By Granville E. Tyson
I don’t like categories. Names such as liberal, conservative, evangelical, existentialist, modernist, and fundamentalist are relative; to me they suggest one thing, and to you they suggest another. And they tend to separate us. But these “labels” can provide some sort of starting point for a discussion of how one changes from left of theological center (liberal) to a position right of center (evangelical). This is what has happened to me, as a result of a meeting with the Living God. I would like to share my experience with you, in hopes that someone who reads this may, thru the power of the Holy Spirit, be brought closer to Jesus Christ.
As most Methodist kids, I joined the church when I was about 10 years old. About four years later, I publicly gave my life to Jesus Christ. However, I realize now that I didn’t fully recognize the significance of those two acts. I continued to attend church and Sunday School regularly, on a voluntary basis. But my life didn’t seem very different from the life of an average 15- or 16-year-old boy. The church became a part of my life-but a small part. More important were the social advantages than enrichment of my spiritual life. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have much of a spiritual life until I got into college.
During high school and my early years in college, the church to which I belonged held more of a primary attraction for me in dating. Religion was secondary. It was during my last two years in college that the evening sermons brought by the young associate minister began to stir me. I was spiritually uplifted several times as some of the young people came forward to the altar to dedicate their lives to full-time Christian service.
About this time, I began to think seriously about the ministry instead of an Army career. These thoughts were subtle, and not very urgent. But they were consistent – as consistent as the reactions I had to those evening sermons at my church. As a result, my interest in religious news and current theological issues picked up. I began to read and listen more closely.
The youth director of my church was a student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. This was a major influence in the shaping of my initial attitudes toward theology. Many of our older youth class programs embraced modern theology, and a lot of our informal group discussions included the thoughts of modern theologians.
No issue was ever made of the contrast between evangelical and modern, liberal theology. But I came to look down my nose, so to speak, at the proponents of conservative religion. I classed Pentecostal churches as “religious fanatics.” I considered Baptists somewhat more acceptable, but I deplored their narrow views (some of which I now see to be a result of insufficient information on my part). I also disliked their consistent emphasis on being saved.
One reason for my lack of respect for conservative theology was that our literature, discussions, and programs were of a fairly liberal nature. Not much, if any, really evangelical theology was included. Perkins School of Theology was spoken of as a very good place to study, and one of Methodism’s best seminaries. Being close to it geographically (Fort Worth) we occasionally invited professors from the faculty to address certain groups. Of course, for the budding ministerial student, Perkins was the place to go for a B.D. degree.
As I graduated from college, I realized my ideas of pursuing a military career were being subverted by my ideas about the ministry. I had a five-month waiting period before I went on my two-year tour of active duty with the Army. So I took a job as youth director at a smaller Methodist church in a town on the outskirts of Fort Worth. I saw this as an opportunity to help crystallize my thoughts on the choice of a career.
I went into the Army, and after about one year, I had made up my mind to go into the ministry. I had no complaint against the Army. But my experiences as youth director, and the consistent urging from inside me, pulled toward the ministry. I began writing to Perkins School of Theology. By January 1966, I was accepted, pre-enrolled, and ready to enter as soon as I was released from the Army.
While at Fort Hood, I had been able to come home nearly every weekend. I had become engaged to a wonderful girl whom I had met when serving as youth director.
I became active in a Methodist church in Augusta, where I began to teach as substitute in the older youth class. However, my impending marriage overshadowed all other activities. What little teaching I did there was not dedicated. Then I met Ken Long, a young spirit-filled, Pentecostal minister.
I picked up Ken as he hitchhiked thru the town of Augusta; I discovered that he was a minister, was my age, and had so many interesting things to tell and to witness to, that I invited him home for dinner.
That evening after supper, he began to talk to me as I had never been talked to before. This young man sat down with me and discussed the Gospel of Jesus Christ like he had been brought up knowing it by heart. He spoke in a straight-from-the-heart, sincere. convincing, and simple manner. The Word of God penetrated my soul like it was “the sword of the Spirit.”
I don’t remember exactly what he said to me that night. But I can see now that God spoke to me through Ken Long. I haven’t been the same since. Once one hears the Lord, no matter through whom or what, one never is the same. That night Jesus Christ became real to me.
Ken stayed with me four days, helping me see the reality of God and how He works through a person who is completely dedicated to doing His will. During this time we found a small, independent, Pentecostal church called Faith Chapel. The pastor, Mrs. Lilly Matthews, took us under her wing. She also is an unforgettable character. She is middle-aged, had plenty of experience in the ministry (she had been preaching for 30 years). She had a faith as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. She helped Ken look for a place to preach while he stayed in Augusta. And she started me out on a serious study of the Bible by sitting down with me and explaining many Scriptures to me.
My strong faith in and reliance on the Bible is due to her and Ken’s efforts, made effective through the influence of the Holy Spirit. They also demonstrated to me the power of prayer. I was able to see (and since have seen) many of my prayers answered. Before this, prayer had been rarely effective, and was not a regular part of my spiritual life.
My respect for the Pentecostal churches rose many notches. I found myself enjoying the hour and one-half Sunday evening service. The people of that small church sang the old Gospel hymns lustily and with a gusto rarely seen or heard in my Methodist background. I enjoyed it immensely. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues was strikingly interesting. I found the preaching to be effective in bringing the Word of God to people who, like me, were hungry spiritually. This preaching made Jesus Christ a reality in the lives of the congregation. Therefore, my causal ideas of the ministry were transformed into concrete and definite concepts. I came to realize that being a minister of Christ’s Gospel is one of the most important professions. I realized that we are involved in a battle for our lives – our eternal lives.
Soon after Ken Long left Augusta, something happened which brought me even closer to God – and renewed my faith in the spiritual effectiveness of The Methodist Church. Though I had been worshiping quite a bit at Faith Chapel, I continued to attend St. John’s Methodist Church regularly on Sunday mornings. A couple of weeks after Ken left, a Methodist Lay Witness mission came to Augusta. The pastor at St. John’s church opened the Sunday school classes and his pulpit to them, and they gave their testimonies. During the worship service, the four laymen and one laywoman told just how much Christ meant to them in their lives. They described how they came to a realization of their need for His presence, and how different their lives had become after His transforming power touched them. Listening to them speak, I was nearly beside myself in excitement. These men and women seemed to have experienced the same thing that I had, just a few weeks before!
The leader of the group spoke last. He summed up the presentation and gave a brief altar call. As we stood and sung the first verse of “Rise Up O Men of God” the Holy Spirit descended upon that congregation and around 30 people moved unhesitatingly to the altar, many in tears. I was one of them. Through my tears I could see many others, heads bowed, smiling as if a great joyous feeling had seized them. I felt a joy and a feeling of intense love, as if God himself were smiling down on that church that morning.
I felt amazed that such a thing could be happening in a dignified, somewhat formal, Methodist morning worship service. But I was greatly encouraged to see that there were many Methodists who would demonstrate a real hunger for the Word of God, be it testimony or Bible preaching.
Since these experiences I have tried to stay close to the fundamentals of the Christian faith in what few sermons I have preached. I have noticed a warm response to these. One of the most obvious lessons that I have learned from this is that Methodists are hungry for plain, simple, unintellectual (but intelligent) Gospel preaching which tells them how to grow in Christ. The growth of home Bible study groups will bear this out. Methodist people are not getting what they want and need, unfortunately, from many Methodist pulpits.
I can’t define what actually happened to me during those two or three weeks. Call it being born again, being re-converted, baptized by the Holy Spirit. Or call it my miracle. This is probably the best description by far. All I know is that I now have a faith that works. I have found a real joy in being in the will of God. But best of all, I have begun to grow in Christ. May He be praised!
Granville E. Tyson is the Youth Director, First Methodist Church, Euless, Texas.