Reflections on my Baptist upbringing...
(My friend Bob Patterson sent me this tribute to his parents and childhood church. I thought it would be helpful to us all, so I asked Bob for permission to post it. Thank you, dear brother. I wish I'd known your Dad and Mom. - TB)
When I returned to my hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to lay my mother to rest in 2010, the memorial service and subsequent luncheon for family and friends brought back a lot of memories. Held at the same Baptist church where my parents were married and all five of their children were baptized—and where we offered praise to God for my father’s life less than eight years before—my mother’s funeral not only signaled the passing of an era but also compelled me to reflect about all my parents gave to me.
My parents were typical members of the World War II generation. They were high-school sweethearts whose lives were interrupted by the war; for my father, that meant time in the Navy and V-12 program at Tufts, where he earned an engineering degree. They settled not far from where they both grew up, in the close-in Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. While Dad worked more than 40 years at PECO, a public utility in Center City, Mom gave him five healthy children between 1947 and 1962, whom they raised in a modest Cape Cod that remained the family homestead until after my father’s passing.
Central to their lives was unwavering devotion to the humble church where they started their life together: Erlton Community Baptist Church. It was the first congregation, Catholic or Protestant, established in what would be become a sprawling township of housing developments and a famous shopping mall, but it served an older neighborhood with a mix of families from the literally dirt poor to the college-educated and everything in between. The church exerted a strong presence in the community... as it was nestled within walking distance of 500 homes. A softball field in the back of the church offered options for social functions, not to mention a needed playground for nearby families. I still remember, as an elementary-school student, walking from school to church every Wednesday for a Bible-enrichment program and for choir practice on Fridays.
My father was a spiritual force at church and home. A well-read layman, he respected many aspects of Reformed theology even as he remained a Baptist and a mild dispensationalist. He was not a fundamentalist, as he loved to dance and took us to the movies. He could make a persuasive case for the Christian faith and did so when the opportunity arose. An Ivy-League educated Jewish neighbor once admitted having been convinced that Jesus is the Messiah after a bull session with my dad, even though he could not bring himself to break with his extended family.
Both Mom and Dad shared an understanding of the Lord’s Day that would make any confessional Protestant smile: After Sunday school and morning worship, we came home for a big dinner, at times with the grandparents, only to return to church a few hours later for youth group and evening worship. They were not strict Sabbatarians; when my mother was pregnant with No. 5, we started eating out for Sunday dinner, occasionally running into the Rev. Carl McIntire—dressed in tails, his preaching attire—at the same restaurant. But Sunday was clearly special; nothing got in the way of our sacred routine, even when on vacation. Even apart from Sunday, my parents got the big picture right and made it clear to all their children that serving Christ takes precedence over everything else.
As one who adopted the Reformed tradition in his early 20s, and reared his three children on the Shorter Catechism, my return to Erlton Baptist led me to ponder whether I had done the right thing in leaving my roots. Not that Christians should never switch denominations; my mother left the Catholic church of her upbringing to become a Baptist in her early 20s, and not out of theological conviction but simply because she and her mother found our Baptist church easier to get to than the Catholic church in the next town. They also liked the founding pastor who paid them a visit when he started his ministry.
But I remain in awe of the remarkable strength of the Christian community in which I was raised. Our 300-member Baptist church in many respects represented a stronger ministry than many Presbyterian churches today with double the membership. Our church featured the basics: preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. We had only one full-time pastor who delivered two different sermons on the Lord’s Day, yet the church maintained—thanks to volunteers, not paid staffers—a strong educational and youth program, including a memorable two-week DVBS where we learned the Apostles’ Creed among other things. Moreover, Erlton offered a children’s choir program that taught us how to read music, how to sing hymns, and how to behave in public worship, which was decidedly traditional and where school-aged children participated with their parents. “Small groups” that are all the rage today were not a part of the vocabulary. Instead, covered-dish suppers and men’s breakfasts, along with the annual mother-daughter banquet and Sunday-school picnic, reinforced the church as an intergenerational community.
I cannot help wonder why this kind of basic, mid-sized church has not been widely replicated among Reformed folk today. Perhaps because my wife and I have struggled to root our family in a stable church home—while living in transient Northern Virginia where Presbyterian options are slim—this question is also personal. I fear we have not given our three children all that my parents gave me.
For certain, we live in a very different society today, one than looks down upon the postwar era of our parents. The things I cherish about my childhood are due less to Baptist distinctives than to the profound social conservatism of the time when churches, Baptist or Presbyterian, had little difficulty filling their pews, nurseries, Sunday schools, and youth fellowships. The child- and family-centeredness of that generation paid huge dividends that enabled the church to function as a normative institution, one that commanded a level of respect even among unbelievers. Churches were not enterprises; nor did they need “mission” or “vision” statements or high-paid consultants telling them how to reach their neighborhoods. My church was the neighborhood.
The irony is that while evangelical personalities, parachurch organizations, and megachurches strive to be relevant, rooted Christian communities are hard to find. The sociological factors quantifying these shifts are indeed complex. But for Reformed folk, the lessons suggest that something paramount has been broken, something that all the gospel coalitions, alliances, and global networks cannot put back together; in fact, these constructs may undermine the development of the robust social capital that our ordinary, bourgeois churches embodied in the mid-20th century. We may have our Tim Kellers and John Pipers, but in light of the current social and cultural disorder, I’d prefer to see more seemingly insignificant churches like Erlton Baptist that made their mark on families like mine.
—Robert W. Patterson