Yesterday morning in church I had a flashback to the church of my childhood, and a part of growing up Evangelical which was common to some readers here and possibly quite foreign to others of you.
Our pastor’s message today ended with an emphasis on repentance, and he asked people who needed to make repentance in their lives a priority to raise their hands.
Or something like that. Apparently I was having multiple flashbacks at that point, and missed the exact way he worded it.
Anyway, people raised their hands, and given the theme of the message, I debated about whether or not raise mine. We can all use a little contrition, right? I blinked my eyes open for a split second and noted that a large percentage of people were responding. But something held me back…
…You see, in my childhood church, every Sunday night service was an evangelistic meeting. Almost every service ended with the singing of Just As I Am — the same “invitation hymn” the Billy Graham Crusade choirs would end with — and an opportunity to “come forward” for prayer. It was the part of the service known as the “altar call” even though we didn’t have an altar as such.
Personal workers would then escort the people who “went forward” to the chapel, a room furnished with the pews and stained glass windows from the old building and which, for reasons unknown, I always found rather scary! Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the church was built in the 1960s and everything was bright fluorescent lighting on off-white walls except for the chapel which was incandescents on wooden pews and wood panel walls. A dark place in which to see the light.
But before that happened, and before people went to the front of the church, and before the singing of the song, the pastor would ask people to raise their hand if they wished to be “included in the closing prayer.” This was the direct response to the message of the evening, and throughout the auditorium people would slip up a hand which he would acknowledge by saying, “I see that hand.” And again and again, “I see that hand.”
However, if you raised your hand, the personal workers, who were stationed throughout the crowd but mostly at the back would triangulate your location and then, minutes later, on the first words of “Just as I am, without one plea,” if you didn’t immediately step out into the aisle to “go forward,” they would swoop in like hawks and offer to go to the front with you. They were heading in that direction anyway, and wanting to get other riders to hop on the bus. (Mixed metaphor, I know.)
I made this mistake once as a preteen. My father, seeing that I was terrified of going forward told the personal worker that, “We’ll deal with this with him at home.” Whew! That was a close one!
So the lesson was learned rather quickly that if you didn’t raise your hand, you didn’t have to face an invitation to go forward for prayer and then be escorted to the Chapel House of Horrors…
…Which is why this morning I experienced that moment of hesitation. I didn’t want to get taken to the dark room, I guess; even though we don’t have one.
I guess I really do need to do a lot of repentance.
The image is of an altar call at First Baptist Church in Hammond, IN; the iconic church of Dr. Jack Hyles, which we visited once when I was a kid. Source. Judging by the number of people pressing in, and the empty spaces in the pews, they got a good response.
The church of my own youth is pictured in some magazines we own somewhere, but all of the pictures online are locked up by the vultures at Getty Images.