Birthplace of a president’s faith


One of the places I consider a “hometown” is the tiny town of Magnolia, Ky., located in the tiny county of LaRue. Our county’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of the 16th president. Of course, when Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, LaRue County did not exist. We were part of neighboring Hardin County. Many people do not know that Lincoln was a Kentuckian by birth, which is understandable. The Thomas Lincoln family left Kentucky for Indiana when Abraham was just a boy. Still, I love telling people where I’m from and offering up little factoids about our most famous son’s boyhood. On the bicentennial of the president’s birth, I wrote this story which was picked up nationally by Baptist Press.

Because of the volatile times into which Lincoln was born and to which he later contributed epic volatility, the question of his faith is one that fascinates many. We know Lincoln had crippling bouts of depression and suffered terrible losses in his life even before he became president. And the burden he experienced as commander in chief during the catastrophe of the American Civil War is one few of us could comprehend. I was intrigued to learn more about what is actually known about Mr. Lincoln’s view of God and Christianity. 

As Kentucky launches a two-year bicentennial celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln enthusiasts are sharing their views on the president’s spiritual journey — a journey that, like the man, began in the commonwealth of Kentucky.

Born three miles south of Hodgenville on April 12, 1809, Lincoln was only 2 years old when the family moved about seven miles northeast to a farm along Knob Creek. It was here that the future president’s parents, Thomas and Nancy, took the family to Little Mount Baptist Church.

It was a Separatist congregation whose main clergyman was an abolitionist, said Gary Talley, pastor of Magnolia (Ky.) Baptist Church and retired chief of operations at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site.

“There’s always been a wide range of speculation about (Lincoln’s) faith since he was not really affiliated with a particular church,” said Talley, who worked at the birthplace nearly 30 years. “But I really think his life seemed to reflect someone God was able to use for a purpose.”

According to Ronald Rietveld, professor emeritus at California State University in Fullerton, Lincoln’s lack of church affiliation, and the controversial writings of one of his former law partners, paint an incomplete picture of the president’s views about God, the Bible and the Gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ.

“In the end, his faith is his own,” said Rietveld, an ordained Baptist minister. “It isn’t something he has parroted from any particular church or movement.”

Many historians agree that the Lincolns’ anti-slavery sentiments were cemented, in part, because they regularly saw slaves driven past their Knob Creek farm.

“Bardstown was a major slave market,” said LaRue County Judge Executive Tommy Turner, co-chairman of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. “The Lincolns lived along the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike,” a major artery through the state, he said.

“Seeing people in chains, families that were driven down the road like cattle, and all the horrors associated with that,” Talley said, “one would not be able to look at something like that and not be repulsed.”

The early 19th century was a time of church disputes that foreshadowed the traumatic political and military conflict yet to come. “South Fork (Baptist Church) was quite severely divided over the issue of slavery,” Talley noted.

Lincoln scholar Louis Warren wrote that 15 members of South Fork left the church over the issue in 1805 to form the Little Mount congregation about three miles from Lincoln’s boyhood home.

In that home young Abraham experienced his greatest spiritual influence, his mother. As president, Lincoln recalled his mother’s love for the Bible and how she taught her children Bible verses. In later years, the president “said he could hear her voice in certain scriptures,” Rietveld reported.

In 1816 the Lincolns left Kentucky for Indiana. Two years later, Nancy died. A local man, perhaps a Baptist layman, “prayed over her grave,” Rietveld writes, but later 9-year-old Abraham penned a letter to the pastor of Little Mount Baptist, asking him to travel from Kentucky to perform a proper funeral service.

“For a 9-year-old boy to want the preacher to come and preach his mother’s funeral — at a time when a 75-mile trip was a big deal — shows he had a very high regard for who that preacher was and the things he would say,” Turner said. The pastor honored the family’s request.

Scholars speculate there were aspects of the Lincolns’ strict Separatist teachings that perhaps chafed on Abraham as he reached adulthood. Perhaps his dismay was best illustrated when he decided not to join his father’s church in Indiana even though he helped construct the building.

According to Frank Masters’ “A History of Baptists in Kentucky,” many Separatist churches embraced Calvinist teachings so rigidly they eventually rejected missionary endeavors. Some scholars believe Thomas Lincoln’s Indiana congregation subscribed to such teachings.

By 1830, at the age of 22, Lincoln “seems to have held unorthodox religious views when he openly expressed skepticism toward the religion of his parents,” Rietveld wrote. Among those ideas was that God was without wrath or anger; 34 years later, it was obvious that opinion had changed radically.

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address “he deals with the issue of slavery but … in the context of God’s judgment,” Rietveld said, noting that the speech contains three quotations from the Bible and 10 allusions to Scripture. Other speeches followed a similar pattern.

Rietveld’s interest in Lincoln began about 50 years ago. In 2006 he devoted six months to organizing his decades of research with a specific goal in mind: writing an overview of the spiritual journey of the president.

“I’d never seen anyone pull those things together in one article,” he said. The view that Lincoln was not a believer because he never joined a church is a shallow one, Rietveld said. “I call it ‘churchianity.’ … I see a difference in the Lincoln who didn’t join a church and the Lincoln who has a growing relationship with God.”

The opinion of William Herndon has had a great influence on the topic of Lincoln and religion, Rietveld said. Only a year after the president’s assassination, Josiah Holland, an editor and devout Christian, wrote a best-selling biography of Lincoln that characterized him as “a true-hearted Christian.”

Rietveld said the description offended Herndon, one of Lincoln’s former law partners in Springfield, Ill., who said the president “held many of the Christian ideas in abhorrence.” Herndon’s writings characterized Lincoln as “an infidel” and a man “living on the borderland between theism and atheism.”

Rietveld said Herndon’s words are “not a fair estimation at all,” of Lincoln’s spiritual views. “Herndon never knew, in a personal daily way, Lincoln’s life in the White House years,” Rietveld said. “The Lincoln of the war years is a man whose faith deepened through crisis, repeatedly.”

When the president and his wife, Mary, arrived in Washington, they already had lost a son, Eddie, to illness; in 1862, another son, Willie, died. Biographer Ida Tarbell wrote that after Willie died, Lincoln’s “personal relation to God occupied his mind much.”

His faith also matured through the fires of war and the issue of slavery. Although finding slavery morally repugnant, Lincoln attempted to compromise on the issue, rather than risk secession by the Southern states. His attitude was transformed by war and a renewed conviction about the evil trade, Rietveld said.

“Today if a politician were to change views that like, he’d be called wishy washy,” Turner observed. “When you look at Lincoln, you have to look at his life as a whole. Religion and spirituality played a very strong part in his later life.”

In his research, Rietveld found a dramatic statement by Phineas Gurley, pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., that seems to support this assertion. The Lincolns attended Gurley’s church regularly during their Washington D.C. years.

The pastor maintained that after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln said he intended to make “a public profession of his Christian faith.” He died before he could make a public profession but Rietveld said he has no doubt Lincoln was “a biblical Christian.”

“I would have liked to see Lincoln make a more definitive statement about his faith,” Talley said, “but maybe he made the most definitive statement he could simply by his actions.”

Lincoln was in Kentucky less than a decade, but Talley said he believes the experiences of this “LaRue County boy,” and the family in which he was raised, had a profound effect on the future president’s life and faith. “By the time he left Kentucky, the foundation had been laid for what he was later in life.”

Feb. 12, 2008 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

Standing in the gap for George


Children’s homes don’t get many doorstep babies anymore. You know, the proverbial infant in a basket or box wrapped in whatever covering a desperate, and often young, mother can find. Thankfully, many more and superior options are available today, even for those in the direst of straits. Below is the story of how a community stood in the gap for a sort-of doorstep baby, and remained there for more than seven decades. 

“Mother: deceased. Father: whereabouts unknown. Child’s condition at time of entrance: skin and bones, rickets.”

The words on the faded page tell the story of George Washington Lawson Jr.’s arrival to the Louisville Baptist Orphans’ Home in 1928. He was a little more than eight months old.

At the age of six, Lawson could say only a few one-syllable words. He never scored higher than a 42 on an IQ test. He worked as a janitor at Spring Meadows Children’s Home in Middletown.

Lawson never owned a car or a home. He never voted or took a cruise. He never married or had children, yet at his recent funeral, the service had to be moved to a larger room because of the overflow crowd.

Before the service ended, the mourners gathered around Lawson’s casket and applauded the man to whom non were related by blood, but who shared the bond of a different sort of family.

“We’ve lost a tie to our past as an agency,” said Mike Dixon, vice president of religious life at KBC, and Lawson’s legal guardian.

“It’s a tribute to Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children that, for the last 72 years, George has been a part of who we are,” Dixon added.

While other children at the Louisville Baptist Orphans’ Home were adopted, placed with relatives or moved on to independence, Lawson stayed in the care of the Kentucky Baptist ministry that began in 1869.

Efforts were made to enroll Lawson in the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville to get some help with his speech difficulties. Lawson spent some time in a class for the deaf in the Louisville school district, then the home received a terse letter in 1937 from the district stating, “We can do very little to help George.”

“The school system gave up on George, but the home didn’t turn him away,” Dixon said. “ We never said, ‘We can’t take care of George.’”

Dixon said Lawson brought out the best in people. “Whenever I was with George, my smile-o-meter would go up,” he said. “I know I’d get an extra 10 or 15 smiles just by being with him. And when I was with him, I was always interacting with someone because people just responded to him. He was an accepting, wonderful individual.”

In 1949, the home moved from downtown Louisville to Middletown. Lawson worked and lived on the campus until his retirement in the mid-1990s.

“No matter who the director or CEO was,” Dixon said, “George always had his space.”

J.D. Herndon, superintendent of Spring Meadows from 1959 to 1969 remembered Lawson as an asset to the home.

“George was always busy doing what needed to be done, and there was something about him that people responded to,” Herndon said.

Kentucky Baptists met Lawson’s material needs as individual donors, as the Spring Meadows Auxiliary and as KBC staff members, according to Dixon, Herndon and Larry Dauenhauer, KBC’s former vice president for administrative services.

It was Herndon who wrote Selective Service on Lawson’s behalf when he was drafted in 1961. It was Dauenhauer who helped manage Lawson’s finances and purchased furnishings for his apartment. And, when Lawson retired, it was Dixon who became Lawson’s’ legal guardian, overseeing Lawson’s medical care and his move to the Baptist Towers retirement home.

“George is a symbol to me of what it’s all about,” Dauenhauer said. “The effort was well done. Kentucky Baptists were willing to look out for George when there was no one else.”

The channel of blessing went both ways, according to Herndon and Dixon.

“We always had George over for Christmas every year,” Herndon said. “And he always had a present for each of our three daughters. Even after we left Spring Meadows, whenever he saw me, he would always ask about my wife and our daughters by name.”

The last eight years of George’s life, most Saturdays would find him with Dixon and Dixon’s daughter, Bri, who is mentally disabled.

“No matter who you were, George always told you how pretty you were,” Dixon said. “And he would always tell people, ‘I’m older than you.’ Who wouldn’t want to be told they aren’t the oldest one in the room? He reminded us all how young we could be.”

May 22, 2001 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

‘Christianity Has No Color’

Handshake between african male and caucasian woman

Yesterday marked 152 years since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, yet 2014 likely will be remembered for some time in the U.S. for its racial conflict, simultaneously when our first African American president was in his second term. It’s discouraging, to say the least, but the story of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and its racially diverse congregation continues to inspire me, so much so that I became a member of the church myself. Check out the .pdf for a snapshot of just how diverse we are: bcafeaturestory I was humbled to receive a first place award from BCA for this one. Here’s the story:

“As a body of Christians, we deplore the un-Christian practices so widely prevalent in many of our racial relationships.”

The wording might seem tepid in today’s social climate, but in 1937, messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention made history when they passed the SBC’s first resolution on race.

Today, according to the SBC, nearly one in five of all Southern Baptist churches in the U.S. are comprised primarily of non-Anglo members. In Kentucky, 23 of the 45 new churches started in 2006 were ethnic congregations, mostly Hispanic, according to the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Still, the two largest racial groups in Kentucky, Anglos and African-Americans, largely remain segregated on Sundays, even in communities where blacks and whites are neighbors.

An exception in KBC life is Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, a community of faith that reflects its community of residence. Charlie Davis has served as pastor for 18 years. He said the neighborhood has become more racially diverse in that time. Today, he estimates, about 15 percent of local residents are African-American.

“Thirty to 40 percent of our new members over the past five years have been black,” he added. About 350 people attend Sunday services each week.

When Dwight and Berniece Allen first came to Hunsinger Lane, there were very few other black faces in the congregation, they said. Previously the couple attended churches where most of members were black.

Mrs. Allen said when God led her to Hunsinger Lane, she asked Him, “Are you sure?”

That was 12 years ago. Today, she teaches an adult Sunday school class that mirrors the racial diversity of the church.

Dwight Allen, a Louisville native, endured bussing, a segregated city park system and other forms of racial discrimination as a child. He admits he carried bitterness from those experiences, but credits God, and a black pastor’s attempt to build a partnership with an Anglo congregation, for letting go of the past.

“God helped me get past that, and when He did, He opened a whole new world to me,” Allen said.

That new world includes close friendships with white members of his church family, such as David and Sandra Derryberry.

Originally from Selma, Ala., David Derryberry said he was in the last all-white graduating class of his high school, then attended predominantly white colleges.

Having black friends was something “I’d never really thought about,” he said.

The Derryberrys moved to Louisville and in 1998 joined Hunsinger Lane. They are members of Mrs. Allen’s Sunday school class.

David Derryberry considers the Allens “God’s missionaries to the white people of the church to help us along” the path to racial diversity, a path that has had a few bumps along the way.

He said there have been gaffes, largely unintentional, that have caused hurt feelings between some of the Anglo and African-American members.

A sense of humor helps, Mrs. Allen said, recalling a white member who speculated the church would need to adjust its worship style to accommodate the new black members.

“I asked, ‘Have you been to all the black churches in town?’ … All black people don’t do things the same way, just like all white people don’t do things the same way.”

Derryberry and the Allens said most of the rifts have been temporary and became opportunities for spiritual maturity.

“We’re all still human. We’re going to hurt each other,” Derryberry said. “Thank God He forgives us and we can forgive each other.”

During tense times, Allen said, he has tried to be “open, honest and truthful” and allow God to work through the difficulties.

“That’s what growth is,” he said.

The three friends said talking about differences between the cultures instead of trying to ignore them reduces the common fear of saying something inappropriate.

As the friendships have grown, church members have become comfortable enough with one another to do some teasing, Mrs. Allen said. Once, a white member offered her coffee with the joking assumption that Mrs. Allen would “take it black.”

She said she laughed and replied, “I don’t even drink coffee.”

Davis said as more people of different races began attending Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church, some Anglo members approached him with concerns. “It was mostly fear of the unknown,” Davis said, but noted that interracial dating and marriage was mentioned most often, along with changes in worship style.

Some people “are more concerned with their child marrying someone of another race than if their child married a non-Christian,” he said.

The Bible clearly accepts marriages between people of different races, he added. “From what I’ve studied, the forbidding of marriages (had more to do with) God’s people marrying pagans.”

Pastor: Believers should re-examine the gospel

Mrs. Allen said she believes the reason Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians remain segregated on Sundays is because many people refuse to discuss the issue in the light of God’s teachings. “We don’t talk about it as Christians,” she said.

Some people believe differences in culture provide a sort of permission to keep blacks and whites separated on Sundays, Davis said. He disagrees strongly.

“Every aspect of our culture in the United States is integrated,” he said, noting schools, businesses and the legal definition of marriage are, by law, color blind.

“What that says is the world has less issue with the unity of race than the church does.” The ongoing segregation of churches, “is more than discouraging,” he added. “I think it’s a sin.”

Davis, Derryberry and the Allens credit God for the racial diversity and harmony at HLBC.

The issue cannot be addressed successfully through a book or a program, Davis explained. “It is a work of God’s Spirit through the gospel.

“The gospel provides all men and women with a new righteous standing before God. That’s part of the gospel,” he said. “The other part of the gospel is a social transformation … that because of the gospel, we as races and people come together, and come to one another, equally.

“That’s the part of the gospel that we as a church are not addressing,” he continued. He refers to this as an understanding of “our new race” as Christians.

Dwight Allen sums it up another way: “Christianity has no color.”

If a church wants to be more welcoming to people of other races, more is required than a couple of joint services annually with a congregation of another color, Mrs. Allen said.

Such efforts often accomplish little “other than to sit on the pew with someone of another race. … No real relationships are built.”

Davis agreed, noting that a racially diverse church family begins its journey worshiping together on Sunday mornings, then progresses outside the sanctuary.

At Hunsinger Lane, racial diversity extends to committees and the deacon board, the Sunday school class and also to the church staff.

A big step, Davis said, is when black or white homes are opened, perhaps for the first time, to people of another race.

“You have to pay attention to God and see how He wants to do it,” Derryberry said. “If you’re open to loving people, God’s going to bring you people to love. Some of them are going to be white; some of them are going to be black.”

Mrs. Allen said taking time to learn the racial and cultural make-up of the community around the church is important and can prevent members from seeming phony about efforts to be multi-cultural.

“Live who you are,” she said. “If you live in a diverse community, you should have a diverse church.”

Davis agreed. “I’m not saying every church should be fully integrated but I think every Christian church that says, ‘we believe the gospel’ should be working towards it.”

(With information from Baptist Press)

Feb. 10, 2009 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

Great Chicago Fire & altar calls


Wall Street Journal reporter Grant Wacker talks “Unbroken” film, Lou Zamperini’s turning point, Billy Graham and altar calls in this piece: http://preview.tinyurl.com/qazs44c

The act of walking the aisle of a church to convey publicly a spiritual decision is rooted in mid-19th century America, and, many say, by way of the Gospel of Matthew.

Biblical scholars point to several Scriptures they say support the “outward expression of an inward decision,” but Matthew 10:32-33 is perhaps the most often referenced: “Whoever acknowledges Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown him before My Father in heaven.”

Kentucky church growth experts Dan Garland and Thom Rainer agree that in Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches, baptism is considered by many as the ultimate act of public confession. Nevertheless, aisle-walking remains a “first step” of faith for many new believers.

If anyone could be dubbed the “father” of the altar call, it probably would be Charles Finney. The University of Virginia American Studies program provides one of many summaries of Finney’s background and ministry.

A Connecticut native and one-time lawyer, Finney was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1824. By 1830, he was one of the major figures of the Second Great Awakening—a period of Christian revival with Kentucky as one of its epicenters.

Encouraging listeners to repent and accept Christ as Savior, Finney would invite them to the “anxious seat,” also known as the “mourner’s bench,” at the front of a church or whatever gathering area was being used.

At the anxious seat, men, women and children would receive prayer and counsel from a pastor or other church leaders.

From the anxious seat came the “inquiry room,” a method brought into prominence by evangelist D.L. Moody, according to Daniel Whitesell’s book, “Great Personal Workers.”

When a message came to a time of decision, people who felt under conviction were led to a room away from the larger crowd where they could be counseled personally.

Some biographers tell the story of a Sunday night service in Chicago in 1871 that led Moody to emphasize immediate public decisions.

Reportedly, he asked the crowd gathered that night to ponder their spiritual condition and return the next week to further explore any decision they needed to make. But the infamous great Chicago fire broke out during the service, scattering the congregation and burning the church. There was no opportunity to regroup the following week.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s stadium-sized altar calls testify to the acceptance and effectiveness of the method, but pastors and biblical scholars are quick to point out that the act of walking an aisle or repeating a collection of phrases cannot be equated with a heart-felt acceptance of God’s grace through Christ.

“People can respond to Christ anywhere,” said Dan Garland, head of evangelism for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “I think the best venue of response is in the home—parents leading children to Christ, or children leading parents to Christ. Then, they come to church to have that decision affirmed.”

March 3, 2005 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editorWestern Recorder

A big step

business step

The story I’m posting is very meaningful to me, and not just because it garnered a first place award from the Baptist Communicators Association. Although that was really cool! This story, about the common practice of “walking the aisle” in evangelical churches, was a milestone in my writing career. I was early in my tenure at Western Recorder, the weekly newspaper of Kentucky Baptists, and then-News Director David Winfrey was about to become perhaps the most important writing mentor I’d ever had, even though he didn’t know it at the time. Here’s the story:

Longest Yards: Walking Aisle Stops Some Potential Church Members

Each Sunday, a group of worshippers scattered throughout various churches experience clammy hands, suddenly-sweaty brows and hearts hammering so hard their owners are certain everyone can hear.

These might resemble the symptoms of cardiac arrest, but for some people there is another cause for such discomfort: having to walk the aisle to join a local church.

While the tradition of walking the aisle dates back only about 150 years, for most Kentucky Baptists it is as time-honored as vacation Bible school and potluck dinners.

Kevin Hamm, pastor of Valley View Baptist Church in Louisville, recently asked whether tradition had become a barrier for some of the shyer souls who wanted to join the church.

“If we had people write down their five greatest fears, for a lot of them, their first fear would be standing up in front of a large group of strangers,” Hamm said.

That “short trip” down the aisle might be a journey some guests are unwilling to take, not because of their spiritual condition, but because they fear feeling the eyes of an entire congregation on them.

“Just because someone is afraid to walk the aisle doesn’t mean they are a closet Christian or not a sold-out believer,” Hamm said.

The extent of this fear was driven home, he said, while visiting a couple who frequently attended Valley View, but never had joined.

“They said they would probably never join the church because their fear of walking down the aisle was so high,” Hamm recalled. Approximately 2,300 people attend the two services Valley View hosts each Sunday.

The couple’s comments bothered Hamm enough that he wondered how visitors and regular attendees would respond if they could become church members without walking
the aisle.

To answer the question, church leaders scheduled a Commitment Sunday in January. Using a detailed bulletin insert and follow-up strategy, Valley View offered people attending the worship services that day a chance to join “from the pew.”

The bulletin insert directed people to indicate if they were joining through a statement of faith in Christ, a transfer of membership from another Baptist church, or if they wished to make a first-time profession of faith in Christ.

Hamm recalled that after the second morning service, he went to the church office to discover a small stack of inserts on his desk. Encouraged by the number, he said he was “amazed” when someone pointed to another desk with a large pile of inserts yet to be sorted.

Matching follow-up to response

In total, 152 people joined Valley View that Sunday. Of those, 96 new members already were Christians. The other 56 made first-time professions of faith, were enrolled in a new members’ class and were counseled regarding baptism.

Hamm said every new member received follow-up visits. A few cards referenced people who couldn’t be found, so they were not included as new members.

Church growth specialists applaud effort

“They (Valley View) have tapped into an alternate response that our churches might do well to offer from time to time,” said Dan Garland, leader of the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s church development and evangelism team. “Having people immediately available to follow up with these folks is imperative.”

Thom Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, agreed.

With appropriate follow-up, a from-the-pew opportunity does not circumvent a public confession of faith in Christ by a new believer, he said.

“The public profession is the time of baptism rather than aisle-walking or filling out a card,” Rainer said. “I’m not as concerned as to the mode of decision as the opportunity of decision,” he added.

Through research and consulting with “hundreds” of churches, Rainer said he believes there is “anecdotal evidence” that points to a reduction in altar calls in Baptist churches. “I have known some large churches that have commitment times once a month or once a quarter,” Rainer said. “I’m concerned about those people who have a sense of conviction other than at that time.”

Response & declining baptisms

Noting there is “no hard data” at this time to support such a trend, Rainer said the decline in baptisms in Southern Baptist churches could be a result of providing fewer opportunities for worshipers to share spiritual decisions with others.

“I don’t have an answer as to why we’re moving away from a time of decision in a service,” he said. “I believe that every message, every service, should lead toward a decision. There should be some opportunity for response.”

But, in some cases, a reprieve from aisle-walking could provide an opportunity for a clearer understanding of salvation for some people, he said. Aisle-walking “serves a purpose very well that is often misused,” Rainer said.

“On the one hand, it is a time of affirmation to see decisions that have been made. On the other hand, theologically, some of our church members equate walking the aisle with salvation.”

A 2004 study by his Rainer Group research team asked a group of current church members “diagnostic” questions about the method and meaning of salvation.

Rainer said the results found many “unregenerate” members who did not have a biblical view of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

“We found that around 45 percent were probably unregenerate members,” Rainer said. “I emphasize probably. We cannot know the true heart condition of a person. No kind of research can know with certainty matters of salvation.”

Providing different methods of response could facilitate a better understanding of the gospel, he said.

Hamm said he is also concerned that visitors, regular attendees or even church members are misunderstanding basic facts of faith.

“(Baptists) have to be very strategic and thorough in our follow-up from the altar to the baptismal waters,” he said.

“Seeker-friendly” approaches

Hamm, Garland and Rainer agree that aisle-walking is here to stay and that the tradition has many positive aspects.

“It’s an encouragement to the church body to see how God is working in a service,” Rainer said.

“I believe in walking the aisle,” Hamm said, noting that on Valley View’s Commitment Sunday, when worshipers had the option to join from the pew, a number of people still walked the aisle in response to the invitation.

He said the church might offer the bulletin-insert approach once or twice annually.

Garland said more churches should seek such “seeker-friendly” approaches.

“We have to meet people where they are. We think you have to get saved at church or at youth camp,” he said. “The key is to find creative ways people can respond to Christ.”

March 3, 2005 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

Want to see the layout? Here’s the .pdf: bcainterpreporting

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