Am I Called? is a ministry of Dave Harvey and friends. Ronnie Martin is one of our friends. He is the lead pastor of Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio, and was the voice behind the band/project “Joy Electric”. Ronnie produced over 30 albums as Joy Electric. We’re excited for you to read his story.
Kicking and screaming. That’s how I came into ministry. It’s what I tell everybody, because I had an almost violent resistance to it for many years. Becoming a pastor was not part of the gloriously grand plan I had mapped out for my life. I had other, more civilian pursuits in mind. So for over twenty years I pursued a life in the music industry with every ounce of energy and enthusiasm that was in me.
It was a mad, repetitious life. It consisted of months at a time in the studio, weeks at a time on the road, with every spare minute in between either rehearsing or preparing for doing those two things. It was endless, and there was just enough real and imagined success to keep me on a consistent adrenaline high and in constant overdrive. Trickier for me was that I created a style of music that was known for being a bit on the avant-garde, experimental side of things. What this meant practically was that I received some accolades for originality and artistic integrity, but never quite became a household name. In other words, as nice as it is to have some artistic clout, it does little to inflate the bank account. The one thing that was generously compensated, however, was my ego.
Like anything we make an idol out of, the ego eventually exhausts its vitality and collapses in a heap of unkept promises. As the years unfolded, the unraveling of my idolatrous affections followed. By God’s grace, I avoided the moral pitfalls and health hazards of many of my friends, but I had some deeply infected identity issues nonetheless. Knowing that it would all come to an inevitable end at some point, I shuddered to think what my life would be like without the self-gratification that came with recording and performing.
But some interesting things happened.
First, God brought me and my family to a church that probably had the single most significant impact in my life. This wasn’t like any church I had experienced. There was a dedication to solid teaching, good theology, and the robust community that I realized very quickly I had been starving for.
Second, one of the pastors on staff recognized me from my recordings and starting pursuing me like I had never been pursued before. He caused me to question where I was spiritually, and steered me toward a path of conviction, repentance, and serving.
As our relationship grew, this pastor graciously called me out of my self-centered existence. He called me to serve. To use my gifts for the building up of the body. To give myself to a community of believers who didn’t know who I was outside of the music industry and loved me anyway. For the first time, I obeyed the call.
The next couple of years were formative. My faith was being stretched. My dad passed away suddenly. It was a heartbreaking moment that God effectively used to help me understand just how desperate my need and dependence on Him was. I’d never felt more loved and supported by our church family in that moment. It was horribly great.
A year later, I was asked to come on staff to oversee the church’s music ministry. I fearfully agreed, and though I’d love to say the transition was easy, if you haven’t noticed, the church tends to have a slightly complicated relationship with music, much less music guys. Like all difficult things that shouldn’t be so difficult, God used it as another way to sanctify and prepare me for the future.
It was during these years that God started surrounding me with this annoying group of people known as church planters. If you know a church planter, you’re probably not laughing right now because you’ve already been subjected to:
- Endless talk about church planting. And little else.
- The assumption that you must want to go on a church plant, and whether you’d be interested in relocating someplace far away with them to plant a church. It’s crazy.
Despite it all, I found myself drawn to this strange breed of evangelical entrepreneurs, and found it mildly fascinating that they thought I had all the qualifications for being one of them. Everything except for the insanity required to actually want to do it, I would remind them. Like everything God had ever called me to, I was…resistant.
Jump ahead a couple of years, and God called us from California to Ohio to take a staff position at another church. I had become like those crazy planters minus the crazy planting part. Curiously, I immediately found myself in the company of church planters once again. One guy in particular harassed me so badly that I told him I’d start praying about it just to shut him up. So I did. And the strangest thing happened. God birthed a desire and a vision to plant a church in our smallish university town that I thought desperately needed a fresh awakening to the gospel. Two years later, I planted Substance Church.
I’m still shocked by my own story in some ways. I love how diverse the path has been. I love how nobody’s path into ministry is the same. I love that God has a way of taking us down a road so complex that the only explanation for ending up where we are is by His sovereignty and grace.
It’s interesting to note that every person God has ever called into ministry originally had no intention of serving Him. Why? Because we are all born serving ourselves. Remember Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Paul and Peter? They didn’t wake up one day with an unquenchable desire to start leading, teaching, preaching, and discipling God’s people. These were fairly resistant dudes. These were called men that had to be called out. Out of familiarity, comfort and self-absorption, into a life of unfamiliarity, discomfort and self-sacrifice.
Church planting is a lot of things, but more than anything else, it’s a leap into the unknown, where your vision is obscured, your heart overwhelmed, and your mind dizzy from over thinking. Do I really have the ability? Do I really have the desire? Am I equipped enough? What about the money? Will God provide for my family? Can we gather people? Will they commit? Will there be anyone to help? Where will we meet? How will the community react? Will it succeed?
Will I fail?
I’m still asking many of these questions as we’ve entered into year number two at Substance. But it’s like God to confound our expectations. It’s like God to call a West Coast native to pastor a church in a small, midwestern town. It’s been so very like God to bless our church with people and provisions despite a profound lack of church planting schemes and strategies. It was so like God to call me out of an old life into a new one that He would finally be Lord of.