a week later, after I had stopped going to class, changed my preacher boy clothes back to my grunge clothes, and began making out with my girlfriend, my prayer captain tentatively approached me and asked me if he could pray for me.
I curtly replied, “No.”
Not sure how to respond to that, he fumbled around before softly telling me that he was concerned about me; that he had noticed a change and was worried about my spiritual condition. He then told me that because of the change, he wasn’t going to be able to recommend me to be an assistant prayer captain (apc) for the next semester. Shocking him, I said that I didn’t care because I didn’t want to be an apc.
He asked with sadness, “How can you ever be a pastor if you’re not willing to be a spiritual leader while you’re in college?”
I responded that I no longer wanted to be a pastor.
Years later, wallowing in the pit of depravity, I would often think of him and that moment. His concern for me and his courage touched me and impressed me. It was one of the moments that the Holy Spirit used to never let me completely forget God’s love.
During the final weeks of that semester, I earned enough demerits to be socialed and I sunk my grades from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s. I also changed my major to Interpersonal Communications, a public speaking major.
Something else that played a role in the coming months, I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and ordered Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth and an anthology that included “Excerpts from Adam’s Diary.”
In the space of about sixteen months, I went from a full-on heathen to a full-on BJU preacher boy back to a full-on heathen. This time, though, my rebellion was surer. It had grown up some during my role as a Christian.
From my perspective, after having gone through the crucible of conformity, I had escaped unscathed. The silliness of Christianity was obviously no match for me. I mean, I had given it my best shot and yet it wasn’t strong enough to hold me.
The thing was, I was slated to work at the Bill Rice Ranch again that summer. You see, my parent’s rule was for roles during summer ministry that were essentially volunteer. This time, though, the Ranch didn’t want me to come back as just a counselor, but as the person in charge of the dining hall. A new dining hall manager had been hired, and they wanted me to train him.
Unbeknownst to the Bill Rice Ranch, the person that they had hired to be in a position of authority over the teenagers working in the dining hall, other counselors, and even a middle-aged man transitioning into ministry work as a vocation was not even remotely close to the guy who showed up for work that summer.