The Missouri Baptist Convention’s first African American officer, Jon Nelson, is not only a husband, father and church planter. He’s also a testimony to the grace of God that can take an adversary of faith, such as Nelson once was, and bring him into the service of the one he had hated.
Jon Nelson found himself alone as an atheist – with only the God he hated. Now, years later, he is a church planter and Missouri Baptist Convention first vice president.
Growing up in his parents’ inner-city church in Kansas City, Nelson admits he often intellectually wrestled with Christians there.
“When I attended my parents’ church, I would privately engage in debates to destroy others’ faith by asking venomous and loaded questions,” Nelson remembers of his effort to agitate doubt that anyone had about God, the Christian faith or the Bible. Having become a self-defined – but not publicly identified – atheist, he wanted others to taste and see the same freedom he felt by rejecting belief in any God.
For Nelson, this “freedom” began in high school and continued at Kansas State University. He used his God-given talents in analytical thinking and communication to break down not just Christians, but anyone of any faith around him, hoping to give them this so-called “freedom” as well.
But it came at a cost. Soon the friends he debated and judged for their belief in any God would leave him, and he found himself alone and at odds with only the God he hated.
Yet, even in his march toward freedom, which only left him in chains, God’s relentless grace refused to leave Nelson alone.
“There was this one young lady, a believer in Christ, that no matter what I did, she would not run away, but would keep coming back and forgiving me,” Nelson recounted. “I never understood it.” Through a series of sins and gracious forgiveness, he found his way into a church and heard the clear, drawing gospel of the Jesus Christ.
Shortly before being baptized, Nelson decided to use the gifts he once utilized to destroy the faith of others to now build their souls in Christ. He would later start down the road of earning a Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary undergraduate degree and becoming a pastor. However, becoming a church planter was not the end of how the Lord would use him.
Three years after planting Soma Community Church, a Missouri Baptist church in Jefferson City that serves the community of Lincoln University and the surrounding area, Nelson was elected as first vice president of the Missouri Baptist Convention in October – a far jump from the young atheist who sought to corrupt the hearts and faith of those around him. While many have filled this position, Nelson is believed to be the first African American to do so since the convention’s founding in the 1800s.
“It is incumbent upon our convention to be the first in issues of race in America,” Nelson told The Pathway, Missouri Baptists’ news journal, while also praising Southern Baptists for taking historic steps, such as the SBC’s 1995 resolution on racism.
“It is an honor to sit in the seat that so many good men have sat before me,” Nelson said of serving as a Missouri convention officer. “This is the organization my wife Heather and I have chosen to give a part of our lives and ministry to, now and in the future.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Christopher Pearson is a correspondent for The Pathway, mbcpathway.com, news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.)