Teaching Truth, Reaching Youth
- May 29, 2014
Dann Spader ('75), alumnus and author of Walking as Jesus Walked (Moody Publishers), credits Moody Bible Institute for much of his biblical foundation as a believer and for launching him into ministry. But his strong relationship with Moody almost ended before it began.
Dann was a new Christian when he applied to Moody in 1971, but the admissions counselor informed him that Moody only accepted students who had been Christians for at least a year. Dann said that was the strangest thing he had ever heard, and the conversation ended.
Dann, who grew up in a Catholic family of 16 children in South Dakota, had trusted Christ in engineering school when one of his fraternity housemates gave him a gospel tract. He and his housemate began sharing the same tract with the whole fraternity and about 10 more guys were saved. After that school year Dann went on a missions trip to Ocean City, N.J., with Campus Crusade (now Cru). While there he began asking around about Bible colleges. One of the work teams found an old issue of Moody Monthly in the wall of a room they were demolishing. It listed various Bible schools, so they gave it to Dann. When he saw that Moody was tuition-paid, he figured it must be God's will for him to attend. Shortly thereafter he made the disappointing phone call.
Dann decided to wait for a full school year and continued to serve with Campus Crusade, then entered Moody in 1972. He knew so little of the Bible that he barely passed the biblical literacy test administered upon entrance. Yet Dann learned quickly. After a semester, he took a part-time youth pastor position at a Presbyterian church on Chicago's north side. At the same time he was studying the book of John under Stan Gundry, a class that "turned my view upside down," he says. Gundry explained that Jesus' disciples could have been teens themselves. What a model and picture of youth ministry! But the even greater significance was how this class set his heart toward learning and emulating the life of Christ, a pattern that has shaped his ministry in the decades since.
After he graduated from Moody in 1975, Dann became youth pastor at Chicago's Judson Baptist Church. In his four years there the ministry, called Sonlife, grew from a couple dozen students to nearly four hundred. The model of the ministry was "the life of Christ." Dann started training other local youth pastors and then was asked to bring Sonlife's ministry into Moody's practical Christian ministry program. "Without Moody and [former president] George Sweeting, Sonlife probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground," he says.
But with Moody, Sonlife kept growing and making a national impact with conferences and seminars. In 1990, with the blessing of Moody, Sonlife went independent, providing discipleship training to 20,000 youth leaders across the country.
Throughout the '90s, Sonlife impacted tens of thousands of youth and youth pastors through their training materials, SEMP (Sonlife Evangelistic Missions Project) conferences, and training seminars. At one point they were holding 75 seminars for leaders across North America as well as 8 to 10 youth conferences. They even sent staff to Europe and Latin America to oversee the ministry's expansion into dozens of countries including some that are closed to the gospel.
In 2005 Dann handed the leadership of Sonlife to younger leaders and became the president of Global Youth Initiative. Unfortunately the new leadership abandoned what had made Sonlife so dynamic and the ministry soon dwindled from more than 50,000 people being trained annually to just a few hundred. Thankfully, Sonlife has begun to be resurrected under Dann's leadership once again. His passion for seeing young people and churches connect to Jesus and make disciples is as strong as over.
Currently Dann serves with Global Youth Initiative, oversees the new Sonlife, and serves at Southeast Church in Louisville in a staff and leader training capacity. He and his wife, Char (a Moody alumna and the daughter of missionaries who were also Moody alums), have been married for 34 years. They have three daughters, all actively involved in ministry.