Would you choose God over instant fame and fortune? That’s what Burk Parsons1 did.
Almost twenty years ago, Burk found himself with the opportunity of a lifetime: to be a star with a boy band destined for greatness and riches—a band that would eventually become the Backstreet Boys. But he turned it down.
Burk Parsons’ parents divorced in his early teens. This major life event caused him to think long and hard about who God was and who God made him to be. Influenced by his parents’ divorce, Burk came to know Christ and feel the tug of Gospel ministry. Buck said of his parents’ divorce, “God used my parents’ divorce to drive me to depend on Him alone.”
Burk’s grandfather was a big band leader in the 40s and his mother spent time in the entertainment industry as well. Burk’s father dreamed of his son attending law school and impacting the world as a lawyer or a politician. His mother dreamed of his future stardom in the entertainment world. As his story continues, you will see that God had other plans.
Discerning the Backstreet Boys and the Call
One event that shaped Burk’s life was the loss of his father to cancer. Despite major pains in his life, Burk’s father eventually came back to the faith that he rejected as a child and earlier as an adult. God would use his influence to bring Burk to Himself and to deepen Burk’s passion for Christ. This growing passion in Burk drove him to tell his father of his desire to serve in pastoral ministry.
Burk grew in Christ during his teen years, but the enemy was at work to distract Burk from the Lord’s call. The pleasures of high school and dabbling in small roles in the entertainment industry distracted him from fulfilling his calling to ministry.
After being connected to Lou Perlman, the man in the music business behind the Backstreet Boys, through his agent, Parsons auditioned and was accepted to be in a new boy band promised to be “the next Beatles.”
This seemed to be the perfect thing at the perfect time for young Burk, who could use his earnings to help his struggling family and provide for his anemic sister’s major medical treatments she needed. On one level, everything made complete sense in his mind.
Feelings of unrest
The year was 1993, and for several months Burk worked together with a group of boys that would eventually become The Backstreet Boys. While he enjoyed the group at first, he was unsettled and wasn’t sure how this new opportunity meshed with his calling from the Lord.
Many Christians sought to encourage him to take the opportunity—”it is an open door from the Lord!” or “What an opportunity to serve the Lord!” And in a worldly sense, their reasons seemed right and well intentioned. Burk believed them—for a while.
Burk personally had reservations about the group. He was not fond of either pop music or dancing, and his mother felt an uneasiness. A word of caution from the principal of his Christian school ultimately might have made Burk come to the breaking point of leaving the band, “You can’t serve God and the world at the same time.”
Those words echoed in Burk’s head and he began to wrestle with the following questions:
How could I honestly serve our Lord by singing lust-filled music and shaking my body for young, impressionable teenage girls (like my younger sisters)? …through what venue would I actually get the opportunity to speak about the faith and my conversion to Christ when even our life stories were being rewritten and even copyrighted? …how could I remain faithful to what I told my late father about my call to pastoral ministry if I pursue a life in show business, a life that he would not have endorsed?
A few weeks away from signing a contract to make his membership of the Backstreet Boys official, Burk decided that he couldn’t move forward. This, not surprisingly, did not go over well with Lou Perlman, the group’s organizer.
But that was that.
Burk made the tough decision and moved on whether Lou liked it or not. No more dreams of becoming rich and famous with the Backstreet Boys.
One Last Chance…The ‘N Sync Temptation
Fast forward two years to 1995. God grew and used Burk in exciting ways since he cut ties with the Backstreet Boys. It certainly seemed like the decision Burk made two years earlier was the right one.
Then one day Burk received a call from Lou with another amazing opportunity:
“Burk, I’m going to give you another chance. I’m starting a new group, and it will be better and more successful than the Backstreet Boys. We now know exactly what to do and how to create a band that will rise to instant popularity…I want you to be the first member of this group…Within a couple of years, you’ll be a multi-millionaire.”
This call came as a surprise to Burk, and brought back old questions he struggled with earlier: how can you serve God and the world? God and fame? God and money?
After thinking it over for a week, Burk came to the same simple answer he decided on two years earlier: “I can’t.”
This decision was confirmed after observing a lonely and relatively hopeless man alone at the movie theatres. Burk felt in his heart God telling him to minister to people like him, not entertain him and neglect the major issues in his life that the gospel addresses. The next day Burk called Lou and broke his decision to him.
Within the next year, the band ‘N Sync debuted and eventually would sell millions of records, and each member would become rich.
Confirmation of his Calling
Hindsight is often 20/20, as it is in Burk’s story.
Some might argue that Burk could have made it in the entertainment industry and been an influence for Christ—which might have been true. But if God truly led Burk away from that lifestyle to serve him in a different way, He would also confirm Burk’s calling.
In 2000, five years after Burk’s second rejection of Lou’s offer, Burk caught up with Lou and several of his managers at a restaurant. Many of Lou’s managers listened closely to the conversation between Burk and Lou, desiring to know about the guy who blew the opportunity of a lifetime—twice!
Burk shared his story and call to ministry amidst some snickering. In the midst of snickering and awkwardness, God overwhelmingly confirmed Burk’s calling that day. One of Lou’s men even confessed how he once had dreams to serve in ministry, but went on another path. Burk shares his thoughts:
“The question that many Christians have not yet answered for themselves and their world-flesh-devil serving heroes is this: If our God is a holy God who commands us in the New Testament to come out from among the world so that we might shine as a light to the dark world in order to proclaim life, liberty, and Jesus Christ to that world, how can we actually serve God and the world, God and the fame our flesh seeks, God and money, God and self? Don’t forget, God doesn’t need us to have a big audience so that thousands or millions of people can like us so that they might get to like Him. Jesus with few in number, and He didn’t command them to gain the audience of the world by mimicking the world. He told us that His kingdom is just the opposite, and that the Gospel is what saves not our good looks, talents, or fame.”
God’s confirmation only grew clearer as time went on. Here’s a brief example:
For years, hanging behind the door of my study was a framed picture someone had sent me of the Backstreet Boys when they appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with their pants down, with the caption “Boys on Top” (catch the innuendo).
Under that picture were our Lord’s words: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his soul” (Matt. 16:26).
In addition to an crude magazine cover, many of the members of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync wound up in drug or alcohol rehab centers. The Backstreet Boys sued Lou Pearlman on several occasions for a variety of reasons. Lou Pearlman has done jail time for fraud, embezzlement, and several other crimes.
Ministry Calling and Serving with R.C. Sproul
In the midst of boy band drama and his early Christian growth, God used several Bible teachers in Lou’s life to challenge him. One of those was R.C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries and author of the classic books The Holiness of God and Knowing Scripture.
Burk was first exposed to Dr. Sproul’s ministry in 1994 and began working for Ligonier Ministries as a seminary student in 1999 making calls for their development department. In his days at Ligonier, the Lord grew Burk in his calling and developed important relationships that would soon lead to his current role on staff with R.C. Sproul at St. Andrew’s Church. Dr. Sproul has even selected Burk as the next to fill the pulpit at St. Andrew’s when he has gone to be with the Lord.
Burk is now the co-pastor of St. Andrew’s Church and the editor of Ligonier Ministries’ monthly magazine, TableTalk, firmly believing that is his calling is: “…first and foremost to serve the flock of God as a pastor to equip God’s people for ministry. That is my calling and my sincere delight.”
Burk’s life is a great testimony of the following words of our Lord, with which I will close:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:35
You can follow Burk Parsons on Twitter.
When Satan tempts, as he has from the beginning, he is tempting us to think we can have true happiness apart from God.
— Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) August 21, 2015
1 This post gives a biographical sketch of Burk Parsons’ life and shares pivotal decision points in his life. Much of the information in this post is from a four-part interview Burk did with Tim Challies and an article from RTS. (All quotations are from Tim Challies’ interview and photos are used with permission). If you want a fuller version of his story, that interview is worth reading.