Note from CM: The death of Billy Graham, the face of U.S. evangelicalism in the 20th century, made me a bit nostalgic and reflective of my own journey through that world he helped create. Tomorrow, we will have a special Saturday Brunch dedicated to Graham and his legacy, but for today, walk with me through a review of the path I took, which often intersected with Graham’s evangelicalism.
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I have spent my adult life primarily in Bible-believing, non-denominational church settings.
I experienced a spiritual awakening during the “Jesus Movement” of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
I went forward during an invitation in a Southern Baptist church. Got dunked.
Our youth group was serious about Bible study.
We attended Bill Gothard’s “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts” seminars.
I still remember listening to the first Maranatha “Praise” album. On vinyl. Simple and sweet.
I myself wrote testimonial songs about Jesus and sang them with my guitar.
I once sang in meetings for an evangelist who wore a white belt and shoes.
I wore a wooden cross around my neck.
I cut my hair so I could go to Bible college.
We studied dispensationalism there and read the Bible through that grid.
We suspected that Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College might be liberal — neo-evangelical we called them.
We certainly did not trust the amillennialists. They spiritualized the Scriptures!
No way would we approve of baptizing babies.
Or wearing robes in the pulpit.
Or using the RSV.
Or, heaven forbid! the Good News Bible!
Roman Catholicism? We quietly considered it a cult.
I never even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Some of our professors thought Francis Schaeffer was off his rocker.
The “Church Fathers” to us were Lewis Sperry Chafer and C. I. Scofield.
Calvin and Luther were OK, as long as you stuck with, “The just shall live by faith.” They were awfully weak in their ecclesiology and eschatology, however.
Billy Graham allowed liberals on his platform. A definite no-no.
And we mocked when evangelists like him sang too many verses of “Just As I Am” until they got a response.
In fact, our pastoral studies department frowned on public invitations. Too much appeal to the emotions. Just teach the Word!
Charismatics were deluded. Maybe not even Christians.
Denominations were apostate.
Women preachers? What are you, crazy?
We were forbidden to listen to anything that might be interpreted as “rock” music.
I think we were “soft” fundamentalists though. A pastor once turned his back on me at the table when he found out where I went to school. He was from Bob Jones University. He considered our school, and therefore me by association, compromised.
All I wanted to do was teach the Bible.
I carried all this into my first church at the wise old age of 22.
I preached expository Bible messages.
We sang hymns and choruses. With organ, piano, sometimes guitar.
We baptized those who got saved.
I visited the shut-ins, led the youth group, held “sword drill” with the kids, separated myself from the sinners, performed a lot of funerals, tried to dry all that wetness behind my ears.
We had a baby.
I was ready for seminary. We moved back to Chicago.
In my heart, I was moving away from fundamentalism, but I had no conception of leaving the Bible-believing nondenominational way of life and church.
I found I couldn’t subscribe to dispensationalism anymore. At least not the pre-trib variety.
I liked rock music too much.
I was ready to think for myself a little bit.
We settled in an independent fundamentalist church anyway.
We thought Willow Creek was liberal, maybe even heretical.
And so it continued…
…it took a long time to break free.
I’m still breaking free.
Why? What’s so bad about this environment of faith? Why must I break free?
Certainly not because I no longer believe the Bible. I trust and value God’s Word more than at any other time in my life. It’s the Story in which I found life, the Story in which I live, the Story that continually brings Jesus to me.
Not because the people I’ve known in those circles were bad. They remain dear friends, and I love them, and we love Jesus together.
Not because I got hurt or disillusioned in some personal way.
Not because God didn’t work in and through us in those settings.
Rather, it is because I can no longer believe that God confines himself to those settings.
Because it all looks to me now like a little tunnel where people hide from a great big scary world. Where I hid too.
But now I see that that world is exactly where God is and has been all the time.
Because I now believe, even though I don’t remember it consciously, that God was there when my parents brought me to the font to be baptized as an infant.
And he was there when I looked with curiosity and fascination through the books we had at home about Jesus and the twelve disciples.
And when I was a young child and wanting to stay with my parents in “big church” to see the light streaming through stained glass, the colorful robed people processing down aisles and across balconies, the somber vision of the white-haired minister kneeling to pray before worship; the rhythm of his words when he preached. Singing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”
My mom taught me to follow the words in the hymnal by tracing a path with her finger. I loved hearing her sing.
I remember times after youth choir practice, wandering around the dark hallways of the church building and coming upon a little chapel lit by an eternal flame. The smell of the old wood. The feeling of silence.
I remember the wonder. He was there.
I recall the pastor visiting my grandparents in their home, always friendly and kind.
Kneeling at the altar rail for communion.
Wishing I could be an acolyte carrying the flame.
Singing my first solo as a robed elementary choir member.
Joking with our choir director and having so much fun.
I remember, though vaguely, my confirmation class. The white-haired minister spoke to us in somber tones about how God met him and changed his life. I felt so serious as I bowed my head in prayer.
Standing outside at night after youth group as the snow fell upon the old stone church building.
He was there.
Somehow, one day that world ended.
It was dark for what seemed like forever. And then…
…a newborn fundamentalist came into the world.
In my born-again mindset, I have looked back on childhood as the time when I was lost and knew nothing of God. Is that right?
Now I wonder.
Don’t get me wrong. Whatever my “conversion” experience as a young adult actually involved spiritually, I know for sure that I needed God’s intervention to turn me around at that point. I was the prodigal son. Our version of Billy Graham, calling for decision and inviting us to come forward, hit me square in the heart and changed my life.
However, for years now, I’ve known that the narrow-minded path I started walking on at that moment is not enough, at least for me. It’s not a big enough God. It’s not a big enough life. It’s not a big enough vocation.
I hope I’m going forward now into something newer, bigger, more wonder-filled.
But in doing so, I find I’m looking back a lot.
Perhaps my desire for an “ancient-future” faith is a longing for nothing more ancient than the childhood where God first made himself known to me in ways that made a child dream.
Smell of old wood.