Finding Recovery and Redemption
- October 13, 2022
“I packed up my stuff, and my parents dropped me off right outside of Culby. Actually, I’m not sure they even put the car in park. They just kept rolling and threw me out the door.”
Peter Dahlin ’97 laughs when he tells the story of his arrival at Culbertson Hall, the men’s dorm on the campus of Moody Bible Institute, in the fall of 1993. And while it wasn’t exactly like that, it might have been close.
Peter grew up in the church. His father was a pastor, and his parents were acquainted with Moody through the Pastors’ Conference and Founder’s Week. Though Peter remembers saying some kind of salvation prayer as a very young child, he doesn’t believe it led to any kind of relationship with Christ.
From the age of 16 to 21, Peter says, “I went off the rails. Let’s just say I engaged in the indiscretions of the world.” In spring 1993, he applied to Moody Bible Institute at the strong insistence of his parents. He didn’t really believe, he didn’t really want to go, and he didn’t really tell the truth on his application.
“Ironically—or serendipitously—I got a phone call one evening,” Peter says. “It was Moody calling and saying, ‘Hey, you’re on our waiting list, and classes start tomorrow. Do you still want to come?’ I asked for a couple of hours to think about it and figure it out. And at 11 o'clock at night, I went out into my front driveway in Rockford, Illinois. My life was, you know, just a wreck. And I said, ‘Alright, Jesus, what’s going on here?’ And the Lord met me, and I would tell you that that was the night I got saved. I gave my life to the Lord and asked for forgiveness.”
Peter’s arrival on campus wasn’t quite the “drive-by” scenario that he jokes about, but he did struggle to find his path. He remembers himself as a “drug kind of guy surrounded by future pastors and missionaries.”
“I started in Bible Theology because I had no idea what to do. But my freshman year at Missions Conference, Tony Evans spoke, and again the Lord was just impacting me. I switched to International Ministries. I wanted to see the church grow and to help build the church. I didn’t know what to appreciate at the time, but it just sounded right.”
For his Practical Christian Ministry assignment, Peter worked with a children’s ministry team in Chicago-area churches to present the gospel to kids. During the team’s first practice, he met his future wife, Rhonda (Stricker) ’97. They married during Christmas break in 1994.
Disturbing teen trends
Peter Dahlin with his wife, Rhonda (Stricker) ’97.
After graduating in the spring of 1997, Peter and Rhonda moved to Nebraska, where Peter served as a youth pastor. Over the next 26 years, he served in three churches, working with high schoolers and overseeing amazing growth in his youth groups. While most youth pastors would be ecstatic to see a youth group grow to 600 teens, Peter’s focus wasn’t on numbers. He began to notice disturbing needs and patterns during his one-on-one sessions with teens. One session in particular changed Peter’s pathway again.
“I was seeing every kind of abuse, neglect, bullying—everything. I was in my office one day, and one of the students came and knocked on my door and said, ‘Hey, Pete, we need to talk.’ And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think I’m a vampire, and I’m drinking my girlfriend’s blood.’”
“I’m sure I quoted him something out of the Bible and then prayed for him. I don’t even remember what I said. But I remember, as that student left, thinking, ‘What do you do with THAT?’ I felt incomplete in my abilities to walk with these students. I didn’t know how to organize or create a plan for them, a roadmap to get from here to there.”
That night he started exploring Liberty University’s online counseling program. Keeping his role at the church, he eventually completed an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.
A new door opens
In March 2020, as COVID was closing the world, God was opening another door for Peter and Rhonda. Along with their son, Pierson, and daughter, Sydney, they moved to Fort Myers, Florida, where Peter began serving at Riverside Church. He was drawn to what he describes as the church’s commitment “to make itself available to areas of recovery and redemption so that things that were lost can be recovered and restored.”
The church opens its building free of charge to community support groups like Al Anon, AA, and Gamblers Anonymous to build relationships with people who need Christ and otherwise wouldn’t set foot inside of a church. “Riverside itself is intentional about how it walks with people in grief, addiction, mental illness, and all kinds of needs,” Peter says.
Peter’s position as Groups and Redemptive Community Pastor allows him to counsel teens and adults and to work with married couples individually or together. “I don’t force my beliefs on anyone I work with,” he says, “however I let them know in full disclosure and informed consent that I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, all truth is God’s truth, and that I will be guided by the words and principles of the Bible.”
Over the years, he’s observed that sometimes, rather than encouraging people to seek professional help, the church can be a place that makes people feel they shouldn’t need professional help.
“Our (church) culture has attached shame to it. We’ve contributed to the issue of making people feel like they need to be perfect and have it all together. So we will tell ourselves all sorts of things to not go (to counseling). ‘Oh, my faith will get me there,’ or ‘It’s not that bad,’ or whatever, because to face it is shame-inducing in our minds.”
Peter says that people also avoid counseling because they fear the unknown. “Most people, in my experience, know that things are wrong, broken, and it’s going to require change. But they don’t know what that is. And it’s intimidating and scary. You’re going to have to face some truth if you want to go anywhere.”
Peter speaking at Riverside Church, where he is a pastor.
Freedom and Forgiveness
Branden started going to Peter for counseling about a year ago. “I was going through a rough period. I was dealing with a lot of stress at work, some stress at home, a lot of anger issues,” Branden recalls. “I was not in a good place.”
For Branden, seeing a counselor who is a fellow believer meant he could talk freely about his faith without fear of judgment. And that freedom also allowed him to face his issues with honesty.
Peter prays with a church elder during a Riverside Church meeting.
As Peter shared truths from Scripture in their sessions, Branden asked for practical ways to apply those truths, especially when it came to experiencing joy. Peter gave small homework assignments, such as writing down every good thing that happens, instead of focusing on the hard things.
Branden explains, “If I had a great conversation with this person or I went outside thinking it was going to be raining on me and then it wasn’t—‘Praise God’ kind of things—to really take time and see the good everywhere.”
Branden adds that Peter’s Christlike compassion made an immediate difference in their sessions. “He wasn’t just a person listening to me but—and this circles back around to being a Christian—
I knew that he genuinely cared.”
For Peter, that sense of investment in his clients makes all the difference. “My experience has been that if there’s a good relationship between the counselor and the person coming in for help, if that’s healthy and good—it’s amazing,” he says. “The freedom, the healing, the discovery, the forgiveness—all those pieces come out through counseling.
“I believe that God has provided these resources for us. Faith matters, and we know that Jesus is the One who’s going to do the healing and the redeeming and the rescuing, but He works through all sorts of agents to accomplish that.”
It started at Moody
When Peter looks back on his years at Moody, he says, “Moody prepared me to start.” He thinks of his days at a church in Huntsville, Alabama. “We launched our first campus, and they sent me to be our first church planter. The things I learned at Moody carried on and came into play there.
“Moody has stayed an integral part of my life. I’ve seen many students out of my youth programs go to Moody. We have students all over the world—in China, in Panama. Everywhere that our missionaries are serving the Lord in full-time ministry, I was able to help because of some of the things that Moody put into me.
“Moody didn’t answer every question or solve every problem that I’ve faced in the years of ministry. But they did prepare me to start so that when I got on the job, I knew where to begin. I knew where to look. I knew how to have relationships or conversations. So Moody was amazing for me in that regard. I felt like coming out of there, I had everything I needed to begin and to keep growing. I'm very thankful for my time at Moody Bible Institute.”