Carol and I had just pulled into the parking lot of a church building, and she urged me to follow her. Although the car was parked, I was presently moving forward to a major fork in the road. Little did I know how the course of my life would forever change as I approached that fork.
But perhaps it would be beneficial to say how I had come to this particular point.
At that time, I was a college student in my twenties at the University of North Texas. There I was an active member of a social fraternity, which was renowned for its Thursday night beach-themed “Margaritaville” parties. These parties typically featured large crowds and loud music. One particularly raucous Thursday night, the police visited the fraternity house and issued a noise citation. As I was the president, the ticket was made out to me. Although the fraternity paid the fine, I personally was required to perform community service as part of the deferred adjudication that came with the ticket.
As it happened, a family friend in Houston was the Republican party chairman of her precinct, and she needed someone to accompany her as she went door-to-door in her somewhat sketchy neighborhood. So, one Sunday afternoon, Carol and I did just that. We spent a few hours driving through the neighborhood and speaking to residents, and I was able to fulfill my community service requirement.
As the afternoon grew late, Carol unexpectedly drove into the parking lot of a church building. I did know she was fairly involved at the church she attended; so, as she parked and began to get out, I assumed she needed to run in and quickly take care of some matter in the office, or something similar. I figured I would wait in the car a few minutes in the meantime. But she stuck her head back into the car and urged, “Come in!”
I followed her into the building, wondering whether someone might be there she wanted me to meet, or if whatever she was doing was going to take too long to leave me in the car. I followed her around a couple of turns in the hallway and through a door.
And I found myself standing in a worship service in progress.
It had not even occurred to me that a worship service would be in session, much less that we were about to enter one. As we seated ourselves, I was thinking to myself, “That dirty dog! She planned to do this to me all along!”
But as I looked around and listened, my interest was piqued. Why was there no instrument of any kind to accompany the singing? Were these people so poor that they couldn’t even afford a piano? But those in attendance seemed to participate more heartily in the singing than I was used to, perhaps because the sound depended entirely on their participation.
When the preacher preached, everyone followed along in his own Bible. And I do mean his own Bible. At the denominations I had grown up attending, Bibles were placed in the backs of the pews with which anyone could follow along, if one so chose. However, the preaching typically featured such little actual Bible that those Bibles typically remained on the backs of the pews. But here, everyone clearly had brought his own Bible with him; and they were clearly well-acquainted with those Bibles, as they quickly riffled through the pages from one end of the Bible to the other. And they had to move quickly through the pages, as the preacher was throwing out more Bible in his sermon than I had probably ever heard in any five combined sermons previously. I observed people writing notes and underlining verses in their Bibles as the preaching continued. This was a level of studiousness during preaching with which I was unacquainted. These people were listening to every word, and closely comparing it with what they found in their Bibles.
Not only were they hanging on every word—I found that I was as well. This was preaching unlike any I had ever heard. The preacher was not simply telling stories or providing recollections of his past. He was speaking of matters pertaining to eternity, and proving directly from the Bible the truth of the points he made. I no longer recall the exact subject matter of the sermon, much less its title. But there was one statement the preacher made that shook me to the core. He said, “The purpose of your life is to do what’s necessary to go to heaven.”
When I relate that statement to people who have been reared in the church of Christ, they say, “Well, of course.” This is something they have heard their entire lives. But I did not hear it as I was growing up; not in the sermons, not in Sunday school, not in confirmation class. I was primarily reared as a Presbyterian; and although we were taught very little doctrine, I can see now that the doctrines of John Calvin underlaid what we were taught—and what we were not. This is why we were not taught that the purpose of one’s life is to do what is necessary to go to heaven—according to Calvin’s doctrines, whether or not one will go to heaven has already been predetermined. According to Calvin’s doctrines, once one has been saved, that person can never do anything to lose that salvation. So according to Calvin, your decisions and how you live your life ultimately have no effect on whether or not you will go to heaven.
But my religious upbringing was not limited to the sermons I heard as a youth, or to the Sunday school and confirmation classes I attended. As a preteen, I spent far more time reading the Bible than your average preteen. And I recall thinking when I was young, “Why does what I hear preached and taught at church seem so different from what I read in the Bible?”
But as I listened to this sermon, I wanted to exclaim, “Now that’s what I read in the Bible!” Carol would inform me later that the one preaching was no longer the regular preacher there, but had retired from full-time preaching and was filling in. From what I later learned about the regular preacher, the fact that I was able to hear this particular preacher was a very—shall we say, Providential (?)—turn of events. After the worship service, everyone wanted to meet me. Not to say that the denominational churches I attended were unfriendly, but this was an unexpected level of friendliness. Everyone smiled in a genuine way and shook my hand. Several said, “It’s good to know you,” as if we had made some lasting connection, as opposed to the more common but fleeting, “It’s good to meet you.” As we left, I had all sorts of questions for Carol about the church of Christ. When I got back to my parents’ house, I told them all about my visit there. And what had occurred would remain firmly in my mind for some time to come.
Over a year had passed since I had first—and last—visited an assembly of the church of Christ. That visit had made an impact on me, but that impact was nowhere visible in my life. When I was with my parents in Houston, on Sunday mornings I usually went with them to the Presbyterian church where they attended. Back at college in Denton, Texas, I visited a Presbyterian church with my girlfriend, who had also been reared in a Presbyterian home. But we only visited it once during that entire time. I was more typically found playing honky-tonks as a country and western musician, and living the party life to the full. Although I had been raised primarily Presbyterian, I was unquestionably living the life of a hedonist.
I knew I needed to do better. My roommate Matt and I would often say to each other, “We need to be in church!” But when Sunday mornings rolled around, our aching heads seemed incapable of straight thinking and we were not likely to turn our bloodshot eyes toward heaven.
But finally, one Sunday morning it happened—we were both awake at home at a decent hour and truly willing to attend a worship service—somewhere. But where? I still had thoughts in my mind about the church of Christ I had visited in Houston, and visiting a church of Christ in Denton would have been my first choice. But Matt said, “I’ve heard good things about Denton Bible Church.” At that time, to me any “church” was church, so his suggestion met my approval. I called them up to see what time their worship service was, and there was a problem—or was it Providence? Their worship service was at 11 a.m., and Matt had to be at work by noon; so the time was not going to work. I suggested, “Let’s call a church of Christ.” There were several in the phone book, and somehow or other I happened to call the only one in town that was doctrinally sound. I asked the young man who answered the phone what time their worship service was, and he responded, “It’s at ten.” Perfect! Or was it Providence?
I still have clear memories about our first visit to the Pearl Street church of Christ. We both felt somewhat out of place. I made an off-color joke to Matt as we found a seat. As with the church of Christ in Houston, there was that singing with no instrumental accompaniment. There was that preaching with all that Bible. When the Lord’s supper was passed around, Matt had a tray with unleavened bread on his lap, and he leaned over to me and asked me out of the corner of my mouth, “What am I supposed to do?” I chuckled and told him; but I only knew because I had observed what those around us did.
As we walked out of the assembly, I could not say with certainty what our likelihood was to return. However, as in Houston, we encountered such warm hospitality in the foyer as to guarantee our return. As we left, several people said to us, “Hope to see you tonight!”
“Tonight”? We had only intended to punch our card by attending once per week, Sunday morning. We saw that as a major improvement over our preceding attendance record. Nonetheless, we soon found ourselves regularly attending multiple times per week. We regularly attended Sunday evening worship. We attended the Wednesday night Bible class, our group being comprised of college students and others in their twenties. We found ourselves participating in in-depth discussions on Biblical passages and doctrinal and moral issues, the likes of which I had never experienced before. But every time we walked out the doors of the building, we went back to living the way we had before we ever entered.
One afternoon, I was coming up the back stairs of the fraternity house where I resided. I had gone downstairs to use the ice machine to fill the ice chest I was carrying, loaded with a beverage that I did not need. As I came to the top of the stairs, I saw Matt coming up the opposite stairs, accompanied by the two elders from the Pearl Street congregation. I quickly set the ice chest in my room, shut the door, and led Matt and the two elders down the back stairs.
We were standing in the large room where most of the fraternity’s parties were centered. As we spoke, behind the elders was the large D.J. booth from which loud music emanated on a typical weekend night. The elders were talking about the church at Pearl Street: “As you can see, we are a conservative congregation.” They were asking us to place membership with them. I knew the preacher usually asked any who wished to place membership to come forward at the invitation, but I was largely unfamiliar with how this was done. I asked, “What do we do?” One of the elders responded, “You’re a big boy— you can do it.”
I was out of town on the Sunday night when Matt went forward to place membership at Pearl Street, but I went forward the following Wednesday night. Not being sure exactly what to do, I handed the preacher the card indicating my desire to place membership, and I stood next to him as I continued to sing the invitation song.
Now that we saw ourselves as members, our attitudes changed—even if our lives away from the church building did not. Matt in particular began involving himself in the work of the church. Then after services one Wednesday night, the elders came up to us as we sat in the pew and said, “Can we talk?” Of course we were willing to talk, although we had no idea what the subject would be. One of the elders asked us, “What is your religious background?” I said, “I grew up mostly Presbyterian, but my family sometimes attended Baptist and Lutheran churches.” Matt responded, “I went to a Catholic school for a little while, but I grew up… whatever.” He had not grown up attending a church of any kind.
The same elder was shaking his head. He said to me, “We saw one of the visitor’s cards you filled out where you said the church you regularly attend was St. Thomas Presbyterian Church in Houston.” Matt and I had been attending Pearl Street for a couple months now, and I had indicated the same on several visitor’s cards. I nodded my assent. He proceeded, “I’m sorry. You have to be baptized into the church of Christ to be a member. We shouldn’t have asked you to place membership. But you two dress right for worship and are always on time, and we assumed you were members.”
They were obviously indicating that they no longer were considering us members. I was not tremendously bothered by this, perhaps in part because of my discomfort in my personal “placing membership” process. I could tell the elders were highly embarrassed to be in the position they were in and to be telling us what they were telling us; but I assured them, “That’s fine—don’t worry about it.” However, when I looked back at Matt, I could tell that he did not feel the same.
Matt and I were no longer regarded as members of the congregation we had been attending. Of course, we had never even done what the Bible teaches is necessary to become Christians, but we did not quite understand that. So late that Wednesday night after we were informed of our new status—or lack thereof—Matt loudly lamented, “They ganked our membership!” He was at least half joking; but it was not the last time that refrain would pass his lips.
We continued attending as we had previously, and we were learning more as we went. Matt noticed some peculiarities (from our denominational point of view) that had escaped my attention, such as the absence of any crosses displayed in the “sanctuary” and of any observance of Christmas. I recall the fear struck into me the first time I heard the song “Almost Persuaded,” with the ominous warning at its close:
“Almost” cannot avail;
“Almost” is but to fail;
Sad, sad, that bitter wail
Gary and Barb Summers, the preacher and his wife, invited Matt and me over to their house for supper more than once, after which we would have a short Bible study.
During one such study, Gary was showing us that, in the Bible, baptism always refers to immersion. I asked him somewhat confrontationally, “So do you think my Presbyterian baptism is baptism?” Of course, Presbyterians typically sprinkle water on a person, most often on a young child, and never for the remission of sins (against Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16; I Pet. 3:21; et al.). Most of the Presbyterian sprinkling ceremonies I observed were essentially “baby dedication services,” where the parents committed to providing their child a Christian upbringing. When I asked Gary the aforementioned question, I expected him to back off or apologize—but he didn’t. He simply and honestly said, “No.” That frankness was what I needed.
I was soon attending Bible class and worship at the Pearl Street congregation by myself. Unfortunately, Matt’s attendance gradually waned until he stopped coming altogether. I had a girlfriend I had been dating for almost three years, and she never attended with me (we did break up around this time). I tried encouraging some of my fraternity brothers to attend with me. One agreed to go with me, but after a late Saturday night, I could not wake him up on time on Sunday morning. My perseverance in attempting to wake him prevented me from making Pearl Street’s worship service that morning.
He then talked me into attending “Sunday Morning on the Square.” This was a “nondenominational” (read “loosely Baptist”) worship service held in the old downtown theater at 11, a time apparently selected to entice hungover college students. As we entered and took our seats, I could not help but notice that I was the only person there wearing a coat and tie. Their idea of spiritual songs was a rock band on stage playing “Spirit in the Sky” and an instrumental “Sweet Home Alabama.” The “sermon” was a 5-minute “Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy” pep talk. As we left, my fraternity brother was raving about the enjoyable worship service. I was disgusted. A year earlier, I may have had no problem with a worship service like that; but I knew better now. From then on, I was going to be at the Pearl Street church of Christ, even if I had to go alone.
I was forming bonds with some of the members at Pearl Street. Outside of regular meeting times, I began getting together with a few of the members to play old-time country music at one of their homes. Observing them and their conduct showed me a different way to live, a way that harmonized with the sermons I heard preached from the pulpit.
I was understanding more and more of what I needed to do. I had previously thought I was a Christian. As do most people, I assumed that simply considering oneself a Christian made one a Christian. But I had never done what the Bible teaches is necessary to become a Christian. And I was seeing that my life was sorely out of harmony with what the Bible teaches is the Christian life. There was no “holy” in the life I was living. I needed wholesale change.
Months continued to go by, and I was understanding my need to change more and more. But even though I continued to attend regularly, my life outside the church building remained largely unchanged. I understood that Christianity was an all or nothing proposition, and I was not quite at the point of giving all. However, in my mind, I was drawing closer. Surprising many, I gave away and threw out several possessions pertaining to my old life. I was getting ready to be come a Christian.
Then all at once, several things happened which hindered my forward spiritual progress. As the school semester drew to a close, I decided to suspend my college education indefinitely. I took a short vacation with Matt and another friend to Lake of the Ozarks. I got a new serious girlfriend. I started a new full-time job. The country and western band I was in re-formed in a new iteration to play the North Texas nightclubs. I moved out of the fraternity house into an apartment. All of these things happened within a few weeks. Perhaps none of these things, individually or collectively, truly stopped my obedience to the Gospel. But they were distractions.
When I returned home from my vacation, I vaguely decided I would not go back to Pearl Street until I was ready to be baptized. I had missed several church services, and I was too embarrassed to face the members and answer the inevitable question, “Where have you been?” Because, in my mind. the potential question pierced deeper than my physical location. Where I had been was the same place I would have been when the question was asked—lost. I knew Christianity was an all-or-nothing proposition, and I had been “almost persuaded” to give all. I had no doubt it was worth it. But somehow, I chose nothing.
It would be almost two years before I would set foot in another assembly of the church of Christ.
I had quit attending the church of Christ I had been visiting for the previous several months. I was now back to living full-time in the world—Sundays and Wednesday nights included. But one significant thing had changed from before I started attending—now, I knew better. Before, I knew that I needed to be “in church.” Now, I knew not only that I needed to be present on Sunday morning for worship services in a church building of some kind, but I knew that I needed to be a member of the church of which one reads in the Bible.
And a large part of me wanted to know better yet. I began reading the Bible from cover to cover. I studied whatever Bible literature I could get in my hands. At work, I had internet access, and thereby was able to read Gary Summers’ bulletin articles online. I wanted to understand the Bible; I wanted to know the Truth; I wanted to be able to make the right choices in life.
Another part of me was looking for an easy way out. The church of Christ was demanding large scale lifestyle changes from me that I was not ready to make. Surely I could find a less demanding church where I could still please God—couldn’t I?
An old friend was encouraging me to attend church with her. She and I would occasionally discuss religious matters, and she strongly held to Baptist doctrine. Even though I was not as equipped with Biblical answers as I should have been, I knew that much of what she was advocating (including salvation by faith only and once-saved-always-saved) did not harmonize with the Bible. I attended with her once at Denton Bible Church, the place where Matt and I had first planned to attend before our schedule conflicted. I thought the preaching there was reasonably thought-provoking; but I knew the worship, featuring instrumental music and solos, was not right. I certainly knew their “plan of salvation” was unbiblical.
I attended the Methodist church a few times with my girlfriend. I recognized some of my former fellow-students from the College of Music singing with the church chorus and playing with the brass band. I wanted to think they were there because of their convictions, but I knew that at least some of them were only there because it was a paid gig. One time as we were walking through the parking lot, a group of protesters was there. They were protesting because the local abortion “doctor” attended that Methodist church. I smiled and said, “Hi,” to one of the protesters as I passed, as was my custom when I encountered a fellow human being. However, my girlfriend was quite irate with me.
Abortion was one area where we disagreed. Prior to my attendance at the Pearl Street church of Christ, I was fairly ambivalent on the issue of abortion; but after considering the matter from a Biblical perspective, I had become strongly “pro-life.” My girlfriend was not. She and I disagreed on other matters where the Bible came into play. I had come to understand that men are to take the leadership role in the home and in the church, but she disagreed. To make her point, she would speak of the husband-wife team that “pastored” the Methodist church she attended in Kansas when she was young. As it turned out, the members preferred the wife’s preaching to the husband’s preaching, which eventually led the husband to commit suicide. I never could understand how this was an example in favor of female leadership in the church.
Nonetheless, by and large, my girlfriend and I got along very well. I re-enrolled in college, and the two of us graduated at the same time. It seemed inevitable to all that knew us that we would eventually be married. The two of us felt the same; and as we closed the “College” chapter in our lives, I was preparing to move toward beginning the “Engagement” chapter.
However, there was something I knew I had to take care of first. Even though it had been over a year and a half since I had attended an assembly of the church of Christ, I knew at some point I had to become a Christian. Not merely a nominal “Christian” as the world uses the term, but a Christian as defined by the New Testament. And I knew I could not wait until after marriage to do this. I knew my girlfriend’s problems with certain Biblical teachings. I knew my becoming a Christian would make our relationship significantly more complex, and to obey the Gospel after marriage would have been to throw a monkey wrench into our machinery.
Furthermore, I was genuinely worried about my soul. I had completed reading the Bible in its entirety, and I knew that it called me to swift obedience rather than perpetual procrastination. I knew that delay was playing with fire; I knew that if the Lord were to return, I was unprepared. On a Wednesday afternoon in February, I stopped by the church building at Pearl Street to see if Gary Summers was in. I needed to talk with him, but I was nervous. Passages such as Hebrews 6:4-6 weighed on my mind:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened…and have tasted the good word of God…if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
I mistakenly thought such passages could possibly mean that it was too late for me to obey the Gospel, since I had essentially rejected it when I had heard it before. I wondered if hope for me was gone.
Earlier in this account, I had stated that the time I ceased attending the Pearl Street congregation was the same time I suspended my college education and began working full-time. Upon reflection, I realize this occurred a year earlier. I was never enrolled as a full-time college student while attending Pearl Street, although I remained living in the fraternity house throughout my initial period of attendance at Pearl Street.
On a Wednesday afternoon, I approached the Pearl Street church building after almost two years away. I wondered if hope was gone for me. I wondered if Gary Summers, the preacher there, would send me away when he saw me.
This obviously was not the case. He received me warmly, and we discussed what had happened to me and where I was spiritually.
That evening, I attended Bible class there. The students in the “college and young marrieds” class were almost—if not entirely—different than they had been when I attended previously. I noticed a young lady with pretty blue eyes who had on a little more makeup than the women at Pearl Street usually wore. Afterwards, the college and young marrieds class met at a new ice cream parlor on the square, and we were spread across several tables. I was sitting at a table with Gary and Barb Summers doing some catching up. The young lady with the pretty blue eyes and the makeup came up to our table. Gary and Barb introduced us, saying to me, “This is Kelley.” I never would have imagined this was my future wife.
In the meanwhile, I was trying to prepare my present girlfriend for the changes that were coming to my life and to our relationship. She tried to be supportive, even if she did not see eye to eye with me.
I attended Pearl Street the next Sunday morning and evening. I noticed Kelley was not there. The following evening, I visited Gary at his house. There were a few uncertainties in my mind that I needed to clear up, and through looking at the Bible, we arrived at clarity. I asked him, “When are people usually baptized?” He informed me that many choose to do it by responding to the invitation during an assembly, but other people are baptized at other times. I responded, “How about now?”
The night had grown somewhat late, but Gary and Barb were able to call an elder and a few other members to meet us at the building. I was riding with Gary in his car; and as I was somewhat nervous (those who have ridden with Gary will understand), I was silently praying, “Please, Father, just let me be baptized first before I die.”
The genuine joy I experienced when I emerged from the baptistery waters has never been surpassed in my life. I remember the happiness I felt when the elder present welcomed me as his “brother.” I felt relief at knowing I was free from my Everest of sin.
But not everyone shared my joy. Although they were generally happy for me, my parents seemed somewhat perplexed initially as to why I had done what I had done. My girlfriend said, “A cold chill ran down my spine,” when I informed her. Her premonition was correct. We remained a couple for another nine and a half months; but our relationship proved incompatible with my Christianity. This became especially clear once I seriously began considering becoming a Gospel preacher.
The Wednesday following my baptism, as I sat down in the college and young marrieds Bible class, I could feel an electricity in the air. Those present were chatting excitedly. I asked, “What’s going on?” One young lady turned to me and said, “Kelley was baptized!” As it turns out, the reason Kelley had been absent the previous Sunday was because she had traveled down to the area south of Fort Worth where her extended family lived.
Although she had been reared in a Baptist home, when she was around the age of nineteen, she attended a church of Christ with her extended family. After observing the worship and hearing the teaching, Kelley had many questions; and she began studying the Bible in depth with her extended family. When she moved to Denton for college, they encouraged her to attend Pearl Street. She began understanding and appreciating more and more what she needed to do, so she decided to be baptized at the congregation where she had first attended, where the extended family who had taught her the Truth could be with her for the most important occasion in her life.
After the young lady said that Kelley had been baptized, Gary spoke up and added, “Lee was also baptized.” The hubbub went silent, and every eye turned toward me.
After class, Kelley caught me in the hall, and said, “We have to talk!” Indeed, we did.
I have long entertained the thought of writing about my conversion. Other brethren to whom I have told portions of this account orally in the past have told me they found it encouraging and helpful. Some of them suggested that I should write or speak publicly about it. A few things have hindered me from writing about this previously: (1) It bears similarities to the denominational practices of “giving testimony” and of relating one’s “experience” as proof of the genuineness of one’s conversion; (2) It could suggest that my conversion is somehow more important than those of others; and (3) I could not write honestly about my conversion without alluding to my past sins.
I finally decided that there was enough potential value in writing of my conversion to overcome these hindrances.
With regard to (1): While similarities are there to the aforementioned denominational practices, clear differences exist as well. Nothing in my conversion account serves as proof of my conversion except where my actions agree with what God’s word says is necessary for conversion—hearing and believing the Gospel (Rom. 1:16; 10:17), repenting of sins (Acts 3:19), confessing Christ (Rom. 10:9-10), and being baptized (Rom. 6:3-5). Nothing in this account is intended as authoritative; no one should pay more heed to what I say because of what has happened to me—one should only pay heed to what I say as it agrees with God’s word (Acts 17:11).
As for (2), every true conversion to Christ is infinitely valuable (Matt. 16:26)—I am simply better able to speak with regard to my own. To be honest, this series turned much more verbose than I ever envisioned.
Regarding (3), speaking of my past sins is something with which I am uncomfortable. Paul asks, “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:21). This is not to say that I have been perfectly sinless in every way, but I wholly abandoned the particular sins mentioned in this series when I became a Christian. But my intent was not to write an autobiographical hagiography; my need was to be honest, and my intent was to be helpful. Completely glossing over my sinful past would fail on both accounts.
What lessons might be gleaned from this conversion account? First of all, that some lost souls who have never heard the pure Gospel will heed if given the chance. Secondly, that patience (“longsuffering,” 2 Tim. 4:2) and understanding are necessary when dealing with human beings and bringing their lives into harmony with God’s word. Finally, and most importantly, it is my hope that someone who is in a similar lost state such as I was in will read this account, and realize that it is not too late to be saved—but it is of utmost urgency.