Rich black dirt. Rolling fields of wheat, corn and soybeans. Wide open sky. The fertile landscape of Fayette County in south-central Ohio has been Michael Conn’s home his whole life.
“Our family is very much linked to the land,” Michael says. “We are farmers, and our farm has been family-owned since my great grandfather bought the first plot in southwest/central Ohio back in the 1930s.”
“As farmers, you don’t really move a lot,” he says with a laugh. “So I’ve grown up in the same house all my life. And that meant that the Lord allowed us to stay at the same church as well, for the entire time. I think that’s led to great benefits.”
“People would say that moving around is also great. But from one who’s been rooted in one area and in one people group, it’s been a huge blessing.”
Michael prayed to be saved when he was seven years old. But though he was a “good kid” at school, Michael knew he wasn’t really growing spiritually.
When he was fourteen, Michael remembers, “the Lord brought an evangelist to my church for a week of evangelistic meetings. He really dug into Galatians, and it convicted my heart—that this is what I claim to be, but I am bearing the opposite fruit of what a believer is supposed to have.”
“I could live like I was, and everyone would still think I was a good kid, but I would be a hypocrite,” he realized. “Or I could just say, ‘So much for this,’ and walk away from it all. Or, by God’s grace, I could live what I believed to be true.”
That week, Michael committed to actively pursuing a close walk with the Lord.
Boots on the Ground
When it came time for college, Michael knew he was going to Bob Jones University. He had no idea what to major in—so he chose Bible. “I figured it wouldn’t hurt to study God’s Word while I tried figuring out my career path,” he says.
“My freshman year was a shock to my system. I quickly found out that the Bible major wasn’t just about studying God’s Word, but about preparing yourself for ministry, whether as a pastor, teacher or missionary. To be honest, I felt overwhelmed!”
But Michael decided to stay in the program—at least for now. And that summer he completed his first ministry practicum.
“I couldn’t give you a time and place, but the cumulative effect of a summer filled with ministry work and church and a Christian camp solidified God’s call for me to follow Him in ministry. It was exactly what I needed. It put my boots on the ground in the church.”
“From that point on, it was just high-speed pursuing of this call,” he says.
Close Friends and Ministry Partners
Excited about the work that God was doing in his heart, Michael became burdened for his ministry classmates as well as for the BJU student body as a whole.
During his junior year in particular, he and three of his closest friends—Aaron Berry, Ben Hicks, and Caleb Phelps—met together regularly to pray for the ministry class and for the student body.
“Caleb was going to be the ministry class president, I was head usher, Ben was going to be student body chaplain, and Aaron was going to be student body president,” Michael says.
“These awesome opportunities—we began to ask ourselves, ‘How can we knit our roles together? What can we do for the ministry class, for the student body, and even outside of BJU for our generation?’”
A Great Idea
One day toward the end of that year, Michael was in his dorm room with several high school visitors when an idea came to him.
“What would you think of a teen rally similar to Farm Fest, but with more of a discipleship focus instead of an evangelistic focus?” he asked them.
“That’s a great idea!” they replied. “And yeah, we would be interested in going to something like that.”
With that encouragement, Michael shared the idea with Ben, Caleb and Aaron. “The idea quickly developed into a concept,” he remembers, “and next thing we know we were meeting with faculty and administration about the event details.”
They decided on a location right away: Michael’s family farm in Ohio. “From the get-go, the farm was the intended location,” he says.
“Christ uses the pictures of the farmer and the seed and planting throughout the New Testament—and those were things I’d grown up with. I think the atmosphere of having it at the farm kind of tied in the theme, the name, the understanding of growth.”
And that summer, they decided on the name: Rooted and Grounded, taken from Ephesians 3:17–19. “We felt it captured the essentials of becoming a man of God,” Michael explains.
“Our focus was taking this to those who are coming after us, the next generation of leaders of the church, and helping them with the things that I know I didn’t know when I was their age.”
Beyond the discipleship emphasis, Michael had a vision for encouraging young men to consider the call to ministry. “It’s not ‘You need to get your heart right and become a pastor,’” he says, “but amplifying the call to the ministry, as I call it.”
Inaugural and Future Events
On September 22, 2012, Michael’s vision came to fruition. More than one hundred high school guys and their sponsors crowded into the Conns’ open-sided barn for a day packed with food and fellowship, singing, preaching, and activities.
“We had spud gun launching; we had a backhoe where you could try to tip a tennis ball off of a parking cone,” Michael says. “We had a car smash; we had our antique tractor collection out on display; we had a basketball tournament in one of our curved buildings.”
But one of the most exciting things about the day was that several ministry class members got to lead sessions. “It was an awesome opportunity for them to serve and gain ministry experience,” he says, “and also for the high schoolers to be instructed from God’s Word by guys just a few years older than them and who have just gone through that time of life.”
In addition to nearly twenty ministry class members, several Bible faculty attended as well. “This is a key part of R&G too—connecting the generations of the church,” Michael says. “It gave a great opportunity for high schoolers to meet these men in a casual setting as well as to hear many of them preach and give personal testimonies.”
The day went by all too fast. And as the sun set, the farm emptied again. “Just like farming, only time will tell of the work God is doing in each life,” Michael says. “But many seeds were planted in young hearts.”
Since that first conference in 2012, Rooted and Grounded has become an annual event, still planned by BJU ministry class members. Michael stayed at BJU for two more years to attend seminary, so he was able to help with the next two Rooted and Grounded conferences, held at a church in North Carolina.
After graduating from seminary and marrying his wife Irene (also a BJU graduate), Michael moved back to his home state of Ohio. Not back to the fertile farmland of Fayette County, but to the city of Columbus, where he is excited to intern with a church and continue his growth in ministry.
Michael is also excited that on September 26, 2015, Rooted and Grounded will be returning to the Conn family farm. “I don’t think any place gives a better picture of growth than a farm,” he says. “I will always be amazed by the simple power of growth, even in the smallest organisms, the single blades of grass—God is doing a work even there.”
And Michael is confident that the same work God does in his creation, He does in His people.