By Jessica Blane
When I was young, about 8 or 9 years old, I loved everything about church. I didn’t feel forced to go. I didn’t complain about going or beg to just stay home like some other children might. I didn’t feel bored there or daydream about doing something else to fill my time. This was all in light of the fact that my parents did not attend church, so I willingly and happily went each Sunday with my grandma who also happened to be my next door neighbor. Each Sunday morning, I would grab my shiny New Adventure Bible, money from my mom for the offering, and I would walk to my grandma’s house before heading to church.
Our Sunday school teachers were one of the main reasons why I loved church so much. One of them was my own Aunt Linda, and the other was a very nice lady who made things fun, was kind, and didn’t seem to mind dealing with the adolescent mischief (cough, my old brother, cough). The two of them put together teams of kids and we competed against each other in what we called Bible Bowl. Each Bowl was compiled of study questions, team names, and REAL BUZZERS. To my 8-year-old self, this was pretty stinking cool. Obviously I took my study guides home each week, filled them out, and eventually won the top spot of captain on my team. I loved it! I loved class. I loved God. And life was good.
When the representatives from a nearby church came to visit us to talk to the kids about their camp, I was over the moon. We watched a fun video of all the things we would be doing. With campfires and bunk beds, I knew I had to go. I mean, what kind of team captain would I be if I didn’t? I felt it my duty to attend, have the time of my life with my friends, and learn more about God. Knowing that a few of my close friends were going to the same camp helped me gain courage to attend. Although I had been to many sleepovers, I was still a bit nervous about being away from home for a week. While I wouldn’t have necessarily called myself quiet or shy, I knew I would be too scared to go if I didn’t have other friends with me.
FROM LOVE TO FEAR
I would have never thought going into this camp that I would come out with an entirely changed view of church as a whole, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. After a day or so at camp, we had a night where all the kids and counselors met in the auditorium for gathering and worship. I was of course sitting by my friends and all was going well. Soon after our worship songs, one of the leaders at the camp came onto the microphone and started speaking about what it means to be baptized. Now, at this point in my life, I had not yet been baptized. It was not at all because I didn’t believe in God. In hindsight, at such a young age, I honestly don’t think I could wrap my head around what it meant to be a true believer. I was still learning.
Now, I look back and realize that at that pivotal time, I was on a wonderful path of building my relationship with God and understanding more of the Bible. I was not against being baptized, I just simply had not done it. As the speaker continued, he explained how important it was to be baptized. He then said, “If you are a believer of God, you need to be baptized and you’ll go to Heaven. Because, my friends, if you have not been baptized, and something were to happen to you tomorrow, you would not go to Heaven.”
I understand that this should probably lead people in the direction of immediately getting baptized. However, other thoughts and feelings started flooding my mind. I felt nervous. I felt scared. I felt a little bit ashamed that I was one of those people he was talking about. I had a pit in my stomach and I wanted to call my mom and go home. To make matters worse for me, the speaker asked that all children who had not been baptized walk to the front of the auditorium. My friends from home, who had all been baptized, of course looked at me with a “Go on, go up there!” look. I was flushed red with embarrassment and was trying to hold the tears back.
As an adult, some may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? That’s not that bad.” But as a shy young kid, being called out on something and then having to go up in front of everyone felt humiliating to me. After I walked up front, I realized of course that of the hundreds of kids in the gym, there were not too many standing up there with me. We said our names over a microphone and were all asked if we might want to be baptized that very week in the campground pool. Lots of kids at the front seemed excited and overjoyed, saying “Yes! I want to be baptized this week!”
When the leaders got to me, I nodded in agreement, not knowing how else to respond, but still trying to hold back my tears. From that point forward, my attitude had changed, and my young, bright, happy spirit had pulled back into my shell a bit. I knew that I believed in God and knew that I wanted to spend my life serving Him, but my idea of salvation quickly changed to, “You must participate in water baptism or else…” This is not what God wants for us, friends. Not pressure and forcefulness. Salvation means true acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ; baptism is merely a symbolic act to show the birth of a new ‘you’ and a follower and believer.
For the rest of the camp, I felt cautious and nervous. I finally told one of my camp counselors that I thought I should wait to be baptized later after I could talk to my parents about it. I did not end up being baptized that year at church camp. Instead, I ended up shying away from church altogether, attending less and less, until I rarely went at all in middle school and high school.
I realize that the people at this camp were not trying to push people away from God. As church and camp leaders, they were obviously trying to do the opposite. In my young mind, however, I felt disassociated with people who put so much pressure on me to do something I didn’t feel ready to do. As an adult, (and one who thankfully found her way back to God), I feel a bit proud of myself for recognizing and empowering my own feelings. I only wish that that did not come in the form of straying away from God and the church for a long period of my life.
I am not sure there is one certain time or event that was a turning point for me, but eventually (and very thankfully) I felt God pulling me back to Him. I have since been baptized; not because I felt it was necessary for my salvation, but because I wanted to have the experience to feel that my sins were washed away and I had become new. I am stronger in my faith and Christianity than I have ever been, and it stemmed from God’s love for me, not the pressure of others.
When I decided to share on this topic, I knew it might be difficult. As a child, I was unsure of the difference between a water baptism and my salvation. Now, I know that my salvation does not come from my symbolic act of baptism; it comes from true belief, acceptance, and longing in my heart to do what Jesus asks of us. However, I think it’s very important that we as Christians don’t make the same mistake in pushing people away from Christ.
Sometimes, even when we think we may be doing good, our views or judgments are not a great picture of what it’s like to be truly accepted and loved by our Father. We do not have to use scare tactics to show and prove God’s great importance and love in our lives. We need to show love, compassion, and acceptance to all people and guide them to Christ through those avenues. Showing God’s love through our actions will guide many more people to Christ. I pray that we as a Christian community can remember this. Let’s go out into the world and be loving disciples.
For some of you who have strayed because of past experiences such as mine or maybe you are still recovering from a kind of church hurt that has caused you to no longer trust Christ, please consider forgiving those who have hurt you whether knowingly or unknowingly and pray the following prayer with me:
Thank You for guiding me back to You and opening my eyes to what You have planned for me. I forgive those in the church who have hurt me. Please remove all bitterness and pain. I pray that through Your light in me, others can see just how wonderful it is to have a relationship with You. I thank You for my salvation through my declaration that You are the one true God. I pray that while I am telling Your story and spreading the good news of the gospel, I will focus on Your love and acceptance. I pray I will never judge others on their path to You, but only help them and encourage them to get to know You better, just as I have and will continue to do so. In Your son’s name I pray, Amen.