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Singer began to see success after he quit ‘boxing God’


RIVERTON, Wyo. (BP)–Layton Howerton lost his boxing match with God, and now rejoices in his defeat.
When Howerton and his wife sold their home in Nashville, Tenn., bought an old Winnebago, packed up their five kids and a dog, and headed for Wyoming, it was a pivotal moment in his own story.
Raised by pioneer missionary parents in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Howerton had struggled since the age of 19 with a call on his life to serve as a pastor. Born with musical gifts, though, he had resisted the call in favor of pursuing his own dreams of musical success. Critically applauded by publications like Billboard, and courted by several major labels and publishing companies, Howerton seemed always on the verge of his big breakthrough. And yet, one by one, at the “11th hour” every deal seemed to inexplicably fall through.
“All through the years I sought after my own selfish things,” Howerton admits. “Until I was 36, I was pursuing personal gain. I was a stubborn man.”
Howerton’s father said God had a plan for him and that he needed to surrender to it totally. When the truth of his father’s words finally soaked in, Howerton at last gave up his “boxing match” with God and surrendered to God’s will. He sold everything he owned and headed west to be a pastor.
That pioneer spirit reflects Howerton’s heritage. His grandfather was a mule-riding circuit preacher in Kentucky and West Virginia. A graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1912, he eventually pastored First Baptist Church of Pikeville, Ky., for 33 years.
Howerton’s parents were pioneer missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention, planting churches in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“I left my music behind,” Howerton says. “I suddenly had such a powerful assurance that pastoral ministry was his will for my life that music just didn’t even matter anymore.”
After leading music for a July revival at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Riverton, Wyo., the members and Howerton both sensed that God was leading him to be their pastor. Settling in Wyoming, Howerton and his family knew they were where God wanted them: God blessed his ministry with tremendous growth that first year.
But as Howerton adjusted to pastoral ministry, he began to wrestle with ways to more powerfully communicate the gospel to his flock. He prayed for help and inspiration.
That’s when the songs began to come.
“In the middle of the week I would wander through the sanctuary alone with an old Martin guitar,” Howerton recounts, “and songs would just come to me. I would write a song every so often to go along with the teaching for that Sunday. They became an effective way to open hearts to the message.
“What was so different about these songs was that they were no longer about me. I had finally quit serving the tool and begun to serve the master,” he reflects. “The songs were still about my experience, but they were directed differently. They were about Christ and how he had transformed me.”
Drawing on images familiar to his listeners — small-town life, sowing and reaping, everyday hopes and sorrows, even combine harvesters — Howerton’s songs became an effective tool in engaging the listener and driving home the point of a sermon.
“What I began to do with songs, I realized I could do with my preaching as well,” he says. “I began to paint word pictures, setting the scene completely, in great detail, to draw people in. Christ is concerned about response. Everything in his Word is interactive. It requires a response. When I teach, when I sing, when I talk, I want a response.”
Within a year of moving to Wyoming, Howerton got a call from a publishing representative who had tracked him down wanting to know if he was still writing songs.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, I’m writing songs to go with sermons.’ They listened to my songs, paid for some demo recording and then signed me to a publishing deal.”
When the door opened for Howerton to partner with Sparrow records shortly thereafter, it marked a full-circle journey he had never anticipated. The musical dreams buried years before had been given back to him, though no longer as ends in themselves. Now they were one among many tools and gifts to further his life’s call to teach and to pastor the body of Christ.
Howerton has been surprised at the response to his song “Praying, Sowing, Reaping,” which shot to the number two slot in the contemporary Christian music rankings at the end of last year. Focus on the Family has asked to include it on their 1999 Day of Prayer album.
The North American Mission Board, which invited him to lead provide special music for their winter evangelism and church-planting conference, requested its use as the theme song for March 28’s “Start a Church Commitment Sunday.” Gerald Colbert, a mentoring associate in NAMB’s church planting team, said, “When I heard him do ‘Praying, Sowing, Reaping,’ I said, ‘There’s a church-planting song.'” Since, Colbert has incorporated several songs from Howerton’s CD in the training events for church planters which he leads.
Members of Hillcrest Baptist Church have commissioned Howerton to a full-time concert and conference ministry. However, he is quick to point out his family’s home is still in Riverton, and he remains the church’s “pastor-at-large.”
“Boxing God,” the title track of his CD, reflects Howerton’s years-long struggle against the will of God for his life. “And it doesn’t end with a one-time surrender,” he notes. “That’s a battle that we all continue to fight every morning when we wake up and ask ourselves whose will we’re going to follow today. We can so easily begin a day in devotional life and end it in whatever our own will is.
“The verse finally came true that by dying to self I gained the whole world and more,” Howerton says. “For so many years I thought it was sacrifice to leave my ambitions and follow God to Wyoming or wherever else. I was so focused on what I would give up. When I finally surrendered, I wound up realizing that it wasn’t sacrifice at all; it was simply obedience. Now I tell people, ‘You want to see things happen? Don’t just behave. Be obedient.'”

Compiled by John Revell. Reprinted from SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.