Zealotry 101

In 1981 at the end of year 12, I began to play basketball with Scarborough Baptist in the church league. I felt pretty special because it was ‘A grade’ and I was one of the youngest guys playing in that time.

I went to church there a few times… and a few more… and before long I was part of the youth group.

I diverged to Wembley Church of Christ for a few months because of a girl I was after who went there, but the minister of the time was strong on the whole idea of baptismal regeneration and I couldn’t buy it. He was an inspiring and very listenable preacher so I liked that, as most preaching I had heard up to this point had been pretty dull and dreary. I remember his tirade one evening on the evils of alcohol, dancing and pentecostalism, which was even a little convincing… I never did like dancing. But it was the baptism stuff that finally brought me undone.  I was beginning to form some more solid theological convictions and this one felt real dodgy. I met with him one day to thrash it out. He was 40 and I was 17 – what did a kid know? I left convinced that he was wrong and headed back to Scarborough. It was a big judgement for a 17 year old to make, but I’d stand by that one.

Scarborough became home very quickly and without my parents around I was a little freer to find my own way in faith. I began to make better sense of Sundays, as guys like John Thornhill and Bob Plum did their bit with the teaching and actually seemed somewhat interesting and relevant. I stopped counting stuff and I also entered what I would call my zealot years, where I got passionate about all sorts of stuff – some of it good and some of it just weird…

Punctuality was a big one. Talk to me about a theology of punctuality one day and I will help you see that punctuality is above love in the Christian virtues. At least that’s how it seemed back then… (And you know why?… Because I was good at punctuality…) Discipleship was another one – a bit healthier… I read David Watson’s book on Discipleship around 1982 and was inspired by it. He was arguing that many western Christians weren’t actually ‘disciples’ and that we needed to do a whole lot more self denial and cross carrying to cut it. This kind of reading material and music by Keith Green was influential in taking me to a place of zealotry. I wish I could call it discipleship, but with my fundamentalist upbringing and immature faith I simply veered into legalism and did a lot of dumb things in the name of Jesus. But then I don’t think I was alone… It seemed to be a bit of a mark of the time and the people I hung around.

I still remember a conversation with the pastor of that era – John Thornhill – who asked me to come and see him one day. He affirmed me greatly for being a passionate young man – spoke to me directly about what a knob I was being and then finished our conversation with great encouragement so I left feeling 10 feet tall rather than chastised. Nice job John. I heard all of it and I learnt from it. What a guy!

Scarborough went thru a lot of changes in the time I was there and possibly the biggest was around 1982 when Churchlands Christian Fellowship began and a large number of our crew drifted across there. Many of our ‘best’ people went and I felt the loss. I went too – to have a look and see what the fuss was about – and while I liked the more relaxed atmosphere and the sense of God’s spirit tangibly at work I just couldn’t make the shift. Two things kept me at Scarborough.

The first was that I kept hearing people in my church speaking disparagingly of the charismatic movement and being still theologically conservative I didn’t want to disagree. Who knows… these people may have been demonic… Yeah, that was the language that was being used and I didn’t feel confident arguing against it, even if it seemed bizarre. Best to play it safe and stay a Baptist.

The second was simply a belief that you didn’t just bale on your community if a more attractive proposition came along. I’m old enough now to know that wasn’t what people did – not without real angst and pain – but at that time it was how I felt. I was sad to see many of my older mentors and friends leave, but I took some time to really chew it thru and made my decision to stay. It was a formative experience as I made a ‘not about me’ decision and felt both the value of it and the pain of it in the years to come.

Scarborough could be a scary place at times though. I remember a members meeting c1982 where we were discussing whether people who drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes could be members. The old guard were vehemently opposing this possibility, while the middle aged folks who were becoming mentors to me were making coherent arguments for freedom and grace. I felt I should align with the firey fundies because they seemed so passionate about their position, but by now I was beginning to think theologically and I was realising that the ‘next gen’ were making sense – the kind of sense that was freaking out those who had gone before them. With grudging reluctance drinkers and smokers were allowed into membership. I was also beginning to notice shades of grey and cracks started to emerge in my fundy framework.

As well as arguing over alcohol and tobacco, the worship wars were in full flight and the issue of which songs ought to be sung in church somehow became a subject to die for. There was much bloodshed in this bizarre time and I can only look back in horror.

But times were changing.

My friend and mentor Peter Birt led us with us his wife Jill for a short period and I imagine many would remember this as a significant time for the church. Peter related across ages and led in a genial but creative way and brought some new energy to the community that was slowly recovering from the seepage to Churchlands. We held our evening services in the church hall rather than the main building and tried to get a bit more relaxed in style. These all seem like funny things to comment on now, but at the time they were significant steps in a new direction.

In hanging around I found myself digging in a bit more and willing to put my shoulder to the plough where I could. The trick was not to go over the top with with whatever idea caught my attention at the time.

I left in that time in 1986 to take up my first teaching post at Wagin and so began my first extended experience of a non-Baptist church.


3 thoughts on “Zealotry 101

  1. If the Scaborough Bappo’s struggled with the demonic Penty’s of Churchlands, one shudders to think what was thought about their neighbours the Potters House in Scarborough! 🙂

  2. Hey Hamo, I read your blogs often but have never commented. Just thought it was pretty special to hear about John Thornhill. My parents were founding members of a church that the Thornhill’s (and others) planted in Endeavour Hills, Victoria which was very significant for them (I was pretty young and only have superficial memories of the time) but the Thornhill’s were important people for my folks and have talked a bit about that time. Sadly the church wasn’t able to continue and they moved back to WA. I think they must have been over in Melbourne for a few years in the late 80’s, the church finished up around 1990 I think. It’s great to see a glimpse of God at work with individuals and how wherever you go, you bring ‘God-working-through-you’ into that space. Loving your reflections on your faith journey, it seems to chronicle some general shifts in thinking and faith within Australia which i find very interesting! Peace mate, Paul

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