A continuation of a series of posts. To catch up, read these.
“If you died tonight, do you know without a shadow of a doubt where you would end up?”
Jenn: This particular sentiment holds a precious spot in my heart. In 8th grade I was invited to attend a youth rally at a local church. This church was “the church” in town. It was great; music, pizza, skits, and then, the message followed by:
“Everyone bow your head. Everyone. Keep your eyes closed and just listen. Let me ask you a question, this is just between you and me (with hundreds of teens in the room), no one is looking. Let me ask you, if you died tonight, do you know where you would go? If driving home from this place something happens, do you know where you would end up? You can make that decision right now, right here. All you have to do is make a decision to follow Jesus Christ. If that is your desire tonight I just want you to look up. Look right here at me. If you want the certainty of where you will spend eternity, you have the chance to accept Christ tonight, just look up at me…I see you…I see you…yes.. okay, those students that have made the most important decision of your life tonight, please stand up and follow one of our volunteers so they can pray with you and talk to you about what’s next in your faith.”
I looked up. I knew I didn’t want to die that night and end up in hell. I went to the next room and a wonderful volunteer guided me through a prayer and then gave me a packet of information to return to church that next Sunday for baptisms. I didn’t go back.
Cam: Take a moment to think about how terrifying that must be for children. Students would get saved every other week. An overlooked danger of this type of altar call is that it’s almost entirely based on a form of traumatic manipulation. Of course students will “get saved” if they are berated about their mortality and the threat of eternal hellfire. Is it effective? Absolutely. But I think it’s important we differentiate between effectiveness and sustainability. It gets a foot in the door, which can be valuable, but it can also create a very shaky foundation for a lifelong faith. I speak from experience here. I grew up with a great group of friends and we all existed in this environment together; and now, I am one of few that remained in church.
I worry that we have created an environment where conversion has become streamlined for maximum output. When this happens quantity becomes more important than quality, and the people on the receiving end start off on the wrong foot. We’ve taken something that should be the start of a great journey and have turned it into a conversion assembly line. Sometimes effectiveness doesn’t equate to health.
Jenn: Years ago a battle of big Christian authors began. Rob Bell wrote “Love Wins,” and in response, Francis Chan wrote, “Erasing Hell,” followed by a spattering of subsequent works attempting to clarify the subjects of Heaven, Hell and Salvation. I read as many as I could in an effort to clearly find my locale in this debate.
So much of how I felt about salvation, baptism and conversion were intensely wrapped up in that middle school experience. Mix that in with several moments in high school of being told I was going to hell, and a few very concerned conversations with people trying to “save” me, and I wanted very little to do with Christianity. Fast forward, during college I would have an experience that changed my life forever, but I still wondered if I was “saved” the “right way.”
Cam: “I read as many as I could in an effort to clearly find my locale in this debate.” It can be difficult to sort through our ideas of salvation. So much emphasis gets put on Hell when we are young that it can be hard to move beyond it. That being said, I think it’s important to realize, without diving into an entire conversation on eschatology, that a lot of our concept of Hell stems more from Dante than it does the Bible. At the time this was extremely important. This conception of Hell was cohesive for the group and was used a s a tool to keep the “tribe” together. If you are struggling to survive and need to keep everyone in line, fear and shame are great tools, which have become ingrained into our understanding of punishment for sin and ultimately this idea of our “separation from God.”
I appreciate Paul Tillich’s understanding, that sin is a separation from self, others, and God. It’s a state of being, not an action or thing we do. When we look at sin from this angle it can become easier to get past this anthropomorphic hell we’ve maintained over the last few centuries. Hell, as seen in Dante’s Inferno, might be a great deterrent to sinning, but fear of punishment isn’t necessarily the best groundwork for growth. Tillich’s understanding of sin as a state of being, disconnected from our True Self and, in turn, God, is a call to growth. A call to not be driven by the shame of sin, but to move forward to a more integrated self. It might seem like splitting hairs here, but I think the differences are cataclysmic. When fear and shame are prime motivators, we are constantly running from something, but when we are working to bring forth our True Self, we are running towards something. One is a goal, the other is a bogeyman.
Jenn: I’m always rearranging my office or home furniture, fairly often cleaning out closets or drawers. (Lots of layers to this habit/coping/control strategy) One time I found a photo from our first trip ever in youth ministry. We were with a group of about 20 students on the beach. As I looked across those memorable faces I recalled hilarious moments, challenging conversations, great nights of worship, and I also realized, from trying to keep in contact with most of them, that about 80% had decided not to continue exploring Christianity as a part of their spiritual journey. This is not an indictment on myself nor on them, or really any institution or system. It would take novel upon novel to explain my own wrestling and evolving with matters of faith; add a handful of their stories and we have a set of works that would rival Britannica. (click here to learn about Britannica)
What I will say, is that I wish I had spent more time as a leader of students guiding and equipping them to embrace their questions, doubts and hurts from faith. I did some of this, but I also did exactly what was done to me at times, set up a moment, tap into fear and guilt, push for a decision and fill up that altar. I wish I had spent more time nurturing what is truly found at the altar rather than getting them there. The truth is, for the first half of my faith life I was operating in fear and judgement. I was giving what I was insisting on receiving. I try to minister differently now.
Cam: It might be time to realize that this style of evangelism is traumatic and might do more damage than it does good. If we are looking for transformation, building off a spirit of fear might be detrimental. If we are unable to find transformation in our faith then we will end up passing along the same trauma we experienced, religious or not. When our focus is centered on Heaven and Hell we miss the here and now. Our focus on the wide view means we miss the little things. We miss out on all of those moments that make up our life and who we are while focusing on the “grand scheme.”
Jenn: Reflecting back on the post that started this series of conversations, how might this discussion give us a new view?
“What if all this time it wasn’t a matter of knowing where you would end up if you died tonight. But instead, it was discovering how to truly live and love today?”
Cam: May we spend our time journeying to something, not from something.