Yesterday I wrote about the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. Today I think we'll talk about what went on the next evening. Thursday Evening Visitation.
Now, there are a lot of churches who put some pretty ridiculous emphasis on this activity. They make it about numbers and they make heroes out of those who "hit big quotas" of people they talked to and people they got to say the "sinners prayer". (This is not an argument about the veracity of the tradition of the "sinners prayer". For the record...I believe in the prayer. It's a good model from which someone could build their personal plea for Salvation. But merely repeating it without understanding it is like going to a French Restaurant and spitting out a lot of French-sounding words. You'll likely get a plate full of plastic army men and a fondue pot of cheese before you'll get a meal. Knowing words and comprehending what you are saying are two different things.) These churches make "Stars" out of people who did little more than learn high-pressure sales tactics and repeated bible verses rapid-fire until they wore down the poor victim and he prayed just to make them go away.
The church I attended was not like that. Yes, they had a regular visitation program. It was on Thursday nights. Yes we had...for a while...an actual bible memorization program we used as a base from which to communicate the Gospel. But that's where the similarities end as far as the horror stories I've heard about other IFB churches.
First of all...attendance was not mandatory. I think it was if you were a full-time staff member but the average church members were not imposed upon to be there for visitation each week. In fact, the pastor was careful about letting new believers, or those with a reputation as rogues, or those who couldn't shut up and might very well stand there in someones doorway until midnight, go out unattended, if at all. It was expected that you'd walked with the Lord for a while. You were to have a working knowledge of the basic doctrines of Salvation, Heaven and Hell, sin, etc. Mostly though, you had to have a compassionate heart. You had to want to see people come to know this Savior who had done so much in your life. You had to want to pray with the sick, take on their concerns, ask if you could help, become their friend. In hindsight, most of the visits weren't just knocking on the doors uninvited. Most of the people we visited were people who attended the church at some point and we were following up to see if they would come back. Could we help them somehow? Could we pray for them? In the course of the conversation we might find ourselves introducing the "Plan of Salvation" to them or we might not. It wasn't a contest. We didn't go back to the church that night and write our names down on a poster with a "body count" next to it. Mostly we went straight home. On Sunday, we'd let someone know about a salvation decision, or a need to pray for, or a request for a follow-up visit.
I know there are churches who abused this practice. They treated this like a used-car sales event where the highest selling salesman got a trip to Cancun. (This in the form of being publicly lauded from the pulpit.) But this church did not. If you gained the reputation of a soul winner it was usually mentioned in conversation when someone was praising your character. Not in front of the congregation like an Amway convention.
The church grew in the community because of this. And it grew as a community because of this. Most everyone there could point to someone else in the church as the reason they ended up going there. "Brother So-and-So knocked on my door one night." "Sister ___ came to my home and prayed with me after my husband had gotten hurt at work and was in the hospital." It grew the church in the way the early church grew. One on one. Telling someone else what had happened to you at the Cross.
The other fruit that was born from this tradition was that it made us all aware of sharing our faith. Eventually it became a lifestyle. Some got ridiculous with it...laying "tracts" at every phone booth and gas station men's room on the East Coast. But for most of us it simply became part of our fabric. How can I carefully, tactfully introduce Jesus into this conversation with my co-worker, my classmate, my doctor...?
A lot of churches have abandoned this exercise now. I suppose there is merit to the claim that society is different and a stranger knocking on your door at 7 PM might be grounds for a 9-1-1 call. People are wary, private, and too busy to be bothered. We seldom talk to our neighbors anymore, much less some guy from the local church who knocks on our door to invite us to the Easter service. I get that. But I miss the way we all became "soul winners". The way it was something that burned in our hearts. Does this person know Jesus? Is there some good way for me to make that introduction before I leave their presence...likely forever?
These days we seldom hear about soul winning. We hear empty words like "engage" "equip" and the ever-popular "disciple". But to disciple someone, you have to first make sure they are a disciple. You have to make a clear introduction to Jesus. There has to be a salvation moment. We have all but abandoned that.
I miss the thrill of going out to the highways and hedges and compelling them to come in. I miss the immeasurable joy of seeing the change in the eyes of someone who didn't know Jesus 30 minutes before I knocked on their door, or saw them on the basketball court. I miss seeing a new face in church and knowing there was an amazing story attached to their presence there.
I miss a lot of what I once thought I'd gladly never return to.