I grew up in West Virginia, and for everyone else who did not, then you missed out.
West Virginia - or "Almost Heaven" as we like to call it - regards certain characteristics about life as most desirable, such as honesty, pride in one's family and country, integrity, hard work, and a simple, straightforward way of life. My culture engrained these values in me, and it seems no matter where I go, gratefully, each one follows me there.
My childhood culture also embedded other values within me that bear roots deep down, namely in my faith and spirituality.
I attended a wonderful small, traditional Baptist church in my hometown. There, I learned about Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world and what a true eschatological community of hope and grace looks like. During my 4th year of seminary, I decided to follow my desire to serve as a local church Pastor and received my first "License to the Gospel Ministry" in that church.
When I think about my hometown church, I feel a deep sense of connectedness to the kind of community that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 4. I value my upbringing in that church, for it shaped me into the kind of man and Pastor that I am today.
Yet, I also carry with me certain theological presuppositions and cultural implications of Christendom that stem from my childhood years in that church.
I can recall a moment that profoundly shaped me when I was ten years old. I had just returned from summer camp the day before, and was excited to attend church the next day with my grandparents. I walked into my Sunday school classroom, and my teacher asked me if I got saved while at camp. Kinda stumped and for fear of disappointing my beloved teacher, I said, "I think so." In turn, she threw her hands in the air, stood up, and gave me the biggest hug, Then, with tears in her eyes, she said, "I am so proud of you!"
Words that every little boy longs to hear!
After Sunday School ended, our class walked into the main worship service, as was our custom. I sat quietly next to my teacher in our old wooden pew, singing those wonderful old hymns that made very little sense to me, but resounded with austerity.
At the end of his sermon, my Pastor walked to the front of our sanctuary altar steps and proclaimed to the congregation, "If you made a decision to follow Christ today, then I want you to join me now."
Quite honestly, I do not recall thinking that statement applied to me, despite what I had just said to my teacher earlier that morning, but the next thing I knew, she had bumped me with her hip out onto the aisle! I looked at her in total fright, thinking "What did you just do?" She smiled with joy at me. I turned my eyes down the aisle at my Pastor who had already extended his hand toward me, welcoming me to come froward. Confused and scared, I walked the long aisle sad that my mom was not there to witness me take my first steps into faith.
Since then, whenever I hear the words, "Altar Call," that memory immediately floods into my mind. I can still feel the angst to this day that I felt in my young 10 year old body.
As a result of my response to such a negative experience, I have never facilitated an altar call after any talk or service that I have led. Ten years of programs, talks, and Gospel presentations... but zero invitations for the listeners to respond.
Recently, I came to a realization, "How many people have missed an opportunity to respond to the movement of the Spirit after one of my talks because of my negative experience associated with altar calls?"
To which I then thought, "In what other ways have I misled others into a relationship with Christ because of my personal responses to the cultural implications of how I grew up?"
As a Pastor who has been serving in a postmodern, post-Christian setting for the last 4 years, I have since learned that many of the teenagers with whom I serve and lead have never heard the words 'altar' and 'call' uttered next to each another in the same phrase. In fact, there are several students who attend my programs who neither have stepped foot into a church before mine or have parents who grew up in church! Rather, they are familiar with the concepts and theological presuppositions about church, Jesus, and Scripture only to the extent that I have taught about them.
Thus, any of my cultural baggage that I carry with me from my past means nothing for the faith development of the students and families at my church. It is my own, not theirs, so for me to project my issues of Christendom onto post-Christian students and families could in fact potentially harm the development of their faith before it even gets an opportunity to fully take root.
For those of us who grew up in the church during the height of Christendom in the 20th century, we need to be cautious about the ways in which we have rejected the Christian practices of our childhood based on reactionary biases and not impose them upon others who do not know the difference.
You and I might cringe at the thought of an altar call - or whatever vestige of Christendom it might be - but for our post-Christian, postmodern brothers and sisters, something like an altar call might be exactly what that person needs to take the next step in faith.
Don't throw the believer out with the baptism water.
Embrace the Gospel. Hold loosely onto the practices of the church. And keep your mind open to the possibility that some people may find great meaning and insight into some practices of the church that make you want to cringe.
QUESTION: What practices of the church carry negative connotations for you, and could your perspective be limiting how others experience faith?