What Church Was Like (When I Was a Child)
Of course I realize that the churches I grew up in were not typical of anything—except of many like them. I would dare to say that many conservative evangelical churches in America were, in many ways, like the churches I grew up in. I use the plural “churches” because I’m remembering back to two churches—one into which I was born and in which I was spiritually nurtured during the first eleven years of my life and the other that was my church home throughout my pre-teen and teen years. They were in different cities and were different in some important ways, but they shared more in common with each other than with so-called “mainline churches.” They were conservative, evangelical, moderately Pentecostal, and strict. They were, like many American evangelical churches then, “high demand.” Members were expected to believe and live a certain way and that way was separated from all worldliness. That way also included placing church at the center of one’s life only after family. Or, to put it another way, church was one’s extended family—even more than one’s extended biological family. And placing church at the center of one’s life was the main way of placing God at the center of one’s life—a distinction but not much difference.
Let me give some examples that I think demonstrate how far American evangelical churches generally (including most Pentecostal ones) have drifted from the norms of the form of religious life I grew up in.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
When you joined the church you gave up all right to privacy. The whole idea of “my right to privacy” was foreign to us. Every aspect of life was related to church. Now, of course, there were some limits to this. Let’s not get ridiculous. I’m talking about: money, sex, profession, job, language, entertainment, etc. If you were a member of our church you did not attend secular entertainment; your “entertainment” was church and church-related events and there were plenty of them. For example, I remember when the Grand Ole Opry “came” to our city when I was about ten years old. “Our people” did not go even though they might have country western albums at home. Rock and roll music, including Elvis Presley, was out of bounds. Elvis was considered “one of us” who went apostate. A sad person, to be sure, and when some of “us” began singing with him, as his “backup singers,” we were appalled.
We eschewed all “worldliness” which included anything and everything that was conceivably sexually arousing. But it also included “conspicuous consumption”—spending money on things not necessary and especially on anything that cost more just because of its brand. I remember when my parents inherited a little bit of money from my stepmother’s aunt and we needed new furniture. My parents spent some of the money on used furniture at the Salvation Army store (which then sold furniture somewhat like some Goodwill stores do now) and gave the rest to missons.
We had televisions in our homes but what was watched was carefully monitored and at church, anyway, talk about secular television shows was rarely heard. The same went for sports; our people could participate in some sports (especially the church softball league) but talking about sports at church was frowned on. So what did we talk about at church? What God was doing in the world, on the mission field, among us, in our lives. Conversation centered around Jesus who was talked about as a personal but invisible presence in our homes, with us at school and work, and in the church. One song we sang typifies this: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in the morning, Jesus at the noontime; Jesus, Jesus, Jesus when the sun goes down.” Another: “Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want; Jesus on the mainline, tell him what you want; Jesus one the mainline, tell him what you want; Jesus on the mainline now.” Another: “Standing somewhere in the shadows you’ll find Jesus; he’s the only one who cares and understands. Standing somewhere in the shadows you will find him, and you’ll know him by the nail scars in his hands.”
At home the radio was almost always tuned to the local Christian station which played “sacred music” and Bible teachers and preaching throughout the day. I remember that the station signed off the air at 10:00 every evening (I was sometimes still awake) with gospel vocalist Jack Holcomb singing “I wonder have I done my best for Jesus…?”
We went to church a lot and church came home with us. I remember my parents taking neglected children from the neighborhood surrounding our church home with us some Sunday nights. It was a poor neighborhood and occasionally we found out about children who were left alone by parents who neglected them—possibly while drinking at bars or something. I well remember after a Sunday evening service at church, my parents went into a dark house and brought out two little children—about three and four—covered with lice and filthy. We took them to our house, bathed them, burned their clothes, put old hand-me-down clothes on them and kept them for a few days until their parents were found. Missionaries who visited our church frequently stayed in our home for a day or two or even a week if they were preaching “protracted meetings” (week-long revival services held every evening).
We arrived at church on Sunday morning at about 8:30 and stayed through Sunday School and Sunday morning worship and often ate Sunday dinner at some other members’ house. Then we went home and took naps and turned right around and arrived back at church around 6:00 for youth meeting and then Sunday evening service which was filled with special music. Often the Sunday evening service featured a Christian film or a visiting evangelist or a local gospel singing trio or whatever. It was different and much longer than the Sunday morning worship service which was a tad more sedate and had a definite ending. Sunday evening services often went on late into the night. When I was a small boy I took a pillow to church on Sunday night and slept on a back pew while the post-service prayer meeting went on and on. One family with many children went home and left one child asleep on a back pew. The pastor had to go back to the church in the middle of the night and open the door for the parents to retrieve their still sleeping little boy.
We rarely got home from church on Sunday nights before 11:00. Then there were the annual special services and events—New Years Eve “Watchnight” service that began around 6:00, including potluck dinner, a Christian film, preaching and singing, and the Lord’s Supper just before midnight. Then there was the Easter Sunrise Service that was held outdoors if the weather was mild. And then there were the many special services and events including at least two protracted revival meetings—sometimes held under tents on the grounds of the state capitol building (which was not far from our church and our home).
Our “theology,” such as it was, emphasized: the imminent return of Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, salvation through conversion, separation from “the world,” and heeding God’s call to whatever “field of service” he chose for one. Once a month the Sunday morning service was “Missionary Sunday” and emphasized giving to missions and, if possible, becoming a missionary to a foreign country. Here is a typical song that a soloist might sing on such a Sunday: “Far away on distant shores, many souls are in despair, for their hearts are weighted down with fear and dread. Can’t you see them crying there for relief from all their cares, persecutions from without and fears within.” Chorus: “No man careth for my soul; thus cry the millions. No man careth for my soul, O hear their plea. Won’t you give your life today to spread the gospel, so that Christ can save their souls and set them free?” The missions emphasis would go on into the Sunday evening service with a “slide show” by a missionary—about the “foreign field” where he or she evangelized the “poor heathens.” The show always ended with a sunset. Don’t ask me why.
We were smallish churches. If a church like ours became “big” (more than 500 members) it would often divide amicably in order to “mother” another church where one like ours didn’t already exist. I remember first hearing about “mega-churches” and being a bit shocked. How could a true church of Jesus Christ be that big? How would people know each other?
We did not participate in politics or government except to pray for both. We believed so strongly in the “imminent return of Jesus Christ” that we didn’t really care who was president (except when Kennedy was elected which shocked us because we thought the pope would then run the country from Rome!). I well remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Middle East Six Days War and other events like those that convinced us the Antichrist was about to reveal himself and the Battle of Armageddon was about to happen and if we weren’t living the right kind of “separated life” we might miss the rapture. I remember boys in our church youth group praying that the rapture would not happen until they had sex at least once! Seriously.
Our women did not wear makeup or jewelry. Men wore short hair and had no facial hair except possibly a mustache. Women did not wear pants; men and boys did not wear shorts or cut offs. We did not participate in dancing lessons in gym class at school or go to movies. We were expected to take “gospel tracts” to school and elsewhere and leave them lying around or even hand them to people. “Witnessing” was a big, big deal. We had entire seminars on witnessing.
Back to church attendance. Our church had “prayer meeting” on Tuesday evenings every week and “Bible study” every week on Thursday evenings. I had to drop out of Cub Scouts when the troupe began meeting on Thursday evenings instead of Wednesday evenings.
Every family in our church was expected to have daily “family devotions.” Every family (and single people) had at least one “Promise Box” that contained little cards with Bible verses on one side and a religious cliché on the other side. Everyone was expected to take one card out of the Promise Box every day and carry it around with him or her, reading it several times throughout the day. We were expected to memorize portions of the Bible and recite them in church with prizes given out to those who memorized the most. Every child was expected to read the whole Bible through at least once by age twelve. We received medals for Sunday School attendance.
Sunday School always began with “opening exercises” where all the classes met together in the sanctuary for about fifteen minutes of singing, announcements and handing out awards. Typical of a song sung at one of these meetings is “Brighten the corner where you are! Brighten the corner where you are! Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar; brighten the corner where you are.” In Sunday School we sang children’s Christian songs like “One door and only one and yet its sides are two—inside and outside on which side are you? One door and only one and yet its sides are two; I’m on the inside on which side are you?” Then we would have a “flannel graph” Bible story and we had better have our “Sunday School quarterly” with the appropriate pages read and the blanks filled in.
But, and here is a difference from similar churches today (if there are any), we did NOT celebrate America except for freedom of worship. We were not nationalists. In fact, when I was a child we were pacifists, but the Korean War was changing that. There was no talk of politics in the church. Sometimes my parents talked about politics at home, but mostly with regard to which parties and which candidates would protect our freedom of worship.
We celebrated being persecuted—which usually only took the form of being called “Holy Rollers,” but occasionally included vandalism of the church and cars in the parking lot during Sunday services. Neighborhood kids gathered on the sidewalk across the street and ridiculed us. We took it all as a compliment. We were different and expected to be ridiculed.
We were a bit suspicious of doctors and medicine. If we had to go to a doctor we went to an osteopath—a particular kind of doctor (not a medical doctor) who was at least sympathetic to our belief in divine healing and prayer. Sometimes this suspicion of doctors and medicines went too far. I suffered a bout of rheumatic fever when I was ten because my stepmother discarded the doctor’s prescription for penicillin when I had severe strep throat. I was hospitalized for quite a while and told that I would need heart surgery someday—to repair the inevitable damage the disease was causing my heart valves. I well remember the elders of the church coming to the hospital and anointing me with oil and laying hands on me and praying for my healing. And I well remember the doctor declaring me unexplainably well (no heart murmur) a few days later. I have never had any symptoms of rheumatic heart disease.
Our church and my family stood somewhere between “other evangelicals” and “fundamentalists.” The largest group of fundamentalists around us were churches of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) which had a Bible college not far from our home. We believed they were true Christians who lacked the power they could have with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. But they treated us as pariahs because they thought speaking in tongues was of the devil. We had fellowship with other conservative evangelicals even if they were not quite as holy and separated as we were. I remember attending Youth for Christ events at a local Covenant church, but we were shocked when the largest Pentecostal church in our city had a non-Pentecostal evangelist hold a revival there.
As a child I took my Bible to school every day. And my home room teacher opened each day of school with Bible reading and prayer. Yes, that was before the Supreme Court decision forbidding that. My home room teacher was an African-American man who pastored a small black Baptist church.
So, what I want to know is this. What ever happened to that form of religious life? It seems to be gone forever—except in Latin America, Africa and Asia! My students from those continents and regions describe their churches as much like the ones I grew up in as a child and youth. Intense. Supernatural. Passionate about Jesus. The church as their extended family. Church discipline. Separation from worldliness. Where does that exist in America today outside of “Amish country?”
My problem is that I realize the broad and moderate evangelicalism I have been embedded in for the past forty to fifty years is very little like the evangelical Christianity I grew up in. I have not sung a song about heaven in church in many years. I have not heard a sermon about the second coming of Jesus Christ in many years. I have not heard anything said in church about separation from worldliness in years. Most of the evangelical churches I know about—the people hardly know each other. Everything centers around the Sunday morning worship service. Even Sunday School is dying out. Sunday evening church is long gone as is Wednesday evening Bible study (let alone Tuesday and Thursday evening prayer and Bible study services!). The people talk about sports and television and movies and politics; almost never (!) about what God is doing in their lives. And whatever happened to “testimony time?” O, I forgot to mention that. It was a big part of my childhood churches’ Sunday evening and Tuesday and Thursday evening services. People would stand and talk about some healing or other miracle or just “share” that their wayward adult child was beginning to show signs of spiritual life again.
I think the Christianity of my childhood and youth is dead—in America outside African-American evangelical churches. I should mention that many of my African-American students hear me talk about the Christianity of my childhood and youth and nod their heads vigorously and insist that their churches are still very much like that.
Now, as a final word of description about the ethos of the churches of my childhood and youth, the main thing I remember fondly is the joy. Our Christianity was joyful. We did not believe in serving Jesus Christ out of a sense of duty or fear; service to Jesus Christ and the church was only valuable if it was done freely and joyfully. I can’t with words communicate the feeling of joy that saturated our churches. People visited our churches and often stayed (we did not emphasize membership) because they heard about and experienced love, peace and especially joy. That I miss. I have not found it to the same extent or in the same way in any church since I left the religious form of life of my childhood and youth and entered the “mainstream” of American evangelical church life.
Philosopher Paul Ricouer wrote about a “second naïveté” and that is what I am experiencing regarding the religious form of life of my childhood and youth. It was strange—somewhat then and a lot now. But I miss much of it. I find value in it even thought I could probably not return to it (assuming I could even find a church like that now).
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