Marty Fields The Unlikely Church Planter

by Becky Hobbs

In the early 1990s, Marty Fields definitely would have been voted "Least Likely Church Planter" at RTS/Orlando. In fact, no one was more surprised than Marty himself when God called him to plant Islands Presbyterian Church on Wilmington Island (one of the Barrier Islands) outside Savannah, Georgia, in 1995.

After all, Marty was the consummate intellectual who loved theology and philosophy and saw his future as "the egghead writing journal articles and ministering to college students." He was the student, replete in tank top and ponytail, who strode to the lectern one Reformation Day in seminary and proceeded to show his classmates how "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" would have sounded if played by Jimi Hendrix. Could this man ever minister in a suburban evangelical church?

In God's providence, however, Marty was just the man to pastor Islands Presbyterian - after some heavenly grooming (both physically and spiritually) along the way. "Before I moved away from Central Georgia in 1993, I had said a number of times that Wilmington Island would be an excellent place to start a new church," relates Dr. Ric Cannada, RTS Executive Vice President and former Chairman of the Mission to North America Committee for that presbytery. "We only needed the right person as its organizing pastor. Obviously, Marty was the Lord's choice, and God has richly blessed his ministry there in exciting ways."

Marty's varied experiences have made him uniquely able to minister to a number of different groups. Members appreciate his ability to make the Gospel clear to both the churched and unchurched. "One of Marty's strong points is apologetics," says Elder David Marshall.

Marty & members
Marty and Debbie greet members at
Islands Presbyterian.

"He easily bridges the gap between theological ideas and non-theological minds. While making newcomers feel welcome, he can translate Scriptural meaning to modern dilemmas and answer difficult questions in a clear, comprehensive, and biblical fashion."

More and more residents of this island community, which had no Reformed witness before Islands began, have agreed and become regular attendees. From a mere nine people in a Bible study held in the Fields' living room in the fall of 1995, the church has grown to an attendance of over 200 in just under four years. Plans are in the works for a new facility in two years on fourteen acres of recently purchased land.

Lucia Welch, a founding member, says the church is an answer to prayer. "Going to Islands has meant an entirely different relationship with the Lord for me. "My heart had been so hungry to hear the Bible preached clearly. Words can't express how fulfilling it is to hear it presented so well."

A ROCKY ROAD

God has brought Marty a long way. That he is an "intellectual turned church planter" is all the more unusual in light of his early years. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, he stumbled along an emotionally rocky road from early childhood. His father, a successful owner of several Atlanta delicatessens, and his mother, a singer-actress, began having marital difficulties when Marty was very young. By the time he was eleven they had married and divorced twice; his father's final departure virtually ended any consistent contact between them.

The turmoil at home plus a medical hyperactivity problem took its toll on Marty, especially at school and with other children. Although a bright student, he failed the fourth grade and became a social outcast, forced to sit at the front of the bus to avoid ridicule and harassment from his classmates. Almost his only joy in life was playing the guitar, a talent that would one day dominate his life. Later, when he also failed the eighth grade, he counted it a blessing; those who harassed him moved on and were replaced by students who did not know of his academic problems and were friendly.

Then came the decision that would change his life dramatically. His father, much to Marty's dismay, insisted that he attend Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Against his will Marty obeyed, and the experience became the turning point in his life personally and academically.

"I am indebted to my father for sending me there," says Marty proudly. "It was a fulltime military school - regulation hair cut, no civilian clothes, visible rewards in the form of merits for good behavior and good grades. After a bit, I decided I could either fall in and do my best or get kicked out."

Marty chose to fall in and subsequently became an honor student and a Company Executive Officer, commanding over 250 students. His outlook on life - and himself - changed dramatically and he became a high achiever. But spiritually, his heart was cold. Although his mother had become a Christian, Marty was basically a humanist; he believed in the concept of God, but not a personal, redemptive God. He hadn't been raised in the church, and he saw no reason to go now.

Upon graduation from Riverside, he entered Georgia Southern College in Statesboro, Georgia, with absolutely no idea what he wanted to do with his life and no spiritual guidelines to help him decide. He could play the guitar, however, so he joined a band and a fraternity of fellow rock and rollers. But his music kept him in trouble. Assigned to a twenty-four-hour "quiet dorm" for grade-conscious students, Marty was finally kicked out for disturbing others with his loud rock and roll. It wasn't long before a full-fledged identity crisis took shape.

"Although I made decent grades, nothing was adding up," remembers Marty ruefully. "In military school, my life was totally controlled; I was told how to dress, what to eat, when to get up. Now I had to decide. Should I have long or short hair? Should I be a punk or a preppie? Then when my best friend began gravitating away from me, I became really depressed. Who in the world was I, anyway?"

In the midst of this angst, a friend invited Marty to audition as his replacement in a contemporary Christian band on campus. Marty agreed - not because he was interested in Christianity but because he wanted some friends. He passed an interview concerning his faith in Christ with flying colors since his mother, now a Christian, had told him all the right answers! He got the job, but to his surprise, somewhere between then and the middle of his sophomore year, the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to the truth about Christ and he accepted the Lord into his life for real.

"But I was a lazy Christian," Marty confesses. "I simply played in the group and talked about godly things; I didn't study the Bible or get involved in a church. Then the summer after my sophomore year I met and talked at length with a cult member, and she ran circles around me with her knowledge of the Bible. The Holy Spirit showed me in no uncertain terms that I needed to buckle down; being a Christian meant more than just saying I was one. I knew I should study Scripture and attend church. When I returned to school, I bought $200 of books - Bible surveys, study helps, and books on cults and began to devour them."

He also became involved in the Wesley Foundation and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But when the FCA President asked him to lead a small group, Marty hesitated. Why should he? He was a guitar player headed to Nashville for a Christian music career after college. But the Lord led him to agree, and his first group of twenty-five students really seemed to enjoy his teaching. Marty was surprised at how much he liked teaching -- and the more he did it, the more he loved it.

Fields family
Marty with wife, Debbie, and children
Daniel (3) and Rebekah (5)

His Baptist pastor had introduced him to Calvinism, and Marty eventually ended up at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, where Pastor Roland Barnes discipled him in the Reformed faith. Soon Marty felt the Lord calling him to seminary. While looking at schools, he met Dr. Richard Pratt, Professor of Old Testament at RTS/Orlando, and subsequently visited the campus.

While at RTS he was a busy man outside his studies. He served as Richard Pratt's teaching assistant, helping him with a new translation of the Psalms and learning more about apologetics. Feeling God's leading to graduate school and ministry to college students, he also worked with Reformed University Ministries at the University of Florida during his middler year and served as a campus minister at the University of Central Florida his senior year, helping get that ministry off the ground. Finally, one of his greatest loves was becoming a chaplain in the Army Reserve; the years at Riverside had carved out a tender spot for soldiers in his heart.

During his second year at RTS, Marty met his wife Debbie, who was a student and the school's receptionist. They began dating in October, were married the following August, and soon after learned they would be parents. The financial responsibility of a family weighed heavily on Marty, so he decided to forego graduate school for the moment and work in a church setting.

Providentially, God had just the opening to use Marty's gifts. Upon graduation in 1993 (in only the second RTS/Orlando graduating class), he and Debbie headed to Memphis, Tennessee, where he became the college director at 4000-member Second Presbyterian Church. The two-year experience was tremendous - and life-changing. In addition to an exciting ministry to 120 students at Rhodes College, Marty also was able to assume a number of staff responsibilities since the church was between pastors. Suddenly pastoral duties such as preaching, teaching, and hospital visitation were wonderful new adventures, and Marty discovered he loved them!

At the same time, for an entire year he kept seeing an ad in WORLD magazine looking for a church planter for the growing Wilmington Island area of Savannah. "I thought it was a great opportunity and wondered who would get it!" recalls Marty, laughing. " Finally, Roland Barnes called and told me to think about applying; it would be good experience, even though I was probably too young to get it. To my utter astonishment, I was chosen and was able to begin fulfilling some of the ministry desires God had awakened in me at Second Presbyterian."

IT'LL NEVER WORK

When Marty showed up in 1995, many thought the church would never make it. With a small island population and many neighboring churches, a few predicted that a year later membership would include only Marty and his family with a few friends. But they were wrong. After a six-month internship at Independent --the mother church -- Marty led the first service in January, 1996, with 120 people. Independent graciously loaned its recreational facility on the island so the congregation would have a building.

Brad & Britt Staton
Islands Associate
Pastor Brad Staton
and his wife, Britt.

Today the 191-member congregation has big plans, not only for a new facility but also for a parent-run Christian school. In an effort to reach out to the community, they have recently hired Brad Staton (RTS/Orlando '99) as Associate Pastor for Assimilation and Small Group Ministry. (His wife, Britt, also is an RTS/Orlando '99 graduate in counseling.) People such as founding member Louise Durham feel the church's ministry will have a significant impact on the area.

"This church has meant so much to my family. It is so important for me to know that my children are being nurtured and fed from the Word. Islands has also made a big difference in our married life, bringing my husband and me closer together. This congregation has experienced both the good and the bad with us; at times we have leaned heavily on them. Thank God it is here."

Interesting how God works things out. Marty isn't the university intellectual he thought he'd be; he's not ministering to college students; and he's hung up his guitars (except the twelve-string acoustic he uses to lead evening worship). In fact, he's doing nothing that he ever planned to do - but everything that God did.



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