NRA: Funeral altar call

NRA: Funeral altar call March 7, 2016

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 313-314

We come to one of those rare moments in which Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins accurately convey something true-to-life with their setting and their characters. Rayford Steele is standing in the pulpit of the New Hope Village Church, delivering a eulogy for his friend and the church’s former pastor, Bruce Barnes. And then, abruptly, Rayford segues into an evangelistic presentation and a call to conversion.

The moment is awkward, cringe-inducing, and utterly familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a funeral service at a white evangelical church.

Evangelical churches usually tend to be good at many things: Youth groups, for example, and children’s programs, Vacation Bible School, small-group devotional Bible studies. Parking. But funerals are not our forté. The improvisational approach of most evangelical services doesn’t serve us well when it comes to funerals. Our anti-sacramental impulse isn’t well-suited to an occasion that calls for sacrament. This is an occasion that calls for liturgy and ritual, and those just aren’t things evangelicals are inclined or equipped to supply.

So, instead, evangelicals fall back onto something they are equipped to do — presenting an evangelistic message and a call for individual conversion. Given the premises of an otherworldly gospel with its primary focus on the afterlife, this makes a kind of urgent sense. A funeral is, after all, a potent reminder that life is fleeting, and if the most important thing in life is what happens afterwards, then this seems like an appropriate occasion to speak to that.

There won’t be a literal altar call, of course — inviting the unsaved to come forward doesn’t really work with a casket already crowding the space up front. But that casket serves as both a reminder of the importance of the message, and as a convenient pretext for it. There’s no need to invoke the Hypothetical Bus that might strike any one of us the moment we step outside when you’ve already got a real-live dead person right there in front of you. It’s also easy to frame this evangelistic message as the final wish of the departed — like one of those newspaper obituaries in which the recently deceased gets off a parting shot by urging everyone to vote not to re-elect so-and-so. “I know that if there’s one thing the departed would want you to know today …” etc.

On the other hand, the crowd assembled for an evangelical funeral service will likely be made up, overwhelmingly, of evangelical Christians — which is to say, of people who are already converted and “saved,” and who thus wouldn’t need to hear this evangelistic appeal. But that’s true of most settings in which evangelicals evangelize from the pulpit. Most of our altar calls are presented before crowds mostly consisting of people who’ve already visited that altar. That doesn’t make such evangelism entirely redundant because it still plays an important role in strengthening the bond of shared identity among the already-converted (liturgy and ritual, it turns out, aren’t that easy to escape). And the knowledge that this evangelistic message is sure to be presented makes the service an evangelistic tool for the members of that community. They can reach out to their unsaved friends, colleagues and acquaintances by inviting them to attend the funeral, knowing that this means they will hear the gospel and be given the opportunity to be saved.

That’s a plot-point here in Nicolae. Our heroes have invited Verna Zee — Buck Williams’ sensibly shod colleague and frenemy at Global Weekly, who remains stubbornly unsaved even after learning the well-kept secret of Buck’s faith. They’re hoping that she will come, hear Rayford’s evangelistic message, and thus get saved. This hope isn’t based on concern for Verna’s eternal fate as much as it is on the concern that, unless Verna converts, she may betray Buck’s secret to the forces of the Antichrist. So it’s more self-preservation than a desire to seek and to save the lost.

But still, Verna is one of the few unsaved people our heroes have bothered to know by name, and since they’re obliged to invite their unsaved friends to hear the gospel proclaimed at this funeral, they pretty much had to invite her.

It was still a very strange invitation, though. Verna never met Bruce Barnes and wouldn’t have any real reason to attend his memorial service. I suspect she agreed to come only because of Loretta, who kindly provided a home for her after she lost everything in the nuclear destruction of Chicago.* I imagine that Verna feels a kind of kinship with Loretta, who has been keeping New Hope organized and functional for the past 18 months while her boss traveled the world and wholly neglected his responsibilities and the day-to-day work of the church. Loretta did all the work and Bruce got all the credit, rarely acknowledging her except occasionally to remind her that she was his subordinate.

Loretta’s relationship with Bruce at New Hope Village Church, in other words, was almost exactly like Verna’s relationship with Buck Williams at Global Weekly. So I’d guess Verna accepted the invitation to this funeral out of respect for Loretta — and maybe to vicariously enjoy seeing Bruce buried as the next best thing to the funeral she’s really hoping to see.

Bruce Barnes, Rayford says in his eulogy, had explained to him “the way of salvation”:

Rayford now took the time, as he had on many occasions in Sunday school classes and testimony meetings, to go through that same simple plan.

Again, this will ring true for many of this book’s evangelical readers. They also have heard this “same simple plan” reviewed, or have reviewed it themselves, in “Sunday school classes and testimony meetings.” You won’t find a lot of unsaved people unfamiliar with that message in a Sunday school class. And, as all the testimonies presented at those “testimony meetings” attest, everybody there has already learned and followed that simple plan too.

Now, in a church sanctuary packed wall-to-wall with church-going church-members all thoroughly familiar with this message, Rayford prepares to offer it again. Because Verna might show up. And because maybe some other member of the congregation has invited some other unsaved person to come. And because maybe the ritual repetition of this message plays some other function besides reaching those who have never heard it before.

But before Rayford can explain the “simple plan of salvation,” he first has to explain what it is not:

Rayford said, “This has been the most misunderstood message of the ages. Had you asked people on the street five minutes before the Rapture what Christians taught about God and heaven, nine in ten would have told you that the church expected them to live a good life, to do the best they could, to think of others, to be kind, to live in peace. It sounded so good, and yet it was so wrong. How far from the mark!”

Thus, Calvinism. Those familiar with this sort of ferociously Reformed version of the gospel can anticipate what follows. But filtered through Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, as voiced by their sock-puppet Rayford Steele, what follows is even worse than that.

We’ll get to that next time. Here we’ll just note that this is the inevitable downside of an otherworldly “gospel” that points to the afterlife as the most important thing: It can’t help but make this life, and this entire world, seem less important, and thus unimportant.

“For God so loved the world …” says John 3:16. For LaHaye and Jenkins, “loving the world” is a mistake — an error of misplaced priorities and a distraction from the things that really matter.

– – – – – – – – – – –

* The nuclear destruction of the city of Chicago happened less than two weeks ago in this story, but here again we see how it has already un-happened. No one here in the suburbs remembers that any more or gives it a second thought. It has had no lasting effect on their lives. It carries no consequences for their plans, no emotional aftermath, no care or concern at all.

Chicago gets nuked and, just days later, Rayford is preaching at the funeral of someone who died before that attack, treating this person’s death as exceptional and extraordinary. He segues into his evangelistic message and it makes no mention of the millions who were murdered so very nearby so very recently. That’s inhuman and impossible. It’s also terrible preaching.

In the months after 9/11, the repercussions of that event were, understandably, a reference point in every evangelistic sermon preached in America. In late 2001, if you went to an evangelical church thousands of miles away in the remotest corner of New Mexico, the sermon’s evangelistic message would likely include some mention of that event and of the 3,000 lives lost on that day. Those attacks aren’t part of the fictional world of these books, which were written in the late 1990s, but L&J’s fictional Antichrist just flattened those towers a few chapters ago in the nuclear assault that destroyed New York along with Chicago and nearly every other major American city. Yet here, just days later and just a short drive from the devastation, none of that calamity seems worthy of mention in Rayford’s funeral gospel presentation.

The Friendly Confines (Wikimedia commons photo by Jblesage)

That’s Wrigley Field. Here in our story, that no longer exists. It was destroyed along with all the buildings you see in the background and the rest of the city of Chicago. And all the people pictured here would have been killed. But now, in this same story, just a few days later and just a few miles away, Rayford Steele presents his evangelistic message, making no mention of any of that. Impossible.

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