From Pagan to Pastor

Today, Mark Buchanan is a theology teacher and one of Canada’s best-known Christian authors. But nobody in their right mind—including Mark himself—would have made that prediction 50 years ago.

“I was raised in a pagan family,” the 62-year-old author of “Your God Is Too Safe” said matter-of-factly in the kitchen of his southern Alberta home. “My dad [a recovering alcoholic] was,
depending on the day, an atheist or an agnostic. He was what I call a ‘dry drunk.’”

Subscribe to Decision

Get your own subscription, or renewal, or bless someone by giving Decision Magazine as a gift.

Meanwhile, Mark’s mother “had this spiritual hunger that manifested in her chasing gurus and swamis. It was odd to me, and I was not attracted to it.”

In this environment, it’s no surprise that Mark grew up echoing his father’s beliefs. But God had plans for him, plans that started to take shape when he was 16 and a group of Christian women—including the mother of his best friend—visited him and his mom.

Concerned about Mark’s secular influence, they ended up engaging his mother in spiritual conversations. She was interested enough that they returned three times for further discussions. On the final visit, she gave her life to Christ.

“I chalked it up to just another guru she was following,” Mark remembered. “But this seemed different from the other guys.” In fact, it was so different that before long, Mark’s brother repented of his sins and trusted his future to the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” ( John 14:6, ESV). It left Mark gobsmacked: “I didn’t get it any more than I understood my mom’s world.”

Mark eventually moved out of the family home in B.C.’s Lower Mainland and moved in with a woman. Undeterred, his brother bought them Bibles. What a waste, Mark thought at the time. You could have brought me beer.

But as the relationship with his girlfriend soured, Mark decided to crack open his Bible. His mother, filled with hope, recommended he start with the Gospels.

“It was my first encounter with the story of Jesus,” he recalled. “I started reading and literally trembled. It was terrifying and captivating. I knew I had to follow this Guy or reject Him totally.”

With this dramatic new influence in his life, Mark stopped swearing and sleeping with his girlfriend. However, knowing the truth about Jesus and actually becoming a disciple were two
very different things. “I believed what the Bible said and knew I would get there, but just not today,” was how Mark saw it at the time.

“I started reading and literally trembled. It was terrifying and captivating. … I believed what the Bible said and knew I would get there, but just not today,” was how Mark saw it at the time.

When he met Cheryl, the woman who would eventually become his wife, “I told her I was pretty sure I was going to become a Christian and she should be prepared.”

They started attending church and, as the Holy Spirit showed her the truth about Jesus and about herself, Cheryl decided she wanted to commit her life to Christ. But Mark—knowing the heart, mind, and lifestyle change required of Jesus followers—hesitated. So Cheryl waited.

Finally, three months later, his pastor preached about the lukewarm believers in the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-20). Mark recognized himself as one of those people. So that day, he and Cheryl got on their knees and asked Christ into their hearts.

“Mom was over-the-moon thrilled,” Mark reported with a smile. Mark’s brother and his wife, who attended the same church, helped them connect with a small group.

His father was not impressed, feeling as contemptuous about Mark’s decision as he had when his other son became a Christian. They had many heated discussions over the next few years, especially when Mark, at age 29, became a pastor at a church in Vernon.

But in the years that followed, some mellowing happened. By the time Mark’s father died of a heart attack in 1996, “there was a new tenderness in him; he started watching Billy Graham TV specials and crying.”

Mark doesn’t know if his father accepted Christ before the end. But in the midst of their final interactions, a new chapter was beginning in Mark’s life: a passion for putting pen to paper.

“I was finding something was deeply alive when I wrote,” he explained. “I was inventing worlds and people, and they seemed real. So if I wasn’t reading the Bible, I was writing.”

The University of British Columbia accepted him into its creative writing program. By the time he graduated in 1983 (and married Cheryl three days later), the university had “turned me into a writer.”

Mark started writing for journals and small magazines. In his late 30s, he won a Christianity Today writing contest. The magazine’s editors started asking for more articles, then he connected with Ann Spangler, a literary agent.

Ann offered his manuscript for “Your God Is Too Safe” to the publishing industry and in two weeks he received six offers. The book was published in 2001, sold about 150,000 copies “and totally put me on the map (in the Christian book world),” Mark said gratefully.

Just before that happened, Mark and Cheryl went through a crisis in their marriage. “It was a slow erosion of intimacy,” he explained. “It got to a crisis point and we had to choose our future.”

Mark wrestled with that future through many solitary walks, “and I felt the Lord ministering through His Word.”

Finally, “I found the courage, grace, forgiveness, and humility to be forgiven. It was an extraordinary turning point for us—a moment where faith is proven real or false.” Their marriage survived and thrived.

Since the success of “Your God Is Too Safe,” Mark has written many more bestsellers and is now working on a series of fiction novels. He also made a major career change, resigning as church pastor on Vancouver Island to become associate professor of pastoral theology at Ambrose University in Calgary.

When considering the direction and success of his life, Mark confessed that “it would all feel like ashes if I didn’t have Christ in it. I wouldn’t trade my worst day of being a Christ follower with my best day as a pagan.”