Family man seeks more than American dream

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Joey Lankford's life was almost too perfect.

He and his wife Courtney had a successful business near Nashville, Tenn., a big house, cars, money, two vacation homes, everything you could imagine.

"Life was good. I was making a great salary running the family business; we bought a farm on the south side of town and built a 5,000-square-foot dream house; we were living the epitome of the American dream."

Every few months, Lankford bought "a new toy" -- 4-wheelers, horses, hunting gear, motorcycles, boats. If he saw something he wanted, he bought it. "I was accumulating stuff," he said.

"At the time, I was content with our lifestyle," Lankford said. But if you asked him where God ranked in his life, he'd say somewhere at the bottom of the list.

"I'd compartmentalized my life into work, family, friends, church and faith," Lankford said. "The cogs weren't even touching each other."

In 2008, Lankford turned 30. He took a good long look at his life -- and his bank account. Materially, nothing was lacking. But deep down he knew something was missing.

"I remember asking myself, why do I feel like there's supposed to be more to life than this?"

That same year Lankford's brother invited him to go on a mission trip to Nicaragua with his church. He said yes.

"That trip was a squirt of fuel on a fire that was already burning inside of me," Lankford said. "I knew something was extremely wrong with the way I was living my life. I had problems with my wife, problems with my kids, and I felt like faith had zero teeth in what I did daily."

But Lankford suppressed his feelings and went back to his normal life. He made it through the holidays that year, but in January 2009, those feelings came bubbling back up. "I had everything culture said was important, and I was absolutely miserable."

It was then that Joey had what he calls his "barn moment." One Friday after work, he told Courtney he was heading down to their barn. It wasn't unusual for him to spend a day down there working. But this time was different. He took his Bible and his journal with him. He settled in on the hay and began to pray and pour out his heart to God. He stayed in the barn for two more days.

"By Saturday afternoon, it was cold and I was broken," Lankford said. "I was pleading with God to come to me in that place if He was real."

God showed up, Lankford recalled. "God began to reveal to me that He could be the 'more' of my life if I would get down off the throne of my life and put Him there," he said.

"I went back to the house, grabbed Courtney, looked her in the eyes and told her things were going to be different, that I had surrendered my life to the Lord."

Together they began to pray and seek God for what was next in their lives.

"We wanted to live our lives in such a way that people asked what was different," Lankford said. "We started to live a surrendered life. Not that we've arrived by any means. Every day is a struggle to live surrendered to God."

But in that surrender, Joey and Courtney began to see God's provision. He placed a desire in them to serve on the international mission field. With no college degree, much less a seminary degree, this camo-wearing, Tennessee boy couldn't imagine how God would use him on the mission field.

Through his church, Brentwood Baptist, in Brentwood, Tenn., Lankford learned of Living Hope, a ministry in South Africa. The 14-year-old non-profit had begun a job creation and empowerment arm of the organization. That got Joey's attention.

"God said to me, 'I'm going to use you in the way I've wired you -- to do business and to love people. I'm going to allow you to develop relationships and connect with as many people as you can get in front of. I'm going to give you something you're more passionate about....'"

God confirmed to the Lankfords that He was calling them to South Africa. They sold everything and moved the family to a town 30 minutes outside Cape Town. Joey is using his God-given gifts to equip people with job skills and lead them out of poverty through agricultural business.

Scores of people from rural areas have left their farmlands to come to the city seeking work and a better life, Lankford explained. Many never find the dream they're chasing. With the right vision and training, a number of these people can not only meet their family's daily needs through their farms, but they can develop them into successful businesses.

Lankford is teaching his students to grow quality produce equivalent to what people buy at an American Whole Foods. He's also teaching them to market and sell their product. The program has captured the attention of local restaurant owners as well as South Africa's elite.

Lankford has watched several of his graduates go on to start their own businesses and others find employment at other cooperative farms.

"I haven't done anything for the South African people that God couldn't have done with someone else," Lankford said. "God moved me to South Africa, because He wanted me to know Him more fully and deeply. He wanted the power of that to flow through me and spill out on other people. Because it is God's love that changes lives."

Lankford spends his days working alongside the students, digging in the dirt and discipling them. And he loves it.

Joey and Courtney say they love the life they've carved out with their five children near the southern-most tip of the continent. To tell others of their journey, Lankford wrote the "Fulfilled: The Refreshing Alternative to the Half-Empty Life," published this summer by B&H Publishing Group.

The book is not about international missions, he said, but rather about surrendering everything to God.

"I want people to know true fulfillment is waiting on the other side of surrender," he says. "I hope people will come away from reading this book inspired and encouraged to inquire more seriously of God about what He wants of their lives so they can step into that fulfillment."


Carol Pipes is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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