Regent University School of Divinity (DIV) alumnus Daniel Backens ’99 is “small-town born and bred.” A self-proclaimed “country boy” from Spearfish, South Dakota. Population: 4,500.
“It’s beautiful in the summer, cold in the winter. Not a lot of people. But good, salt of the earth kind of people,” said Backens. “It was a great place to be raised, and I appreciated the values instilled there.”
Backens, his wife Rhonda, and his three children were settled in the Midwest. He taught high school math, all-the-while pastoring a small church he helped start. Throughout this season of his life, he calls himself a “tent-maker,” earning money for his family while ministering.
When his church grew to 300, however, he felt his skill set as a pastor was inadequate. And for all of his hometown’s values and virtues, it was missing something.
“I needed a shift. There was a convergence,” said Backens. “You ask the big questions in your life: What do I want to do? What’s my legacy? What about my family?” It was at that point that I needed a change in location, I needed a new challenge. Something different.”
It was that “something different” that landed him and his family in the Tidewater area and into his M.A. in Church History and Church Renewal studies at Regent. He was 37 years old.
“It was the best decision of my life, really,” said Backens.
On Saturday, May 6, Backens received the “Alumnus of the Year” distinction at Regent University’s Commencement ceremony. An experience he describes as “humbling.”
“It was a surprise, actually. I didn’t even know I was being considered. It’s an honor, and I love Regent,” said Backens.
Now, Backens serves as the senior pastor of New Life Church, a multi-campus church based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He said when he moved to the area in 1997, he was impacted by the big-city vibe of Hampton Roads and the diversity of its inhabitants.
“It was a big culture shift. So not only did I shift in my career, I also shifted in the cultural contact that I was ministering into,” said Backens. “After pastoring a church that was all-white, all young, all Lutheran or Catholic, and I came here and saw the history of the South, the dynamics of inner-city suburban, African Americans, Caucasians, and how they relate to each other. I thought that if there could be a church where we bridge these economic, social and ethnic divides, it would be a witness to the world.”
And while he knew many leaders of church organizations who made it a priority to have a few different ethnicities represented within their congregation, Backens strove for something deeper. A multi-ethnic church, where different cultures were not only represented by its congregants, but honored.
“It’s one thing to get along with people who think like you. But what’s it like to get along with someone who thinks differently? Who has different worship? Different political views? Different ideas of what church should be like?” asked Backens. “If you can get these people together and really create an atmosphere of respect and the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, I thought it’d be a great witness to the world to show that the Gospel really does bridge differences.”
Backens witnessed this first-hand when he met Kevin Turpin ’01 (DIV) in a class at Regent. He was a New Yorker who had different political views and interests. But the two met for coffee and discovered they had similar family values, a commitment to worship, theological integrity and mercy ministry.
“One thing led to another and we found that we were a lot more alike than we were different,” said Backens.
That’s when the two began New Life together.
“That happened because of Regent, really,” said Backens.
Now, nearly two decades later, of his 20-some member pastoral team, Backens estimates that at least 15 graduated from Regent.
“I’m so proud of the School of Divinity,” said Backens, alluding to the Spring 2017 enrollment numbers that boasted the school’s largest number of students yet. Backens says that in spite of the 1,000th enrolled DIV student, he’s looking forward to the day DIV enrolls its 10,000th student.
“…Because it’s a wonderful institution,” he said. “They’ve been able to maintain a high standard of scholarship and maintain the practical aspects of leadership, and they have outstanding professors. I was blessed when I was there.”
To the new class of DIV graduates, his advice is simple:
“I want them to know that God is faithful, and that this is a degree that can be used in a lot of different ways,” said Backens. “They have a degree that will stack up against any degree from any Ivy League seminary, and it’s a degree that’s trained them well. If they trust their degree, I believe that every one of them will find the position that fulfills the desires of their heart.”