In the summer of 2018, I got the privilege to preach for Fuge Camps at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. It was a part my alumni summer as I spent a week there and a week at North Greenville University in Tigerville, SC. I received my undergraduate from NGU and my masters and doctorate from Southern. It had been over eight years since I had been on campus since graduation. Serving those churches assembled there with my family was a special treat.
One day, as we were walking around the campus, memories floored me of a stroll around the seminary campus that changed everything for me.
In 2008, I was deep in the middle of my doctorate studies when our first child, Obadiah, was born. A 10-day seminar was scheduled 6 weeks after his birth. As naive young parents, we thought it would be easier if we were all together. Since Amanda “would be stuck inside anyway,” it would just be better to be stuck in a hotel where we could be together in the evening. I had all-day classes and all-night reading and writing. Obadiah wasn’t sleeping well during those days and neither was his mom. All of us were exhausted.
One morning, his sounds and squirms woke me before it did Amanda. I quickly grabbed him, put him in the stroller, and tried to cart him around until he went back to sleep so, hopefully, Amanda could get some much-needed rest. I ended up making laps on the brick walkway around the seminary lawn at the hub of campus. Pushing him in the stroller around the J-Bowl, he fell back asleep before sunrise around the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
I needed that quiet space to think. I was hours away from needing to declare my doctoral focus. Dr. Chuck Lawless was about to inquire about what would I spend the next couple of years of life reading and writing?
- It needed to be something that would help those in our church.
- It needed to be an area of passion.
- It needed to be something that would alter the way I did ministry.
As I would consider ideas, Obadiah would start squirming, and I started moving faster. It seemed almost every time I got close to an idea, he distracted me. At one point, I jokingly told his six-week-old frame, “Will you knock it off? I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”
And then it hit me. He was what I was going to do with my life.
Back at home, I was dealing with so many students raised in the church who walked away from the church once they entered college. I didn’t want the same story for my son, and yet, I was clueless at how to help him avoid it. I was supposed to use my doctoral focus to help the church, but then I remembered that the church is a people – not a building. I knew what my doctoral focus would be. As the sun rose and the campus started buzzing with activity, the Holy Spirit, my son, and I had a pivotal moment together of which the younger will never remember.
Hours later, Dr. Lawless asked me: “Travis, have you decided what your doctoral focus will be?”
“I want to equip parents to evangelize and disciple their own children.”
“Well, that is greatly needed today. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Did I ever! The next few months were intense yet rewarding. The project changed me as a father and as a pastor. The fruit of this focus led me to ministry I never saw coming. When I graduated 18 months later, my life was forever changed.
After graduation, we snapped this picture. I am in between the man who discipled me and the boy whom I would disciple. Little did I know that, providentially, weeks later, we would receive news on another little boy who needed to be discipled as well. Had my graduation not been unexpectedly at that earlier date, I am unsure what our family picture would look like now.
How did my life change as a result of that focus?
- My practice as a husband and father forever changed.
- I had the opportunity to help strengthen family ministry in 2 churches on staff and numerous others through preaching and teaching.
- I began to blog extensively regarding topics on the family.
- I had the opportunities to preach at events like Fuge where I could share with students, parents, and pastors regarding family discipleship.
- I had the opportunity to write for LifeWay for their Bible studies for parents.
- I had the opportunity to work with the Kendrick Brothers on 4 Bible studies to go with their family-directed movies Courageous and War Room.
- My bound copy of my doctoral project is in the archives of Boyce Library – named after the man who was my pastoral predecessor at Rocky Creek Baptist Church (never saw that one coming!).
- I turned my work into a book to help equip parents and pastors – Don’t Drop Your Kids Off at Church: Bring Them Home to It.
- My preaching and teaching on the family have been intentionally redirected.
All that to say – what I didn’t’ see coming, God did. He used my earnest concern as a father hopefully to help other parents along the way.
About six years after that graduation, Obadiah received the gospel during a family devotion that I probably never would have led without that time of study.
Over eight years after that graduation, my second son, Eli, received the gospel on Easter Sunday as his dad preached the gospel from the pulpit where Boyce used to preach.
And then, we came full circle back to Southern Seminary last summer. Instead of the Agnew 3, it was the Agnew 5. Instead of talking about family discipleship, we were doing family discipleship – together. After preaching in the morning, we would load up in the minivan and serve Louisville together. Watching my children serve and share with gospel intentionality was a reward unlike any other.
It was one of those spiritual markers on that lawn. It was an Ebenezer moment – “thus far the LORD has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12).
He has brought me this far, and I believe He will continue to carry us further.
While it served as an encouraging reminder of God’s faithfulness to our family and our ministry, it also served as a sober reminder of the work yet to do. The teenagers in the background with varying levels of spiritual maturity reminded me: the need for family discipleship is greater than ever. The child in my arms is not completely spiritually mature (Col. 1:28). There is work yet to do!
The most critical spiritual environment is the one in which we live.
We cannot expect programs to do what God has commanded parents to do. In this world, in our church, and in my home, the need is greater still.
It served as a reminder that my job isn’t done. Not by a long shot. These children are still “what I do.” There is much more discipleship needed. And however long God grants me life on this earth, I want the nations to feel the impact of what I do with the generations entrusted to my oversight.
I pray that as parents, we will run well with the task laid before us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done. -Psalm 78:4