Growing up, no one would have thought Chris Stephens would end up pastor of one of Tennessee’s largest churches.
In 1959, at age 14, his mother entered what would be the first of five marriages. Chris was born the next year to a wonderful mother but a physically abusive father. The pair divorced when Chris was three, and his mother eventually remarried, but his new step-father was even worse.
Chris recalled, “I tell [her], ‘you’re a great Mom. You’ve worked and sacrificed… But you batted 1.000—you married 5 losers.’” Her first husband was physically abusive, and the second was physically and sexually abusive to Chris and his brothers. When their mom found out, she immediately divorced him.
“It wasn’t her fault,” Chris said. “She just picked bad guys.”
He continued, “I got high for the first time when I was ten, and that just began a road downhill of destruction. I made no excuses for it. You can call it self-medication, you can call it whatever, I was just caught up in that world.”
By 18, Chris was shooting and dealing drugs. When he was 22, he overdosed after a three-month binge and ended up in Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga. Ironically, it was here, in this hospital, that he’d been born, and it was here that he’d be born again.
In his book, The Climb of Your Life, Chris described the scene: “The doctors and nurses rushed in and out of the room and talked in hushed tones. A thin curtain was drawn between two small beds, and sounds of coughing and moaning drifted in from just down the hallway. The whole place smelled of death and illness mixed with the pungent aroma of antiseptic… When my system was at last free of illegal pharmaceuticals, I was still in excruciating pain with stomach cramps that seemed to turn my whole body inside out… As I lay in that small sweat-soaked bed all day with no visitors, friends or family, I realized I was alone—truly alone. I was also angry, frustrated and without even the dimmest hope for the future.”
It was here, in his darkest moment, that God revealed himself to Chris. His book explains, “I remembered hearing about God when I was younger. My family had not been churchgoers, but I had a friend who went. When I spent the night with him, I had to go to church with his family. There I heard about God’s love, power and forgiveness. But was I beyond help? Could, would, just maybe…He might pull me out of the agony I was in? So I turned to the one Person I thought I could trust. My only hope was the only One who could reach down that low and pull me up. That day I entered into a partnership with God. I figured, what could it hurt? He couldn’t do any worse than I had. Little did I know I was in for the climb of my life!”
“There [in that hospital], I just said that’s it,” Chris recalled. “I’m going to follow the Lord… I said ‘I’ve wrecked my life. You can have it.’ He said, ‘I’ll take it.’ [God] forgave me, gave me a new heart… When he got me, he didn’t get much. But when God gets you, he doesn’t need much.”
The change in Chris’s life was instant. He knew that, as a new Christian, he wasn’t strong enough to be around his friends and family without being tempted by alcohol, drugs, and sex. He left them and told them not to call him, saying, “I can’t be Jesus’s friend and your friend at the same time.” This time away from his old friends and family was critical in breaking free from old patterns.
But far from being alone, he joined a church that adopted this new believer and became his family. Here, he “met friends that cared for me, just because, not for what I could give.”
“I learned what marriage was, I learned what life was, inside that church,” Chris said. “I dove into the church with all that I had.” His fellow believers opened their heart to him. “They loved me, and people took me home. I had dinner in people’s homes.” For the first time, Chris felt good about himself and about his future.
“Six months later, I could go back and see my family and friends,” He explained, “cause there’s nothing they had that would tempt me at that point. But they didn’t really want me around because ‘the darkness hates the light because it’s deeds are evil.’”
During this time, God gave him a new purpose in life—helping others. Groups would ask him to speak and tell his story. People would come to him for help with friends and family caught in addiction. Eventually, God called him to preach, and that’s exactly what he did, returning to college then attending seminary.
Chris said, “That was 40 years ago… [and] I haven’t got over it yet… I’m a satisfied customer.”
Today, he is pastor of Faith Promise, a multi-site church in Knoxville and one of the largest churches in Tennessee. As of August, the church is in a transition from Chris as Senior Pastor to his son Zac as Senior Pastor. Zac previously launched the church’s Farragut campus. Pastor Chris is determined that Faith Promise won’t be a one generational church.
He said, “I just committed that… we are going to reach the next generation. To reach the next generation, you’ve got to be a part of the next generation, so we’re raising up men of God like Chase [pastor of the Farragut campus], young guys and young women that lead across the board. So next August we will pass the baton from myself to my son. I’ll still be here; I’ll still be on staff. But he’ll be the Senior Pastor… This year he’ll do a little more than half the preaching, and then [after the transition], he’ll do the bulk of it. I’ll preach when he asks me to after that.”
Chris Stephens is living proof that God can change lives.
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
—The Apostle Paul, 1 Timothy 1:15