KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A few months ago, Neal Wolfenbarger’s plans for the winter centered around his studies at Harvest Institute for Biblical Studies, working for Pastor Tony Crisp at Chilhowee Hills Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., and being with his family.
Instead, Staff Sergeant Neal Wolfenbarger is spending the winter, and many months beyond, patrolling in Iraq with the 1-128th Infantry of the 278th Regimental Combat Team.
This is the third time Wolfenbarger has been in combat, having served in
in Afghanistan and in the initial troop advances into Iraq.
In December 2003 when he was placed on off-active duty, Wolfenbarger enrolled in the inaugural class at the Harvest Institute for Biblical Studies. Crisp also offered him a part-time position as his assistant at Chilhowee Hills. And when a friend told Wolfenbarger about a National Guard chaplain candidate program, he sent in his paperwork.
Wolfenbarger had always felt that the Lord had blessed him, but at this juncture in his life it seemed like “it couldn’t get any better than this.”
Then an alert came down that he would be deployed again, and his first thought was, “What is God doing?”
“I didn’t know why the Lord would take me out of this great situation to go back on active duty.” But Wolfenbarger said it took only “about two days” to understand God’s purpose. “Militarily, they could really use my experience, and spiritually, the Lord was using me to spread the Gospel and witness to other people.”
He had felt the Lord’s call into the ministry in December 2000, and this new deployment gave him the perfect opportunity to minister to others. In Mississippi where his platoon was training, he asked permission from the chaplain to start a church. The first service had five people but grew to highs of 45 to 50.
Wolfenbarger said the Lord has been at work in his platoon. He has had help from other Christians as well. “We have been witnessing to the guys in the group,” he said. “We just plant the seeds. The Spirit has to change a man’s heart.”
He and several other guys put together a band with two guitars, a base, a set of bongos and a keyboard. Several churches in Middle Tennessee donated the instruments; one church donated 25 hymnals; the Gideons donated 100 Bibles and another church donated 50 more.
Music reaches people, Wolfenbarger said. “Guys may not come to church but they listen to music,” he said. “Whether it is Top 40 or ‘Shout to the Lord,’ they will listen and respond. We try to use different means and methods to reach them.”
The group saw three people turn to Jesus as Lord and Savior while in training.
“It amazes me,” Wolfenbarger said. “I didn’t know anyone in my platoon before [deployment] but God has done so much. I couldn’t have dreamed it would happen this way. Just like the Lord providing the Bibles — someone asked what we needed and I mentioned Bibles. All of a sudden we have 150.”
The group sent their instruments to Iraq and were to pick them up when they arrived in early December in order to continue the worship services.
Sometimes, traditional practices quickly get set aside when men are serving in the military. “The first time I was in Iraq, I saw a man get baptized in a tub from the chow hall,” Wolfenbarger recounted. “Another time, we poured a bucket of water over someone’s head.”
He said he tries to stay focused on serving the Lord in between patrols. “We are doing our job but the Lord has a plan for other things –- a reason for us being there. A lot of things happen with a platoon both in Iraq and back home. Men will come and ask us to pray for different things. I am thankful that the Lord has put us there for them.
“When you put your faith and trust in God … it has to be all or nothing. Sometimes you wonder why [things happen] but the Lord’s going to use me in spite of myself. You’ve got to trust 100 percent…. I want to stay faithful to God and serve Him. He will make me a better person.”
Although he is restricted in sharing his faith with Iraqi citizens, Wolfenbarger was excited to see ancient sites in Iraq during his first tour there. “I was in the place where Babylon was and the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. I was like, ‘Wow, Abraham and the children of Israel walked here.’”
Wolfenbarger said he is trusting the Lord to take care of his wife, Kristie, and 9-year-old son, Lane, while he is on mission. “This is the third time that I have had to leave my family. I don’t know how anyone who is not a follower of Christ deals with leaving family,” he said. “I have a peace of mind. He [the Lord] has everything under control.”
Wolfenbarger said he is going to devote the next year to studying the Bible and, when he returns to Knoxville, to pursue his master’s degree in biblical studies at Harvest Institute. “When I come back, I want to be faithful in whatever He has in store for me. I love to preach and God gave me a gift to talk. I also love teaching and history, so I would also like to teach on the college level.”
Wolfenbarger said the Lord is teaching him much during this time. “Pastor Tony [Crisp] said in class that the Levites couldn’t be priests until they were 30 years old. People called to the ministry want to go through school and hurry and get a church. The Lord is saying [to me], ‘Hold on -– build your character.’ He wants to get me ready.”
LaDonna Pettis is director of institutional advancement at Harvest Institute for Biblical Studies in Knoxville, Tenn., on the Web at www.HarvestInstitute.info.