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Firefighter-turned-seminarian fans flames for new churches

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–For most of Jim Martin’s life, being “saved” involved fire hoses, CPR and 9-1-1 calls. The career firefighter had rescued many from death and flames in the Washington, D.C., area, but no one had ever told him how God saves from eternal fire.

But seven years ago, God blew away Martin’s smokescreen of earthly satisfaction and sin, saving him at age 40. Shortly thereafter, God kindled a burning passion in the current Boyce College student to help rescue people just like himself — lost, unchurched and oblivious to their spiritual crisis.

Martin soon discovered what he believed to be the most effective means of reaching other “happy heathens” — church planting. So in 1999, Martin retired from the fire department to pursue God’s calling on his life at Boyce — the undergraduate program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. — and to help out with the seminary’s newly formed church planting center (CPC), which trains planters in cooperation with the Nehemiah Project of the North American Mission Board.

“I realized that in church planting, the people that are being reached are people just like myself — totally unchurched,” Martin said.

Martin supervises the intern program at the CPC, and with the departure of director Ed Stetzer in September, Martin will become interim director. Stetzer will remain in Louisville until December and then will move to NAMB’s Alpharetta, Ga., offices.

Helping others sow gospel seeds across the nation, though, is far from the future that the unsaved Martin would have envisioned. Indeed, Martin had a different plan for his life — eventually trading in his axes, boots and career for beaches, sandals and retirement with his wife, Debbie.

“Debbie and I were looking forward to the time when, after 20 years of service in the fire department, we were going to go move to Florida, live on the beach and be beach bums,” Martin said.

One thing was missing from that equation — God.

“But somewhere along the way, about 17 years into my career, God just dramatically, without any individual sharing his testimony, got hold of my heart,” Martin said.

It was in the spring of 1994. The nation’s capital had become a war zone, transforming Martin’s job from cleaning soot to cleaning the carnage from gang drug wars.

“On a daily basis, there were drive-by shootings,” Martin recalled.

Yet, as he watched families weep over blood-soaked bodies, he began to realize that, compared to an absolute standard, he was no better than either gunman or victim.

This absolute standard convicted and saved the couple, and they began attending a Baptist church, where they were immersed in baptism together. Martin jumped right into service — even volunteering for a senior citizens mission trip to Erie, Pa.

There, the middle-aged Martin and his elder colleagues worked with a church plant — Millcreek Community Church, being launched at the time by Stetzer. While there, Martin caught the vision. In five subsequent trips, he began to realize his calling.

“I was exactly where the Creator wanted me to be,” Martin said. “That sense of being in the will of God was so incredibly joyful that I never wanted to leave that.”

In the summer of 1998, Martin received a call from Stetzer, who had just been hired to begin the CPC at Southern. He wanted Martin’s help.

“The truth is, what he wanted was my wife’s ability administratively. And I’m part of the package deal,” Martin quipped.

In January 1999, Martin retired from the fire department and enrolled at Boyce.

“I am just such a strong advocate of Boyce,” Martin said. “I’m delighted with the quality of the academics. It’s hugely challenging. … In the Nehemiah Project, the preparation at Boyce is more than enough to qualify the graduate of Boyce to be appointed as a North American Mission Board missionary and to receive funding to be a fulltime church planter.”

Martin’s job at the CPC is to facilitate other planting interns in their efforts to reach the lost through church starts.

“What [the position] has allowed me to do is meet with folks who just have a passion for reaching the lost and the unchurched and to be able to talk with them about the struggles they’re having and pray with them over the hard times,” Martin said.

In the years Martin has been involved with the CPC, it has experienced tremendous growth, sending out planting interns across the country.

“The program, because it’s been here now two and a half years, is really starting to mature, and so we’re starting to see some real fruit from it,” Martin said.

Since the CPC’s formation, the Nehemiah Project has appointed more than 50 Southern CPC graduates as fulltime church planters. And at any one time, the center facilitates 25 to 30 interns, with planters in places from Canada to Philadelphia to Martin’s hometown of Alexandria, Va.

Martin wants the center to continue to grow — not just to see more churches planted, but to see more lives like his changed.

“That’s the bottom line of what it’s all about — that people are coming to Christ,” Martin said.

When Martin graduates from Boyce, he hopes to join the interns and fulltime planters in their efforts. It’s a future far removed from the beach-combing retirement he had planned. But it’s one he wouldn’t trade for the world.

“It amazes me everyday — the journey and the thrill of the ride it is to be following in his footsteps.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at https://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: FIRED UP FOR FAITH and JIM MARTIN.

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  • Bryan Cribb