Sometimes we end up in the most random of places, wondering and worrying through the disarray or hopelessness in our lives. Then, God uses someone to show us He never leaves or forsakes His children. Mike Larsen’s life is a picture of God’s beautiful timing, and the left turns he has taken to be where he is today.
trading one chaos for another
Mike Larsen grew up in Apple Valley, California. For years, his mother raised him and his three brothers on her own. In 1976, she married a man addicted to several substances. The man was abusive to the family and made life chaotic for them all. Mike despised everything about his stepdad. Finally, in 1980, his mom had the courage to leave the man after he was convicted of attempted murder.
During his senior year of high school, Mike ended up getting his girlfriend pregnant. With the baby on the way, Mike went to work for a moving company right after graduation. It was at this job where Mike was exposed to methamphetamines—a substance that would take control of every aspect of his life. Mike began to give up every meaningful relationship for the drug. He quit his job and started using and selling drugs full-time. This led to a life of crime. “I had become the man that I despised in my youth,” recalls Mike.
in over his head
This life of crime culminated in Mike masterminding the burglary of a doctor’s house to fund his drug habit. Mike was apprehended by the police and found himself in the first offender’s section of the county jail with nearly 40 other men. Frustrated and coming down off of drugs, he grew impatient. Mike found out from some inmates that there were two pathways for an exit from their cell: to be released from jail or get sent to solitary confinement due to disciplinary issues. He chose the quickest option and picked a fight with the first person he could find.
“I had become the man I despised in my youth.”
While in solitary confinement, one of the prison guards handed Mike a book called God’s Prison Gang that included a true story about a man named Jack Murphy. He was a notorious jewel thief who stole a 260-carat sapphire out of the natural history museum in New York––Murphy initially got away with the crime until he bragged about it to his buddies. Three days later, the authorities arrested Murphy, and he was sentenced to prison. As the story unfolds, it was in prison where Jack Murphy came to faith in Jesus.
Jack Murphy’s conversion wasn’t what resonated with Mike. What resonated with him was the fact that a professional jewel thief got caught and sentenced for his crimes. Mike thought to himself, “If a professional thief can get caught, then an amateur has no business doing this either.” Mike decided enough was enough. At that moment, he gave up his life of crime.
ministry in a tattoo shop
A few years after being released from prison, Mike made another life-altering decision—he decided to get a tattoo. He visited a tattoo shop and asked the owner about the price of a particular tattoo. The owner, Kelly, looked at the piece and said, “It’s kind of big, I don’t know, I’ll charge you $100 an hour, and we’ll just keep track of the time.” Mike thought that was fair, so he agreed.
Mike returned to the shop the next Saturday morning to begin with the tattoo work. Customers began to trickle into the shop. They would point to a pattern on the wall, and Kelly would address them in a similar way with a different price. He would say, “Yeah, that’s a pretty big tattoo. How about $50 an hour, and we’ll just keep track of the time?” Mike wondered why he was paying double. He assumed maybe the people were good friends of the owner’s, so he let it go. Eventually, he asked, “Who are these people? Are these all your friends?” Mike found out the clients were from the local church Kelly attended. Kelly took the opportunity to invite Mike to come and visit. Mike was intrigued for the sole purpose of getting his tattoos at a discounted cost. Mike went to church for the first time the following Sunday—on Easter.
Kelly invited Mike and his wife, Sheila, back to church and to their Bible study. That led to Kelly asking Mike to be part of their motorcycle ministry. Kelly used this ministry for discipleship and outreach opportunities. Mike thought, “Man, this is getting better by the moment. Good deals on tattoos, motorcycles, how fun can this be?” Kelly assigned an “older brother” to Mike who told him he needed to get a biker vest, a notepad, a pen, and a pocket Bible. Mike was to have those items in his biker vest at all times while doing ministry with them.
Every Sunday morning, an older brother would ask a younger brother to pull out their pocket Bible and recite Scripture. They would make some announcements, and then they would go into the church service. Mike could not find his pocket Bible. Week after week, Mike hoped he would never be called upon to read Scripture because he did not want to be humiliated in front of the men. The fear of being humiliated kept his head down as he tried to never make eye contact with his older brother at that time. Mike was never called upon to read.
One Sunday morning, Mike came to church frustrated and afraid this would be the week his older brother was going to ask him to read. This did not happen, yet Mike still felt frustrated. After church, he made a beeline to the car to avoid interaction with anybody. Mike cried out to God and said, “If You are real, man up and give me this Bible. No tattoo is worth this frustration.” Still frustrated, he drove his family to a local pizza restaurant where Sheila had promised the kids they would go
a left turn in the right direction
While the family pulled into the restaurant parking lot, God answered Mike’s plea in a way he never saw coming. A car pulled into the parking spot next to the family. The driver couldn’t get out of his vehicle because Mike’s car doors were open. “I recall his window being down, so I told him I was going to get out of his way as soon as I got my son out of the car seat,” Mike remembers. The man replied, “It’s Sunday; I’m in no hurry.” Mike paid little attention to his response. Then, Mike got a tap on the shoulder and turned to face the man who was in the vehicle. The man was a Gideon. He handed Mike a Testament and said, “The Father told me to give this to you.”
Mike was shocked. “I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried, but I just started weeping. I knew God had answered my prayer.” Mike hugged the man as he thanked him for the Testament. The man got in his car and left. Mike could not shake what just had occurred as he thought, “That man took a left turn into the pizza parlor when he had no earthly business doing so.” As Mike started to contemplate what had happened, he knew the man was on a mission for God.
“The Father told me to give this to you.”
This faithful encounter with a Gideon forever changed the course of Mike’s life. He had this amazing experience where God answered his prayer, and he had this Testament in hand. About three years later, Mike surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. Three years after that, Mike’s entire family had the same conviction, and, as a result, the family was baptized as a public profession of their newfound identity. Mike says, “It was then that I recalled the Gideon who gave me that Testament. I will never forget him. I knew that he had heard from the Lord and taken a left turn into the parking lot when he had no business being there.” Mike dared to pray a second prayer. His prayer was, “God, I want to make left turns into places where it makes no earthly sense.”
Since then, Mike’s life is a testimony to a series of left turns where God has guided him. First, God called him to go seminary to study for pastoral ministry. He became a commissioned pastor in 2009, and entered full-time ministry in 2012.
Making an impact for Jesus
Today, God continues to grow, stretch, and use Mike and his family for the Kingdom. Mike and Shelia live in Bellflower, California, where Mike serves as lead pastor of Encounter Christian Church—a body of believers celebrating its 84th year. Under Mike’s leadership, the congregation has gone through a revitalization process, coming out of decline and into reaching the community with the Gospel. Bellflower is a unique place with a church on every corner but most are empty—they are property rich and missional poor.
Mike explains the community and church growth in this way:
“The community used to be thriving, built up around Dutch dairy farms. The growth strategy was basically to have more babies and, for a season, it worked. The Gospel was being preached, and people were coming to faith. There was a struggle for some members to reach out to the community because they felt as if the reach was already occurring. As the dairy farms began to move out and new neighbors started moving in, the mission and strategies never changed. However, the congregation began to get older, and they noticed the decline was soon to follow. I believe God gave me the vision to love our neighbors. The people among us look a lot different than they did in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. So how do we reach our neighbors who are culturally diverse? That’s what we’ve been doing thus far. God has been faithful to bless us, and we have seen over 50 baptisms in the last four years.”
Mike is eternally grateful for each left-hand turn God has placed him on since he accepted Christ as Savior. Words will never be able to describe the day that Gideon placed a Testament in his hand. “I think about that man who gave me the Testament a lot. I know one day I’m going to see him in Heaven, and I’m so grateful for his obedience,” says Mike.
Through the Holy Spirit, Mike is making an impact in Bellflower, California, and his prayer is that he will make an impact across the world for Jesus. “I’m just a small-town pastor now, which is awesome, but it never would’ve happened if God hadn’t used that Gideon.”