Beyond Basic: How the Gospel Is Gaining Traction With Army Recruits

Many who join the Army are searching for purpose, and Army chaplains are there with answers.

Something is going on in the U.S. Army, and it has nothing to do with budgets or weapons systems. God is working in the hearts of some of the military’s newest recruits. We were able to connect with a few chaplains who confirmed that their message is gaining ground.

At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, located about two hours southwest of St. Louis, Chaplain Capt. Jose Rondon has reported that more than 2,200 service members have made a profession of faith since March. He writes on his Facebook page “I’m so blessed to see everything God is doing all around our base. So awesome to see my chaplain peers bringing glory to Jesus. I pray God will keep doing wonders!”

Chaplain Col. David Bowlus, who is the garrison chaplain for Ft. Leonard Wood, says that what is happening among the 86,000 service members is a team effort. “I’m just so proud of our chaplains for their faith and commitment to serve our soldiers.”

Chaplain Bowlus points out that their facility sees a lot of young people entering basic training. It’s a difficult life transition for the 18–20 year olds. Many are looking for something spiritual and the 26 chaplains he oversees are bringing a message of hope. “Our chaplains are deeply in-tune with the transition that our trainees are going through, so they are speaking directly to the challenges,” he says. “To many, it’s like water to the parched soul.”

This is not an isolated incident. Nine hundred miles away in the heart of South Carolina is Fort Jackson, another basic training facility. We had a round table discussion with four chaplains who agree that the numbers are going up. They are seeing an average of 90 baptisms every basic training cycle—a cycle is 800 to 1,000 people for 10 weeks, so about 10 percent are making decisions.

Chaplain Lt. Col. Rodie Lamb is the deputy garrison chaplain for Ft. Jackson. He believes that when a new soldier comes to them, change is one thing on their mind. “There are a lot of things that are happening in the culture and a lot of religious questioning: Where am I going? What is my purpose in life? When they come to basic training, they face some of these issues. The chaplains play a pivotal role in guiding them through their spiritual quest,” he says. “I see hundreds of soldiers making a commitment to follow Christ, and it’s really a blessing and an honor to see that happening on Ft. Jackson. Because our goal as chaplains is to bring God to soldiers and soldiers to God.”

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Chaplain Maj. Eric Bundrick is with 193rd Infantry Brigade, one of those basic training units. He tells us that people are coming into the Army today for a variety of reasons. “For the last several years I have seen, personally, people from all walks of life joining that maybe wouldn’t have joined that long ago,” he says. “I’ve seen multi-millionaires—an NFL football player join the United States Army.” He says that God is meeting them where they are. “I see God doing things for a multitude of different kinds of people; God dealing with people’s hearts and lives from all walks of life regardless of where they come from.”

Chaplain Capt. Chris Rice is the battalion chaplain for the 2–60 Infantry Battalion under Chaplain Bundrick in the 193rd Infantry Brigade. He tells us how the chaplains connect with the soldiers: “Every single chaplain at Ft. Jackson practices the ministry of presence, which means you’re going to find chaplains that are actively engaged at every single event where trainees are. So if trainees are at a gas chamber, you’re going to find chaplains. If they’re at victory tower going down the rappel wall, you’re going to find chaplains. If they’re out going to qualify with their weapons, you’ll find chaplains.” The recruits are able to speak with the chaplains and ask questions. It can be, for some, the first time they’ve ever spoken with a minister of any kind. “The presence of those chaplains with those trainees at those events is an incredible opportunity for trainees to engage with chaplains to get spiritual guidance or just overall life guidance.”

Chaplain Maj. Brandon Denning is Chaplain Bunderick’s counterpart with the 165th Infantry Brigade, another of Ft. Jackson’s basic training units. He says one thing that seems to help make the change is trainees giving up their cell phones during the initial phase of basic training. “We have a whole generation, in my personal opinion, that is totally distracted from really exploring the Lord and knowing themselves,” he says, adding that knowing God and knowing themselves are the two most important things that can happen for anyone. “The trainees are really exploring who they are, their relationship with God, and the best way to do that is to remove those distractions.”

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Of course, each chaplain also conducts worship services in one of the base’s many chapels. Each Sunday the recruits can choose from a variety of different worship experiences. The chapels also offer activities like Bible studies and fellowship events when the soldiers have time in their busy schedules. Chaplains also offer counseling. Chaplains will often counsel up to 25 soldiers a day. This includes grief and loss and even marriage counseling.

So how can civilians support what’s happening in the military ministry? You can contact local military chaplains, if you are close to an installation, about volunteer opportunities. Chaplains have to be denominationally endorsed, so contact your denomination about your specific chaplains. Most importantly, Chaplain Bowlus says, pray for our chaplains. “This is not a calling for the faint of heart. Our nation’s prayers sustain us. Keep them coming.”

To find out more about the specific roles of the U.S. Army chaplains, or find out about becoming a chaplain, go to GoArmy.com/chaplain.html

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Jeff Chaves is a freelance writer and pastor. He has been married to Peggy for more than 32 years, and they have four children. He is the pastor of Northpointe Community Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.