In part 1, I tried to lure you into reading part 2, which seems to have worked. My goal here is simplicity: to get to and stick to the point.
Growing up in American evangelicalism left me rootless and spiritually orphaned.
I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant because my grandparents were fairly devout, and my mother had had something of a re-conversion experience while pregnant with me. That was basically the last I saw of Rome, at least from the inside.
The Espositos at New Covenant Tabernacle
At 5 years old, my stepfather married my mother, and I gained the honor through adoption of becoming Salvatore Esposito’s son. He had been something of an agnostic for many years, and had had a dramatic conversion to Christ around the time he met my mother. When we became a family, we began attending a Pentecostal church, probably because my dad had been discipled by a Pentecostal (Assembly of God) group in his previous city. As many of you probably know, Pentecostalism is heavy on the now, on our present experiences, but light on the traditions of the Church catholic.
Now remember, dear friends, that I am telling you a story of slowly winding toward the Church catholic. I am hunting for the Church, if you’ll recall. Really, go back and read post #1 if you haven’t–you’ll see better what I mean.
Back to the story. I remember several important things from New Covenant Tabernacle in Buffalo, three of which I will share with you. (I also vividly remember the layout of the building, and how I got an electrical shock hiding behind the fridge once, but that doesn’t quite fit into our narrative, now does it?) We went there from when I was about 6 till when I was about 8 1/2.
The first thing I remember is standing among the assembly as several hundred adults “spoke in tongues.” I watched in wonder as my mother repeated a syllabic string I will never forget. The auditorium hummed with the devout prayers of a well meaning congregation, mumbling through the tongues. The church would “teach” people how to speak in tongues, and I recall my parents describing it. I was never pressured to do so.
And yet, I did feel the pressure to raise my hand during one service, when the pastor asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus into his or her heart that day. At 6, I was ready to pray the sinner’s prayer, and I remember beaming from the stage after they called me up. Shortly thereafter, I was baptized in the Niagara River at Beaver Island State Park, the baptism I count as my salvation. No offense to my Roman Catholic friends, but we can have no assurance that the sacraments of the Roman Church are recognized in our Lord’s sight, seeing the gospel has long been denied in the official Canons of the Council of Trent. I cannot, therefore, count my infant baptism as salvation, or as my burial with Christ. To these things I will return in future posts. Please keep reading, even if offended.
But that day in the Niagara River, Christ sealed me with His great and precious promises, though I had many painful years to go before I would believe it. I was no more saved at the moment of my baptism than was Simon the magician in Acts chapter 8. Yet as you will see if you read along with these posts, I have come to count baptism as salvation, by the testimony of Scripture and the weight of Church tradition. Don’t shrink back in horror, I will explain. Walk with me…
I also remember at New Covenant Tabernacle that the founding pastor, Paul Schenck, was a Jewish convert who gained a strong national reputation for his pro-life work. Today he is a Roman Catholic priest, but in the 1980’s he was my pastor, and I clearly remember going on pro-life demonstrations in the streets of Buffalo with him and our church family. The sense of moral horror I felt as a boy thinking about abortion has never quit my imagination, and I remain staunchly pro-life and proudly anti-abortion to this day.
So I praise God for New Covenant Tabernacle, and for the work He did in my family and I while we attended. I must note, however, that I did not learn the gospel while we attended there; rather, I knew the gospel on some instinctual level.
Eastern Hills Wesleyan
In 1990, just when the Buffalo Bills were getting really good (and on their way to their first Super Bowl), my dad moved our family to a new, more humble church in the sleepy farm town of Clarence. Eastern Hills Wesleyan was a congregation of about 100, with a young pastor named Karl Eastlack at the helm. We were members of EHWC for 15 years, watching it grow from a small country chapel to a spaceship building built down the road with over 3,500 regular attenders. The long and short of it is that Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven “gospel” went viral in the 1990’s. Pastor Karl adopted the Warrenite, CEO mentality of a megachurch pastor, and reaped the rewards as our church became an exemplar of the attractional church model. Pastor Karl imparted several important lessons to me about Christ and the gospel, so I want to give him due respect, but I must also recount this true, tragic experience I had growing up in EHWC in order to give you the full context.
As many of you know, when a church grows that fast, it is nearly impossible to maintain any semblance of actual Christian teaching and discipleship. The saying goes “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Indeed, during the years when I most needed to be shaped and molded by the Scriptures, they were being sidelined for a more palatable, seeker-sensitive message. Youth group was play time for big kids, and my teenage years in church I was being entertained, if you can call it that. Evangelical entertainment is the corniest, worst self parody of any group in the world. Just, just stop. Go back to being serious about word and sacrament, you’re already losing 80+% of your young people to the world. The entertainment isn’t working (these are the things I would say to these big wigs if they were listening).
No one even took the time to teach me the rudimentary truths of the trinity, the gospel, or church history. I was thoroughly catechized by the secular, materialist culture, and by the public school system. I despised being in church, as it seemed a waste of time with no real connection to my life.
And I should note here, that I do not blame my parents for these negative notes. They were both first-generation Christians, converted later in life, and without guidance of their own. We, as a family, were feeling around in the dark of a creeping postmodern evangelical culture.
By the time I was truly converted (in jail at 21 years old), EHWC was like a big circus, literally. My first time back after getting out of drug rehab, I was for the first time in my life ecstatic to be in church. I could not wait to hear, with my fresh ears, about my Lord and His love. To my utter dismay, Pastor Karl came out on stage and announced that we were going to learn about having fun that Sunday. He had invited an entertainer and his wife to come in and do an Elvis impersonation, along with a puppet show for the 3,000+ people who had come to church that morning.
I watched in awkward horror as this completely unfunny and thoroughly un-entertaining entertainer sang and danced around stage. I went home confused and depressed about my family church, and yet God had brought me to that service that day, to begin me on a different path.
I was without doctrine, without foundation, and without direction, but Christ had me in His hand, and I wasn’t going to be lost ever again.
With that picture painted for you in such stark terms, I should toss a few feathers on the other side of the scale to even things out a touch. In all the vapid, wasted years of my religious upbringing in these two misguided churches, not all was lost. My parents had a true faith in Christ, and made sure to guide me in His ways in the best way they knew how. I always knew my mother was praying for me, and I always saw her Bible out around the house. I would read children’s books on Scripture, which, no matter how good or bad their true theological quality, left me with a true Christian conscience.
In His common and special graces, God was guiding and keeping me in those years before I came to saving repentance, and for this, I give thanks. I know I must find the Church for the sake of my wife and daughter, and plant our roots deep into her rocky soils, no matter how awkward the fit may feel in where we end up.
Thanks for reading. Drop me a comment to let me know you’re following along, to encourage me to continue.