Agnostic Testimony 31
How I Lost My Faith at the Bowling Alley:
A Post-Evangelical Confession
by: Belinda Echols
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I became a born-again, evangelical Christian in college. It was the late 1970’s and I was a freshman living in the dorms on the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. One of my suite-mates introduced me to the campus Baptist Student Union (BSU). I liked the BSU right from the start. I had never been particularly religious or active in church, but this group attracted me. The deal, as it was explained to me, was this: admit you’re a sinner, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus Christ as the son of God and your personal savior. Then you are forgiven of your sins and can be assured that you will go to heaven when you die and spend eternity in happiness and peace with God.
Okay, what’s not to like? I didn’t actually “accept Jesus” though because I had already done that several years ago after my Sunday school class (which I had been briefly forced to attend) explained the whole plan of salvation to us. But that had been the end of it. Though I had been quite sincere about accepting Jesus I never followed up on it. I guess I expected some kind of magic to happen. When it didn’t, I started reading the Bible, but that was a bit dense for a kid my age and so that was the end of my spiritual journey.
The BSU was kind of like picking up where I left off, continuing on down that road that I was now old enough to understand. I was 17 that year, having finished high school a year earlier than most kids. The best thing about the BSU was that it gave me a social group of friends. I hadn’t been getting along too well with my roommate and the BSU was like a sorority and fraternity combined. We were all family. Our sponsor was an adult named Andy, employed by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to manage our campus BSU. We had Bible studies, prayer groups, informal worship sessions, picnics, holiday parties and everything. The club had its own large, multi-story house about a 15-minute walk from the campus. Sometimes we would have retreats there over a weekend and would all camp out on the upper floors in sleeping bags.
As we studied the Bible I learned a lot more about the faith I had accepted – about the life of Jesus, the meaning of grace, worship, holiness, love, sin, and redemption. And I learned about how “getting saved” had dramatically changed the lives of some other members, who had been in the depths of addiction, depression, and a lot of bad scenes before finding Jesus and the peace of God. It was impressive.
As I continued to learn and grow in the Christian faith, however, I discovered that it wasn’t all just about accepting God’s free gift of salvation. This gift, it turned out, was not free after all. It came with some serious obligations. Because those of who were “saved,” who had “found Jesus” had a sacred obligation. As part of God’s family, we were to become His messengers. We were tasked with the holy duty of spreading God’s word to the fallen world. God spoke through us, spreading His word though our bearing witness, one to another, about the forgiveness available to all and the healing benefits of reconnecting with our Creator. For without it the lost, suffering people would not only continue living in spiritual darkness, they would spend eternity in hell. All because they had never heard the “plan of salvation” and didn’t know they needed to repent.
This was quite a weighty responsibility and we were all intimidated by it. It was generally accepted that this was not a task for new Christians who were still learning the basics of the faith. If you were going to explain Jesus and God’s plan to people, you at least needed to know what you were talking about. So we had Bible studies, and we had practice sessions. The SBC would send visiting counselors, speakers and teachers to visit us. They taught us tactics and strategies of how to share our faith with others. We would break into groups and practice on each other, with some of us playing the role of the “prospect” who had never heard of Jesus or who only had vague notions of Christianity, and others who would play the role of the Christian trying to introduce them to Jesus. One of tactics I remember most vividly was that of picking the right time to bring up the subject. If we could catch the person (or “prospect”) in a moment when they were down, when they were particularly unhappy or in a crisis, they would often be more receptive to God’s message. And if, in talking about their problems, we could get them to cry, we may just have them.
It has been suggested recently that this pressure to proselytize to other people is a major obstacle for introverts in the evangelical Christian faith. Because introverts are not “people persons” and don’t like to start conversations, especially with strangers. I think this is a cop out. Sure it’s probably harder for us, but the truth is that almost everyone was just as terrified as I was to share their faith with their family, friends, waitresses, mailmen, co-workers and fellow students. Let’s face it - this is not socially acceptable in any society. Proselytizing your religion brands you as a lot of negative things, gives you an embarrassing reputation, and can even alienate you from those who matter most to you. This is not something that anyone can do casually.
We dealt with this obligation, and our dismal failure to carry it out, in a variety of ways. We speculated that our inability to “broach the subject” was a result of our not being mature enough in the faith. We needed to become more committed. Some kids committed themselves to a certain amount of time every day to pray or read the scripture. Some faulted the state of their faith and relationship with God, bemoaning how they remained “carnal Christians” still in love with the world. They talked about trying to “get all this yuck” out of themselves in order to let God and the Holy Spirit in. I remember hearing kids brag about their progress towards this goal. One girl had said “I used to get out of bed and my first thought was ‘what am I going to do today?’ But now the first thing on my mind is Jesus!” Some people floated around the idea that telling people about Jesus wasn’t the only way to spread the Good News. We could also witness with our lives, letting the love and peace of Jesus shine through in all we did and said. The “unsaved” people in our lives would then notice there was something different or special about us and would ask us about it themselves without our ever having to bring it up. Still others mustered the courage to just invite the “unsaved” to church or to the BSU in the hopes they would become involved and ask us about our faith. After all, it had worked with me hadn’t it?
As for me, I tried to find the answer in the Bible. There was said to be power in scripture, so I set out to read it – all of it, and finish it this time. I read Genesis all the way through Revelation. It took me over a year to finish the Word of God, and I learned a lot from it. But when it came to sharing it, I was just as hopeless as when I started.
Still, we knew that the task entrusted to us was not impossible. The Apostle Paul said that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And there was the bit about moving mountains with the faith of a mustard seed. There were two among us who had that mustard seed and actually shared their faith on a regular basis. Their names were Kyle and Stew. Stew was said take his Bible into Harrisonburg, stand outside the several bars and clubs frequented by students on Friday and Saturday nights, and witness to people as they peed in the bushes or staggered out and vomited in the grass. (The legal drinking age for beer was 18 back then). Kyle used a different tactic. He would ask girls out on dates and on the date tell them about Jesus. A few of these people even showed up at the BSU once or twice. They didn’t stay or accept Jesus, but Kyle and Stew had “planted the seed” in them that may grow later in life when their spiritual soil ripened. Kyle and Stew were planting and reaping god’s harvest. They may have gotten a bad rep on campus, but for us, they were rock stars.
I have no specific memories of the speakers who visited the BSU during my sophomore year, but the message they delivered never left me. They told us that the SBC had declared a goal that everyone in the U.S. should have heard the Gospel by 1980. By the year 2000, everyone in the world should have heard it. And if it was up to us to make that happen, the world was in a world of hurt. Because we weren’t doing our share in God’s harvest of souls. We were neither planting nor gathering. Basically, we were hogging God’s love and forgiveness all to ourselves and letting everyone else suffer and face an eternity of hell.
They warned us that the time was going to come when we would be on our way to heaven. But to get there we would have to pass by everyone we had ever met on Earth - our family, friends, and acquaintances. Many of them would be in the eternal torment of hell. And they would ask us, as we stood at the gate to heaven “Why didn’t you tell me?” Why had we known them for years and never once bothered to explain to them the plan of salvation? Why had we kept Jesus’ love and God’s forgiveness a secret from them? They were in hell and it was all our fault.
We were so ashamed. Several among us took it upon themselves to continue to confront the rest of us and point out our most objectionable habits. I don’t remember who they were (except that they were not Kyle and Stew), but I will always remember what they did. After the rest of us hung our heads and thanked the speakers for “waking us up,” but in the ensuing days and weeks, continued our normal routines - they went on the attack. They took us to task. We were hypocrites. We had our share of Jesus’ love so we really couldn’t be bothered with anybody else getting theirs.
They pointed to the evidence of our failure in the university dining hall. The dining hall had large round tables that could sit up to 10 people. Strangers often shared tables out of necessity. But what did we do? Just like any other group of friends, we would all sit together at the same table, meal after meal, day after day, drinking in the living water of fellowship and salvation all for ourselves while leaving our fellow students high and dry. If we had a fraction of the love for Jesus that we professed to have, we would be sitting with the strangers at the other tables, witnessing to them. Also, we would stop rooming with each other and socializing only with each other. We would seek out new circles of friends among the unchurched and unenlightened. We would rouse ourselves out of our comfortable little Christian cocoons, take up our crosses and follow Jesus into God’s thirsty harvest of souls.
Was it a coincidence that these counselors visited us shortly before the deadline for BSU members to apply to the SBC’s Summer Missions Program? Hindsight is always clear sight. The upshot was that I was so determined to improve my “score” when it came to witnessing about the Gospel that I found myself on an SBC Summer Mission. It was apparently a well-established program that paid all the students’ expenses plus a few hundred dollars towards the next year’s tuition.
I loved my mission assignment. It was to a small missionary church in a depressed neighborhood of Boston called Chelsea. Boston was a much more segregated society than what I was used to at my home in rural Virginia. It was a society of Catholics and Jews who didn’t quite know how to “place” Protestants. I was paired with a girl from the mid-west called Dana. Her personality was also, unfortunately, quite opposite from mine and we ended up at the “tolerate” level of connection. Still, we kept it together and pressed on through the adventure.
The name of the church and the pastor are long lost to me, as are the names of the couples we stayed with for a few weeks at a time throughout the summer. I remember instead the missions and the service that tiny church rendered to Chelsea. They had a program that helped kids with their homework after school. They had sports programs for boys and an outreach to released prisoners re-joining the community in a half-way house. They had a mentally challenged member who could hold down a job but not manage his money – so the pastor arranged for his employer to send his check to the church, which would pay his bills for him and give him what was left over. They even took on the employer when it became apparent they were shorting the guy on over-time pay. They also had a mission to women that Dana and I were assigned to. It was a ceramics class that met at the church five evenings a week. It served mostly elderly widows, many of whom lived alone and had little opportunity to get out and socialize.
I had always liked ceramics so this was a treat. But I was also impressed by the absence of any agenda to “witness” to these ladies. They were mostly Catholics and Jews. Among the green-ware available for them to glaze and finish were figurines of rabbis and the Virgin Mary. If they were interested in what Baptists believed, we were there to answer their questions, but that wasn’t the central purpose of the ceramics program. It was just to give them an activity and a social group, to make their lives a little better. I would later learn that this was the approach used with the other missions too. First we helped people. Then if they were impressed with us and became curious, we could share our faith and invite them to join the church.
The crowning chapter of our missionary summer came when the church entrusted Dana and I to conduct a week-long Vacation Bible School for local children. I had never experienced VBS, but Dana was a pro at it and we put together a program in no time. The SBC had stuff for crafts, games, songs and even little plays. The VBS program was a great hit with the kids. They had so much fun that when they went home, they “played” Vacation Bible School in their yards, re-enacting some of the plays and games. I have to confess that at 19, even I had fun with it.
And then it happened. One kid’s mother went into the church and spoke with the pastor for several hours. She accepted Jesus right then and there while her son was outside at VBS. The church had a new member, the Kingdom of Heaven had a new soul, and it was all because of us and the VBS. Dana and I were both flying pretty high that night.
It wasn’t that the church was all sweetness and light. It had significant problems. Many of its members had come to it via the outreach missions - and brought their issues with them. There were ex-cons with anger issues and former prostitutes who were a little too needy and clingy with the other women’s husbands. The biggest complaint was that everyone was so busy ministering to everyone else in the missions that there was no time for anyone to minister to them. The men also complained that their wives were kept so busy with ceramics that they didn’t have time to run their households properly. I don’t think the church even had a Sunday school.
Still, they pressed on. In retrospect I have respect for that pastor. If there were ever anyone who was fully living his faith, it was him.
The BSU I returned to in the autumn term of my junior year felt different. Apparently not everyone’s summer mission had gone as well as mine. While I had been paired with a single stranger in urban Boston, the other members who had done missions had been mainly assigned together, in a larger group, to a mission in rural Massachusetts. They had lived and worked closely together for several months, and had problems. Personality clashes, love triangles, and inconsiderate behavior had left some of them noticeably cool towards each other.
On top of that, Kyle and Stew were acting weird. I’m not sure whether they had even done a summer mission, and it didn’t matter anyway. Kyle and Stew didn’t need to do summer missions – they were already sowing the seeds of salvation and gathering in the harvest of souls in God’s fields every day. But now they were quiet and secretive, with an air of people in-the-know of a huge earth-shattering secret.
We found out what it was soon enough. They shared it privately, with a few people at a time. Apparently Kyle and Stew now spoke in tongues. They had been “baptized in the spirit” and embraced the charismatic movement. Before long they had “converted” a small cadre of BSU members to the “spirit filled” Christian life.
It was like a tactical nuclear weapon had exploded in our midst. Our student leadership and other social leaders in the group assured us that tongue-speaking was considered a heresy by the SBC and an unscriptural practice. Baptist theologians had concluded that the “gifts of the spirit” described in Acts had been given temporarily and had ceased after the Pentecost period. I remember Andy once confiding to me in a private moment how frustrated he was by the influence Kyle and Stew had in the BSU. There was not much he could do about it, however, because we were a student-lead organization by charter. Our president was a student. Andy could advise and support us, but not interfere.
Kyle and Stew’s influence continued to grow. One by one they were baptizing people “in the Spirit.” They were leading their own Bible studies and prayer groups in their dorm rooms on campus and even inside the BSU house itself. The BSU family was split into two wings – the traditionalists and the charismatics. At the height of the conflict, those of us on the traditionalist side were convinced that the “spirit” that was speaking through them in tongues came from demons. The charismatics countered that since we had not been “baptized in the Holy Spirit” we were not saved. We could not get into heaven without it.
As we each accused the other of being destined for hell, the only thing we could agree on was that all of us felt like we had already arrived there. We had once loved each other as Christian brothers and sisters. Now we were enemies in a holy war. And then the inevitable happened.
Within the BSU I hung out with a tiny circle of close friends – my boyfriend Gary, his best friend Dan, and my friend Lisa. Dan was among the most ardent opponents of the charismatics, but now he had had a “Damascus moment” and become a “disciple” of Kyle. This included getting baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. Gary and I respected Dan and listened to him. Gary was the next to “defect” to Kyle and the charismatics. Then I followed Gary.
My decision was not very difficult. The charismatics claimed to have something the rest of us didn’t – the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They claimed it gave them power and stronger faith. I was curious. Maybe this was the “magic power” that we had been taught the scriptures had, but that had always eluded me. Now that my friends had blazed the trail before me, I was no longer afraid to try it out.
Kyle baptized me in the Holy Spirit in a little ceremony in his dorm room. After this kind of baptism, it was assumed that you would suddenly be able to speak in tongues. It didn’t happen that way for me though. I sat and prayed but the Spirit did not speak. The same thing had happened to Gary. He still couldn’t do it. After several weeks of frustration, I did hear the Spirit speak, in the form of a very astute idea dawning in my brain. Maybe the Spirit refused to speak through me because I was just sitting there like a bump on a log waiting for It to do all the work. So I stepped up to the task. I vibrated my vocal cords and moved my lips randomly. Then, like a miracle, a “tongue” came out of my mouth.
From the perspective of maturity, I realize that I was just faking the tongues. At the time however, I didn’t admit this to myself. Yes, I controlled the language coming out of my mouth – I was never just overtaken by the Spirit and out of control. But then again, everyone else seemed to control their tongues too. So I must be doing it right. And maybe if I prayed enough in my tongue, privately, I would be able to feel the magic power of the Spirit dwelling within me.
It wasn’t long before Kyle and Stew also began to manifest some of the “greater” gifts of the spirit. They prophesied and healed. During flu or measles epidemics on campus people would visit them in their dorm rooms for healing by the laying-on-of-hands. I tried it several times when I had bad colds. It didn’t seem to work, but I remained convinced that a little more faith on my part was all that was lacking. They also performed a few exorcisms, mainly on one young man in the BSU who seemed to have some social and emotional problems. He would submit himself repeatedly to Kyle and Stew, who would dramatically cast the demons out of his soul, apparently only to have them return again in the next few days.
We also began to attend Kyle and Stew’s church, “Mountain Church,” which was in a rural area near Harrisonburg. I had been attending services at an Episcopal Church, mainly because it was within walking distance of the campus. No other students from JMU ever joined me at these services, however, because the “mainline” protestant churches were deemed “spiritually dead” by the BSU and the other Christian clubs. This “spiritual death” was pronounced because they sang hymns instead of modern, upbeat songs and did not clap or sway to the music. But I enjoyed the Episcopal services. I was never a clapper or a swayer. I liked the quiet and darkness in the sanctuary, the structure and predictability of the liturgy, and the solemn pageantry of the procession. My spirit found peace there.
Nevertheless, I joined the other charismatics at Mountain Church, where the clapping, swaying, dancing and tambourine ringing continued almost non-stop, and there were designated times for “praying in the Spirit” (tongues). The services were held in a large barn converted for the purpose. The sermons seemed to emphasize spiritual warfare and how the indwelling Holy Spirit must steel us to take on the demons that were legion in the world, leading so many astray. I resisted admitting it to myself at the time, but I didn’t like Mountain Church services as much as the Episcopal ones. I thought it was important that I like Mountain Church. I didn’t realize at the time how few services I would actually attend there.
We were in the dining hall, sitting around together at one of the large round tables. A new BSU member was sitting with us. She was a freshman who had just recently been saved. She was a pretty, carefree and laughing girl, grooving to the tunes of one of her favorite bands from a cassette recorder. Obviously, she had not been “one of us” for very long, or she would never have been listening to a secular band. She would restrict her taste to Christian artists like Amy Grant and Andre Crouch. And she wouldn’t be so, well, casual and happy.
As I watched her a strange observation blindsided me. I was jealous of this girl! She was brand new, in the honeymoon phase of her faith. She thought she had a wonderful free gift of salvation and eternity in heaven. She had no idea what was about to be demanded of her - the holy mission, the harvest of souls, the choosing of sides between the charismatics and the traditionals. It was almost like we had lured her into a candy store and were about to slam the door behind her and chain a millstone around her neck.
Wow. How did that thought get there?
During my junior year a lot of strange thoughts were invading my head. Some were questions I’m sure had been bothering theologians for many centuries before I “discovered” them. Like how do you reconcile the Apostle Paul’s insistence that we are saved exclusively by faith with the Apostle James insistence that faith without works is dead, and we are saved instead by our good works? And what was the judgement on warfare between Christian nations? Certainly Christians had been killing each other on the fields of battle for centuries. Was that a sin? Why hadn’t Jesus or the apostles ever mentioned this really awful issue?
No one else was interested in my questions on these weighty matters. I’d been noticing lately a lot of little ways I really didn’t fit in to the BSU as smoothly as other people seemed to. Most apparent was the fact that I had never chosen any of them as roommates or house mates. JMU’s Foreign Language Department had leased a large multi-story house across the street from the campus, where it housed two foreign exchange students and eight foreign language majors – me among them. So while everyone else lived with other BSU-ers or students from other Christian clubs, I lived with a house full of mostly non-believers and roomed with an exchange student from Spain. The others had one family at JMU – the BSU, while I also had a second family in my housemates.
It was from my housemates that I learned that the BSU had a bad reputation on campus. They all knew that I was a Christian and in the BSU, but they were okay with that. They said that I wasn’t “like that,” because I wasn’t “pushy about my religion” and didn’t “get all freaky and judgemental” about the occasional bouts of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll that would erupt in the house. It was a compliment, wasn’t it? Or was it an indictment of my utter failure to witness to them?
I also knew that I enjoyed their company just as much as that of my BSU friends. Well, almost as much. The problem with hanging out with my housemates was that I was always racked with guilt when I did it. Sure, I was their friend now, but what about in the next life? What would they think of me as they saw me enter the doors of heaven from their perch in hell, knowing I could have “let them in on the secret knock?”
One of the things we liked to do was bowl. I remember one night in the spring of my junior year, when a bunch of us were at the bowling alley. They were all laughing and having an evening of carefree fun before the stress of exam week set in. I was miserable. I had just heard at Mountain Church about the approach of the end-of-days. We were currently entering the Tribulation, then Jesus was going to return and rapture the faithful into the clouds. So we needed to make sure as many people as possible would join us in the sky. When Jesus came back, he expected to find us working in the soul fields, planting and bringing in God’s harvest. Woe to the faithless servant whom He found goofing off instead!
And what was I doing? Bowling. Not telling my companions about the love of God, the forgiveness of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No, on the eve of the apocalypse, at the dawn of the final battle between the Lord and Satan, I was doing duck pins. Oh, woe to me.
I watched them, laughing, care-free, and happy. And I felt a sudden pang. Envy. I was jealous of them. They were not bearing the responsibility for the eternal fate of everybody else’s souls. They were not God’s faithless servant goofing off on the job. I was. They were just having fun, like I used to have. Years ago. Before.
And as I pondered this, I felt something inside me break. It wasn’t a painful break but more like a release. I wasn’t sure what it was. I just suddenly felt that somehow everything was going to be okay.
After bowling night I started asking more questions, this time of myself. Obviously, my relationships were more important to me than doing the will of God. So what would happen if all my friends from the BSU were to abandon their faith? Would I continue in mine? No. I couldn’t be a Christian without my friends. I just wouldn’t want to be. This was scary. You might say it scared the heaven out of me.
What did that say about my relationship with God? I knew that my failure to witness was a sin that Jesus could easily forgive, along with all my others. You didn’t have to be perfect, or even a “strong” Christian to get into heaven. The issue now was whether I really wanted to be there. What would heaven be like for me, if my family and friends were not there with me? If they were all down in hell, feeling I had betrayed them? Would I be happy in heaven with all that guilt, and with a god who had sent them there and set them up to hate me? What kind of god would do that?
And what about here on Earth? The prospect of life as a laborer in God’s soul harvest was so grim that I was jealous of the very people whose souls I was supposed to harvest. This was a job that could alienate the laborer from all those near and dear. I am very introverted, but even I am hardwired to prioritize human relationships over all else, God included. All of us are. It’s a very ingenious feature of our design that has allowed our species to thrive and “take dominion” over all the Earth’s other creatures. Why would our Creator ask us to thwart His own design for us?
I never renounced Christ, God, the Holy Spirit, or the BSU. There was no big decision to turn around and walk the other way. I just gradually drifted away and opened my mind to the possibility that our Creator may be much larger and more broadly reflected than the little box our theologians built for Him. That maybe when we try to stuff the Creator into a box, He simply doesn’t go. It seems to me that we’re the ones who end up in the box instead - cramped, contorted, and in pain.
Am I still a Christian? No. Spiritually I tend to fit in more with younger generations. I don’t’ believe in a single large, all-encompassing and incontrovertible truth. I instead find smaller truths in a lot of different places – books, experiences, nature, history, science, stories, people – and Christianity (though not the evangelical variety).
There is very little about the BSU that resembled the classic signs of a cult. They never asked for money. There was no charismatic leader we were supposed to worship as a genius or a spiritual giant. They never tried to cut us off from our families or threaten us in any way if we left the group. But then again, they didn’t have to. If you convince your people that everyone they love in this world is in danger of falling into an everlasting pit of torment, and that they are the only ones who can “save” them, you’ve pretty much got them. It’s a hostage situation by an allegedly loving god who created us flawed, blames us for our flaws, and threatens to send us to hell if we don’t admit it’s all our fault and beg for forgiveness. They then grow to love this god like children love an abusive parent, desperate for his favor and willing to endure anything to avoid his wrath and save their loved ones from it as well.
Not all cults are obvious, like the Moonies or Scientology. Some of them hide behind respectable clothes, charitable projects, pretty white steeples, and “campus ministries.” The SBC abuses its kids, sending them out as a sacrificial army to do the work of proselytizing and filling its pews that its adult members won’t do. Because the kids don’t know any better. The kids buy the guilt trip and allow adults to manipulate them.
Not all Christian churches are like the evangelicals and the SBC. There are some I have great respect for – generally those who practice love and service and worship a god that practices the same. But I’ve learned not to judge them by their clothes. The “discernment of spirits” is one of the spiritual gifts bequeathed to the disciples at Pentecost, and I can honestly say that this is the gift I acquired. It’s the only one that’s real.
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