Saturday, December 05, 2009

God's call

[This narrative describes how I ended up in Indiana, at a fundamentalist Bible college in the Midwest in the early 80s.

If you've visited my various blogs, particularly Words Matter, you may have gleaned details of that experience from periodic posts referencing that time in my life, during my early 20s, when Mary and I were just starting out. In fact, Mark was born in Indiana, almost 26 years ago.

This post is something I wrote last year when I was attempting to sort through various experiences in Indiana, my fundamentalist adventure, and ultimately, understand how I ended up in that place (geographically, spiritually, and psychically).

Given my unique experiences near the inner sanctum of a major American theological movement, and sitting every Sunday, listening and observing one of fundamentalism's "A-list" figures, at least in the context of Independent Baptists has always made me think that capturing those experiences in book form might be a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately, while I've started several times, including after spending a week in Indiana two years ago, revisiting the proverbial "scene of the crime," Hyles-Anderson College, in Crown Point, I've never been able to push forward and capture the story in a way that I think is worthy of a book-length effort.

While I'm not even close to having a book about those experiences, I've decided to publish periodic snippets of some of those initial pieces that I've been working on. Additionally, I have some other personal stories that I think I'll semi-regularly post here at this blog, which is centered on writing, mine, as well as other more successful, and probably, more talented writers.

Keep in mind that while I've edited these some for grammar and spelling, they're in a rough draft stage. I hope you enjoy these and feel free to offer thoughts, and constructive feedback if so led, and whether or not you think that others might want to know more about my fundamentalist journey.--JB]

Call To Preach

Waves of nausea washed over me, as the altar call dragged on interminably. The room was too warm. The strains of organ music warbling in my ringing ears only made it more obvious that if I didn’t exit the auditorium soon, admonitions to deepen my fundamentalist commitment, or not, I was going to spew vomit all over the middle-aged couple in front of me.

Excusing myself from my row, catching a glare from Dan Chamberland, my home pastor, I darted towards the exit, knowing I was seconds away from embarrassing myself, and depositing my breakfast from Bob Evans on the gold, inlaid carpet of the First Baptist Church of Hammond.

It wasn’t my intention to bail on the great Jack Hyles, closing out another rousing Sunday service, especially since this was my first visit to the Mecca of independent Baptist fundamentalism, at the start of Pastors’ School week, March, 1983.

Mary and I, still newlyweds, having been married the previous July, had traveled to Hammond, to attend Jack Hyles’ 20th annual Pastors’ School, an event that drew fundamentalist pastors and other leaders from around the world to economically-depressed northwest Indiana.

Hyles, who pastored one of America’s largest churches, held his annual prophetic call to pastors each March. The weeklong institute on how to simulate First Baptist’s magic elsewhere, was a lure for many struggling pastors, most of them in small communities across the U.S.

Chamberland, who was pastoring a small church running less than 100 regulars, had begun attending Pastors’ School several years prior. Stating that it “recharges my spiritual batteries,” Chamberland regularly sought to entice other members to make the 1,100 mile pilgrimage with him and his wife, Ruth.

Mary and I had been attending Tabernacle Baptist since early in 1982. Chamberland had taken a liking to us, possibly because he saw two young, energetic Christians, with a seriousness about their faith.

Early in January of 1983, I had gone forward one Sunday morning, during Chamberland’s call for a deepened commitment to Christianity. It was on that cold winter morning when I felt “called” to the pastorate. Later, when I shared this with Chamberland, he began insisting that I needed to head to Hammond with him and Ruth, in March.

Two vehicles left the Tabernacle Baptist parking lot, early Friday morning, March 17, 1983. Mary and I were ensconced in the backseat of Pastor Dan’s Suburu wagon, along with Ruth. Dick Ramsey, a deacon at the church, his wife, Phyllis, and Ken and Linda Morse made up the rest of the Tabernacle contingent.

The goal was to push it hard Friday, and then coast into the Hammond area on Saturday, in time for Sunday service at First Baptist.

A 12 hour day on the road put us just east of Youngstown, Ohio. The day had been long, and after some early awkwardness, riding in the pastor’s car, the conversation got easier along the way.

Both Mary and I were still comparatively new Christians, particularly practicing the fundamentalist brand of religion common to independent Baptists. While we both turned our lives over to Christ in college, back in 1981, both Dan and Ruth Chamberland grew up in Christian homes, and had been raised in the culture of the Baptist church.

To hear Pastor Dan tell it, however, his parents were members of a “liberal” church, one without standards—indicators of “separation from the world”—that independent Baptists put great stock in. Examples of biblical separation would be prohibitions against attending Hollywood movies, wearing bathing suits, gambling, drinking alcohol, and on and on the list goes, depending on the strictness of the church denomination.

Tabernacle based their separation practices on the teachings of Jack Hyles, who got much of his own guidance on the fundamentals of the independent Baptist way, and of separation, from John R. Rice, a well-known evangelist, who wrote many books, and was a significant influence on Pastor Hyles, and other similar pastors of his generation.

Hyles in turn, began influencing other pastors through his own books, and by holding events like Pastors' School. Each year, when Chamberland attended, he’d come back with sermon ideas, books he’d picked up, and a determination that this would be the year that his small church would “take off,” and start a dynamic growth spurt.

Interestingly, Chamberland wasn’t a graduate of Hyles-Anderson College, the school that Pastor Hyles founded in 1972, with financial help from Ypsalanti, Michigan businessman, Russell Anderson. Chamberland had attended Liberty College (now Liberty University), a well-known Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell.

While Hyles was a larger than life figure within the narrow confines of the independent Baptist world, a world separated from the “godless” practices of the heathen, Falwell was a giant, in the world of Christianity, as well as politics, having the ear of key leaders in Washington.

Falwell had been the founders of the Moral Majority, an organization made up of various political action committees, committed to political lobbying on behalf of Christian causes, as well as electing committed Christians to public office, locally, at the state level, and nationally.

It was Falwell’s belief that Christians were to be the “salt and light” to the world, based upon Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5:13-16. From this, Falwell developed an outreach much like Hyles, training the next generation of pastors and Christian leaders through his college. Where these two men differed, however, was in area of standards, and separation. Hyles also had little or no desire to engage in the political arena, stating that it was not the place of the church to politicize. It was his belief that the role of Christians and the church was to “win souls,” which was a position that Hyles gleaned from John R. Rice.

Chamberland had cooled in his ardor for Falwell, and much of what Liberty had become. Despite the school being his alma mater, Chamberland was vocal in his criticism of Falwell, for “compromising his standards,” and leaving the fundamentalist fold, as he characterized it. This falling out with his place of training had been the source of a major rift at Tabernacle Baptist the previous fall.

When Mary and I first began attending Tabernacle, in the spring of 1982, Lon Grovesteen had been the director of Tabernacle Academy, the church’s small Christian school begun two years prior. Grovesteen, also a graduate of Liberty College, was a dynamic presence in the church. A gifted, charismatic leader, both he and his wife Kay went out of their way to welcome Mary and I.

While we respected Chamberland as pastor, there was something about the Grovesteens that seemed different. Maybe it was Kay’s southern charm and warmth she gave off. Lon was grace and aplomb personified, and cast a large presence in the church community. Tall, and one who was at home in front of a congregation, leading music, or filling in for the pastor when he was off on one of his semi-regular fishing trips, Grovesteen was a sharp contrast to Chamberland’s more dour and confrontational personality.

One of the areas that independent Baptists put great emphasis upon was the area of evangelism, or “soul winning,” as they call the practice of going outside the church to proselytize, and attempt to preach the gospel to those that aren’t practitioners of Christianity.

At Tabernacle, Wednesday nights were visitation night. A small group would gather at the church, and Pastor Dan would have cards, either from visitors that had visited the church, cards from parents of students at Tabernacle Academy that may have not been attending regularly, and even notes that were sent to the pastor’s radio show that he taped each week, on WKXA, in Bath.

Mary and I began attending this outreach during the summer. Our first evening doing visitation saw us paired with the Grovesteens. I would be with Lon, and Mary assigned to visits with Kay.

Seeing Lon Grovesteen in action was impressive for me, since I had little experience with this kind of visitation, or evangelism. Since committing my life to Christ, in the fall of 1980, I had shared the gospel with others, while a student at the University of Maine. I’d also attempted to “witness” to my parents, my wife’s parents and family, and others, but other than seeing Mary convert, I’d not been what Hyles and others would consider a soulwinner.

Grovesteen had a natural and easygoing way of greeting people at the door. He was comfortable with small talk and even the most suspicious person was eventually disarmed by Grovesteen’s charm. He had an ability to revert to a southern “aw shucks” persona when appropriate, or when the situation called for it, be stately, and appear much more worldly in his demeanor.

Beyond Wednesday night visitation, the most effective outreach that was being done was Grovesteen’s work with families stationed in the Topsham, Brunswick, Bath area, at Brunswick Naval Air Station. Grovesteen had been involved in service outreach prior to being hired at Tabernacle, and as a result, the congregation had a strong representation of military families attending.

As a young couple in the church, looking to grow and get involved, Lon and Kay Grovesteen were great role models for us. It was Lon that recruited me to teach my first Sunday School class. Kay, tall and attractive, was someone that I know influenced Mary, and provided a couple that seemed more on our level, than the pastor and his wife, who both, for whatever reason, seemed aloof and removed.

In September, we were heartbroken to learn that the Grovesteens would be leaving Tabernacle. Not much was spoken about the reasons, but the rumor was that there were differences in doctrine between Chamberland and Grovesteen. Much of that difference probably had to do with Grovesteen being more of a Liberty man, and Chamberland’s devotion to the teaching of Hyles. Nevertheless, Tabernacle Baptist had lost a dynamic young couple, their family, and several other key military families. This left a major hole within the Tabernacle congregation that would never completely heal the remainder of the time that Mary and I attended.