By the time I was 16, and a sophomore in high school, church was consuming a larger and larger amount of my time. Not only was I in church every time the doors were opened for services, but I was also beginning to take a leadership roll.
One Sunday morning, I was sitting in the Senior High Sunday School room, waiting for class to begin. The superintendent of the children’s department of the Sunday School poked his head in the door and motioned for me to come out into the hall. Sister Atchley, the teacher of the 4-year-olds class, was in the hospital having a baby, and he wanted me to fill in for her.
The superintendent said he had seen me help take care of my younger brothers and sisters and thought I could handle the job. I ended up teaching that class for a about a year. I had 15 rambunctious, inquisitive, 4-year-olds, and I loved being their teacher.
Shortly after taking that class I was asked to lead the Jr. Boys Lamplighters Club. Since I had already completed both the Jr. and Sr. levels of Lamplighters, they thought I could handle the job. I gladly took on that job too. One night a week, I led the Junior Lamplighters in memorizing Bible verses, learning crafts, playing games, and helping them earn “flames,” our equivalent to merit badges.
The Lamplighter’s was a club the Church of God had developed as their own scouting-type program. The Assemblies of God, a sister denomination, asked our national leadership for permission to adapt the Lamplighters Club for their churches. They were flatly refused, being told that if they wanted to have a Lamplighters Club, all they would have to do was join the Church of God. We were exclusive like that.
Over the years the Lamplighters Club became archaic and eventually ceased to exist. In the meantime the Assemblies of God began their own program called the Royal Rangers, and fortunately for the Church of God, the Assemblies weren’t as stingy with their program as we were with ours. Today many local Churches of God, and other congregations of different denominations, use the Assemblies of God Royal Rangers program.
My advisor was Geneva Carroll, a dear sister who worked at the Publishing House. She was the curriculum writer for Junior Lamplighters materials, and she gave me the latest lessons, even before they were published, so I could test them for her. I was proud to be the counselor for the denomination’s “Pilot” Lamplighters Club.
That same year, I took on a third job at church when I was elected president of the youth department of the Family Training Hour. The church had ceased having Friday night Y.P.E. (Young People’s Endeavor) in favor of a departmentalized Wednesday night program.
We had a couple of volunteer adult sponsors for the youth department, but they primarily served as chaperones. I had the total responsibility of planning and leading the Wednesday night service for about 50 youth.
For one Wednesday night service, I invited the newly formed Lee College Pioneers for Christ Club to present the program. Little did I suspect the life-changing impact their presentation would have for me personally.
The Pioneers for Christ, under the tutelage of a Lee language professor, Charles R. Beach, gave us a 30 minute presentation on the importance of soul winning. Then a group of the students stood across the front of the fellowship hall and asked all who would to come forward and go witnessing with them – at that very minute – door to door in the neighborhood near the church.
Most of the youth responded, leaving only a few behind with our sponsor/chaperones. I was teamed with a Lee junior, about 5 years older than myself, Darlene. We were dropped off, along with another team, a few blocks from the church on Maple Street. One team took one side of the street, and we took the other. Our assignment was to knock on doors and do what we could to win souls for Jesus, before we were picked up again 30 minutes later.
Darlene assured me she would do all the talking and I could just stand beside her for prayer support. She rapped on the first door.
“Good evening, ma’am, My name is Darlene and this is Stephen. We would like to ask you a personal question. Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour?”
The lady told us that she had been born again and was on her way to Heaven. We went on to the next door.
The man who answered immediately asked us inside, and Darlene asked about his salvation.
“I’m afraid not,” the man replied. “Being a Christian is hard. I plan to get right with God before I die, but not right now.”
The man had the look of someone who had led a rough life. His wife sat in one corner of the room holding a baby, and two other little children were on the couch. We never were offered a seat. There were no empty seats in the sparsely furnished room.
The man stood in the center of his living room and fidgeted while Darlene quoted scripture to him and explained the “Way of Salvation.” My attention was caught by the pot-bellied coal stove on one end of the room. It was glowing hot, and the door of the furnace was ajar enough that I could see the burning coal. I could think of nothing but Hell, and the eternal damnation this poor man would endure if we did not succeed in winning him that night.
Darlene pled; the man resisted. One of his little girls ran across the room and held to his leg, eyeing us defensively.
I glanced again at the glowing hot coals, then back at the man, and could contain myself no longer. “You don’t want to go to Hell, do you?” I blurted out.
Angrily the man retorted, “If I go to Hell, that’s my own damn business! Now, you just get out of here. You’re not welcome in my house.”
Our ride back to the church was waiting out on the street in front of his house. The returning teams each gave a brief report of their witnessing efforts that night. One reported a soul saved. Everyone rejoiced; and we were dismissed.
Something about that night - the man standing there denying God, the burning coals, and the sad looking little girl clinging to his leg, haunted me. I began to pray daily, and several times throughout the day, that God would help me to be His witness. I could hardly bear the thought that people in my own neighborhood were on their way to Hell. Something deep inside my heart cried out that God would help me snatch those souls from Hell before it was too late.
A few weeks after that first door-top-door witnessing experience, I was walking across the Lee College campus and ran into Charles R. Beach, the professor who had started the Pioneers for Christ Club. He asked me, seemingly off the cuff, “Stephen, how would you like to go on an invasion to Athens, Georgia, with me this coming weekend?” He said he was also inviting my brother, Paul, and my sister, Sara, to go.
I had no idea what an invasion was, but I loved taking trips. I said I would love to go.
A team of two dozen of us met the following Saturday morning at 4:30 a.m. in front of the Lee College Cafeteria. A student cook had prepared an early breakfast for the team. Thirty minutes after we had met, we piled six each into two cars and headed south.
By 8:45 a.m. we were at the Athens Church of God, a little white frame building in a poor section of Georgia’s University City. A handful of church members had gathered to meet us.
The day started with a soul winning class for about an hour. Techniques for door-to-door witnessing were demonstrated by some of the students. Then we divided up, two-by-two, and spent the rest of the morning knocking on doors and telling people about Jesus. I was placed with Bob, an experienced student who did all the talking. We met a variety of responses that morning, but didn’t win a soul.
Ladies from the church had lunch waiting when we returned at noon. After we ate, the team went downtown, to a prominent spot with heavy traffic, right across from the University of Georgia. We were going to have a street service.
One of the students played an accordion. Another led the team as we sang, “Oh, victory in Jesus, my Saviour forever, He sought me and bought me with his redeeming love….”
A couple of students stepped forward and at the top of their lungs gave their testimony of how they had been saved.
A female student sang a solo: “Without Jesus, you won’t make Heaven.”
Harold Jones was the designated preacher for that afternoon. He had a strong voice and I still remember how it boomed out as he talked about the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, and how sudden destruction would come upon all of those who rejected God.
People passing by glanced our way briefly, then turned and hurried on their way. After Harold finished preaching, the team fanned out for a “track brigade.” We walked up and down every street in town, passing out gospel tracks to everyone who would take one. Very few people stopped to hear what we had to say. But that was okay. We had planted the seed of the Gospel; we had sounded a warning. Their blood would not be on our hands.
After the street service, the team divided into two groups. One went to a nursing home, and the other to the Clarke County Jail, where arrangements had been made in advance for us to hold services.
We were back at the church by 3:30 p.m. After a time of prayer, we went back out for another 90 minutes of house-to house witnessing.
This time I went with yet another experienced student, James, and he struck oil. A young mother was eager to give her heart to the Lord just five minutes after we knocked on her door.
I watched and listened in awe as James expertly led her in the sinner’s prayer, and she confessed that she had received Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour. Through her tears, the young woman thanked us profusely for coming by and leading her to Jesus.
As we walked to the next house, James said now it was my turn to do the talking. I balked. My reluctance had much less to do with my shyness, than it did with my conviction that an eternal soul would be in the balance.
Brother Beach taught us that every time we knocked on a door we should do so with the attitude that this would be the last chance that soul would have to be saved before it was everlastingly too late. We should witness as a dying man to dying men, or women. We were not to leave anyone until we had exhausted every effort to win them for Christ.
I told James I would never do the talking as long as the person knocking on doors with me might be even slightly more experienced, and potentially more effective than me. When the success or failure of our witness had such dire eternal consequences, it would never be appropriate to send in the B team.
James did the rest of the witnessing that afternoon. I listened, watched, and prayed.
That night at the church, the Lee students presented a special soul-winning rally. At the close of the service, an invitation was first given for sinners to be saved. Then a second invitation was given for people to come forward and commit themselves to be witnesses for Christ.
After the service, all of us in the PFC group were assigned to stay with different members of the church. Paul and I went home with a graduate student at the University of Georgia, and stayed in his apartment.
The next morning, every class in the church’s Sunday School was taught by a Lee student. The regular curriculum was preempted that day as the students taught soul-winning.
At 11:a.m., for Morning Worship, we had “The Countdown Service.” It was rehearsed and planned down to the minute.
The PFC Club filled the choir loft. The pastor gave a welcome and turned the service over to us. The invasion director stood and said dramatically: “This is the countdown service. In exactly 30 minutes you will be given an opportunity to do something that the angels in heaven would love to do, but they can’t. You’re going to be given the opportunity to tell someone about Jesus.”
From the choir loft our group counted down: “Ten, nine, eight, seven…. When we hit zero the pianist struck a cord and we all sang “Tell me more, tell me more, tell me more about Jesus….”
After the song, the student leader stood again said, “In exactly 26 minutes you will be given the opportunity to do something that the people in hell would give anything in the world to do, but they can’t. You’re going to have the opportunity to witness to a soul about eternal salvation.”
Two students stood and gave brief testimonies about how wonderful it was to be a witness for the Lord. The student leader announced again, “In exactly 24 minutes you are going to be given the opportunity to share the Gospel with someone who may have never heard.”
We sang another song: “Souls are crying, men are dying, won’t you lead them to the cross….”
“In exactly 20 minutes you are going to have an opportunity to obey the command of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. You are going to have the opportunity this morning to do your part in fulfilling the great commission, by going into your own neighborhood and preaching the Gospel to every creature.”
A student preacher now mounted the pulpit and gave an energetic exhortation, challenging every Christian to be a soul winner. After 15 minutes he asked all of the PFC team to come down from the choir and stand across the front.
All who would were invited to come forward, take one of us by the hand, and we in turn took them out to witness door-to-door in the neighborhood around the church. I was excited. This would be my very first time to actually talk while out witnessing, but I would be the most experienced person on my team. All of us had been pre-designated about five doors to knock on that morning. Depending on who we found at home, and their response, we might witness at one house or all five.
I took a young man from the church with me. Our five houses started right behind the church. We found three people home, but none were responsive. I was pleased to hear the sound of my own voice telling someone else about Jesus. I used a little track called “The Way of Salvation,” as an outline, and just shared the Gospel as I had heard others do it.
While we were out witnessing, one student preacher stayed behind to give another short sermon to those who remained. His thrust was strongly evangelistic, because it was presumed that if any lost people were in the service that morning, they would still be sitting there in the pews.
When we returned to the church, around noon, people were praying in the altar. As other teams arrived back at the church, we were each asked to give reports. Two different teams reported that they had won a soul to Christ that morning. Many people returned to the altar, and once again prayed for the lost of their community, reaffirming their commitment to be witnesses.
That weekend had a profound impact on me as a high school sophomore. A few weeks later, when Brother Beach asked if I would like to go on another invasion, to Huntsville, Alabama, I was eager to go.
During the weeks between and following those two soul winning weekends, I began to feel God was calling me to preach. I really thought I was the least likely candidate for the ministry there could be. Up until that time, for many years, I had said I wanted to be a National Park ranger when I grew up. I had not yet completely overcome my speech impediment, and I was far too shy to be a good preacher.
The one thing I did have was a passion for souls. It was motivated more by a vision of Hell than one of Heaven. I was convinced that the vast majority of humanity was on the broad road to destruction, and no matter what I did for a living, the primary goal of my life was to snatch as many souls from Hell as I possibly could, before it was too late. The uncertainty of life, and the belief that Christ could return at any moment, gave me a sense of urgency.
Now that I had learned to witness, I wanted to be able to spend my full time sharing with Gospel. But it wasn’t up to me. God would have to let me know whether or not he wanted me to be a preacher.
I decided that it would be a good idea to fast, as well as pray, concerning my decision. For a few weeks, I fasted lunch. When the lunch bell rang at Bradley High School, I would go out and sit on the football bleachers, just me and God, and pray.
I also wanted to fast at home, but didn’t see how I could do it. Mom would notice if I didn’t come to the breakfast or dinner table. Then I would have to tell her I was fasting, and to me that would nullify any good that might become of it. The Bible said you were to fast to be seen of God and not of men.
I found a solution for fasting on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Those were the two days I was working after school at Toby’s Food Store. On those days I got home at night after the family had finished supper, and Mom always left my meal on the stove for me.
I would go into the kitchen, serve my plate, stir the food around, and then when no one else was in the kitchen, I would flush my dinner down the garbage disposal.
As I was praying about the ministry I hoped I would hear an audible voice from God. I had heard testimonies of men being called to preach that way, but I knew an audible voice wasn’t necessary. Some preachers said they just knew in their hearts that God had called them. In my heart I wanted God to call me, but I thought it would be presumptuous to announce my calling unless God showed me in some special way.
I began to pray, “God, if you want me to be a preacher, then let someone invite me to preach. If they do, I will. If no one ever invites me, then I’ll be a park ranger and just witness for you when I can.”
After praying that way for a couple of weeks, it occurred to me that even if someone did invite me to preach, I had no idea what I would say in my sermon. So I revised my prayer. “God, if you want me to be a preacher, have someone invite me to preach, and give me a sermon.”
I was invited to go with the Lee College PFC on a third invasion, but this one was bigger than the two pervious ones. It was over a long weekend school vacation, and the team was going to be visiting churches in three different churches towns in West Virginia: Oak Hill, Beckley and Crab Orchard.
It was on this invasion, in the Friday night service at the Oak Hill Church of God, that I was filled with the Holy Ghost and spoke in other tongues for the very first time. I was thrilled with that new experience, and felt that I was now better equipped than ever before to serve the Lord.
On the following Saturday afternoon, our PFC team was holding a service in the Raleigh County Jail in Beckley. We were in a hallway, separated by bars from about 20 inmates.
During the service, Brother Beach turned to me and said, “Stephen, I’ve just been told by the warden that there are a few prisoners on the floor below us. As soon as we finish singing here, I want you and Jim (the accordion player) to go with me. We’ll have service on the other floor while we leave the others here to finish service here. Jim’s going to sing and I want you to preach.”
God had half called me to preach. I told Brother Beach I would preach, but I didn’t have any idea what I would say. I didn’t have a sermon.
Beach handed me a “Way of Salvation” track. I had that track memorized, and used it every time I went door-to-door. He said, just use this track as your outline. When I introduce you to preach, just step up and pretend you just knocked on a door and the people opened it. Give the men the “Way of Salvation.”
A tingle of excitement swept all over me. In a most unexpected way God had answered both of my prayers. I had an invitation to preach, and a message to deliver.
Jim played the accordion and sang Victory in Jesus. Brother Beach shared a brief testimony, and announced, “Now Stephen Conn is going to step up and share the Word of God with you.”
There were only four men looking back at me from behind the bars. I suddenly began to tremble from shear fright. My “Way of Salvation” track shook so violently I couldn’t read a word of it, and my voice quivered. I talked for exactly four minutes and gave an altar call: “If anyone wants to be saved, come up to the bars and we will pray with you.
The men stared back in silence, but I noticed one of them wiping a tear from his eye. I was encouraged that maybe at least God had touched his heart and maybe someday the seed I had planted would bear fruit.
Almost five years later Charles Beach and I were sitting in a restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, where we were a two man evangelistic team, conducting a revival in a local church. Brother Beach told me that he had invited me to meet him in Utah because I was the best preacher the Pioneers for Christ had ever produced, and he wanted the best with him in trying to reach the Mormons with the Gospel.
And then for the first time he confessed to me something his reaction to hearing my first attempt at preaching on the way out of the Raleigh County Jail, that Saturday afternoon almost five years earlier. He had turned to Jim, the accordion player, and said, “That boy isn’t called to preach. He just doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the ministry.”