It was that time of year. Revival Season. In Baptist life revivals are big things. You pay a gun for hire minister who knows how to preach and bring people to the Lord. The congregation and others get excited because someone outside is coming in to deliver the truth to us. When I was growing up churches had revivals at least once a year and a lot of planning and work went into preparing the ground.
I was ready to prepare the ground. On the last day of the revival it was going to be youth day. This was a service directed at the youth. I was one of the leaders of our church youth and I was determined to get all my football team and other friends there. We had a pizza supper and were to have an ice cream party afterwards. I worked like a fiend the week before cajoling and talking up the revival. I told them it would be fun. Come one come all.
The night of the revival almost everyone I had invited was there. They were feasting on pizza and the music was loud and people were having a genuine good time. And to my amazement they, to a person, went upstairs to attend the revival. I had done all I could do; it was in the hands of the evangelist and God.
I hand-picked the music and everyone was in the spirit. The evangelist was in rare form. He was snorting and clapping his hands all at the right time. His message was the “if you die tonight do you know where you would spend eternity?” type. I sat in the middle, up front and listened. I began to try to see the sermon through the eyes of my friends. The preacher was not cool although he was convinced he was. He could tell a story and he could hold your emotions in his hand. Finally, he came with a crescendo to the pitch. The altar call was when he invited people to come forward to show they were aligned with God. The air was electric. One of the most faithful of the altar call hymns was playing: Just As I Am.
We had sung at least twenty verses of “Just As I Am.” The evangelist was still pleading for youth to come forward. I opened my eyes from prayer and looked to the front of the chapel and there were all my friends lined across the front of the church. I was amazed and pleased. Sure most of their conversions would not last the week but a few would. I wondered who were the last holdouts the minister was trying with every ounce of his body to get to come forward. I looked around, the only youth not in the front was me. He was holding out for me! But I thought I am right with the Lord and you can coerce and sing all you want I am not coming up front. Three verses later he had me on the ropes. Everyone’s eyes appeared to be on me. Some were thinking please go down, I cannot take another verse of “Just As I Am.” I checked deep in my soul to see if it was pride that was holding me back. It was not. He was speaking the usual “do not go home tonight without ensuring you are one with the Lord, for who knows but you could die in a car wreck on the way home and miss your chance at salvation for eternity.” My friends were pleading with their eyes, please come down and make this man go away.
I looked at the evangelist and our eyes met. I gave him my best “it is not happening tonight glare.” He asked for one more verse. Now pride was a factor. I dropped the hymnal and started belting out the little known sixth verse of “Just As I Am” from memory to let him know I was well churched. I put on my most holiest of smiles and surveyed my friends up front and said ‘Praise God,’ an action I had never done before or have repeated since. And then I looked him straight in the eyes and started verse seven from memory. He finally blinked and called for a halt to the singing and glorified God for the abundance of souls that had been saved that night. He prayed to end the service and put one more plug in for my soul by saying in the prayer even if someone did not walk the aisle tonight know that Jesus always stood with his arms open wide at anytime and anyplace and he was sure that others would be received by him in the next few days. My God, I thought, he will not give in.
Afterwards I walked down front to shake the hands of my friends. I could tell the spell for many was broken and they were wondering what had happened. And yes there were a few who seemed moved and converted. Only time would tell if they had changed.
But I noticed something in me had changed. I had been converted. I began to doubt the legitimacy of revivals and walking the aisle. It became clear to me to a large degree it was a contest of wills and the ability of the evangelist to hypnotize the audience for a moment so that they would do his bidding. Sure I had had some emotional times at revivals and in fact one did lead me to a conversion experience but too much of revivals were programming. Change that happened in a moment were not usually the kind that lasted. Out of all those converts that night I am probably the only one who really remembers that night. Hmm, I guess he did convert me after all.