Wednesday, December 11, 2013

TESTIMONIAL TIME

Every three years or so our Seventh-day Adventist church would schedule a series of revival meetings.  These generally featured preachers who had found their calling because of the charismatic and emotional quality of their delivery style--real showmen.  They were from out of town and probably traveled a circuit around the country, most likely giving the same series of polished sermons again and again.  And for these events they came into town accompanied by an entourage of assistants and musicians who specialized in this sort of evangelical appeal.
 
The local church advertised the revival meetings extensively in an effort to boost attendance and to attract individuals from outside the church as well as those who had been members but had stopped attending or had stopped practicing the tenets of the faith.  Backsliders we called them.  My recollection is that the series of meetings would extend over two or three weekends, allowing for sermons on consecutive weekends, in additional to multiple meetings during the week or weeks between.
The sermons followed a common theme, including a frightening view of the end of time, putting emphasis on what would happen to those who were in a state of sin at the Second Coming,  a message of guilt and shame for backsliders, and an offer of forgiveness and welcoming back into the bosom of the church for those willing to make a rededication of their lives to Christ.

The climax was always the sermon on the final Saturday, when the evangelist would make a special appeal for a commitment or recommitment to the faith.  This came at the conclusion of the sermon when he would call on his audience to demonstrate their commitment by coming forward to the front of the church.  Individuals would answer the call, moving to the open area in front of the pulpit, kneeling and praying.  Many would be openly crying.

Music always played a big part in this appeal.  I recall being at one of these sermons when I was in high school.  The minister followed up the appeal in his sermon by having one of the members of his entourage sing the hymn, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”  Anyone familiar with this hymn understands the powerful emotional impact that it can have.  

I remember sitting and looking around the congregation and observing several people who were deeply affected by the appeal . . . and the music.  One young man sitting near me was literally convulsed with sobs, tears running freely down his face.  And right there  with him was one of the preacher’s minions, leaning over from the pew behind, putting his arm around the man, speaking softly to him, encouraging him to make the commitment and to walk to the front of the church.  My questions were:  What could this man have done that was so despicable that he became so emotional?  How important was it to have someone there to encourage him to rededicate his life?  And what happened to him anyway?  I didn’t recognize him, and I didn’t recall seeing him at church on later occasions, though I was hardly a faithful attendee myself.

These emotional appeals never had any impact on me.  Maybe it was because I was a good Christian anyway, until, that is, I wasn’t and left the faith, never to look back.  Or maybe it was that I simply don’t have that kind of personality.  I was always impressed by reason more than by emotion.  However, there was one element of these revival series over which I did get emotional.  But the emotion was not that of guilt or surrender and certainly not of joy.  Rather it was one of dread.

As an adjunct to the revival series at the church, the evangelist also conducted a series of meetings at the SDA school, Battle Creek Academy, that I attended.  The students would be divided by age into perhaps four or five groups, and the evangelist would meet with each group, pegging his presentations to the general maturity level for that group.  

But what I dreaded was the meeting on Friday, the final day of the series.  On that day the evangelist’s message was relatively short.  But what followed was that each student was expected, individually, to give “testimony” of his or her faith.  The evangelist would ask that each student in turn stand and tell everyone how sinful they had been, how important Christ was to them, and how they were going to recommit their lives to their faith.  On some occasions we were expected to stand individual by individual.  On others, each row would be asked to stand as a group and each student, in turn, would be expected to recite and then sit down.  When your turn came, you weren’t compelled to stand and testify; you weren’t punished if you didn’t.  And a few kids didn’t.  But it was obvious if you didn’t, and, like everyone else, I took note of those who declined to stand and testify.  And did the school then talk to those students’ parents?

Some of my classmates seemed very comfortable in these situations; in fact, they were really good at it.  They knew just what to say and sounded sincere saying it.  Perhaps they were, perhaps their testimony was heartfelt, or perhaps it was simply that they were self-assured and naturally eloquent.  That was not how I felt.  I was shy and oftentimes tongue-tied, and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.  I generally tried to mumble something short so I could sit down again.

And frankly even before I abandoned my faith in my junior year of high school, I didn’t actually believe in the things I was expected to say.  I didn’t really believe that I was particularly sinful, nor did I believe that I should rededicate my life to Christ.  I hardly knew what that was supposed to mean.  And now I wonder if the seeds of my “apostasy” had been sewn at a much earlier age or if I was simply always barren of religious sensibilities.

I have often wondered how successful these evangelic events were.  Did those who came forward and rededicated their lives to their faith stay in the church or was this simply a cycle that they repeated?  Did the church authorities orchestrate these events because they realized that the membership would erode otherwise?  Or did they simply believe that this was an integral part of the church’s overall missionary effort?  

And what about the testimonials we students were expected to give?  Did they actually make any difference on a long-term basis?  I honestly felt that within days, or maybe hours or minutes, following these events behavior was back to normal.  That is to say the well-behaved kids remained well behaved and the badly-behaved kids remained badly behaved.  All I knew was that once the testimonials were over I could put them behind me . . . at least until the next round of revivals.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


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