Clayton King was the teen who sat on the front row of his church when he showed up to worship services on Sundays.
He always brought friends, and he always brought a notebook, said the Rev. Jake Thornhill Jr., who served as King’s pastor when King was still in grade school.
“Today, he still has the Bible that he wrote all my sermon outlines in,” Thornhill said. “He was a very rambunctious teenager, who exemplified what it meant to be sold out for Christ.”
King, now in his 40s, was named Sunday as interim senior pastor of the largest church in South Carolina, NewSpring, after that church’s founding pastor, Perry Noble, was removed from the church’s staff.
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Thornhill was pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Greenville when King was a teen. He first met King while speaking to a Greenville County parks and recreation football team on which King was a player. The following Sunday, King, his parents and his brother attended services at Pleasant Grove Baptist. The family later joined the church.
Thornhill, and others who know King, said Monday that they have seen in King a clear calling to preach the Gospel, one that began at a young age.
In fact, King was preaching and teaching the Gospel when he was barely a teen.
At age 14, he was leading chapel services for youth at the now-closed Givens Youth Correctional Facility in Greenville County. While in high school, he spoke before thousands of young people through the National Beta Club at national and regional gatherings.
Thornhill said King started a Bible study group at his school, Hillcrest High School, and more than 100 teens showed up to the first meeting. That group, The Solid Rock Club, still exists at the school, according to the school website.
“It is very evident that God has had his hand on Clayton’s life,” Thornhill said. “I had him preach for me at Pleasant Grove, and every time he spoke, someone would give their life up for Christ.”
King’s faith and passion for teaching the Gospel comes in part from his parents.
Jane and Joe King, who lived on a farm in Fountain Inn and owned their own electric motor repair business, adopted King when he was a couple of weeks old. The Kings were married for 10 years, and when they could not have children of their own, they adopted King and later his brother.
The Kings were involved in church, teaching in Sunday school and giving of their resources. One of Kings’ close friends, the Rev. Ronnie Powell, said the couple paid off a building project at his church and later offered their closed shop building to Powell if he wanted to start a new church.
“They were godly people,” Powell said.
It was the Powells who took Clayton King into a prison in Greenville to speak to youth there. Later, Powell spoke at King’s ordination service.
“Even as a child, he was bold as a speaker — more than most adults were. He was way ahead of his years,” Powell said. “I have never met anybody in my life that has the anointing of God on their life like Clayton does.”
In an interview last week, King attributed his grounding in his faith to his parents and his love of storytelling to his grandfather, Gene Knight. One of King’s role models in ministry, he said, is Billy Graham.
“Because of my parents, I’ve grown up thinking that being adopted is the most awesome thing,” King said. “They always communicated to me that it was a special thing, that God placed me in their home.”
When he was 14, King was saved at a youth rally, he said. On that night he felt God was calling him into ministry.
“I was at the altar, asking Jesus to save me, and at that moment I felt as if God was asking me to preach the Gospel,” King said. “It was as strange as if someone was telling me I was going to be a ballerina.”
But after talking with his family and his pastor, he preached his first sermon at Crossroads Baptist Church in Greer on March 27, 1987.
“When I preached that night, I knew that was what I was born to do,” King said. “After that, all I cared about was preaching and playing football.”
At age 17, he spoke before 8,000 youth at a National Beta Club conference in Dallas, which he said “opened a lot of doors” for him.
King would go on to attend Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, where he graduated in 1995.
In 1991, he founded Clayton King Ministries, which offers camps for youth, leads mission trips in the United States and internationally, and leads coaching workshops for ministry workers.
About three years ago, King and his wife, Sharie, and their two boys, Jacob and Joseph, moved from North Carolina to Anderson so they could relocate Clayton King Ministries to Anderson University. Since the early 1990s, Clayton King has been preaching on occasion at Anderson University’s weekly chapel services.
This week, he welcomed 1,100 middle school and high school students to the university’s campus for one of the ministry’s weeklong summer camps. He spoke to a new class of the ministry’s yearlong coaching workshop.
This week, he will prepare for his first sermon as interim senior pastor at NewSpring. While he has been the church’s teaching pastor since 2000, this will be the first time in King’s career that he has been in the top role at a church.
In a statement he released Monday, King said he trusting in his faith as he works to lead NewSpring forward.
“Since I became a Christian, I’ve tried to always stay open to whatever God calls me to do,” King said.”I don’t feel adequate or qualified to serve Jesus, which reminds me that it is only his grace at work in me that allows me to do anything good. I’m trusting in Jesus to help us and guide us in the future.”