Do you remember singing the song, “Oh You Can’t Get To Heaven”? As a very impressionable 4-year-old kid, I learned quickly that a surfboard, a school bus and a space shuttle were not in anyway conducive means to get me through the pearly gates. Of course, most of us reading this book believe or at least have heard that Christians believe only knowing Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior will get you past St. Peter and into heaven. But for a lot of us, getting the ticket to glory is the easy part, living life while having the ticket in your hand tends to be the hard part
Everyone’s salvation or “born-again” experiences are different. In my 26-year history of following Jesus, I’ve seen people fall straight back against a hardwood floor because the preacher slammed them on the head with what he called a “Holy Spirit fist.” I’ve watched people being pulled out of the pews and forced up the aisles to the altar. Usually, despite their initial resistance to “the Word of the Lord,” their names would later be announced from the pulpit, indicating that the salvation experience had taken. Some people would cry and scream when meeting the Lord Jesus for the first time; others would dance, shout and run around the church like chickens. (I’ve always thought the whole running around the church while flapping your “wings” was for the birds.)
In 1978 Democrat and (therefore, according to the church I went to) sinner Jimmy Carter was president. Grease star John Travolta and comedian Lily Tomlin dated for six months. “Laverne and Shirley” was one of the most popular shows on American television. And I was introduced to a lifetime commitment of following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Most people when first introduced to a relationship with Christ talk about a feeling of change, contentment, love or at least something. I was 4-years-old when I met Jesus, so the chances of me sensing an overwhelming shift in my reality was highly unlikely. I have to be honest and admit that when I first met the Lord, I didn’t feel much of anything.
Back then, I always sat on the front row of my dad’s Sunday school class and sang loud and clear. Even at the age of 4, I treated every church service like a Broadway audition. I had a strong, melodic voice, and I sang perfectly on key. I’m sure I could have made my mom and dad a lot of money as a young singing sensation (but their opposition to that idea is a whole other story).
Dad was modest about his ability as a Sunday school teacher; “I’m just an old farm boy,” he’d say. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” But I thought he was the most engaging storyteller I had ever heard. And Dad would never let a Sunday go by without giving us a chance to be born again.
“Now, boys,” he would say at the end of every Sunday school class, “I never want you to leave this room without having an opportunity to know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
Like everyone else, I was supposed to close my eyes for this part. A decision for Christ is intended to be a personal matter, unobserved by your peers. But I always peeked. While most of the boys’ heads were bowed and eyes closed, I was looking around the room to see if anyone was going to raise their hand for salvation.
Will anyone respond? I wondered.
I always felt sorry for Dad when no one responded to his altar calls. I didn’t really understand what it meant to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but it seemed so important to him.
Should I raise my hand? I thought suddenly. I have never been saved.
I wanted to be saved. The last thing I wanted was to spend eternity in Hell.
And then, to everyone’s surprise, a young man’s hand went up. It was Michael, the only black kid in our Sunday school class. Michael stood up and walked slowly toward the front of the room.
The room got quiet. Suddenly I felt like I was at a big sporting event, and my dad was the star player who had just scored a “soul.”
I could almost hear the sports announcer giving the play by play.
Look at this! Michael J. Benson is walking up the center aisle. Matthew’s father has done it again. Michael’s pace is slow but certain. I think he’s going to do it. There is little doubt that this young man wants to know Jesus as his Lord and Savior. Look at him. He looks great, dressed in a classic white shirt and tie with black pleated pants. All the teachers are smiling. One of the volunteers is beginning to cry. Matthew’s dad has just delivered one of the best salvation performances of his career. God 1, Satan 0. He’s got to be excited about that …
Wait! Suddenly I felt left out, like I was missing something extraordinary. I wanted to be part of the game. I want to get saved too! I jumped out of my seat and ran forward to stand beside my father and Michael.
I have never seen anything like this before! Up on the opposite side of the room, another soul is fast approaching the altar. Virgil Turner will no doubt be nominated for MVP Sunday school teacher of the year for this incredible double play. The crowd is going crazy here this morning. That makes the score: God 2, Satan 0 …
Both Michael and I prayed along with my dad, asking Jesus to come into our hearts.
Meeting Jesus In the Early Years
For me, meeting Jesus at an early age certainly had its privileges. First off, I was instantly perceived as one of the good kids in church. Little old ladies gave me candy. The following Sunday the pastor came to my house and drove me to Sunday night church. I didn’t necessarily understand all that knowing Jesus entailed. My pastor would often equate it to having a “holy reservation” or “your ticket to glory.” And even though I knew that when Jesus yelled, “All aboard!” I would get to ride on his glory train to Heaven, at the age of 4, I was much more impressed with the hard candy I got from the little old ladies.
However, despite the obvious privileges (candy and notoriety), meeting Jesus at the age of 4 also had its drawbacks. Let me explain: Most churches recognize something called the “age of accountability.” Can you say “age of accountability boys and girls? [Everybody: “Age of accountability”] Although churches are undecided at what age an individual becomes responsible for his or her own sinful behavior, in most churches pastors will say it’s around the age of 12. If I had known about the age of accountability ruling I may have given the whole salvation-at-4 thing at least, err, 8 more years. Why? Baptism. Getting baptized––dunked of course––was an amazingly uncomfortable experience for me. Here’s why:
1) In my church it was instantly necessary to do an out-in-front-of-the-church profession of your faith through baptism––you can be dunked or sprinkled depending on your church’s theological preference. My church preferred dunking! And although, children under 12 usually love pools and bathtubs––the big tub of water behind my church’s choir loft was not the problem. However, wearing nothing but a blue plastic smock over my cold, skinny naked body was humiliating––and far from spiritually transforming.
2) Compound reason #1 with the fact that your hairy, overweight pastor is also wearing nothing but a plastic blue smock, leaving you with about 1/100th of an inch separating you from a preacher’s moist naked body––and you have a situation that makes even the most mature 12-year-old Baptist want to convert to Methodist or Presbyterian and opt for the more effeminate process of sprinkling. The very memory of this cruel and unusual sacrament makes me cringe.
Since the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, millions of people have come to know the Lord––and in a thousand different ways. But no doubt the most popular way for an old-fashioned-confess-your-sins-and-ask-Jesus-into-your-heart experience to occur is at the alter. Cleverly, the time set aside for “alter visitation” is called an alter call. Can you say alter… Ok, I’ll stop.
The church I grew up in lived for altar calls. That invitation to come forward and be saved that my dad gave at the end of every Sunday school wasn’t unusual in my church; we had one at the end of every service. Not a single church event––prayer meeting, outing, or potluck––could go by without one. Even on our youth trip to the zoo, before we could go see the elephants and pandas we had to sweat it out on the sticky bus seats through a devotional and an altar call. Or I guess it was a “front of the bus” call. There wasn’t really an altar.
The preachers who led these alter calls yelled and screamed. One couldn’t help but respond––we were scared not to. Recently, I have become aware that many of people have never experienced an old-fashioned alter call. Perhaps you haven’t either. Sometimes alter calls are a little scary for people, so it’s always nice to know what you’re getting ready to experience before it happens. Here are a few of the tell-tailed signs that you’re about to encounter an “old-fashioned” meeting with the alter:
1) If the pastor closes his or her sermon with, “I want every head bowed and every eye closed––I want no looking around.” This sign is a biggie! My advice? Do exactly what the preacher tells you to do.
2) If there is lots of rustling around by individuals who have “alter call” responsibilities (i.e., deacons, musicians, singers and ushers will usually be scurrying to get into position.) These people will be looking down at their feet as if you can’t see them as they walk over your toes and into the aisle.
3) If you hear the word “stanza”––look it up.
4) If you hear the pastor say, “I see that hand” as he or she looks around the room for potential converts.
5) If the song being sung during your alter call begins with the words “just” or “all.” If this happens, you are definitely in the midst of an alter call. Just hum along if you don’t know the words.
The point of altar calls at church, of course, was something called “soul winning.” I was taught early on that for every soul I won for the Lord, there would be a bright and shining star placed in my heavenly crown. The more souls won, the prettier my crown. It’s not like I completely believed them, but I had tried to convince my best friend Julie to be born again, but her mom and dad wouldn’t let her.
Here’s A Quick Explanation Of How MY Church “Won Souls”
(All churches work a little differently)
When a “new dead soul” (NDS) walked through the doors at our church, his or her presence initiated a carefully orchestrated soul-winning procedure designed to ensure the best possible odds for a quick and effortless soul conversion. Souls were converted weekly at our church services, and our conversion rate was outstanding.
A first-time visitor was labeled as an NDS using preliminary information gathered by the head usher. He would find out the individual’s name, age, sex and current church membership. The usher would then make the call on whether the individual qualified for NDS status. The NDS was escorted to the first available pew, as close as possible to the front of the church. The usher would then notify one of the church pastors about the assumed NDS and where he would be sitting.
At that point, the NDS was allowed to enjoy most of the service in peace––but only until the pastor began his invitation. Once the altar call started, the NDS was fair game for proselytizing by any willing church leader. During the invitation, all of the pastors and any attending deacons were asked to come up front. Much like the annoying sales people at department stores who bother you when you’re just trying to browse through a rack of clothes, it was nearly impossible to go to the altar and pray without one of the leaders asking you if you needed their assistance. But of course, an NDS, being a “dead” soul, wouldn’t have been able to really pray without assistance anyway.
In order to provide ample opportunity for any NDS to respond, our alter calls were always relentlessly long. The length of an altar call is measured not in minutes or hours but in stanzas––the time it takes to complete a verse and chorus of the hymn of invitation. If the NDS had not responded to the pastor’s message by the second stanza, a pastor or deacon would usually leave his post by the altar to stand next to the NDS and whisper in his ear.
“Do you know where you would go if you were to die today?” the pastor would ask the NDS. Then he would add in a friendly tone, “I can walk forward with you, and in just one stanza you’ll know exactly where you’re going when you die.”
If the church leader was a good “soulsman,” it would usually only take a couple of minutes to convince the NDS to walk forward. Then, while the NDS was taken through the five-point plan of salvation by one of the church-approved witnesses on duty, the church leader was free to go look for another NDS.
Our NDS conversion rate was usually around 62 percent* (estimated). So there was nearly a two-thirds chance that any NDS who came to our church would be converted to a New Living Soul (NLS) by the end of the service. If the NDS became a NLS, he or she would then be baptized, encouraged to join the church and invited to teach Sunday school (well, maybe not on the first Sunday).
Soul winning was a way of life in the church I went to. Every week, we had days set aside for going door-to-door through the community, stopping at every house in search of a poor losing soul who needed salvation. Unfortunately, the church often took soul winning too far. In fact, some people were just all-out strange in their determination to win as many souls as possible. I remember talking to a young couple that had actually joined a “Save-A-Soul-A Day” campaign. A team of twelve couples made a pact that they as a group would save one soul a day every day for a year. One of these couples was spending a holiday at my family’s house when they received an emergency phone call from another member of their group. Apparently, no one in the group had saved a soul yet that day. Three of the twelve couples were out on “emergency duty,” going from house to store to restaurant looking for an unsaved soul willing to pray the sinner’s prayer. My friends were preparing to leave my house early and drive an hour back to their hometown as reinforcements when the phone rang again. One of the other members of the group had just walked into a McDonald’s and convinced someone to pray the prayer of salvation. Whew! That was a close call!
Today, I think forced proselytizing causes much harm for the kingdom of God. Yet sadly, we have become a Christian society offering a “fast food” mentality on salvation––get everyone through the line as quickly as possible and hope they order a combo. This isn’t evangelism. This is a cheap, franchised form of Christianity that churches today still try to utilize to bring people to Jesus. Like you, I have a sincere desire for all people to hear the saving message of Jesus Christ, but I’ve learned that building relationships is the key, not crazy one-a-day plans to ensure people say the words of the sinner’s prayer.