I was born into a family that attended a mainline church faithfully every week. As a youngster, I learned about God, Jesus, and every Bible story you would expect a child to know. From my earliest memories, I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not love God. I loved him as the world’s Creator, and I loved Jesus for dying for the sins of the whole world.
My church’s neo-gothic architecture contributed to my concept of God as a magnificent, majestic, awesome God “up there.” Soaring ceilings, beautiful stained glass windows, sumptuously carved woodwork, a huge sanctuary and a mighty, five manual pipe organ (with 32’ high pedal pipes no less!) all combined to make an impressionable young boy feel very small before such a large God who had such a very large church.
I am forever grateful for this church that started me on my Christian journey and which gave me such a beautiful introduction to our almighty, transcendent and sovereign God. This church also gave me a concern for social justice and compassion ministry that the modern evangelical church has only come to embrace since, I would say, the mid-90s.
At eight years of age, I attended a camp run by school teachers on their summer break. It was not a Christian camp, but back in the 1960’s it was still the thing to do to provide a church service for young campers. So the Catholics were sent off to a nearby Catholic church and everyone else, assumed to be Protestant, went to the camp’s chapel. This was an outdoor area on the hillside of a forest that sloped down to the lake. The trees had been cleared near the shore and sawn in half to form pews. The service was conducted by the camp’s administrator, Abe Schmidt, who was an evangelical Christian.
At the end of one service, Abe invited any boy who would like to have Jesus as a friend to stay behind and he would introduce us to Jesus. This was something new to me. I loved God, but I had never thought of him as a friend! The idea of Jesus having a personal relationship with me, rather than just with the world as a whole, was an incredible thought!
So I stayed behind. With the water lapping on the rocks, the sun sparkling on the bright blue lake, and shafts of sunbeams poking through the tall forest around me and the three other boys, Abe led us to the Lord and we all said the Sinner’s Prayer together so that Jesus could be our friend. My world and my future were transformed as I suddenly became aware of how very close and personal God was. I was thrilled that he was now “down here” as well as “up there.”
Abe subscribed me to a children’s discipleship program of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and for four or five years they sent me a Bible study booklet every month. I completed the assignments and mailed them back for marking. Until I was in university, this ‘parachurch’ material was the only discipleship I ever got.
From age thirteen to nineteen, I had no one to help me with my spiritual growth. My church’s youth program tried to keep us out of trouble and instill good values, but it was quite lacking in anything spiritual. I did not lose my faith but my passion cooled until, at sixteen, I read Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Written by an individual and published by a for-profit business, this book made me alive to an entirely new dimension of my relationship with Jesus. Reading it, I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning! Not only did Jesus Christ know who I was, but so did the Devil!!! In Jesus I had a personal friend dedicated to my ultimate good, but in Satan I had a personal enemy dedicated to my utter destruction. Realizing the stakes, I promptly recommitted myself to Christ. Now he was not only my friend, but I made him my Lord (and consequently, my protector). Life became a journey as I sought how to apply this decision in the way I live my life.
At nineteen, I went to university and finally found some like-minded, evangelical Christians. They introduced me to another ‘parachurch’ ministry, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, that organized small Bible study groups and regular meetings. Finally, as an adult, I joined an evangelical church and for the first time had a fully supportive church environment. That same church continues to nurture me today.
Around 1998 or so, Abe Schmidt, whom I hadn’t seen for more than thirty years, visited my church with his wife and I introduced myself, my wife and my children to my hero in the faith. I was deflated when Abe didn’t even remember me, until his wife told me that while Abe had no children of his own, he had devoted his entire life to evangelizing children and youth. She said that about 300 kids at any one time were getting the discipleship material. There grew to be so many that Abe couldn’t pay for their subscriptions, so his church took on this part of his ministry as its own. I found out at his funeral in 2005 that I was one of what Abe called his “mailbox kids.” I’ve also discovered how small the world is, because one of the deacons at Abe’s church was none other than my predecessor at CCCC, Frank Luellau!
So, I learned about God from my local church, was led to the Lord by an individual acting on his own, and was discipled by an agency with materials that were paid for by a local church that had decided to support an individual’s personal ministry efforts! Several authors and Christian publishing businesses also had great influence on my development as a Christian. This is an excellent example of how the members of the body of Christ work together using many structures to get the Lord’s work done.