I grew up in a Baptist church and the people in the church became my friends and my community. Brother Griggs, our minister, gave the same message nearly every Sunday, pacing back and forth on the stage of the sanctuary and wiping his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. He was passionate about saving sinners.
Even as a young girl I recognized Brother Griggs was trying to help his congregation find meaning in this life, and hope for a heavenly afterlife.
That was the theme of a hymn we often sang in my church, a 19th century melody by Eliza Hewitt called, “When We All Get to Heaven.”
I didn’t go to many town or school events because my church had its own social calendar. Besides regular church services, every Sunday evening was Young People’s meeting. I sat in a pew with my girlfriends, Sandy and Rita, chewing double-mint gum while we passed notes about cute boys in our youth group. We sometimes played a game called “Swords Up” where we held our Bible (our sword) with two hands in front of our chest until our youth leader gave us a Bible verse to find. Then we’d race each other to see who could flip through their Bible the fastest and locate the verse. On holidays our church celebrations were different too. For example, on New Year’s Eve while the “secular” world was drinking champagne, our church had a Night Watch service.
The women in the church brought in casseroles and chocolate sheet cakes, and we ate, sang, and prayed our way through midnight into the New Year.
Once a month we had Wednesday communion and foot-washing service. The communion was a solemn affair, but the foot-washing part was pure fun. Long before spa pedicures the people of my Baptist church laughed and splashed washing each other’s feet. We were following the model of humility Christ presented in the New Testament when he humbly washed his disciples’ feet.
I no longer attend a Baptist church, but have many, many good memories. Some of my friends however, are less than happy with their evangelical upbringing. A woman friend said she was frustrated with the patriarchal teachings of her church and found it demeaning to women. Another man told me he could no longer see the relevancy of what he was taught in Sunday school. One complaint I never hear from my age group is how the church “politically” misled us. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a distinct line separating our church and the rest of the world. We believed and followed Christ’s words in the book of Mark: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and God’s the things that are God’s.” The church’s mission was spiritual, not political. Our eyes were to be set on Christ’s kingdom, not a temporal government or that government’s agenda.
Interestingly, the Southern Baptist church, the largest protestant denomination in America, has experienced a significant drop in membership the last 13 years (Associated Press, 6/2020).
Apparently, young people are moving away from Baptist churches. Newsweek reported (12/13/18) that a 29-year-old Connecticut man, Alex Carmire, left his church shortly before his pastor announced from the pulpit that the presidential election of Donald Trump was ‘a miracle of the Lord.’ Just a few weeks ago a Baptist minister in Texas tweeted to his congregation that our new black, female vice-president, was a “Jezebel.” Maybe in recognition of this growing trend toward politicization, Southern Baptist leader Ronnie Floyd recently said, “It is clear that change is imperative…We have to prioritize reaching every person with the Gospel of Jesus Christ…” (Associated Press).
Floyd makes a good point. The first line of “When We All Get to Heaven” reads: “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus…” These words are far more potent and beautiful than any political philosophy or slogan. If the Baptist church wants to retain its influence, perhaps it should consider going back to the basics.
That message of love spoke to me as a child. It still speaks to me today.