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Puerto Rican seminarian relaying the new birth he found as a teen

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Donned in his altar boy garb, 15-year-old Juan Sanchez stood ready to perform his duties during mass. The priest looked at all the altar boys and said, “‘One day, someone in this line will become a priest,’” recounted Sanchez, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Two years later, Sanchez did become a priest. But not in the Roman Catholic sense of the word. He became his own priest when he converted to biblical Christianity.
Sanchez — who moved with his family to Florida from Puerto Rico when he was 8 years old — is also a consultant for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and a much-in-demand speaker, mostly for youth events.
His transition from formal Roman Catholicism to a personal Christianity within the context of Southern Baptist life had both a strained and ironic beginning: in a Nazarene church when he was visiting relatives in Colorado.
“That was the first time I ever heard anyone preach about Jesus Christ,” Sanchez said. “I was so angry, because as I understood the hierarchy of the Trinity, [and] the Father was most important. How dare this preacher speak about Jesus Christ more than the Father?” That incident sent Sanchez on a journey through theological issues.
At 16, Sanchez was a lifeguard at a Baptist camp in Florida, where he heard the gospel every night. By the end of the week he was convinced he worshiped the same God Baptists do. Though his friends thought he was telling of a conversion experience, “I knew in my mind that nothing had happened and nothing had changed. I struggled with this, though, for a year.”
The next year, Baptist friends invited him to play softball for their church team, which required church attendance. “From attending church and being in the youth group, I wanted to go every week. I was enthralled by the gospel.”
One Wednesday night Sanchez told a youth leader, “‘I want to know Christ.’ It was at that point that I realized my need for Christ. But my decision brought turmoil at home.”
Sanchez’s dad was tolerant of his son’s decision, but “my mom was not as kind,” Sanchez said . “She said that I was tearing up the family.”
The local priest didn’t help. He called Sanchez’s parents and told them what “bad parents” they were to let their children go to a Baptist church.
Soon after his conversion, Sanchez graduated from high school and entered the U.S. Navy. One of his few privileges at boot camp was to write letters. So he wrote letters to his family “just sharing out of the overflow of my heart what Christ had done in my life.” His mother was so concerned that “she thought I had joined a cult,” he said. She took the letters to a friend of Sanchez’s and asked what was wrong with her son. “In God’s providence, she took the letters to the friend who had led me to Christ,” Sanchez said. “His parents began ministering to my parents. And when I came home from boot camp six months later, I found that God had done a miraculous work and converted my family. My dad is now a chairman of deacons.”
After completing military service, Sanchez entered the University of Florida at Gainesville and at the same time began work as a music and youth minister in a nearby Baptist church.
While in college he attended a “Winter Weekend,” sponsored by the then-Sunday School Board. There he met the manager of the youth section of the board’s discipleship and family department. By 1986, that discussion had led to Sanchez’s current role as a consultant for the SSB-turned-LifeWay Christian Resources in its youth section. He leads True Love Waits rallies for LifeWay and does leadership training, teaching others how to use new curricula.
Sanchez’s work with LifeWay reflects a heart that beats with compassion for teens — a compassion that also prompted Sanchez to begin a ministry he called “Straight to the Heart.”
This teaching and preaching ministry “grew out of frustration,” said Sanchez, who had grown disillusioned by the exorbitant fees youth speakers were demanding.
“I realized there was something unethical about that. So I began ‘Straight to the Heart Ministries’ to help much smaller churches reach their youth in an affordable way. Since that time our philosophy has been not to set a minimum fee.” Sanchez will lead youth events as long as his expenses are paid. “What we’ve discovered is that the Lord has been more than faithful. While some churches have given us much more than we ever would have asked for, some barely covered our expenses. But everything balances out.”
Through his drive to “teach the truth in a relativistic society” and to help teens and others understand there are absolutes, Sanchez said he became convinced that he needed all the education he could get.
“I am seeking a terminal degree because I never want any ministry door to be closed to me. I never want to have to say to God, ‘I could have done that.’ I want to prepare in the best possible way so that when I am finished I can tell the Lord, ‘OK, I’m free and ready to do whatever.’”
Sanchez hopes that after seminary he can minister “through a local church in a college or university setting with a ministry that addresses faith at a level where it is not seen as myth and fairy tales, but at a thinking person’s level — a biblically based, expository-type ministry that would impact the university culture,” he said.
“My heart is in the local church because I believe Christ is going to do his work through the local church — that’s the biblical perspective.”
Anyone interested in contacting Sanchez for more information on “Straight to the Heart” ministry may do so by e-mailing him at [email protected].

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  • Norman Miller