A personal history with revivalism

It was the summer of 1989 and I had just received a set of cassette tapes by mail order that I was sure were about to change my life. A tall silver rectangular box containing The Ministry Years Vol. 1, a collection of Keith Green’s songs from 1977 to 1979. I was walking on clouds for the next nine months, maybe longer. The offer was for “whatever you can afford” and I was broke. So upon request they actually sent me this box for free! I sort of felt like I was getting away with something, but that made it all the more wonderful. My mother had bought me a Sony Walkman the year before. I’d barely got the plastic off the music before these songs were looping over and over and over in that Walkman on my ears. . . and so began my discipleship.

For those who don’t know, Keith Green was a musician, a pianist with the flair of Elton John and Cat Stevens, who couldn’t find meaning in pursuing the pop charts, but found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that gave him everything he was looking for. The biography by his wife Melody Green, No Compromise, was the first book I read cover to cover. From my childhood his melodic voice resonated with all things warm and safe in my world. The basement for instance, was a dark scary place in my seven year old world, so I hummed Keith’s song Psalm 23 to make it down into it and back again.

So that summer I was in many ways returning to the faith of my youth. I wrote to Keith’s ministry center and requested magazine, tracts, and ministry materials for growing in Christ, and they sent them all. Though I was the son of a preacher, I knew that I needed a living faith, and I liked what I heard in Keith Green, that sense of devotion, that fiery calling. There was real power there and I wanted that. I dedicated myself almost daily to the work of the Lord, which at the time, meant feeding and tending cattle and sheep, mowing acres of grass, and doing master control and editing for our ministry’s full power television station.

I moved out of my parent’s house and into the ministry house down the street. I wanted to be treated, not as the pastor’s son, but as a coworker in ministry. Already my sense of calling involved living in community like in the Jesus Movement, and discipling new Christians. Life with a fifteen year old revival preacher must have been strange for my roommates. I’ll never forget one of my most sobering ministry opportunities.

I spent an entire day preaching to one of New Life’s new trainees about what God was doing in my life, about holiness, and about the price of sin. I used to think that with sheer force of will and a good argument, anyone could be converted. This thirty something white guy with longish hair had obviously done some hard living. He’d come off drugs and drinking and had a really lousy home life growing up. Well we’re walking along and I’m just talking a mile a minute and he keeps interjecting little jabs of doubt, like he’s goading me or something. Every once in a while I look over at him and he’s got this weird little grin on his face.

I talked to him all morning while we fed the sheep together and did chores in the big tin horse barn. I felt this leading that somehow my own stories of victory over sin were just what he needed to hear. So we finished up in the barn and he says, “Hey can you help me move some tires out from behind the white house and stack them in the driveway?” “Sure,” I said. The question caught me mid-sentence. I was really on a roll, felt the spirit moving, and just knew he was “getting fed.” The little white house he was referring to was just to the right from my parents. An elderly couple lived there. The husband had lost nearly all of his vision from cataracts and could hardly get around any more.

So I helped him move these tires from a car behind the house up to the driveway and then asked what this was about. My trainee friend said that the car wasn’t running well and that the man in the house had asked him to sell the tires off it for him. “Oh,” I said, “OK.” I sat by the road and we talked for another half hour about really getting serious with the Lord. The buyer showed up, laid forty bucks in my friend’s palm, threw the tires in the back of his truck and was off. Then I went back to work by myself. The next day my dad asked me to meet him in the white house.

I sat there near the man’s bed and listened to him tell about what that car meant to him. I couldn’t help staring into his diseased eyes. Dad explained that I’d been completely taken in by this trainee. That he was surprised that I couldn’t tell that something was fishy. That I should have asked the owner of the car first before agreeing to move the tires. My trainee friend bolted that very afternoon with his cash and was never seen again. I’d been suckered. It was a very valuable lesson to me. Sometimes powerful words do more to intoxicate the speaker than they do the listener. I was so full of “the spirit” I had no discernment about what I was doing with my hands. The hands part has still been many years in coming.

Somewhere down the road, many years later, I began to question the teaching, and more importantly, the mediums involved in the evangelism I’d been exposed to and the form of discipleship that sired me thereafter. I learned that it was uniquely American, protestant, and that it employed a unidirectional means of communicating, wherein the speaker’s words are not questioned. The means I’m speaking of are television, radio, magazines, books, and now the internet. The weakness of these means soon became apparent. Where was the Church in all this?

Actually, the first thing that happened was that I realized I personally had problems that the altar calls couldn’t solve. The sins I kept confessing, like lust, just wouldn’t go away, no matter how many hours I prayed, mashed my face into the carpet, got rug burns on my knees. I can’t say its true of every revivalist group, but mine wasn’t keen on counseling or therapy. Holiness was its own therapy.

The next thing that happened was that I learned about hermeneutics. I learned enough Hebrew and Greek to be dangerous. Then I got into philosophy and theology. Then I was done for. I started questioning the whole enterprise; asking whether the epistemology (how we come to faith) that I took for granted in revivalism, was in fact the way all believers are meant to come to faith. The pretty package of revivalism, the one I heard over and over preached with near unanimity on radio airwaves all across Missouri seemed a lot less fresh than at first.

Finally came the question that shattered the entire edifice in my mind. If a person were to reject this revivalist preaching, this picture of Jesus, this altar call concerning eternity, did I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were lost eternally? Was turning off the radio a rejection of the gospel? Eventually I came to say no. At Cornerstone Festival one year I sat in on a paneled discussion about universalism and salvation and was aghast at how easily one of the speakers let theoretical millions of unconverted souls disappear into hell. I looked deeply into his face. He found the question so easy, and I asked myself if that was really Jesus.

In another defining moment, I was at my mom’s church and had just seen the dramatic presentation, “Heaven’s Gates. . . Hell’s Flames.” After the show they asked only those people who wanted to be saved for the first time to raise their hands. I couldn’t help raising my hand. When they asked if I needed to pray for salvation I said that I needed to pray to recommit myself. The man seemed really annoyed and said, “You can do that later, right now we only want first-timers.” I went away questioning whether such shows cared about people, or about decisions. If our whole lives were determined by that one decision to agree in prayer, why not just find a way to inject babies when their born with a “gospel flu?”

So how do I feel about revivalism now? I’m willing to set all my painful memories aside in the hope that God somehow uses it. I don’t by any means consider the means itself the true faith. The Christian faith involves more than decision and personal holiness. The books of the New Testament were written to particular churches in first century Asia. The gospel was meant to be embodied within particular communities. This is refreshing to me. Jesus is not the rugged individualist I thought he was, making us all actualized little power houses meant to go and make more little evangelists. The gospel is much more powerful than that.

Revivalism does not fulfill the Great Commission, despite its boastful claims. Jesus is fulfilling his Commission, by his Spirit, in ways that will someday blow our minds. I’m convinced that just two things he said are impossible for us as rugged individuals.

  • Love one another as I have loved you.
  • Go and make disciples of all people.

The Church universal has a long history of failed attempts to wrestle these directives into some program for all people. God’s wonderful story is that in spite of these botched attempts he’s been using his Church to do both, often where we weren’t looking!

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2 Comments

Filed under love, Personal, stories, theology

2 responses to “A personal history with revivalism

  1. Regarding Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames an old college friend has an article on this production here: http://leavingfundamentalism.org/manipulationatthealtar2.htm

    I suspect you’ll agree with at least some of it.

  2. Yeah. . . . some, but I don’t think we can ever really completely avoid manipulation. The Right don’t hold an exclusive patent on it. I detest the sort of manipulation that for instance Mel White’s group SoulForce engages in as well. They set up camp next to Exodus Intl. conventions just in case “ex-gays” feel like “de-converting.”

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