It was a Saturday night, and the young man was deep in discussion with the woman he was dating. Their discussion centered around the church he was preparing to attend the next morning, of which he had been a member for several months. “I don’t mind if you go,” the young woman said, “I’ve just been hurt so much, and so often that I don’t think I can go with you. It’s not good for my heart or my soul. I think that’s why I haven’t really gone for the last couple years now.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “What will you do with your morning?” She replied, “I think I’ll go down to the pond, talk to God, maybe journal a little . . . ”
He thought wistfully that this sounded like a much more edifying morning than singing the same hymns, sitting in the same pews, and getting frustrated with the same things that had been bothering him about his church for some time now . . . . . . I know that’s what he thought, because he was me, in the spring of 2005.
I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, because looking back now, most of the “conversion experiences” I had seem so hollow. I think I’m coming to believe that coming to know Christ is a process, not an event. This is the story of my experience with that process. I hope that by reading it you can come to know me, and my Savior, a bit better . . .
I grew up in church. I asked Jesus Christ to be my savior (the first time) when I was three and a half years old . . . and I meant it with all my heart. Little did I know the incredible ride He had in store for me.
I was a very thoughtful little kid. I decided at four and a half that I wanted to be baptized. I told this to my parents, who told the pastor of our conservative, Baptist Church. He counseled waiting for six months, due to my youth. Six months later, I again said I wanted to be baptized. This time, I was.
When I was nine, we began attending the church I would stay active in until I left home for college. It was a very conservative, fundamental, nondenominational church. I busied myself serving where I could – cleaning up after services, playing the violin for the offering and special music, and singing in the children’s choir among other things. Then my family joined an organization called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). ATI was a homeschooling organization, but it was more than that. One friend of mine recently called it “Pharisee school,” and by and large, the name fits.
Through ATI, I learned what a messed-up person I was. I learned that I was constantly teetering on the very edge of God’s displeasure . . . or at the very least missing out on his ultimate blessing, because I wasn’t saying, doing or being exactly the right things. I learned that all of my problems could be drawn back to pride or bitterness. I discovered that God’s grace was dependent on how closely I followed his rules. I found out that music with a backbeat was sinful, and that dating led to sexual immorality. I was taught how to read Scripture with the specific intent of making it say what I wanted it to hear . . . and then calling it a “rhema” . . . defined by ATI founder and leader Bill Gothard as a “special word from God.” . . . in short, I learned a lot of really screwed up stuff.
Somewhere around the time when I was 11 years old, I began noticing the sorts of things that boys around that age start to notice. I didn’t know what to do with it all, so what I did was began to watch television shows that featured scantily clad women, and read romance novels in the library . . . all of this when my parents weren’t looking, of course. Before too long, I had essentially taught myself the rudiments of the “facts of life.” I went to my first ATI Regional Training Conference (a big bash in Knoxville, TN each year where thousands of people get together to sing hymns, heap guilt on each other and wear blue and white for a week) when I was 13. By the end of the week I felt so guilty about what had become a mild addiction to softcore pornography that I confessed it to my parents.
This was the first of many such confessions. It was an issue that would haunt me for more than ten years.
It was in high school that my small, unquestioning worldview began to crack. I committed the cardinal sin of the ATI lifestyle . . . I began thinking for myself. I began to notice the double lifestyles lived by many ATI families – they lived one way at home, and another when they were around each other trying to impress all their friends with how godly they were. I should know – I played the game too. I began to notice how they really didn’t have anything to offer someone like me . . . very earnest and well-meaning, but dealing with a very serious, habitual sin that had become an addiction.
Why it took so long for me to begin to see this, I’m not entirely sure. I was raised by my parents to be able to think, learn and discover things for myself. Somehow, though, I became convinced by everything I heard . . . and which was repeated each Sunday at church – a church that lined up very closely doctrinally with ATI.
Then I went to college . . . specifically, my local community college, and the fissures started widening. I joined the debate team, and my debate partner introduced me to country music, which I decided I liked (despite its backbeat). My debate experience was a mixed bag. I discovered that I was a strong person who could indeed stand up for what I believed. I was offered drugs and refused, I determined for myself that I didn’t want to drink alcohol, because of my (previously demonstrated) addictive personality, and the fact that alcohol abuse runs in my family . . . and I stuck to that belief. I defended my faith in the face of being known to the rest of the team, somewhat affectionately, as “Christian Coalition Boy.”
But I also discovered something. I learned that when one is forced to debate both sides of an issue, one is forced to truly examine what one believes. I had to question things I’d never questioned before. I had to learn both the strengths and weaknesses of my beliefs . . .
(to be continued . . .)
Go to Part 2