I have recently been asked (on several occasions) about my testimony. I’ve written some of it in a previous article where I talked about how I was sexually abused, I have bipolar disorder, anxiety, and so on. However, that article had a different focus. This one will be more informal and practical. While there are some things that would either be too personal, too lengthy or none of my business to mention here, I will give you a general summary of who I am. I know this is long, and I’m sorry. You don’t have to read it, but it gives you a good summary of my background and who I am. If you are interested, I pray that this helps you in some way.
At least part of my mother’s side of the family has been affiliated with the Churches of Christ for well over 100 years. My father believed in God when he and my mom met, but he was not very religious. He wasn’t even a churchgoer. He became a Christian not long after I was born (which is April of 1992). When he was converted, he did not sit on his hands but actively sought the will of God. While I believe it to be unfortunate that he was “trained” by what I believe to be generally well-meaning, sectarian, and misinformed traditionalists, I am proud and encouraged that when he came to know Jesus, he took it seriously. More than most! So seriously that he has preached part-time or as a volunteer for small congregations for years, taught countless classes before he started preaching, and was consistently involved in evangelism in his daily life. I am sorry that he still has what I believe to be some chains of legalism around his feet, but I am thankful and encouraged that he denied himself, picked up his cross, and followed Jesus. He has come a VERY long way. I’m proud of him and owe much of the good in me to the witness of his character. He is no longer preaching, but he is one of the most dedicated members of a congregation that I’ve ever seen.
I grew up knowing that I had no choice about going to church or church events. I was going, whether I wanted to or not. Not only was I going, but I was also going to pay attention and be involved. There would be no coloring, video games, sitting out to the side, or daydreaming. I was taught to be involved. I was at every service, at every church event, at Lads to Leaders (for my CofC friends) and expected to be a leader. When I got to high school, I was expected to lead singing, speak, and teach classes. I also started homeschooling in this time period via a Church of Christ cover school. One of my electives in homeschool was to help my youth minister every week. Another elective was to go to a school of preaching. By the time I was 18 I knew about the Restoration Movement, the general outline of the biblical story, the beliefs of the CofC (along with the reasoning behind said beliefs), introductory levels of Greek, and the hermeneutical principle of “command, example, necessary inference/the law of silence/exclusion.”
However, not all was well in the mind and heart of Jesse Winn. My parents had me as teens and did not have great examples of parenting themselves. My maternal grandmother was a committed believer, but she had a lot of stress going on in her life. She had four kids, my mother being the oldest, and she had a husband who was a drunk, slept around, and was gone with the money for days at a time. My paternal grandmother was not a committed Christian, but she was committed to my father. She married several times and endured beatings, and watched my father get beaten, but she did the best she could. My paternal grandfather was not in his life.
My parents did the best they could. They were still kids when they had me. They did not have good examples. They never had a kid before me. I hold absolutely no ill will towards my parents. However, there were certainly times when they unintentionally made me feel pointless, and like a mistake they deeply regretted. Anything I said felt dumb. I just wanted to be listened to and told that my thoughts mattered. My father’s mother gave me the attention that I desired. When my father had me, he sought to have a relationship with his biological dad. This upset my grandmother. She grew jealous, and, eventually, the woman I loved more than I loved my parents left us and said to treat her as if she were dead. This may seem small to you, but to my standard, it was devastating. It caused me to escape close relationships with anyone before things got too real. I never got close to my family or friends. I was suicidal and started cutting myself when I was in 8th grade. It wasn’t to get attention; nobody knew. I did it just to feel something.
However, I was so close to God. Sure, I had the lust and imperfections of adolescence. But, because of my relationship with my heavenly Father, I was mostly focused as a teenager. I continued to learn and practice self-control to the best of my ability. And it remained this way for the most part until I was 18. I did have undiagnosed issues that I have mentioned before and didn’t have the resources to deal with them. I had the knowledge and the heart of an elite Church of Christ boy until I was 18 years old. My goal was to go to FHU and be a youth minister, meet a nice girl, and be happy for the rest of my life. But my spirit was not ready for that yet.
Long story short, I was poorly mistreated by some people. It was extreme, but I’m not ready to share that. I thought I was okay after a few months. I worked at restaurants and paid my own expenses, but I didn’t go to college. I couldn’t admit it at the time, but it was because being a youth minister was the only thing I ever wanted to do, but now it just seemed so corrupted. I thought I was content, though. I thought that I would eventually be okay.
One day, after coming home, I was in the living room with my parents. I still vividly remember their confusion. I remember my own confusion. Out of nowhere, doubts and thoughts that I didn’t know I had came out of my mouth. Subtle questions from my youth were brought out, all at once. The God I was told about didn’t meet the God I read about, and He certainly didn’t match the one that my heart desired to know. I asked, “If God doesn’t make mistakes, why did He repent that He made man, and then proceed to kill man by a flood?” “If God is perfect, why did Moses have to talk Him out of killing off Israel?” “If God loves everyone, why did he have Israel kill women and children in the promised land?” “If God is just, why will he send people to hell for confusion or for not even hearing about him?” “If God doesn’t like sin, why did He allow there to be sin? And why would He make people that He knew would struggle with sin?” “If God did miracles back then to show that He is real, why is He afraid to do so now?” “If God is not the author of confusion, why is the Bible so confusing? Why must we know a secret code/pattern and be able to read in order to be His children?” Question after question I would ask. Most of which I did not even know I was thinking. And on top of these questions, I asked several questions about inconsistencies I found in the CofC. I didn’t know that these were concerns of mine.
Finally, I told my parents that I didn’t know if I believe in God. The Bible isn’t perfect, and “God” certainly isn’t either. This means that either He is not real or that He is not worthy of worship. Quietly, for about a year, I would go through the motions still at worship services, but my heart was far from it. I studied other denominations, other religions, and philosophies, and I studied science on a deeper level. I just wanted truth. My parent’s rule was that even though I was paying for all of my own living if I was in their house, I am going to church. Eventually, I told them that this wasn’t healthy for me. I was suicidal this entire time. I would drive almost every day to the local lake, pull my car up to the water, and sit there with my foot on the break for hours sometimes, contemplating just letting go. In my mind, if I were wrong about God, hell wouldn’t be any worse than what I was feeling (I was told that suicide results in hell). I continued to talk with atheists and email scientists. I continued to study different religions. I continued to visit different Christian denominations. I continued to pray to a God that I wasn’t even sure was there. I just wanted to know the truth because I felt so empty. During this time, I did plenty of things that I am not proud of. Shoot, I did things I’m not proud of since then. But you should know that I didn’t become an atheist/agnostic to do these things. That’s a very important distinction. However, while I was an atheist/agnostic, I did them. Drugs, sex, anything to make me feel. I now know that I am bipolar, I have anxiety, and that I have PTSD from sexual abuse that likely played into some of my behavior, even after coming back to Christianity. Context determines why we do what we do or think what we think. But, at the end of the day, the mistakes are mine to hold.
Christian friends that I thought would never leave me left anyways because they thought I just wanted attention and to do “bad things.” Secular friends didn’t understand because they had never experienced God before. My family wanted to understand, but they just couldn’t. I was alone. I just wanted truth. The desire for truth was the only thing that kept me from killing myself. And the hope for something more is the only thing that keeps me going.
Long story short, the study of science, philosophy, history, religions, logic, and my own experiences led me back to Christ. There is more to that part of the story, but perhaps I’ll tell it another day. One of the many reasons that I came back was the audacity that Christianity has to basically dare us to “test ALL things.” I decided to stay with the churches of Christ, but with a different mindset. At this point, I was still pretty conservative (from a CofC standard), but I was also still “testing all things.” The girl I was dating at the time left me because I didn’t involve myself in some of the things she was interested in anymore. Driving home from seeing her that last time, I prayed and cried out to God, “God, I’m doing what you want of me. I came back. I am doing good things. What are you trying to teach me?” I know a lot of my family in Christ will blow this off as emotional, but I felt God as soon as I asked that question. I received an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but it was as if someone had just planted wisdom in me that I had never known. I believe this was the Holy Spirit. He said, “the emptiness and sadness you feel now is only a fraction of what I feel towards every person who doesn’t know me. Jesse, I want your heart.” I pride myself on trying to be logical and go where the evidence leads me, but that was so real.
When I got home, for some reason, I felt led to pray and read over the book of Hosea. It told a very similar story! Immediately, I felt led to go right over to the book of Romans. When I got to chapter four and following, I felt myself arguing with Paul. I had never just read through Romans before without pulling Scripture out of context. Every time I had a question, in the next verse, Paul would rhetorically ask the same question and give me an answer. I didn’t know grace until then. After I finished, I remembered back to those times when my father and I would make that circular argument: “If you love God, you’ll keep His command…” and I’d respond, “Yeah, but His command is to love.” We would go around and around. It reminds me of the old “chick or the egg” argument. But finally, it clicked for me. God wasn’t a childish high school girlfriend, asking me to prove myself. “If you REALLY love me, you’ll do this or that.” He was saying that the natural (supernatural?) response to His grace and our love for Him is keeping His commands. Because His commands were all about love. Not the world’s love. But true, selfless, godly love. That is the entire point! That’s when I first understood the difference between legalism and true Christianity. I still had “conservative CofC” views (I prefer the word “traditional” because they weren’t actually conservative in the true sense), but I also had a new understanding of grace and the part it plays. God does have commands, but they are not arbitrary. Every command teaches us to be like Jesus and love one another.
I told my youth minister that I was having these thoughts. I was curious if I got something wrong. He told me that he had been thinking the same things lately. At that point, I decided to go to a preaching school in Knoxville. I knew that it would be more conservative, but I wanted to know if I was wrong. I wanted to challenge and be challenged. I wanted to test all things but not get kicked out. Plus, I would get a Bible degree. So, I went there. I’m glad I did. I wasn’t planning on being a preacher; I just wanted to learn. This school allowed me to think for myself. They would disagree with me a lot. But they were kind enough to still allow me to attend there (unlike certain other schools). They are much different now, but I’m glad I went there when I did.
Right before I left for school, I found some CofC groups on Facebook. I didn’t mean to. I accidentally clicked on them. I was intrigued because these groups didn’t say things that I normally heard. I proceeded to ask question after question, demanding Scripture to back up whatever they said. Some were conservative, and some were not. Either way, I saw that there were other valid ways of looking at different ideas without manipulating truth. This caused me to read more and more. Not just on Facebook, but also in the Bible, on the internet, and in books. This also caused me to meet various people with various beliefs. But I became VERY bitter. I was the 4th and 5th grader who had Scripture memorized and told all my friends they were going to hell for celebrating Christmas. I hurt people, lost relationships, and didn’t know God because of these views. I was so bitter. I still went to school and debated with everyone. I knew my stuff. However, my attitude was not in Christ. I was legalistic about my liberalism, if you will. Same song, but a different verse.
Not long before I finished school, I had decided to go back home to Arab, Alabama, and go to community college. I received a degree from the preaching school, but I didn’t go there to be a preacher. Also, the accreditation was not full. So, it was a good degree, but not if you wanted to build off of it. Heritage Christian university got in contact with me and wanted me to continue my education there. I wasn’t really interested because it is a school in Florence, Alabama, focused on ministry. I thought and prayed about it a lot. I did have a desire to eventually be a professor of religion at a secular school, but I told HCU that I couldn’t go there without a job. I was hoping that they would leave me alone, but they sent me a list of local churches looking for part-time work. I responded by telling them that I was “progressive”, and I wouldn’t fit in most places. I thought SURELY that would get rid of them. But, alas, they told me about Shoals church (the second church I preached for. I was in Tuscumbia, AL. for almost four years). I was hesitant, but I visited…three times.
Roughly 40% of them were from a Baptist or Methodist background. Two of the elders were also Baptist. All but two or three of the families who were originally CofC were open-minded and loving. Even the few conservative families were not aggressive or unkind. The first thing the elders told me was, “we choose to not be judgmental. If you work with us, you will not judge our religious neighbors. We are just Christians who love God and choose to accept anyone else who accepts Jesus.” I knew that this was from God. They had a preacher for 14 years who worked hard with them. After he retired, they hired a man who was a good guy, one of the best guys I know, but he was not a good fit for their vision, and they went from 150 to 80 by the time I got there as a part-time youth worker. It was as low as 65 by the time that preacher retired, six months after I arrived. But I still felt like God wanted me to be there.
I started as the youth minister, making $140 a week after taxes (preachers get murdered with taxes). Shoals Church chose to allow me to be the preaching minister in 2016. By the time I put in my resignation, almost four years later, Shoals had gone from 65 to an average of 110. I was obsessed with the numbers. Not because I am arrogant, but because I just wanted to know if I was doing okay. After much prayer, I have decided that while numeric growth is great because numbers represent souls, it should not be my main focus. I became happy with my family there regardless of the numbers. I admit fully that if I were there eight years ago, I would have started debates with every CofC preacher in the area. But I’ve learned that the only time that is appropriate is if I witness spiritual abuse. I chose to truly be autonomous with Shoals Church and let people think what they wanted as long as they believed in Christ and Him crucified. We might passionately disagree and have hard conversations, but Jesus unified us by the Spirit. During that time, I got married to my wife, Sara. We met when I was 18. And at the same camp and on that same year that I prayed for a girl to make me a better person. I dated the wrong person back then. But I am beyond blessed today that I have a wife in her who exemplifies the grace of God. Because Lord knows I don’t deserve her! I’ve hurt her in so many ways, but we have grown through the pain and because of the pain over the last few years. I am so blessed!
I’ve been called everything from the son of Satan to the antichrist. I’ve been given death threats. I’ve been beaten up by members and leaderships. But I know that God’s approval is all that I need. One of the elders at Shoals told me, “Jesse, it might not be fair, but so goes the preacher’s attitude, so goes the church.” That has stuck with me. I decided to try my best to have a humble, honest, and Christ-like attitude. I am not perfect, but I am being transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29). We decided to move closer to family and after we put in our resignation the congregation started to lose members. The elders were good to me most of the time I was there. Very good to me. Like family. But the relationship got rocky towards the end of my resignation period. I hope we can reconcile one day. I love them and their hearts. I’ve since moved to another church and preached for three years and resigned from it (though I am still a member there). They are a bit more traditional than Shoals was when I was there regarding CofC “hot button issues.” But they are a good family. It’s North Broad Street Church of Christ in Albertville, AL.
I stepped down to continue my education and to work more on my mental health. It is probably just a sabbatical but I’m open to getting back into ministry again eventually or going into the secular world. I have been in therapy for a year and a half and learned so much about myself, I am in graduate school for I/O Psych, I have another undergraduate degree in management, and I am growing daily in service to Jesus, His people, and those made in His image. I’m not sure if I’ll end up back in full-time ministry or not, but I’m glad I’m taking a sabbatical. I’ve tried to focus more on grace and reconciliation, forgiving others, asking for others’ forgiveness, and learning to forgive myself. I’m a child of God! I still struggle with doubt about certain views and even about God. Sometimes I feel like I give myself whiplash. But I trust in the grace and guidance of Jesus and His Holy Spirit to see me through. All I know is that “my heart is restless until I find rest in thee.” – Jesse