C.S. Lewis described his conversion to the Christian faith in “Surprised By Joy” by saying he finally “admitted that God was God” and felt he was “perhaps the most reluctant convert in all of England."
Russ Whitten, pastor of Destin Church of Christ since May 2012, said his journey to becoming a minister was a lot like that.
“I was always completely terrified of public speaking and, because of this, never really considered being a minister,” Whitten told The Log. “It seems God had other plans.”
After completion of a graduate Bible program, Whitten moved to Kiev, Ukraine, and thought he would be studying the Bible one-on-one with people.
“However, I kept being asked to speak and teach at churches, and before I knew it, I was a full time minister and have been one ever since,” he said.
But Whitten’s love for mission work continues, and he is planning a mission trip to Chennai, India, at the end of 2013.
“I have been blessed with opportunities to do mission work in India, Ghana, Mexico, Ukraine and England,” he said. “While in the Ukraine, I met my wife, Charlene, who, like me, grew up in Alabama.”
The two were missionaries soon after Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union, and after years of forced atheism there was a great hunger to learn about the Christian faith and Bible.
“On one occasion, we put up a small sign in a university simply saying, ‘Would you like to study the Bible and improve your English skills with an American Bible teacher?’” Whitten said. “We had 250 students show up. Needless to say, we were pretty busy after that.”
Whitten graduated from Auburn University, earned a master’s degree in Bible at David Lipscomb University, and later studied Christian apologetics for a year at Oxford University.
“I particularly enjoy studying the Bible with people and addressing their questions about the Christian faith,” Whitten said. “I like to try to help thinkers believe and believers think — to steal a phrase from Ravi Zacharias, (an Indian-born, Canadian-American evangelical Christian apologist).”
Whitten, who served as a campus minister at Colorado State University for 14 years and at the University of Florida for two years, still loves ministering to young people.
“Years ago I heard an interesting statistic — 96 percent of conversions to Christianity in the United States occur before the age of 26,” he said. “For this reason, I really feel that it is critical for churches to reach out to young people with the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Whitten added that according to Lifeway Research, 70 percent of Protestant young adults exit the church between the ages of 18 and 22, with about eight million 20-somethings, who were active churchgoers as teenagers, no longer active in the church by the age of 30.
“In spite of these bleak statistics, I found it very encouraging every year to see many college students living out their Christian faith, or becoming Christians, on the university campus,” Whitten said. “People tend to make several huge life decisions during the college age years (relational, occupational, spiritual, etc.). It was very rewarding to support, encourage, pray for and minister to college students for 16 years.”
In response to these statistics, Whitten said Destin Church of Christ, 150 Beach Drive, would begin Bible studies at 7 p.m. Wednesdays beginning March 6.
“This is especially for ‘20-somethings’ and young professionals in our community,” he said.
The hardest thing about pastoring for Whitten, and many other pastors, is finding the right balance betweenfamily and a full-time ministry, a struggle that is common for all working parents.
“We must remember that our children and family are our primary responsibilities,” he said. “I can't say that I've managed it well over the years, but I still pray that, in spite of my failings, with God's help I can strike this balance better in the future.”
And the best part of pastoring for many pastors, including Whitten, is sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
“I remember hearing a definition of evangelism as ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’,” he said. “The best part of being a minister is sharing the good news that through Jesus Christ we really can find forgiveness, freedom, a new life, hope, peace, reconciliation with God and the way to heaven.”
The primary community outreach at Destin Church of Christ is the Hope Medical Clinic, a volunteer and donor driven medical clinic that offers free quality healthcare for the working uninsured families in our community. The clinic operates from the church building and offers primary care, preventive care, prescription assistance programs, ongoing care for chronic illnesses, lab services and support counseling.
“Thanks to a dedicated staff, generous community partners, church members and medical professionals who volunteer their time, talents and expertise this has been a banner year for the Hope Medical Clinic,” Whitten said. “At the present time we have around 1,000 active patients and several medical professionals, including doctors, licensed mental health counselors, nurses and social workers, who volunteer their time and services to this great cause.”
Whitten said he is so thankful, honored and blessed to serve as a minister at the Destin Church of Christ.
“John 12:20-21 tells us that there were some Greeks who came to Philip with a request,” he said. ‘”Sir, they said, we would like to see Jesus.’
“That is what I would like to accomplish here in Destin — to help people see Jesus.”