Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Experiences with Experiential Christianity

One Man's Experiences

Mama, don't let you babies grow up among fundies
they'll just keep askin' to be really saved
let 'em be Old Side or old Anglicans
Mama, don't let your babies grow up among fundies
they'll know many of rules and feel lots of guilt
but not that Jesus saved them 

My earliest remembered experiences with Christian experience are of asking Jesus into my heart at least several times in children's Sunday school and other children's ministries of my church, McIlwain Presbyterian, in Pensacola, Florida. A number of conflicting tides ran in the church. The pastor who baptized me was an old PCUS Scofield Bible dispensationalist. The next minister was a graduate of Westminster Seminary, who had studied under Machen and Murray, but was known to give an invitation, especially to ask young people to commit themselves to Christian service. He began two institutions that would last for many years, the Pensacola Theological Institute and the Pensacola Youth Crusade. The next minister was a PCUS conservative churchman who was perhaps more instrumental in the founding of the PCA than any other man. He also believed in the Higher Life, giving my father, a ruling elder, a copy of Hannah Whitehall Smith's The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, having Roy Hession who wrote The Calvary Road do a Bible Conference, and having on the book table of the Institute Watchman Nee's The Normal Christian Life. The church was also against the worldly vices such as drinking and dancing. Young people who participated in the high school's Broadway musicals or who sang in the special "show" choir felt the pressure of disapproval. You learned that there was "head knowledge" and "heart knowledge" and that you needed to tell whether you had both or only the former. It was in the context of such a church that I kept asking Jesus into my heart, inviting him into my life, and later surrendering to him and offering myself for Christian service. I never knew if any of it was true, sincere, real. Did Jesus ever come into my heart? Did I mean it when I invited him into my life? Did I surrender all or keep back some? Was it peer pressure when I responded to the call to Christian service?

In my city there was also a fundamentalist sub-culture involving members of conservative churches, mostly independent Baptists, but also a few Presbyterians like my parents, the Gideons, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Youth for Christ, and a Christian bookstore. Into this world came, Bob Jones graduates, Arlen and Beka Horton, to establish the Child Evangelism ministry and to start a Christian school. 

When Pensacola Christian School opened I was a member of the
second grade class, and my teacher was Miss Lucy Lacey (later Mrs. Ed Johnson), a native of Kosciusko, MS,  the only Belhaven College graduate ever to teach at the school. As the school grew the Hortons defined the school more sharply and rigidly. Back straight, feet on floor, folded hands on desk, stand up to answer a question or recite, ink pens with ink wells, rote memorization, massive amounts of homework, and frequent use the the paddle (which somehow I avoided). Of course, there was the strong commitment to pre-tribulation dispensational eschatology. Mrs. Horton was much praised teacher of the Bible to both children (she had a television program where she gave flannel graph talks) and adults (one of her specialities being the book of Revelation). All teachers were recruited from Bob Jones, and they lived a plantation system life with low salaries and and school owned housing. As we got to the junior high, great emphasis was placed on living the Christian life. We signed an annual pledge not to drink, not to cuss, not to gamble, not to dance, and not to act boisterously on public conveyances. Of course, we were warned about sex. One of our teachers who later went on to fame with the Moral Majority, the Washington Times, and Liberty University, gave us a sex talk, the only part of which I remember is something I did not understand at the time, "Boys sleep with your hands on top of the covers." He also told us in a Bible class that the Lord used his wife's naked body to get him to have children with her. All this sex talk only increased interest in sex, at least among the boys, all of whom wanted girlfriends. Garrison Keillor says in one of his stories about growing up among the Sanctified Brethren, something along the lines of, "We didn't do anything. We just thought about sex all the time." Pensacola Christian told you to remember that you spent your days at the Rock, where as Barney Fife said, "the first rule is to obey all rules," and, of course, "Don't forget that the Rapture is going to happen anytime now." 

Let's go back to church, as they say. The Pensacola Youth Crusade was both a typical and atypical youth conference.  Young people came from conservative Presbyterian churches from states in the deep South, stayed in members' homes, and took their meals in the church basement. It featured a speaker, who taught Bible studies and preached every night, as well as bowling, miniature golf, and beach time every afternoon.  There was an invitation, prolonged some nights, and the whole thing concluded on Friday night at the beach with a bonfire, much climbing of Jacob's ladder, and many testimonies of what had occurred in young peoples' lives during the week.

One of my most vivid memories of experiential Christianity during my teenage years occurred one night during the Crusade. There was the usual preaching. Then there was one of those "Christian movies" which on this particular night warned about the danger of not really being saved and ready for death. It disturbed me quite a bit, so I sought out my pastor after the movie and asked to talk with him. I was taken to his study where I met with him and the summer seminary student assistant. I told them of my disturbance and fear and, as I recall, was asked a number of questions. At some point I must have said something about my father, because that led to intense questioning about whether I was relying on my father's faith to save me. (Whether I was "saved" or not, I knew enough to know you couldn't rely on your parents' faith.) I remember a feeling of something like being at the police station being questioned by the cops who were determined to get a confession out of you. Eventually I was allowed to go home. But the next night, I became an example when the minister spoke of how the Lord was moving when a young man would want to talk about his soul late into the evening.

When I finished high school, I went off the Belhaven College, which folks at my church, and especially my mother, worried was too liberal inasmuch as they allowed things like dancing. One day we had as a chapel speaker John Braun of Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU). That evening I attended a voluntary meeting at which he presented material from what I later came to know as "the blue booklet" or "the bird booklet," otherwise known by its title of Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit Filled Life? I was convinced that John Braun had laid his finger on all my problems and failures in the Christian life. I was trying to live the Christian life in the strength of my flesh, while the Christian life was really about letting Jesus live out his life through me by an act of faith which would enable me to be filled by the Holy Spirit. He invited those who wanted to know more to a gathering in another building. There I asked to be filled with the Spirit, and left joyful, believing I - I mean the Spirit - was now going to live the Christian life. Wrong. Didn't work for me.

When I finished college I went off to Reformed Theological Seminary. I was now out of the world of my first 22 years, out of the world of at worse false and at best unhealthy experientialism. Well, sort of. The world of Youth Crusades, invitations, decisions, surrenders, Pensacola Christian, Campus Crusade was behind me. But I soon was exposed to Calvinistic experientalism. There were speakers like John Gerstner channeling Jonathan Edwards, Ernie Reisnger asking if we had "closed with Christ," and Al Martin showing how rare and difficult true conversion really is. There were books like Alarm to the Unconverted by Joseph Alleine and The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character by Gardiner Spring (another thing to hold against him in addition to his infamous church-splitting Resolution). I think what happened was that I was traded one form of experientialism for another that was spiritually even more rigorous and severe.

Enough of my personal experiences with experientialism. Are there any things we might learn? 

First, there are great differences among people. I have close friends who grew up in the same church for whom it was mostly, if not wholly, blessed. With regard to Pensacola Christian, my brother-in-law, Dr. James Drexler, went there, the fundamentalist water ran right off his back, and he seems to have no lasting negative effects of having gone through it. But, for me these were and are difficult experiences. No doubt the differences are explained to some degree at least by genetics, family dynamics, life experiences, and spiritual health or lack thereof. I do know that all that is sinful that has come out of my experiences with experientialism is mine and not to be excused. At the same time, perhaps there is some value in telling some of my story for the sake of ministers, churches, and parents being aware of some of the potential dangers of experientialism and of the differences among people.

Second, I wonder if there are not cautions here about the spiritual care of children. What assumptions should we make about them? How do they come to faith? How are they best spiritually nurtured? Does it make any difference in the spiritual care of children that they are born into Christian homes and are members of the church by birth? (Baptists excused to ignore this.) My own experiences made some difference in the way I approached these things with my children.

Third, it seems to be that there are potential spiritual dangers associated with some forms of Christian education - whether in a home school or traditional school setting. Christian parents should be careful about the choices they make and the educational environment to which the expose their children. Damage can be done that is hard to repair. 

Fourth, I hope that experientialists might be aware of some of the negative potential of experientialism and so be pastorally sensitive and careful about the way experientialism is taught, applied, and practiced. 

I have come to several convictions that affect the way I preach and pastorally relate to people: 1) Jesus saves sinners, and sinners should be invited to trust him without that invitation dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Sinners should be invited to the Lord's Table without their being warned constantly of the damnation they will eat and drink to themselves if they are not sincere or if they are struggling with besetting sins.  2) Most Christians are making their way to heaven through many dangers, toils, and snares. They need encouragement more than scolding and questioning of the reality of their faith. This does not mean that there are no dangers associated with nominalism and self-deception, but it does mean that these are by no means the only dangers the church faces isn the care of souls. 3) I do best when I preach as a sinner among sinners rather than as a sinner apart from sinners. Even Jesus, who is apart from sinners, is sympathetic to sinners.  


MCO said...
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Harry J. Monroe, Jr. said...

In many ways this mirrors my own sometimes painful experience. Thanks for writing it.