By Jim Burton
PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP) — The Easter service drew a packed crowd, so when 12-year-old Steve Davis entered the auditorium, the only seat he found was at the side of the platform.
The crowd didn’t intimidate Davis; he was the first to respond to the invitation that morning to profess faith in Christ.
A few minutes later, he was not alone on the front pew where he sat to fill out paperwork at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Ind. A favorite aunt and uncle also responded to the invitation as did a grandfather whom Davis had only known about a month. The following Sunday, each was baptized. Six weeks later, his grandfather died.
Davis has told his Easter testimony for years. Particularly when he was a pastor in Texas, he would announce that it was his birthday. Most assumed he meant his physical birth.
“I mean my spiritual birthday,” Davis would say. “This is the day I gave my life to Jesus on an Easter Sunday morning.” Then he would tell his story.
Davis’ story includes living in a troubled home where his police officer father never attended church and his mother attended only sporadically. Beginning in the first grade when he could walk to church alone, young Davis was there most Sundays.
He simply liked going and enjoyed the male Sunday School teachers, whom he recalls sharing the plan of salvation each week.
“To me, church was one of the places where you escape the turmoil in your life,” Davis said.
By his junior year in high school, even when his parents had divorced and each remarried, Davis felt God calling him to the ministry. For his senior year, Davis moved with his mother and stepfather to Southern California and began attending Euclid Street Baptist Church in Anaheim.
Both the pastor, Brian Crow, and youth and music minister, Mark Tullos, encouraged Davis to be faithful to his calling. Davis hadn’t come from a family with strong Christian roots and, to some, he was a doubtful candidate for ministry.
“If it’s God’s will,” Tullos told Davis, “He will make a way.”
God’s way led Davis to East Texas Baptist University, Dallas Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Eventually, he served churches for 32 years as a pastor before returning to Indiana to lead Southern Baptists as their executive director. An “unforeseen blessing” in returning to his native state was that his father had found a church home at Central Baptist in Richmond “and attended faithfully,” Davis said, “until he passed away four years ago at 85.”
Today Davis is the North American Mission Board vice president for convention relations based in Pensacola, Fla.
<b>Easter evangelistic services</b>
What came natural for Davis on Easter often is a challenge for some pastors. Having the largest crowd of the year can be intimidating; many attendees are just spectators and preaching something new about Easter each year can be daunting. Families have big lunch plans, so they don’t want the service to go late. Add to that any special music and a children’s sermon, and the service can become quite crowded and veer off the mark.
Davis took a different approach. No matter the crowd size, he made evangelism central to the Easter message. Besides sharing his testimony, he typically conducted baptisms that included each new believer’s testimony. During the invitation, he would relate back to the baptism candidates’ stories. Inevitably, someone attending could identify.
Davis recalls an Easter Sunday in San Antonio when an older gentleman came forward for salvation. The next day when Davis visited him, he learned that the man had been in the used car business. The retiree had heard Davis tell of his grandfather.
As the former auto salesman told Davis his life story, he broke down in repentance for having taken advantage of people, even charging as much as 50 percent interest to some customers.
“He died suddenly two days later,” Davis said.
In all the years since that Easter Sunday in Indiana, Davis has never lost the wonder of salvation.
“I remember when I went forward, my pastor took my hand and I prayed with him for Jesus to forgive my sins, and I told the Lord that I believed in Him as my pastor had once explained to me, and I asked Jesus to come into my life and save me. Nothing dramatic or earth shattering, just a simple commitment of my life to Jesus.
“I do remember that, like Andrew [one of Jesus’ disciples], I told my best friend the next day on the way to school what had happened to me and invited him to come with me the next Sunday,” Davis added. “As a result, I have always encouraged every person I’ve ever led to the Lord to do two things immediately: 1) call someone right away who you know would be excited to hear that you have made this decision and 2) call and tell your best friend what has just happened to you.”
Reflecting on the course of his life, Davis said, “When you come from the kind of background I come from and you see the direction most other family members have taken, frequently I scratched my head and wondered why am I here doing what I’m doing. When you’re not a prophet or a son of a prophet, there are times that you just wonder.”
As a college student in East Texas, God showed Davis that he would always have a family of faith.
With only a week left in spring semester, Davis had no work lined up for the summer. He went to his knees and prayed fervently. Within 30 minutes, he got a call to interview for a summer youth position with First Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
“Those folks took me in and loved me like I was one of their own,” Davis said. “When you didn’t have a family and they become your family, it gives you a different perspective on the church.”
As Easter 2016 approaches on March 28, Davis encourages pastors to prepare an evangelistic message — and don’t discount the unaccompanied pre-teen sitting on the side of the church. God might have big plans for him or her just as He did, years ago, for a 12-year-old who was ready to give his life to Christ.
Jim Burton is a writer and photojournalist living in Atlanta.
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com).
Baptist Press (BP) is the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention and provides news to the 42 state Baptist papers. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.