In Which I Learn I am Not a Baptist
Now we were Baptists, or nearly so. Some of the men in suits were my Dad’s clients, successful businessmen in the petroleum industry. One man managed our grocery store, another the Christian radio station. Another dad sold computers at the local store. A retired public school teacher led the congregational singing, but many of the musicians we heard at church were professionals, some even affiliated with an internationally-renowned arts center.
I was mesmerized when a guest harpist performed one week. My heart melted when the pastor’s son accompanied his own voice at the piano on a visit home from college. The sound guys could have turned off the microphone when one of the deacons played a trumpet solo, but for the most part, Baptist music was crisply timed, properly rehearsed, and perfectly orchestrated. Only once did a soloist break down in the middle of her song and let the soundtrack run on without her.
The morning service, recorded and aired on a local radio station at night, ran on a fixed schedule. There was no open-floor "quiet time" and prayer was not spontaneous. The opening song was always cheerful, the closing song always introspective. Even altar calls were predictable, unless someone actually went forward and we had to sing another verse of the hymn. Personal testimonies and hymn requests were reserved for the evening service.
The Baptists were very sure about some things that we had previously left open. Jesus would return AFTER the Tribulation, and salvation was a permanent deal, unless you didn’t get the genuine article the first time. Baptism had to be by immersion, not for salvation, but as proof of salvation. They knew that God didn’t use "speaking in tongues" anymore, though they still prayed for healing for a long list of sick people on Wednesday nights. And their pastor had to write three sermons a week!
We finally left Bible Baptist because Bill Gothard had convinced my parents, who convinced me, that songs with a backbeat—even songs about Jesus—were tools of Satan. The elders were tolerant of our beliefs for a while, but they came to look with disfavor on a family of nine standing up and filing out of the sanctuary during the soloist’s "ministry of music" week after week, even if we returned to our pew for the sermon! It was a mutual break-up in the end, because the church introduced a "contemporary" early service, with a drum set up front, and my parents could not attend a church that resembled a rock concert.
So it was back to the church search, though we knew our options were very limited by now. Two other homeschooling dads in our town were followers of Bill Gothard (and members of his ATI program). One was the pastor at a Church of Christ, but their doctrine was suspect. The other attended a tiny IFB church close to our house. We started visiting there, and there was nothing offensive about the music if you didn’t care about quality, or the lyrics. The hymnal we used had been edited by John R. Rice, and the songs we sang were almost entirely of one genre (and almost entirely written between the years between 1850 and 1950). Here, there was an uncomfortable divide between the Gothardite homeschoolers (only two families now, but we made up more than half the minors in the church) and the rest of the congregation.
The pastor left shortly after we started attending, so we sat through repetitive interim preachers, guests, substitutes, and prospective young men interviewing for the position. In the end, the other ATI dad was "called" to the pastorate, which was convenient since his family was already living in the parsonage. He was a layman with his own audio-visual business, and it was odd thing all ‘round. My parents were not part of whatever voting process landed him the church, as they were waiting for the new pastor before they officially joined.
The new "pastor" ruled with a heavy hand. We didn’t know he was an abusive man at home—that would come out years later when two of his daughters escaped his house. We only knew he wore a somber suit and tried to make people feel guilty. We sat uncomfortably in those pews for two more years. All the normal people disappeared, leaving only the most rigid fundamentalists—and us. Since the former pianist had gone, I played the Gospel songs for the southern-style worship that emphasized sins, blood, and dying Lambs. Being a novice accompanist, I had some input on the song list, but the male leader had the final say, and his whims determined how many stanzas we sang. He typically announced, " e’ll sing the first, second, and the last!" I once told him I would hate to be a 3rd verse in a Baptist church.
Much as we looked the part in our long, homemade dresses with our KJV Bibles, we weren't really fundamentalists. We were tolerant of dispensationalism, but not sold on it. We watched Billy Graham movies at home (sometimes skipping objectionable songs), we prayed with Presbyterians, we visited gloomy Lutheran Lenten services, we once attended Mass with our Catholic cousins, I read a New Testament paraphrase, and we didn’t think the evangelicals building the huge complex down the road were on the path to hell. Dad even read us a book about glossolalia—stories about people praying in tongues that were supposedly unknown to the speakers but recognized by others within earshot. Stories that directly contradicted the pastor’s sermon series on Acts.
At home, I dug out a songbook from the 70’s with familiar guitar tunes from the days of the Home Fellowship group and the Sunshine Inn. After Sunday dinner, I would play stormily, pounding out my frustration and wounded spirit in haunting minor chords. I sang "Our God Reigns", "God and Man at Table Are Sat Down", "You Are my Hiding Place", and eventually drifted to hymns like "Be Still, My Soul" and "Blessed Quietness".
One day the pastor and the one remaining elder asked my dad not to come back anymore. It was both a relief to me and a deep sadness. Other might talk of their "church home", but we were spiritual refugees again: too "Pentecostal" for the Baptists, too "plain" for the charismatics, and too "Baptist" for our Mennonite friends. Too full of emotion to know what to say, I wished I could pray in tongues.