Evangelical Christianity is a no-compromise religion. You either accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or you don’t. If you do, you’re saved. If you don’t, you’re not.
Pretty basic. Which is why this type of Christianity is often called fundamentalist, a term practitioners try to avoid because it has taken on pejorative connotations. But it is fundamental, at least because it believes in one truth and one truth only. The Bible is the word of God. Christ the only way. There is no wiggle room. No room for other religions, and no room for sin — which to them includes adultery and same-sex marriage.
There is, however, the promise of forgiveness and redemption, and the ongoing opportunity to accept Christ. For these followers, there is only One who was ever born a Christian.
Apologetics is the endeavor to back up faith with truth, by presenting evidence, historical and otherwise, that Christians believe makes their religion unique in the world. Apologetics, for example, point to evidence that the Resurrection really happened. It is a discipline that has been growing as evangelical Christianity spreads its influence.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Christians (nonbelievers were also invited) from around the country gathered at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford to hear scholars discuss the evidence that they say backs their beliefs. The 12-hour conference was called “Truth for a New Generation, Part II.”
Part I had taken place earlier this year in North Carolina, in a section of the country where evangelical Christianity is much more widespread and influential. It was considered daring to bring part two to New England, a region where a wide range of religions flourish.
“It’s more like an anointing on New England,” said Robin Tarca, a Wallingford resident who was one of the local volunteers for the event. “It’s just so awesome that we all came together.”
The “frozen chosen”
During an organizational dinner at Amarante’s Sea Cliff restaurant in New Haven the night before Tuesday’s event, pastors had called New England the realm of the “frozen chosen.” Part of the challenge of the conference was to promote a thaw.
On that night, Alex McFarland, the founder and director of the Faith in Focus Ministries of Greensboro, N.C., and the conference’s spearhead, had summed up the challenge by talking about his first opera experience. It was Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and in the middle of the story the title character, falsely accused of a crime, looks to the sky and says, McFarland recalled, “You know, the truth sure has to fight hard to be believed.”
“That’s where we are in our culture,” said McFarland. “In our day and age, the world isn’t buying what the church is saying.”
But at Tuesday’s conference it was clear that a lot of people were. While the North Carolina conference had drawn 4,500, a much more modest goal was set for New England. The Rev. Will Marotti of New Life Church in Meriden, one of the local organizers of the event, said he expected from 1,500 to 2,000 people, and that’s about how many were in evidence. The lower seating level was nearly filled throughout the day. The event was also broadcast live, via satellite, on Sky Angel Christian television and would reach, McFarland said, 14 million homes. For a question-and-answer period with scholars during the afternoon, about 450 questions had been emailed in by television viewers.
Among the attendees were former Gov. John G. Rowland, who left the conference early in the morning. Rowland, who resigned from office earlier this year amid corruption allegations, had also attended the organizational dinner the night before, at the invitation of Marotti. Marotti said he felt the former governor would be responsive to the messages of the conference.
There was also Victoria Triano, chairwoman of the Southington Town Council and a pastor of the Church on the Move, in East Haddam.
“It’s so unusual to be able to hear from the very top people in the world in apologetics,” Triano said. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
The conference cost $50, or $35 a person for groups, said Terry Frizzell, who until recently was pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Wallingford. Frizzell had spent weeks preparing as the organizer of local volunteer efforts.
The sin, not the sinner
Why is this form of Christianity becoming so popular? Many pastors say their congregations are growing. They recognize that many people are no longer willing to go to church on Sunday and forget it the rest of the week, and are expecting more substance in general. They include Joel Rissinger, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church on Bee Street in Meriden.
“We’ve been growing,” said Rissinger. “We’re kind of in a transition. We’ve been focusing on different priorities.”
Rissinger listed those priorities as evangelism, worship, discipleship, fellowship and ministry. In this context, discipleship means striving to live one’s life the way Jesus lived his. And fellowship is connecting with others, another important element.
“It’s a lifestyle thing and this is a big part of it,” Rissinger said of the conference. “If I have a connection with God that’s healthy, I want to share that.”
But what about those the church considers to have an unhealthy connection, such as those involved in same-sex marriage?
“You can be pushing people away,” responded Rissinger. “But most of us who are here would say that our desire would be to draw them in closer. To say, ‘We love you, God loves you, and we feel that God didn’t create you to be in this lifestyle. It’s the lifestyle we disagree with, not you.'”
Many people turn to religion following a traumatic event in life, such as the loss of a loved one. There’s some indication that the collective loss experienced on 9/11 has had a similar effect.
“It helped emphasize to people the fragility of life and the brevity of life and the fact that we really don’t know what the future holds,” Marotti said.
On Tuesday the Oakdale was imbued with the blue, yellow and green colors of the “Truth for a New Generation” logo. The theater’s giant dome-ceilinged hallway was filled with rows of booths, where each lecturer had books for sale. There also were children’s books, picture frames, coffee travel mugs and games, including the Proverbs edition of “Family Choices: Applying the Biblical Wisdom of Solomon to Everyday Situations.”
You could buy T-shirts at $8.99 (marked down from $17.99, or three for $23.99) with sayings like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Go To Hell,” “One Nation Under God,” “To Be A Man You’ve Got To Know The Man,” and “My Dad Can Fix Anything” followed in smaller letters by “and you he made alive who were dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).”
On either side of the stage in the Oakdale amphitheater, giant screens showed Sky Angel’s televised broadcast. Here, throughout the day, speakers took turns dominating the stage. They included Norman Geisler, author of “When Critics Ask: A General Introduction to the Bible” and “The Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics;” Lee Strobel, former legal affairs editor of the Chicago Tribune and author of “The Case for Christ;” and Gary Habermas, author of “Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ.”
In the afternoon, the speakers gathered on stage for a question-and-answer session with audience members.
One man wondered whether there could be accommodation between the opposing views of creation and evolution; whether, for instance, humans could have evolved from a single cell, created by God.
Erwin Lutzer, whose recent books include “The DaVinci Deception” and “Knowing the Truth About Same-Sex Marriage,” responded.
“The Bible is very clear,” he said. “That Adam and Eve were created.”
The remark was greeted by a thunderous ovation.
The night before, Lutzer, who does a remarkable Billy Graham imitation, had talked about apologetics and what he called “the real battle.”
“There’s a new generation that don’t know that on every public building in Washington there’s a line of scripture,” he said.
“Here in our society there are currents, like same-sex marriage, that don’t make sense,” he said.
“We’re in a spiritual battle and what we need to do is use the right weapons,” Lutzer said.
“The real battle at the end of the day is not really intellectual; the real battle is a spiritual battle. Open minds, soften hearts and give people the ability to listen.”
Lutzer said that McFarland had told him that all faiths would be welcome at the conference, as well as atheists. “I say, praise God, bring them on.”
Another question during the Q-and-A session was from someone who said he’d been confronted with a kind of chicken-vs.-egg skepticism about creationism. If God created the world, who created God?
Geisler said the way to answer was to say the question is absurd. “It’s like asking a bachelor what the name of his wife is,” Geisler said. “It’s not meaningful to talk about who made the Eternal.”
During a break in the middle of the conference, local pastors and speakers gathered in an Oakdale anteroom for lunch. The featured speaker was Jerry Drace, founder, in 1975, of the Jerry Drace Evangelistic Association. Drace has spent the last 10 years focusing on family issues in a segment of his ministry called Hope for the Home. It’s there that the conference’s leader, McFarland, will go to work in the next few months.
Drace, who is from Tennessee, said the family was the foremost concern among pastors in a survey he’d conducted a decade ago.
“In the last five years, the dissolution of the family has become more apparent,” Drace said, taking a moment to explain his views before his luncheon talk. “We come to church and tell everybody everything’s fine and then they go home and everything’s not fine.”
Drace said many people stop short of faith because it’s so intangible. “How do you know you’re in love?” he asked. “You can’t think it, but you can feel it.”
“That’s what it takes to be a Christian,” he said. “You say, ‘Lord, I’m yours.'”
Drace compared such faith to a scene from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” In the scene, Indiana Jones must believe that a bridge is there even though he can’t see it. He must have the faith to take the step, and once he does, the bridge is there.
While there are religions, and forms of Christianity, that allow and embrace homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Drace’s religion is decidedly not one of them.
“I think same-sex marriage goes against God’s law,” he said. “So does adultery. All sin is reprehensible to God.
“Because you love Jesus, you’ll stop it. It’s that unbelief that will separate you from him.
“I think homosexuality is yielding to a temptation to a certain lifestyle. It’s what sin will do — after a while, you begin to rationalize it.”
Introducing Drace at the luncheon talk, McFarland said he believed “the family is the Gospel tract in miniature.”
“As the family goes, so does the nation,” he said. “The Christian view, all these things, are up for grabs.”
Ministry begins at home, Drace told the lunch gathering in a talk that many times was punctuated by whispers of “amen” and other confirmations among listeners.
“You can’t correct your children unless you’re there with them,” he said. “When you’re the spiritual leader of your home, your family will know it and you won’t have to raise your voice to tell them.
“You know how to spell love? T-I-M-E. With your children.
“Little boys need daddies in their lives, and so do little girls, and so do wives.”
Drace called it an “awesome responsibility” among church leaders.
“I believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is the only hope for the home.”
Jesus Christ, 24-7
During the afternoon question session, Drace made the observation that many children grow up in the evangelical Christian tradition only to have their belief challenged, and potentially shaken, when they encounter the skeptical atmosphere of college life. More needed to be done to prepare them for that challenge, he said.
Kerry Jelinek, a 33-year-old Fairfield resident, encountered that challenge at a secular school, Indiana University, where debates, such as those pitting creationism against evolution, were common. Her grandparents were killed in an accident when she was 5. So, early on, death was something she thought about and over the years, she said, “I came to understand that the way to heaven is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Jelinek was volunteering at a booth promoting a Nov. 8 conference in Bethel called Awakenings. Her church, Black Rock Congregational in Fairfield, is one of the conference hosts.
“Going to a secular university, it was helpful for me to think logically about my faith,” she said. “Going to a conference like this helps me understand the thought processes other people have.”
“Religion is the act of carrying out your faith,” said Jelinek. “When you talk about true Christianity, it’s a relationship with Christ that’s 24-7.”
For Jelinek, promoting her faith to others is important.
“Personally, I know the difference that Christ has made in my life,” she said. “I can’t hoard that for myself. I want to expose everyone I care about to that same truth.”
At a nearby booth, Lee Eliot echoed the sentiment. Eliot, from Loudon, N.H., was volunteering his time for Alpha, a company that works with churches to, as he described it, “reach the unchurched.”
“For a true Christian, his or her life will be so changed that they naturally want to share it,” Eliot said. “Christianity is not something to keep to oneself.”