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EPISODE 69: Atheist to Pastor

Negative life experiences caused former atheist Matt Bagwell to reject God and Christianity.  Change in life circumstances allowed him to find an authentic kind of belief in God that he didn’t think possible.

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Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics live the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website at We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Facebook page, or you can email us directly at [email protected]. We love hearing from you. Also, please know that many of these former atheists and skeptics have made themselves available to talk with anyone who has questions about God or faith. If you'd like to connect with one of them, please email us at [email protected], and we'll get you connected.

As much as most of us would like to say that our beliefs are well thought out, are rational conclusions based on reasoned investigations, the truth is that sometimes, in fact many times, our beliefs are grounded in something other than rational. Sometimes what we think has been shaped through our experiences in life. Negative circumstances and difficult experiences can and do lead people to conclude that God isn't real because life isn't good, that if he was real, then life wouldn't be so bad. Or sometimes negative experiences with religious belief and believers may also prove convincing, not towards belief in God, but rather away. So negative experiences, whether in life or through religion or with religious believers, can cause someone to turn away from belief in God as something or someone worth believing in. But then, most express their disbelief for rational reasons, demanding that belief in God requires reasoned arguments and evidence.

Let's just say that the motivations and influences towards disbelief and belief are complex and complicated. The reasons for moving away from and towards God are not always clear, and the pathway away and towards God is not always straightforward. Oftentimes, there are meanderings and wanderings, three steps forward and two steps back. More like a journey of twists and turns than a clear path from change in believing and living from one way to another.

In today's story, Matt Bagwell was once an atheist who now devotes his life to following Jesus Christ with a desire to be a church pastor. His road from atheism to strong belief was not always straightforward but rather a process of change over time. I hope you'll come along to listen to his journey.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Matt. It's so great to have you with me today.

Thank you for having me.

Wonderful. So the listeners know a little bit about who you are before we get into your story, Matt, tell us a little bit about where you live, perhaps what you do, a little bit about your life.

Well, up until recently, I was the youth pastor and elder of a local church here in Rockaway Beach, Oregon. So I am literally half a mile away from the Oregon coast. I can walk right to the coast every single day.

Oh, that must be so nice!

Yeah. And, currently, I have a YouTube channel. It’s called Marks of Manhood, and it's a little hit or miss right now, because I'm still trying to figure out how to deliver content, how to write content for an audience rather than a local church, but my desire is to have this channel and also, eventually, to lead a local church as a head pastor somewhere. My primary calling is to preach and teach God's word.

That's amazing, especially knowing that you have atheism in your history, that you are a pastor now, so I'm really looking forward to understanding that journey. So why don't we start there? Let's back up to your childhood. Let's figure out how all of your beliefs were formed, both atheism and Christianity. Talk to us about your home of origin, your family, your friends, your culture, your surroundings. Did you grow up in Oregon? Where are you from? And what did that look like as a child?

Yeah, thank you. So, okay, my story begins, as far as I can remember it, in Milwaukee, Oregon. And I've lived in Oregon all my life, kind of bounced from home to home, living in different places, different cities, but all within Oregon. And it was largely… I would consider it secular. So in other words, there were some instances of times when my dad, for example, would pray over the food. There were times where God was discussed, but very, very briefly. And other times, I actually have only one memory as a child, as a young child, going to like a kid's church. And so just one memory, one instance of going to church in largely a secular home.

We didn't know anything of Jesus. I'm talking about my formative early years.


So I do recall, though going to three hours south in Oregon, to where my both of my grandparents, on both my mom and dad's side, were living at. And I do recall seeing religious things, like a cross, or I would see a Bible, or there's the common painting of a man praying over a Bible and a woman praying. And I would see these things. But, again, it was never discussed. It was never pushed on us in the sense that, “Hey, Matt, do you believe in Jesus Christ and trust Him as your Lord and Savior?” There was nothing like that at all. So like I said, largely secular.

And same with my friends. Again, growing up, elementary school kind of thing, where that wasn't really a focus of ours. It was mostly sports and art and stuff like that. So largely secular. Yeah.

So there were bits and pieces or signs of faith around you, but really nothing penetrating your life in any kind of substantive or personal way. It was just perhaps in the background of your life or dotted here and there?

Yeah. You know, I do want to point this out, because I look at this memory very fondly now, and so I do want to point it out. I do remember one time—I was probably about 6, 7 years old, something like that. Very young. And I went into my grandma's room. I don't remember why. And this is grandma on my mom's side. And I went into her room, and my grandfather had died years prior to this. And I went into her room, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. She had a desk in her bedroom, and I went, I approached the desk, and I could see this book. And the book was this Bible. And the Bible was highlighted, underlined, I mean the pages were dirty, and you could see that this Bible was so looked at and just absorbed into, and I have such a fond memory of that moment, because I have no doubt that my grandma prayed for me. I have no doubt about it.

That’s a sweet memory, really, I’m sure. Did your grandmother ever talk with you about God or the Bible or Jesus?

Unfortunately, I have no recollection of that. And I wouldn't say that it's her fault or that this is a failing on her part.


I actually… I look at things quite differently now, that first of all, it was God's will that I were to grow up the way that I grew up and experience the things that I experienced. And so I don't look at it as a failing on grandma's part or my parents’ part anymore. It was largely a cultural thing, within Christianity. So for example, I have noticed…. This is my experience, so I don't have any statistics or anything. I have noticed that the older generation, the baby boomers, they were not so focused on discipleship, and they were not so focused on the Great Commission to go out into the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded us. That wasn't really a focus of the older generation, as it is now, in our present generation.

Right. Yeah, I think perhaps several decades ago, I guess you could say Christianity was a bit more culturally present and perhaps taken for granted and presumed, and perhaps they didn't feel the need for going deeper or trying to influence others, because it seemed that everything or everyone was Christianized in a sense, perhaps even in a nominal sense, but nevertheless, your parents had some remnant of Christianity, it sounds like. Baptist or whatever, but you didn't have any active, like presence of going to church or anything like that?

It wasn't until around thirteen or so that I started to really truly form atheism or my belief around God in any measurable sense. Yeah. Because I started actually briefly attending church because my parents separated and then got divorced. And then, all within one year by the way, I think it was like fourteen months, that my parents separated, got divorced, and my dad was remarried, all within about fourteen months.

Oh my! That's a lot. It’s a lot for a child.

Yeah. And so, just being brutally honest, what that began was this bitterness and anger and outright hatred towards Christianity, because every other weekend—I went from seeing my dad sparsely when he was in the home. And again, my dad was providing for the family. I have no animosity towards that. I think it's great. To then, after they're divorced, I would see him every other weekend. And, again, being a stupid teenager like myself, I was just so angry and so bitter that I didn't want anything to do with my dad. I wanted to just spend time in my room alone, isolated, and just dwelling on all this anger that I had. And no outlet to get rid of it.

But every other weekend, I would go to his house, his new house with his new family, and I now had a new stepbrother and stepsister. And I would start seeing the Christians and their walk with the Lord. And I started seeing so many different problems, so many different problems.

What were you seeing?

Well, I would see them… and this is my perspective. It's tainted, like I said, by anger, bitterness, and sin, that you're watching these people, and they're smiling at each other. They’re saying nice kind things. They proclaim to love Jesus and the things of Jesus. But then church gets out, and it's like a light switch would come off. Oh, okay. Check that off the list kind of thing. Don't have to be a Christian right now. And, I mean, anecdotally, how many times have we heard that the worst tippers in a restaurant are often Christians.


And I would see this behavior, this hypocrisy. Or at any rate, the hypocrisy that I perceived.


So yeah. I mean, that's just some of the issues, but my thing was, “Okay, well the answer isn't in some deity in the sky.” Instead, the answer for me was science. So I looked to science to solve the questions of this life. So, yeah.

Okay, yeah. I can see, from your own life experience and how disappointing that would be, particularly, yeah, being torn from your father. And then the hypocrisy of the Christians, it was just kind of a lethal combination for you there at that time. And so you separated yourself from any kind of religion or faith or God. And then you embraced what science had to bring for you. At that time, were you identifying as an agnostic or an atheist? I mean, were you saying these kinds of things out loud? Or were you just kind of thinking them to yourself, “There can't be a God. I can't believe in God. Science is a more rational or reasonable way forward.”

I would say I started off… just I didn't know, flat out didn’t know. I wouldn't call myself agnostic, and I most certainly, you know, thirteen, fourteen years old, I wouldn't call myself an atheist quite yet. I do recognize, though, that, as time progressed, I moved swiftly from, “I don't know if God exists,” to, “Science now has all the answers and can solve all of life's problems.” And like I said, the consistent observations I was making about the Christian faith. And it just continued to be all these holes in the Swiss cheese, so to speak, of belief-

I see.

… where it was, “Okay. Oh, there's another hole. Oh, there's another hole,” until finally, you know, the collapse of morality that I truly became an atheist. But really, I mean, you know what scripture says about atheism. What is it? Proverbs and in the Psalms, it says, “The fool says in his heart that there is no god.” And I truly was foolish. I was very, very foolish. Atheism, for me, is just another extension of me wanting to do what I wanted to do, in sin. My selfish desires carried out. You know, Romans 1, the depravity of my mind. It was trying to invent new ways to sin, you know?

So, it became where, you had stability in the home, then there was divorce, some trauma, spiritual trauma, so to speak, mental trauma. Not necessarily that I'm identified by these things, but they marked me. I was an angry, bitter, young man. And so it was just this constant tearing down of belief until finally it collapsed, where now it's just, “All right. I don't believe in God at all.” And then, from atheism, then the quick progression from atheism to hostility to Christians. And that's a very quick slide often. So yeah.

So that was when you were a teenager, middle school, high school, around that time, where-

Yeah. Middle school. Mm-hm.

Yeah. That’s such a pivotal time, isn't it, when you're becoming a bit more independent, starting to think a little bit more deeply, also trying to find a sense of self and independence. It even sounds like something you just didn't want in your life, that you wanted, like you say, to do what you wanted to do and that science would provide the answers. Again, I know that peers also influenced… Were friends of yours thinking similarly?

Well, actually, this is actually something kind of interesting about what you're asking because… so before everything really started to accelerate, with events that we'll get to in a little bit here, but… so this is a freshman/sophomore time frame in high school. So I'm fifteen, sixteen years old. And I didn't have very many friends growing up. I would have one or two growing up here and there. And so I did have a friend in high school, and I'm actually going to point him to this podcast. I'm not going to name him.

Okay. All right.

He didn't necessarily encourage atheism, but he did start the process of talking about the Lord. Where he was just a lot more passive than I would have been back in those days. I was way more aggressive, way more in your face, way more, “God doesn't exist, and here's why. Let me write a dissertation for you.” Instead, he was just more passive, in the sense that, “Yeah, there's a God. He exists. Jesus died for our sins. The end.” Very matter of fact, and then that was it. But on the flip side, and this is my criticism of my friend, is that he never…. So I started stealing during this time and lying. I had a whole philosophy of belief when it came to lying. I knew what lies would work. I knew what lies didn't work. I knew that if it's tinged with truth, the lie would work better. And so I had a whole belief system around lying and then consequently around stealing. But ultimately, to really put it succinctly, my philosophy around stealing was, essentially, “I want that, I don't have that, and so I'm going to take that.” So there was no, “Oh, well,” you know, because I used to rationalize and say, “Well, I'm broke,” or, “I don't have a job,” or, “I will never get this,” that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, the true reason that I was stealing was because I wanted it. It's just sinful selfish desire. And so, I was stealing. And I was lying. And I was telling my friend about all these things that I was doing. And never once did this Christian friend, say, “Hey! You know, bro. That's not the wisest course of action. You shouldn't be stealing. It’s really not good,” or some sort of corrective kind of speech or anything. He was very, very hands off in that way.

You know, it's an interesting thing that it seems easy to hold contempt against a group of people or, you know, an ideology, but against a person, if they don't quite live up to the narrative or the way that you think of the group as a whole, and they're breaking that… he probably wouldn't have been your friend if you had held contempt against him personally, but yet you're telling me you had a Christian friend. So how did you work that out in your mind? Did you have some respect for him as a person or as an individual, even though you didn't respect his Christianity?

Oh, man! That’s such a wonderful question. I will admit I've never really given this much thought. But the only thing I can come up with is this would be…. I mean, it's the hypocrisy of mankind really, where you're like, “Well, I hate this group,” or, “I despise this about this group of people, Christians,” but over here, “Oh, this guy's okay.” How did we get past that? I do recall very rarely would we discuss religion. So it was kind of like the modern belief in jobs today, where it’s like the two topics of discussion that you don't talk about at work are politics and religion?


We talked about politics, but we just didn't talk about religion all much. He and I had a common ground of video games and technology. And so we primarily focused on those things. And then, through countless hours of talking over the phone and meeting each other. We were 10, 15 minutes away from each other. I could walk to his house. So many conversations. And during that time, the Lord would come up, but I don't recall what the results would be. So the only thing I can determine because of that is that we wouldn't have that many conversations about it, probably because he started noticing I was getting elevated or angry or whatever, and he's like, “Well, I'm not going to touch that with a 50-foot pole.”

Okay, okay. But it's good that you could have a congenial relationship, a friendship, with things that you held in common. You also mentioned that, on your path and as a teenager, you were lying and stealing and self justifying, but then you reached a point where you didn't even feel like you had to self justify, that you just wanted what you wanted. Did you have a sense that you lost that sense of self judgment or your conscience, that you just started doing things without even thinking about it?

I think, for sin, there is always a consequence. In Romans 3, it talks about how the wages of sin is death, and so ultimately, that is…. It may not be a physical death, but it is most assuredly a spiritual death. And so I think it says in Romans 1 that my conscience was seared. So in other words, I was sinning and doing all manner of illegal things, I mean all manner of illegal things, where I had to do community service at one point because I threatened a young man. We were both in high school, so I had run-ins with the law, just doing all manner of wicked things.

And so I do recall, it was always… so I think in psychology they call it redirection. So you’re accused of something, “Well, you're a thief,” or, “You shouldn't steal that,” or whatever it is. Some sort of corrective action. And instead, the redirect is, “Well, no. You’re the issue. I'm broke.” So it's never taking personal responsibility for my actions or for what I'm saying. It’s always someone else's problem.


Some other issue.

Right. Yeah. Pointing away from yourself and personal responsibility. So you obviously were not moving towards God. You were moving farther away. And so, at some point, you identified as an atheist? You just continued down this road of kind of anti-God sentiment?

Yep. And this anti-God sentiment was probably… it was a good three years. And I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but—and then we'll kind of get into what happened after that. But there was a lot going on in those three years, three, four years or so, where, yeah. I very much identified as an atheist. I would say outright, too, because I knew that it would disturb my dad because my dad's a believer. That I don't believe in his God and, you know, “According to you, you say this, and Christianity says that, and that's wrong.” So I had developed my own morality, my own belief system. And it was just… I don't know how to describe it any other way than it's like you're putting salt on something. It's a little bit of this and a little bit of this spice, a little bit of this belief. Everyone can go into heaven. Oh, that little bit of that belief. And so I had developed my own belief system, and it most definitely did not involve God.


It was all centered around science and rational thought, logic, reason, science. Ultimately though, and I say this to be transparent, is that science was my god at the time.

So science had the answers, and so you were seeing… I'm just curious. As you were studying and learning, were you finding that science was providing substantive answers for not only the questions around you and the world, but also questions with regard to your own life? I mean, did it make sense, the worldview without God? Did you believe that the only thing that existed was the material world? Or were you working through that, in terms of how every question that we're asking has to be answered within that seeming reductionistic framework of reality?

Yep. For me, I looked at the scientific method, and I really appreciated the fact that we're to test and to retest to see if it's true, ultimately. And so the scientific method, and I saw just the birth of… it was primarily the birth of the cosmos, so the big bang. I saw that as being able to answer creation, as what we would define as creation. And I also looked at evolution as something that explains where we are right now. And I saw the answers not coming from the Bible or coming from Christians who were apologists or defending the faith in some way. In fact, those were largely silent. Instead, I saw all the answers coming from science or from school, which is also largely secular. So I saw a lot of the answers, and the same with psychology, where the mind is being understood more and more. So I saw answers in psychology as well. So I just saw God as just an ancient throwback to what we now were developing answers to, and the true unanswered questions, we would eventually find the answers to, but some of them, like what happens after we die? It was like, “Who cares? I’m a teenager. I don’t really think about death, so it doesn’t really affect me. I don’t care.”

Right. So you said you were in this place for about three years.


So tell us then or walk us forward in terms of what caused you to question your atheism or your worldview, that it wasn't making sense. Or you gave God another chance or something opened the door towards another way of thinking. What happened?

Well, that's a great question. It was a particular event that started a chain reaction of things. So what happened, here I am seventeen years old. Again, I need to frame this properly. I had recently dropped out of high school. I was working at Rite Aid as a cashier and working the night shift because it paid more, so, you know, greed of the of the heart. I just wanted money.

Sure. Sure.

And so I stole a hard drive from someone who trusted me, and I was an intern at their store. So this isn't a Rite Aid store. This is a separate store. And so I stole this hard drive. Now remember, this is 1997, and hard drives were really expensive back then.

Oh, okay.

And so I stole this thing. I take it home. I start using it. And I'm on the phone… ironically, I'm on the phone with my Christian friend, and I'm bragging to him on the phone, and my voice carries, and so I'm really loud, about how I've stolen this hard drive and how I'm just so happy with it. It's so awesome. And just bragging, very arrogant. And my mom down the hall, because again I'm being loud, overhears this conversation. And I had stolen so much and been given so much grace and mercy by my parents that my mom's like, “You know what? I'm done with you. You're out of the house. You need to get out of my house right now.” And so my mom actually…. And I'm a minor. So my mom calls my dad, says, “He needs to get out of my house. He was stealing. Blah blah blah.” So, again, consequence of sin, I could not live with my dad either because I had stolen so much from him, my stepmom, my stepbrother. It didn’t matter. If it was not nailed down, I was stealing it.

Oh, wow.

And so, I couldn't stay with them. And so I went to go live with my grandma, over three hours south from where I was living at the time, grandma on my dad's side.


And so this is what began the chain of events was this incident. So I went to go live with grandma, and it was wonderful. Not at the time. At the time, I was just very despondent and depressed. Because, again, the pride. Why is this happening to me? Well, it's because you're stealing and you're lying and you're being a stupid teenager.

Right. Sure.

So I live with grandma, and the first thing she says to me, when I go and live with her, she says, “Matthew, you're going to be doing two things when you come to this house. One, you're going to be going to church with me every Sunday, and two, you're going to the YMCA to work out.”


“Okay. Yes, ma'am.” And so again, remember I dropped out of high school, and so dad was very, very kind and very gracious, where he paid for… it was a Christian private school, like a home-school situation. And so he paid for that for me to go back to high school, and I was able to do a home-school thing because my grandma was, I think, thirty four, thirty five years retired. No, thirty nine. I think it was thirty nine years, as a teacher. And so I was able to live with her, go to high school, a home school, go work out, and go to Sunday service at the church there. And at church, I started seeing believers that were not giving lip service to Christ. They weren't check-in, check-out Christians. They actually lived it, and I remember the love. Towards me. I’ve never felt that kind of love, not from a stranger. And so I felt their love. I was very, very broken at the time. Like, “How could someone love me? I'm worthless,”  that sort of thing.

And so I started questioning that, right? So now I'm being challenged about, “Hey, these are not hypocrites. These are actually living out what Christ has commanded us to do, to love one another.


So I see it. I'm hearing the word. And before, I would go to church with dad every other weekend. I would fall asleep on my dad's shoulder and not hear the word of God. And now, you know, I'm seventeen, and I'm hearing the word of God. I'm hearing it faithfully being proclaimed, and it was great. And I heard the gospel, the good news. And I don't have a specific day, unfortunately, or anything like that, but I came to believe in Christ at that point. But it was still a slow progression because I was very broken, felt rejected by my mom and by my parents, and my own consequences of my own actions, of course. And so I, at one point—and I'm living with grandma at the time, and I remember this distinctly. I had a desire to know what truth was. And so I was like, “Okay, I'm going to study all the world religions, not all of them, but the big ones.” And so I studied Taoism. I studied the Muslim faith. I studied Hinduism, if I remember right. I studied the typical Native American belief systems. And I studied Christianity. And the only way I can describe it is, you know, I would study something in the Muslim faith, and then it was like a rubber band where I would then be redirected back to Christ and the Christian faith. I studied Native American belief system, and then back to Christ. And, again, the scripture comes to my mind where Jesus says seek and you will find. He is truth. And so I was seeking truth, and little did I know at the time that I was literally seeking Christ.

So yeah. I heard the gospel. I repented of my sins. I turned away from that. I was baptized sometime in summer of ‘97, so I was 17 still. All this took place pretty quickly, within 9 months or so, and it was great. I still have the pictures, and so whenever I feel down or whatever, then I'll look at my baptism pictures, because they're pretty extraordinary.

Oh, I bet! I bet! I bet your parents couldn't believe it. I bet your grandmother… considering where you came from when you moved into your grandmother's house, and you were suffering with the consequences of your sin, but yet you encountered this real love of a people who not only loved you, but they believed what they believed to be true and they lived it out. And you said you became broken. You were humbled by their love, and they made you feel loved. But you're also talking in terms of not only the truth of Christ and the person of Christ but also the gospel. As someone who was feeling, I suppose, badly about yourself. You’ve used the word sin a good bit. That you knew that you were doing things that were harmful to yourself and to others. But for some reason, you were feeling the weight of that in some sense, so I'm wondering if what you were hearing from the pulpit, for those who may not have heard the gospel, can you just describe what you were hearing that was so transformational for you to understand who this person of Christ was?

Yep. Thank you for asking. This, I'm very, very passionate about it. So I'm going to start with the bad news first. So the bad news is that we're sinners. We have inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve, a sin nature. So in other words, we are completely dead in our trespasses and sins, as Ephesians 2 talks about. We are completely dead. So in other words, we're not on life support. We're not inherently good. We are inherently wicked, and all of our desires are inherently wicked. Romans 1 discusses that. And you see that play out in scripture where… I think it's in Jeremiah. It says that our hearts are deceitful and wicked above all things. Who can know it? And the inherent answer is that God knows our hearts. And so, because we're inherently sinful and we're wicked, we need a savior to save us from, frankly, ourselves, our sin.

And so that is why Christ is so essential. It is not Buddha, who died. It is not Mohammad, who died. It is Christ who lives forevermore. The reason why we believe what we believe is because that Christ came from a virgin and was born into this world. He condescended to us. He came from glory, from heaven, to condescend, lower Himself to us in order to serve us. And so He came, He lived the perfect life that, you and I, we can't live that life, that the law of Moses requires us to live. We can't live that life. And so He lived the life for us. It was pleasing to the Father, it says. And when the time came, He was thirty when He began His ministry, He came and He proclaimed the good news that the Messiah, the prophecy of the Messiah coming was finally here, and the people, just like today, did not want to hear it. They rejected Christ. They hated what He had to say. They called Him a blasphemer and a rebel. And in the dead of night, three years after his ministry began, the Sadducees and Pharisees held an illegal trial against our Lord and Savior Christ, and they proclaimed Him a blasphemer, and they pronounced judgment on the sinless man of God.

And so they pronounced judgment. He was whipped. He was placed a crown of thorns on his head, and he was crucified for our sins. He was the scapegoat, as Deuteronomy talks about. He was the perfect, spotless, sinless Lamb of God. That he was our substitution. So we should be on that cross. But instead, Christ is on that cross as our substitute. And He bled, and He suffered, and He died. He gave up His soul, it says. And then He was buried, in a tomb that did not belong to him. And He was buried, and after three days, He was resurrected, and there were hundreds of eyewitness testimonies to this. And now—this is the best part. Now, he is seated at the right hand of the Father in victory. So we serve a living Christ, not a dead human. Not a prophet. That was a good man. We serve a living, an active, and beautiful Christ. That is the gospel.

That is beautiful. And you were sitting there as a young man, feeling broken, feeling the weight of your sin, and then you gave your life to Christ, and Christ took that sin from you and the penalty for that sin, and so reconciled you to God and gave you this new life. Now, as again a young man who had known for several years you had a seared conscience, and you would lie and steal and do all kinds of things. I would imagine, after you accepted Christ as your Savior, that your life changed.

Yeah. I had a quite a long road, actually.

Yeah. Tell us about that.

So this is ‘97. And then I graduate in 2000 or so. I'm 20—like I said, I was a dropout—when I graduated from high school. Now, this is not an indictment on anyone. And in fact, the blame lays solely on me, but I just I need to provide this. So I was baptized, and then it was just like, “Well, now what?” In my mind. “Now what?” And so I was not taught or discipled how to read the word, how to pray. “Hey, you need to go to church and be in fellowship with the saints.” “Hey, you need to worship the Lord in spirit and truth.” I was not taught any of these things. And like I said, this is a fault of mine, not someone else's, because I did not seek this out.

And so instead, I answered the question, “Okay, well, what now?” with, “Okay. Well, I'll go to college. I enjoy technology, so I'll do that, I guess. I don't know.” Consequently, what happened was, from that moment when I graduated in 2000 to around 2013, so about 13 years or so, of what Jesus would refer in Revelation as cold. Someone who was cold in his faith. So I still believed in Jesus. I still believed in God. I still wanted to do the things of Christianity, but I just didn't… I was not taught, and I didn't seek after Him anymore. It's like, “Okay, I have the answer. I know that there's a God. So that settles that. That's all I need to do.”

So I got my degree, my 2-year degree, married my first wife, and out of that, I had two wonderful young boys and who are now…. Skylar is 19, and Vincent is almost 18. So, yeah, I started young. And, you know, if you were to look at my resume—I kind of make this joke. If you were to look at my resume, it's jumping from job to job to job, from cleaning the sides of storm drains to lawn maintenance to beer distribution. I've done a lot of things in my life. And you see someone searching after something. Until finally, it's 2013, and I am working at Les Schwab tires as a technician, like a help desk guy. So you call in, I help with your computer.

And my co-worker, who’s sitting right next to me, who trained me, he was very, very bold in his faith as a Christian. And so I was like, “Oh, yeah. I'm a Christian.” And he's like, “Yeah, but are you reading your word? Are you praying? Are you in fellowship?” “Well, no.” “Well, then what are you doing?” So he challenged me. He's like, “Hey! I know this great church that you would like,” and I had felt this pull, this drag to come back to Him, to the Lord, to go to church, and so I procrastinated. And so I consider my birthday, so to speak, is November 3 of 2013. And that was the day, ironically…. I bypassed the door greeters that were there. And it's like a very small church. In Bend, Oregon, by the way. And so I bypass the door greeters, and I don't do this. This is not me. And I approach my now wife, my future wife, and I say, “Hey! How’s it going? My name's Matt Bagwell. What's your name?”

You were just drawn to her.

Yeah. And she was the first person I met, and I saw, now my daughter, little Lindsay, she was like 6 and as cute as a button and, oh man, it was great. And right there, I heard the gospel again, and I always believed, but I had developed some terrible theology. Terrible theology!

On your own.

Which is why I'm so passionate about the word now. Just horrible theology. Again, the cherry picking. So the attitudes and beliefs that I had done as an atheist, now I was doing as a cold Christian, the cherry picking.


And so, yeah, that is the day that I consider myself truly a Christian.


And truly getting rid of all the things of the world, all the horrible beliefs that I once believed in, and truly… November 3, 2013. Yeah.

Okay. So that was a process in your life.


It wasn't a sudden turn as a teenager. It sounded more like just some twists and turns to your road until you finally reached a point of, I would guess, full surrender.

Yes. Actually, that is a wonderful observation because you're right. I was holding on to pride. I was holding on to, frankly, my sin that again had developed over those thirteen years of being away from the Lord. And the Lord, in His kind and gracious way, literally yanked all of that away from me. And you're right. I had to come to a place of surrender. But, yeah, there were six months when I was just constantly repenting of sin, and God was purifying my heart and forcing me to let go of the things that I once valued. So yeah.

Okay. Then I presume it was worth the cost?

Christ is worth everything. In fact, you know, Jesus essentially says that, if you're not willing to lose your life for My sake, then You cannot be my disciple. And so I know it sounds grandiose, but you have to come to a place of surrender, so much that you're willing to die for Him. And that took me a while to get there. But that's where I'm at now. I very much am His servant. Christ is my Master, and either you're a slave to sin or you're a slave to righteousness. And frankly, I've done both, and I would rather, I'd rather be a slave to righteousness, frankly.

Of course. Yes. And I'm curious: There’s a difference between…. Obviously, giving your life to Christ is significant for anyone, but it’s obviously not something that you took lightly. You are sitting there as a pastor or someone who wants to lead a church. How did you move from just giving your life to Christ and wanting to be like those authentic, loving Christians that you had encountered to actually moving to a place where you were fully surrendered in terms of you not only want to believe it for yourself, but you want to pastor others. I wonder if… because you didn't receive discipling and growth, spiritual formation as a young Christian, does that inform your passion and desire to want to disciple others towards following Christ in a meaningful way, not just a superficial way?

Oh, what a wonderful question! Yes. So even when I was called to ministry, it was pretty…. I know a lot of Christians might cringe at this, but it was supernatural, in the sense that it was very, very foreign to me. I was very fine with being saved and doing the things that the Lord has commanded us to do, you know, read our word, pray, and all that. And I was very fine with that. And the people…. So at this church, it was more pentecostal, charismatic, where they would speak over you and prophesy and that sort of thing. And I'm not in that camp so much anymore. I'm more of a reformed Baptist in my theology. But they started speaking into me, first of all, encouraging me. My nickname was Eeyore. I was very, very bitter, and I was getting out of that joyless, bitter anger that had built up over many, many years. And so I started… the church began fasting. As a church. And so I'd never fasted before, never done this. So it was day two of that fast, where I dropped my wife off—and newly married, by the way. Like a week old, week and a half old as a married couple, and we're fasting together as a married couple and as a church. And day two, I see Pilot Butte. This is in the middle of Bend, Oregon. And it suddenly was pressed upon me to walk up and to go there. And this is foreign to me. And I'm like, “No. I'm not going to do that. No.” And it was pressed upon me again. “You will climb this.” “Okay.”

So I went home, grabbed my Bible, grabbed a water bottle, and put it in the backpack, started climbing back up the Pilot Butte. It's like a quarter of a mile up, something like that. And I'm like, “I don't know what I'm doing. What am I doing?” And I just kept hearing in my mind… and I didn't hear his voice. I'm not like that. But I heard “Revelation,” you know. “Okay. So you want me to read the last book….” Even I, in my newness as a Christian, I was what—September, October, November—I was two months shy of my first year as coming back to the Lord. And so I get up there, and I start reading Revelation. And I come across, I think it's Revelation 3:19 or 20. I always get the two confused. And I was reading the New Living Translation at the time, and it says, “Therefore, I stand at the door and knock, and we can share a meal together as friends….” I'm mangling the scripture. And I stopped there because I realized it says friends. I never thought of God as a friend. I saw Him as my Lord, as my Savior, but never as a friend. And so it struck me. And so, all of a sudden, I felt God's presence. It's hard to describe. And it was pressed upon me. It says, “You will preach.” And I started saying no. I hadn't read all the Bible yet. I said no. And I started arguing with God. “I'm not handsome enough. I'm not smart enough. I'm not tall enough. Lord, people don't listen to me. This is not good.” And again, it was just like, “You will preach. You will preach. You will preach.” Until finally, after an hour of arguing, I gave up, and I said, “Okay, Lord, if that's what you want, then that's what you get. You want me to preach? You got it.”

So what was beautiful is, immediately after I gave up and I surrendered, that I felt a peace that I'd never experienced before, because, you know, I’d gotten in fights a lot. And I was very argumentative, and I was very angry and bitter. And so to feel peace that surpasses all understanding, I had never felt that before. And so I just doggedly pursued the Lord. And I went to my pastor at the time, and I said, “I believe I've been called. Can you disciple me?” And I got, “I don't have enough time. I don't see this. I don't have the time.” I went to three pastors asking for a discipleship.

Oh my.

Until finally, long story short, I had my GI bill. I was in the Navy, and so I used that to go to Liberty University, and the university essentially discipled me, and it was great. Because it was online, it allowed me to say, “Okay, I'm being taught this, or I've heard this in church, but Lord, what does your word say?”


And so I was able to formally develop my theology and what the word of God actually says. And so that is my passion. This is a very long answer, but that is why I'm so passionate, is because I was disciple-less, like I was not discipled. And so now I'm very, very passionate about that. And in fact, my bread and butter right now is young men. I disciple three young men right now, one of which wants to be a pastor himself, a youth pastor like me, like I was. And I attribute all of this, again, to the glory of

God. It's all God. But what I will not allow—if someone comes across me, they will not just be baptized and let go. They will not just hear the gospel and let go. Like, if they want to be discipled and want to learn more, I'm always here for them, always ready for a response. You know, 1 Peter—what is that? First Peter-


3:15? 16?

Mm-hm. 16, Mm-hm.


Yeah. What a beautiful testimony you are, in terms of fullness of life change, obviously. A heart towards God in every way, it seems like. From a place of barrenness, really, resistance, contempt, and now you're in a place where you're pointing people to Christ, the Person you said Who is truth, Who is not only your Savior, but your friend. That is really quite beautiful, Matt.

For those—and I'm sure in your path, you find those who are skeptics who were perhaps in the place where you once were. Maybe they wanted or maybe they didn't want to know about Christ. I wonder. If someone does have an open ear to what you have to say towards pursuing God or Christ as truth, what you might recommend for someone who is open.

Well, for me, it is, if someone is open, I would first start asking questions. This is what I taught in youth group, and this is what I teach people who I interact with in the world, which is to ask why. The foundational question of why. Why do I believe what I believe? Where does this belief come from? And I could point to books and stuff like that, but ultimately I would say it takes one-on-one interacting with someone. So if someone is listening to this, right now, that they contact me. I'm an email away or a phone call away.

That's wonderful. And we will, for sure, put your contact information in the episode notes, so that they can access you. And thank you for that generosity of spirit there. I think question asking is tremendous, for all of us to ask the big questions about ourselves and why we believe what we believe.

For those Christians who do want to do more… I'm thinking again of your friend who was willing to challenge you even at some point early on in high school, even though you didn't share the same beliefs. I think of the Christians that you encountered for the first time, that they seemed so genuine, that they broke down the negative stereotypes that you held of Christianity. They somehow built some plausibility, so that it seemed that that environment and those people helped you to become open to Christ even that first time. So I'm wondering if you could speak to the Christians who want to really have an impact with those who don't believe, how would you encourage them?

I am going to read Scripture. So what I have found works the best is…. It is not argumentation. It's not, “I am going to win because truth is on my side, because the word of God is true,” although that is the case. But what I have found over the years is it our outward witness, our character that, for me, really drew… it drew me to the Lord. Remember, Jesus says that people will know that you are My disciples by your love for one another. So, first of all, it's commanded of us, to love one another and to love God. And so, by extension, because they're made in God's image, we love the lost. We don't love what they're doing, we don't love their sin, but we love the fact that they bear the image of Christ. And so, for me, it's 1 Peter 3:16. So 3:15 is often quoted, but 16 is what's important. It says, “Having a good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame,” so at the end of the day, it's our outward witness. It's how are we behaving out in the world? Are we ourselves hypocrites? Well, to a certain extent. But are we sinful in the sense that we're actively pursuing sin? Or are we pursuing righteousness? Do people see this? Do they see that you're growing in this, in your love for one another and for them? So is there an upward trajectory so to speak?

So I would say stay on the course, that the Lord is a light to your footsteps, that you don't need to know any crazy argumentation, that the wiles of the devil are very plain as day, and what has come before will come again. There's nothing new under the sun. And to love the Lord. Store and treasure God's word in your heart. Memorize it when you can. I struggle with it. But knowing scripture, then you know what truth is. And that's how you fight. We don't fight like arguing constantly. We fight by loving one another, and we fight with the word of God. So that's what I would advise any Christian who's wanting to engage in apologetics or in evangelism is trust in God. The Holy Spirit resides in you, and he will guide you. 

Yes, yes.

And, “Let me love you through this.”

Yes. It's amazing how far that will go.


Yes. It makes me think, too, at the beginning of that passage, where Peter says, set apart Christ as Lord in your heart. And then things follow from that. If Christ is Lord, and we want to please Him and love Him, and it's through His strength that we're able to love others and listen to them. And I really appreciate your wisdom and obviously your experience and your counsel there. Thank you for that.

Matt, what a beautiful story. Your life is a beautiful story. Is there anything else you'd like to add as we're closing or-

No. I appreciate the opportunity to come on here and getting to know you a little bit. And, yeah, this was great. Thank you.

Oh, wonderful! I do hope that those who are listening will take you up on your offer to connect and to ask questions of you and to be discipled by you or whatever. However the Lord works in this situation. Yours is a life that has been transformed. And I'm so grateful for you, and I don't really know you, but I'm so grateful to know you in what little way that I do now. And for those who are listening to know you as well. So thank you so much for coming on today.

No problem. Thank you.

Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Matt's story. You can find out more about his YouTube channel as well [1:10:22]….. Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Matt's story. You can find out more about his YouTube channel, as well as other contact information, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website. Again, that’s I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.

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