A few feet from the First Baptist Church, Len Browning looks out over Craig. A member of the church since childhood, Browning has been the pastor for two years.

Stina Sieg/Courtesy

A few feet from the First Baptist Church, Len Browning looks out over Craig. A member of the church since childhood, Browning has been the pastor for two years.

A spiritual journey

Craig man goes from rebellion to being reborn in church and becoming pastor

— First Baptist pastor Len Browning once asked a churchgoer, a Correctional Alternative Placement Services resident, why he wanted to join the church.

The man replied that First Baptist, also known as the Journey at First Baptist, was the first place where conversation didn't become strange when he said who he was and where he was from. Soon after, Browning posed the same question to another possible member, this time a bank president. He received nearly the same answer.

"We realized that we (the church congregation) were becoming a group of people who really didn't care who you were," Browning said.

Soccer moms, meth addicts and professionals meet at his church, he said, "all trying to figure out this thing called the Christian life together."

As First Baptist is the congregation to which he has belonged, much of Browning's spiritual journey has taken place while he was connected to the very church where he now preaches. Although he has no formal training or higher education, he said that congregants asked him to be the pastor three years ago because of his life experience and dedication to the church.

"I grew up in the church, rebelled in the church and was restored in the church," he recalled.

His relationship with First Baptist started when he was about 5 and started attending regularly with his family. At 10, he had what he described as a "spiritual awakening" stemming from a "need and desire to get right with God."

The beginning of his relationship with Jesus was formed but was soon tested as he grew into adolescence. He said he started to see the church the way many teenagers see their parents - as an embarrassment. He drank and used drugs, and, at 16, he was faced with a reality he didn't know he could handle. His girlfriend, Cheryl, was pregnant.

In Browning's eyes, this is when it all started to turn around for him - although he didn't know it at the time.

He felt he couldn't go to his friends, family or the church. A secular counselor he visited suggested the couple think of an abortion - an option Cheryl wasn't about to consider. Feeling scared and completely alone, "I just turned to God," he said.

"It was just this moment and something in me clicked," he said. "Either I was going to hurt Cheryl and the life I had helped create, or I was going to change."

For the next five years Browning would work through his substance-abuse problems, but his life was on a new path. Not only was he dedicated to Cheryl, now his wife, and his children, but he also became more active in the church.

During the next decade, he realized he wanted to be a teacher as well as a student, and became a "lay leader," learning from then-pastor, David Chambers. For several years, he and his wife also served as youth directors.

Even with 25 years of experience in the church, Browning was hesitant when asked to become First Baptist's new pastor. He was nervous about his lack of formal training and leaving the world of sales, which he loved. Eventually, he took the leap. He's now been the pastor at First Baptist for two years.

"One thing I see lacking in a traditional church is a desire or a tendency to be culturally relevant," he said about his philosophy behind his position.

Experimenting with different topics and guests, Browning said he's tried his best to make First Baptist speak to people.

"People like coming here," he said.

Browning, who now has five children, adults Jeremy, Courtney, Nathan and Joel, and Lindsey, 17; and three grandchildren, explained that what he brings to his congregation is a "wealth of experience." He said he plans to take college classes locally, but the real knowledge he brings to his work comes from decades of life in Craig, not the classroom.

"When you stand back now," he said, of his history, "you see how it all fits together."

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