by Mike Ratliff
God saved me in 1986, but that was by no means the beginning of the history of my Churchianity and religiosity. No, I grew up going to church. When I was in the U.S. Navy (June 1973-July 1976) I was stationed in Washington D.C. I was in a period of rebellion at that time in which I wanted nothing to do with “church” in any form. My family was all Southern Baptists, which is the dominant denomination in Oklahoma where I grew up. However, in 1975 I moved to a new apartment just off of Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia. There was a married couple on my floor that I became acquainted with over the next several weeks. They invited me to their church. It was in the District. I resisted for quite awhile, but finally agreed to go. It was nothing like “church” that I was used to. The focus was not on singing hymns nor were there long dry sermons making me feel guilty about my sins. Instead, the messages were “cool” and there was an actual band that performed on stage rather than a choir. The place was full of guys with long hair wearing jeans and sandals. The women dressed very casually. The place was packed. It also had something I had never seen in a church before. There was a bookstore right inside the entrance full of books that I had never heard of before written by men and women who were definitely not “mainstream.”
This was my first encounter with a form of church that was designed to ease people into becoming part of it by softening the gospel and preaching only socially relevant sermons. The auditorium had a couple of levels and two overflow rooms on each side. I never saw any empty seats on the Sunday’s I was there. I had been part of the youth group in the SBC church I attended in Junior High and High School in Oklahoma. In it there was a certain attempt to attract us to be part of it through being culturally relevant without totally abandoning the gospel, but in the end, the former usually won out and little emphasis was placed on the latter. In this new church in Washington, D.C., the focus of the whole thing was like that. It was packaged in such a way to place no discipleship demands on anyone nor was there any focus on making sure that one’s profession of faith was biblically correct. Their emphasis was on showing evidence of authenticity through the manifestations of things like speaking in tongues or making ecstatic utterances. I failed both of these so I was never part of the inner group there.
I believe this was before the era of the ‘mega-church’ and ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement in the United States, but that church was certainly doing those things back then. We all idolized the pastor and his family, placing them on pedestals of infallibility and believing them to be totally spirit-filled all the time. That is, until meeting them personally and finding out that these were fallible and self-focused people just like everyone else. It was after finally meeting the pastor and his son, who ran a local Christian Radio station, that I became totally disillusioned about the whole thing. I was not part of the in-group because I failed their tests of authenticity so I stopped going and never went back. Of course, that coincided with the last few months of my enlistment as I prepared to be discharged and move back to Oklahoma.
However, after that, I reverted back to my rebellion against all things involving “church.” Fast forward 10 years and I am married with a two small children. We were living in the Tulsa area. We decided to start attending a local church that was pastored by a man who was a friend from my High School and youth group days. We attended for several months. It was nothing like the “cool” church I went to while I was in the Navy. It was a very traditional SBC church with the choir and Biblical sermons that always made me feel guilty about my sins. I tolerated it for my family. God saved me in January 1986 one Sunday totally apart from any sermon or preaching or witnessing. I was sitting in Sunday school awaiting the start of class when I came under such strong conviction about my lost condition that it consumed all of my attention. Over that whole day I wrestled with this. However, as we returned back to church that evening I believed and repented. I look back at that time beginning that morning as when God regenerated me and drew me to the Son. He gave me to Him, I saw the truth about my sin and lost condition, and that Jesus was my only hope to save me from the Wrath of God. I saw clearly that He had died on that cross to atone for my sins and I became His servant or slave from that moment on. Nothing has been the same since.
As I looked back at that experience of the church in Washington, D.C., I saw very clearly what a counterfeit the whole thing was. There may very well have been many sincere people who were part of that church, but as I analyzed what they were doing it became clear to me that their focus was on building their church rather than making disciples. The focus for that was left up to other people. The main church service on Sunday mornings was not for that at all. Instead, it was designed to draw people into the coolness. My problem was that I should have been a red flag to someone that I was not a genuine Christian. Ah, but you see, I had grown up in church and knew those Bible stories. However, I did not really know my Bible at all. I shudder to think of my ignorance of the Word of God back then compared to now. However, now I know the Lord, am regenerate, and have the Holy Spirit. Back then, all I had was my self-will and I was not interested in anything having to do with that old religiosity and Churchianity stuff.
I have thought quite a bit about this. Why couldn’t church leaders in all those churches I was part of until I was 34-35 years old tell that I was not a Christian? Their standards are not right. They are too low. It is accepted by their leadership that it is a mistake to elevate levels of discipleship because this might drive away some people. I am sure that is possible, but those who leave are not genuine Christians. The real Christian wants to know the Word of God and to know the Saviour intimately. Yes, there are immature Christians who must grow in Christ in order to walk with Him, but that is why our Lord told us to make disciples, not just a church full of religious people. When the latter is the focus, programs with a focus that is other than biblical discipleship must hold the church together. For the ‘seeker-sensitive” church model, that focus is coolness and the personality of the pastor. And now we see what that church I attended back in 1975 was up to. It seems to have been a forerunner of the emergence or emergent movement with emphasis on seeker-sensitivity. I know that in that church body were Catholics, Baptists, and every other denominational flavor you could think of. During that time of public “prayer” or “ecstatic utterances” in church when I usually simply stared at the floor I could hear some people on one side of the auditorium praying very loudly in Hebrew.
The emphasis in that church was ecumenical and being very “cool” about religious differences. Washington D.C. is a very cosmopolitan city and that church tried to conform to that to make itself attractive to everyone, but in so doing, it lost its grasp of the exclusivity of the Gospel and how vital it is to emphasize it in everything. In being like this, people like me could come in and be part of it all, but never be changed.
Soli Deo Gloria!