Layton Howerton lost his boxing match with God, and now rejoices in his defeat. Following the loss, Layton has a hit song in the contemporary Christian music market and is ministering nationwide to pastors, churches, and radio audiences. Not bad for a Southern Baptist pastor from a small Wyoming town.

When Layton Howerton sold his home in Nashville, bought an old Winnebago, packed up his wife, 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, Layton had struggled since the age of nineteen with a call on his life to serve as a pastor. Born with musical gifts though, Layton had resisted the call to pastor 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, Layton seemed always on the verge of his big breakthrough. And yet, one by one, at the "eleventh hour" every deal seemed to inexplicably fall through.

"All through the years I sought after my own selfish things," Layton recounts. "Until I was 36, I was pursuing personal gain. I was a stubborn man."

Layton's father told Layton that 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, Layton 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 Layton's heritage. His grandfather was a mule-riding circuit preacher in Kentucky and West Virginia. A graduate of Southern Seminary in 1912, he eventually pastored the First Baptist Church of Pikeville, Ky., for thirty-three years.

Layton'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," Layton 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, Wyoming, the members and Layton both sensed that God was leading him to be their pastor. Settling in Wyoming, Layton and his family knew they were where God wanted them. God blessed his ministry, and they saw tremendous growth that first year.

But as Layton 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," Layton explains, "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 said. "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 – Layton'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," Layton 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, Layton got a call from a publishing representative who had tracked him down wanting to know if he was still writing songs. "I told him, 'Yeh, 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 Layton to partner with Sparrow shortly thereafter, it marked a full-circle journey that 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.

Layton has been delightfully surprised at the response to his song Praying, Sowing, Reaping which shot to the number two slot in the December contemporary Christian music rankings. Focus on the Family has asked to include it on their 1999 Day of Prayer album.

The North American Mission Board, who invited him to lead provide special music for their winter evangelism and church planting conference, has requested its use as the theme song for March 28 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 Layton's CD in the Basic Training Events for Church Planters which he leads.

In April, the members of Hillcrest Baptist Church commissioned Layton to a full-time concert and conference ministry. However, he is quick to point out that 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 Layton's years-long struggle against the will of God for his life. "And it doesn't end with a one-time surrender," Layton adds. "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," Layton 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.'"



(The following letter is Eunice Howerton's account of her son Layton's diagnosis and victory over leukemia as an infant.)

December 21, 1995

I will lift up my eyes to the hills – From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1-2

On a rather warm day in March of 1957, I discovered that our eleven-month-old son Layton had large lymph nodes in several parts of his body.

I made an appointment with our pediatrician and he immediately had me to bring him to the office. The examination and blood work revealed that our son had leukemia. My husband and I left the office very broken-hearted. We couldn't believe that our baby up to this time appeared healthy, and now this.

That evening in prayer meeting my husband shared our grief with the congregation. One dear lady said, "Pastor, let's all pray daily at noon, as soon as we hear the church chimes, for the healing of your son."

Each day we all prayed, wherever we were. We felt their prayers as they were lifted up for our son. It gave us strength to face each day.

Our church in West Virginia was surrounded by mountains, and as we all lifted our prayers, the verses in Psalm 121 became a comfort for us.

Several times each night I would go to our son's room to touch him to see that he was alright and spend some time in prayer. The night before the day we were to take our son for a blood test, I went to his room to check on him. As I entered the room there came over me a calmness that I had never had in all the nights I entered his room before. God spoke to me that night and said, "Your son will be alright." I went back to our bedroom and awakened my husband, Paul, to tell him what I had experienced.

The following morning in the doctor's office the blood work was done. We anxiously awaited the results. The doctor came out with a smile on his face and said, "Your son's blood count is normal. I just can't believe it!" I told him we have all been praying for a miracle, and God heard our prayers.

Eunice Howerton

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