He’s had a wide range of interesting and instructive experiences, from playing trumpet in the same band as former President Bill Clinton (Arkansas All-State) to getting bitten on the lip by a rat in a four-dollar hotel while on a mission trip in Africa. But seasoned evangelist and pastor Mark T. Coppenger says he learned some of his most valuable ministry lessons from his time in the Army.
“One of the things you learn in the military is how to die,” said Coppenger, who served in the Army reserves for 28 years, beginning during the Vietnam War. “In the military, you’re learning how to put yourself in harm’s way, and you’re also learning not to insist on comfort. You’re sleeping on the ground in the rain and people are yelling at you and you’ll need to be ready to go in a moment’s notice to go to dangerous place. That’s right from the book of Acts. When Paul was asked to help in Macedonia, he didn’t say, ‘Well do you have a dental plan?’”
Across five decades, Coppenger held a variety of church and denominational staff positions. But, of course, first he needed to be saved. On a drive to Detroit with his family, Coppenger recalls thinking, “If we were to get hit by a truck, we would all go to heaven on the ‘family plan.’” Through a series of convicting sermons in his parents’ church, Coppenger began to understand the true nature of personal belief. One Sunday, his mother explained the gospel to him, a message Coppenger recalls being “nuclear” in his 7-year-old heart, not only for the shock of spiritual recognition, but also for the earnestness with which his mother presented it. Later that day, when his father returned from supply preaching and further explained the gospel, Coppenger accepted Jesus as his Savior, experiencing what he called “glorious relief.”
After joining the military and graduating from college, Coppenger began his Ph.D. studies in philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, before he was called into training as an infantry officer at Fort Benning. Expecting to be sent to Vietnam, when Coppenger arrived at Fort Benning, they offered him a longer stay in the reserves instead. Coppenger took it knowing that a longer stay in the reserves would allow him to continue his studies at Vanderbilt.
“When sleeping on the ground in the rain got old, I would go back to Vanderbilt and talk about Kant and Kierkegaard,” he said.
After finishing his Ph.D., teaching a year at Vanderbilt, and then serving five years on the faculty at Wheaton College, Coppenger said he felt called to the pastorate.
“Sometimes you’ll have a student who says, ‘I want to go get a doctorate and teach; then if that doesn’t work out I’ll preach,’ as if it was a fallback. I’m just the opposite; I was a teacher at Vanderbilt for seven years and then I felt called to go to the pastorate. I didn’t see that as things not working out.”
Coppenger and his wife sold their home and moved to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Coppenger, despite having been educated at Vanderbilt, never had studied theology at an academic level and describes the experience as “drinking out of a firehose.” After graduating and serving in denominational leadership, Coppenger was elected in 1995 as Midwestern Seminary’s third president. It was after his presidency that Coppenger became an adjunct in 2002 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and he later became a full professor of Christian apologetics.
Throughout his extensive career Coppenger has gained many interesting stories. Francis Schaeffer attended Coppenger’s Wheaton bioethics class while he was on campus delivering lectures. Coppenger describes Schaeffer coming to Wheaton as “a holy man interacting with Kant and Kierkegaard.” Coppenger also recalls a letter Bill Clinton wrote him from Oxford, a letter he later sold for $850.
“A lot of what I do is cultural apologetics,” said Coppenger, “For instance I was in Russia and was asked to speak in community centers and people would ask me about the problem of evil and I might point to a statue of Tolstoy and say something like , ’You have great writers here but let me tell you about the author of the universe,’ and you can spin things that way.”
While pastoring and teaching, Coppenger has been able to dedicate his time to the mission field. Coppenger has led numerous teams from his churches, Midwestern, and Southern overseas. As a missionary, he has gone to Romania, Brazil, China, Russia, Egypt, Sudan, Belgium, as well as on domestic trips to cities like Detroit, Michigan. Coppenger said his love for world missions started when his grandfather sent him and his family on a trip around the world in 1996. Growing up, Coppenger would also travel with his father in the Navy Reserve, where they would visit churches and missionaries in pioneer areas and learn about their work.
Despite his love for work abroad, Coppenger says that he especially enjoys door-to-door evangelism in America. In 1989 Coppenger and his wife went to Las Vegas with the Southern Baptist Convention. While in Las Vegas volunteers from the Southern Baptist Convention knocked on over 120,000 doors and witnessed 2,000 confessions of faith.
With a background in both philosophy and theology, Coppenger has found his niche in missional apologetics. He views apologetics as a Swiss Army knife with many different tools in it. “That’s not fancy apologetics; that’s just pure gospel evangelism, for which you tailor your message, as Paul did on Mars Hill.”