Craig Denison is the author and founder of a daily devotional ministry launched in 2015 called First15, which guides over 130,000 in more than 200 countries into a meaningful time alone with God, and the chief strategy officer for Denison Ministries, an organization started by his father—Jim Denison—and includes First15, the Denison Forum and Christian Parenting.
From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on ministry. To suggest a Texas Baptist leader in the marketplace to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.
Where else have you served in ministry, and what were your positions there?
My wife and I also were the worship pastors at a community church in Dallas for a little over 2 and a half years while we were beginning First15.
Where did you grow up?
We moved around just a bit as Dad served as the pastor of First Baptist in Midland and 2ndPonce de Leon Baptist in Atlanta. But I mostly grew up in Dallas when Dad moved us to be the pastor of Park Cities Baptist Church.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I remember having a very real pull on my heart from the Holy Spirit at a young age. My family would pray every evening, and I saw my Dad practice a vibrant personal faith in addition to hearing him teach every week publicly. So, I think a combination of searching while surrounded by authentic believers led to my true faith in Christ.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I started my college experience at Ouachita Baptist University studying music, and then transferred to Dallas Baptist University to graduate in 2012 with a bachelor of arts degree in biblical studies with a minor in music.
Why do you feel called into ministry?
A couple of years into my college experience, I found the rhythm of experiencing God in a real, private way every morning. And it absolutely transformed my life. Meeting with God has carried me through the ups and downs, good and bad of life since that time.
So, when the opportunity to write First15 came up, to help other believers around the world find this rhythm that had changed everything for me, I jumped at it.
And beyond the initial call, I wake up every morning with a yearning to satisfy God’s heart to meet with his people. If I can help just one more person discover the reality of God’s nearness and love, it’s worth my life.
What is your favorite aspect of ministry? Why?
My favorite aspect of ministry is searching the heart of God for his passion for his people.
When I get even a taste of God’s love in a way that’s fresh and real, I really feel that I’m able to see myself, others and the world around me through his lens of love.
What one aspect of ministry gives you the greatest joy?
My greatest joy is when I hear that someone who has always wanted to spend time alone with God, but just never found what they needed to be consistent, develops a real rhythm of meeting with God through First15.
What one aspect of ministry would you like to change?
If I could change anything, it would be disunity I so often see between fellow ministers. I truly believe God is calling his church to a greater level of humility than we as leaders are modeling, and in our pride, we’re missing out on the work we can only accomplish together.
How has your ministry or your perspective on ministry changed?
Every year, I value what’s real in ministry over the way I wish it was a little bit more. What I mean is going deeper into the human experience, and validating the human experience, before trying to preach the answers. Practically, that looks like asking a lot more questions than giving answers and spending more time listening than talking.
How do you expect ministry to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
Across the next 10 to 20 years, I expect ministry to be far more focused on using digital tools to resource the church and connect the world to real relationship with God. And inside of that is a real opportunity to find the spaces and times where people can connect face-to-face and maximize the relationship between digital and physical ministry.
If you could launch any new ministry—individually, through your church or through another organization—what would it be? Why?
I would launch a ministry focused on building relationship and unity between ministry leaders, congregations and believers. God has asked to show the world who he is by our love for one another, so the world will either know him or live their lives without him based on our willingness to humble ourselves and love.
Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your ministry.
My greatest challenges are:
• Competing for the attention of God’s people with digital spaces like Facebook and Instagram
• Finding fresh ways to encourage God’s people to give him the very first minutes of their day
• Raising the funds necessary to provide this guide to God’s presence free of charge to all of God’s people
My greatest influences are:
• Authors who are willing to dig deep into the good and bad of the human experience
• Entrepreneurs who continually find a way to see what people need and meet that need in an authentic way
• Faith leaders who have given their life to true prayer, listening to God and proclaiming his heart in a way that’s free of fear and judgment
What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?
Just how to find us and which platform would be most useful for them in seeing their desire to grow closer to God realized.
If it’s helpful, we share our free devotional every day on our website, by email, on our mobile app and in our podcast.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
My mentor has always been my father, Jim Denison. And I’ve been most influenced by seeing his passion to know God personally come before any passion he has professionally.
In addition to my father, I had a wonderful mentor in high school named Barrett Kingsriter who had tremendous influence in connecting my faith with my profession and family. Another mentor in college named Jon Cole taught me to live my life on a foundation of principles. And since graduating college, a few mentors—namely Larry Mills—have taught me how to be successful in a way that’s meaningful and authentic.
What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?
I wish I would have learned how to ask better questions and listen, or how to learn from others better. With so much focus on who God is and how to study Scripture, I think the process of earning a degree in ministry can often overlook the need to focus on people and the human experience.
What is the impact of ministry on your family?
Like most things in life, being a vocational minister has aspects that are wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, I know my family has a deeper connection to God and his people with my constant focus on ministry. And that’s a real gift. On the other hand, work can carry a weight with it, and it’s challenging to leave that weight at the door when I’m spending time focusing on them. And I know that has an effect as well.
Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.
This is probably the toughest question. I’ll just name a few that come to mind right now knowing I’d probably give a different list tomorrow.
A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, was a really formative book for me both personally and professionally. His ability to concisely summarize how to seek after God while retaining a depth and tremendous amount of wisdom is something I strive for.
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, is something I’m constantly reading and referencing. His words speak to the heart of what I believe relationship with God is supposed to be about. And his wisdom has helped create an undercurrent of abiding that carries me through whatever it is I am doing.
Don Delillo, White Noise, is a book I’ve just finished. Written in the mid-1980s, it’s a fascinating, albeit hopeless look at the constant stimulation we’re wading through every day. I really appreciate his ability to describe the human condition and have been pondering since finishing it about how prophetic it is and what he would say about our world today some 30 years later.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
Similar to the question on books, I would probably give you a different answer tomorrow. But right now, I would say Psalm 84 is my favorite personal passage. It’s a constant source of encouragement to me that God’s nearness is here. If the birds of the air could place their offspring in the altars of God, ever singing his praise, then how much closer is God to me than I realize.
Who is your favorite Bible character, other than Jesus? Why?
I resonate with David the most out of all the other biblical characters. His willingness to continually seek after God through writing, song, prayer and his unrelenting honesty and hope is something I strive to model my own life after.
Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.
I took one of my best friends, Stephen Murray, to a Mavericks game this past weekend, at which he told me he was really surprised by how “into” sports I am. I’m a huge Mavericks and Cowboys fan and probably spend too much time scrolling around my ESPN app on my phone.
If you could get one “do over” in ministry, what would it be, and why?
If I could have one “do over,” it would probably be setting better boundaries around me and my wife in our time as worship pastors. I bought too easily into the lie that the need of others trumps my calling in our time of serving on staff at a church. And I think I could have served those people better had I had the confidence only to do the ministry God was calling me to at the time.