My Childhood Church

By John Sweetman

Old Fashioned Pews

Recently, I received an anonymous letter lamenting (among a number of things) the lack of a tie (or was it a suit and tie?) in a photo in The QB Magazine.

It struck me that I had not received such a comment for a long time and it took me back to the olden days when remarks like,  ‘You wouldn’t dress like that if you had an audience with the Queen’ were commonplace.

Now I’m not against wearing suits and ties. I actually think I look quite dapper in a suit. And I have occasionally wished I was dressed in a suit.

Some time ago I preached at a significant anniversary for an Asian church. It was an early Sunday afternoon event and I rushed straight from preaching at a suburban church on the other side of town to the church service, not thinking about the occasion.

When I arrived, I found that all the dignitaries were dressed in suits and I was wearing an open-necked shirt and casual pants. I was significantly under dressed, and deeply embarrassed that I had shown such disrespect towards their culture. I tucked my shirt in, but that was all I could do. If only I had worn a suit.

I’m not always so inconsiderate. On an earlier occasion, I was preaching at a Chinese church for the first time, and knowing how conservative some Chinese churches are, I wore a tie and took a coat. When I arrived, I stayed in my car for a few minutes to check out how the church members were dressed. All the men I could see were wearing suits and the ladies were wearing ‘best’ dresses, so I put on my coat and headed confidently into the church.

At the door, I was asked whether I was attending the Chinese or English service. I opted for the English one seeing I was the preacher, and was directed to another building. It turned out that the congregation was all second-generation Chinese young adults dressed in tee-shirts, jeans and sandshoes. Oh dear, I quickly shed my coat and tie, but was still over-dressed.

Some of you may be worried about the way Malyon students and graduates dress in the pulpit. The advice I give in preaching class is to dress slightly more formally than the average person in the congregation. That way you won’t offend people by under-dressing, but neither will you alienate yourself from some in the congregation by over-dressing. Of course, I have no ability to ensure that the students actually listen to and follow this advice.

What set me off sharing about my wardrobe problems was this throwback to the church of my childhood. It was a very different place from contemporary churches.

I remember being chastised as a kid for running in the church building. Evidently running was not an activity that God allowed in His ‘sanctuary’. Women wore hats and men wore ties. The organist peddled furiously to keep the music flowing. You could sing uproariously, but didn’t dare move to the music or worse, raise a hand. Pianos were acceptable at times, but you didn’t suggest guitars or those deafening drums. The communion table was a hallowed piece of furniture that had to be treated very respectfully.

The pews were hard. No air-conditioning, although fans were eventually introduced. There are many aspects of the church of my childhood that I do not miss. It was not just the suits and ties and associated external paraphernalia. That was just cultural. It was deeper. We were quite legalistic and had a rather rigid view of what acceptance of the gospel looked like.

But despite its shortcomings (that I can see now, looking back), I really want to affirm the great strengths of my childhood church that helped forge my passion for Jesus.

First, people were incredibly serious about following Jesus. Yes, in hindsight they may have had some rigid views, but compromise with the world was never contemplated. They were prepared to be different and didn’t mind what other people thought or how much it cost. They loved Jesus and wanted to obey Him more than anything else. This passion and its outworking had a deep impact on me.

Second, my childhood church seriously studied the Bible. The preaching could be rather dry at times, but people lapped it up twice a Sunday, along with the Wednesday night Bible study. I learned memory verses in Sunday school and Christian Endeavour and could recite the books of the Bible at a very young age. We even had an annual Australia-wide Scripture exam. I won my first watch in a Scripture memory competition run by a radio station (something like Australian Idol, but for reciting Scripture, not singing). This forged in me a very strong biblical foundation.

Third, my childhood church loved to worship. Yes, we lacked guitars, drums, synthesisers, even microphones. We held hymn books and didn’t dare lift a finger. But could we sing. Those Reformation hymns in the morning and the Revival hymns at night bellowed from our tiny building. My love for worship continues.

Fourth, my childhood church desperately wanted to see people saved. We gospelised in the streets. We door-knocked to invite people to crusades. We ran regular evangelistic events (sometimes with 15 verses of Just As I Am at the end to make sure we got every convert). We often preached hellfire and brimstone. I had learned to counsel someone for salvation before I hit my teens. Our methods may seem old-fashioned today, but they were effective then with many people coming to know Jesus (particularly in the Billy Graham crusades).

I love the contemporary church and wouldn’t want to return to those old, more legalistic days.

So no, I’m probably not likely to start wearing a tie. But in my more mellow moments, I do wonder whether all our modern resources and programs and staffing have produced churches that disciple and evangelise as effectively as my little childhood church. Maybe churches these days do just as well and I’m looking back with rose-coloured glasses, but my childhood church certainly did a great job forging me as a committed, biblically-literate evangelical with a passion to serve Jesus all my life.

Thanks childhood church!