Honoring Regent’s Alumnus of the Year is an important part of the university’s annual commencement ceremony. This year’s recipient of the prestigious award was 1999 School of Divinity graduate Dr. Dan Backens. As senior pastor of New Life Church, Backens leads a 5,000-member, multiethnic congregation that meets at multiple sites in Hampton Roads, Virginia. He also serves as the senior director of One Focus, an international network of leaders, ministries and local churches.
A husband, father and grandfather, Backens writes and speaks on how to lead, build and equip churches to be houses of prayer for all nations. He holds a master’s degree in church history and renewal theology from Regent and a doctorate of worship studies from a different institution.
Backens began his acceptance speech with a bit of humor, telling graduates and guests: “I’m from a small town in South Dakota — 4,500 people. When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a pig farmer or a pastor. Now, I find out years later it’s basically the same profession.”
He started his first church shortly after earning his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. While pastoring, he served as an adjunct professor at a local college and eventually earned a master’s degree in math. At the same time, his church started growing: “It got to about 250 people, and in the state of South Dakota, that’s a megachurch.”
But in his mid-30s, Backens says he “hit a midlife crisis.” It was the 1970s, and he would watch a “grainy” Pat Robertson host The 700 Club on his little, black-and-white TV. “He announced he was starting a university called ‘CBN University.’ In one of my prayers, I said, ‘Lord, I’d like to go to the mecca of Christianity.’ It wasn’t until years later that I realized I kind of mixed up my metaphors there, just a little bit.”
Backens said he tried for years to attend the university but “couldn’t make it work financially.” At the lowest point of his ministry, the pig farmer-turned-pastor was ready to quit. But then, God began to move. “I got an advertisement from Regent University in the junk mail of our church,” Backens explained. “I opened it up, and I felt the Holy Spirit say, ‘This is your time.’”
So, in the mid-’90s, Backens and his wife Rhonda sold their house, took all of their savings and headed for Virginia. “God took that move to this university to change the trajectory of my life,” he remembered. “Our town of 4,500 didn’t have any black people, didn’t have any Hispanic people. And I come to Regent University, and I’m sitting in a class, and I meet Kevin Turpin (Divinity), an African-American from Long Island.”
“Regent rescued me … It allowed me to believe and dream and envision”
– Dr. Dan Backens
Turpin, Regent’s 2014 Alumnus of the Year, and Backens shared a vision to not make 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour of the week in America. “I said to Kevin, ‘What would it look like if we started a church together that was multiethnic?’ Then I met some super dynamic people here, Dr. Bobby Hill and Dr. Joseph Umidi, and so many people to encourage the vision. And lo and behold, we started a church.”
Today, New Life Church is staffed with Regent graduates and attended by many students. Turpin serves as senior associate pastor. Backens closed his speech to the Class of 2017 with these words of encouragement, “This really is a place where you can dream. Who knows? Maybe God has a dream for you that you could never imagine, and one day you’ll be standing here saying, ‘Let me tell you my story.’”
In an interview conducted minutes after receiving his Alumnus of the Year award, Backens told Impact that Regent’s key strength for him was the “world-class people” and “great instructors” the Lord put in his path. “Something magical happens when you get high-productive, godly, visionary people, and they’re in the same institution,” he said. “What I learned in the classroom was great. But the people I came in contact with, in my view, that’s probably the greatest thing Regent offered.”
“Regent rescued me,” Backens added. “It allowed me to believe and dream and envision. I remember seeing Regent from the outside, saying, ‘If I could just be there.’ Then God said, ‘You can go.’ It changed my life.”