By Father's Day, 1972, I had attended almost fifty or so Sunday evening gatherings with the Jesus people who met at All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside. It hadn't taken long for me to figure out that these were not meetings of the local Episcopal church youth group or of Young Life, but that instead, the hundreds of converted hippies there were simply borrowing the building for their weekly services. The previous summer Lonnie Frisbee had been the preacher. Chuck smith Jr had taken over from him after a few months and now, a year later, Greg Laurie, another young evangelist was preaching there.
When I came for the first time in June of the previous year, I'd gotten into a bit of a debate with a former high school acquaintance who had been converted and was now one of the Jesus people. He had challenged me to read the gospel accounts--which I had to concede I had never read--and to decide whether I thought Jesus was a con man, a deluded fanatic or was, instead, all he claimed to be. With this challenge in mind I had read through the four Gospels and after continued on to read the Epistles as well. As supplementary "research" to my reading, I had attended the Jesus people gatherings nearly every Sunday evening. Those gatherings followed a by now familiar format: a band or singer would do a set of Christian rock or folk music; that was followed by everyone singing songs--some old gospel songs, some lively new clap-along ones, and yet others slow and worshipful. During these last type, quite a few in the audience would raise one or both hands and perhaps close their eyes as well and tilt their heads upward.
After that, the preacher would get up and give a twenty to thirty minute evangelistic Bible lesson. At the end of his talk, he would always give the alter call. I had sat through so many of them the pattern was quite familiar to me now: He would begin to pray at the conclusion of his preaching and, as toward the end of the prayer, he would shift to addressing the audience and say something like,
..and now, while all heads are bowed and eyes closed, I'd like to invite you--if you have never opened your heart to Jesus and invited him in as your Lord and Savior--to do that now. God has a plan for your life. He wants to change your life and forgive your sins and show you a whole new way to live. It all can start tonight. You can be born again--born from above, and have a fresh start in life. You may be a drug addict or have done lots of bad stuff in your life. You can come to God just as you are. He loves you more than you can imagine. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for every single sin you have ever committed. He paid it all--even for the whole world. You may be thinking you have to get cleaned up before coming to Jesus. You can't do it. You don't have to cleaned up. He'll receive you just as you are. Just come to him and he will change you from the inside out. If you want to know him tonight, I'd like you to just raise your hand and let me know that. While every head is still bowed, will anyone say yes to Jesus? I see that hand in the back. Yes sister, over to my left, I see your hand. And you, yes and in the middle there--I see your hand too. He's calling, he's calling the lost sheep. Over on the side, I see your hand. The Bible says there is rejoicing over one sinner who comes to repentance. Is there anyone else who would like to give your life to Christ tonight? Yes, both of you up front here. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. His Spirit is calling the lost sheep and the prodigal sons home tonight.Toward the end of the alter call, the band would slip back up on stage and begin to softly play an instrumental. The preacher would invite everyone to stand. Then he would tell those who had raised their hands, " While the band plays this next song I want those of you who raised your hands to come forward here so I can pray for you. Jesus said, 'If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my father in Heaven, but if you deny me before men, I will deny you also. So you need to be bold and publicly stand up for Jesus. He went to the cross and suffered for you, you can take a stand for him."
The band would begin to play more loudly now and many people would flock to the front of the church and stand there, most of them with their heads bowed. It seemed that each week, ten or twenty young people would go forward to profess their faith and be born again. When the music concluded, the preacher would lead those standing there in the Sinner's Prayer. The preacher would instruct them, "The prayer I am about to say, I want you to say out loud after me. Repeat after me, "Dear Jesus / I know I am a sinner / I know you died on the cross for me / I thank you for dying for me / And rising again from the dead / And I believe that all my sins are washed away / I give my life to you / Show me what you want me to do / Give me power over sin and help me to follow you / I receive you now as my Lord and Savior / I thank you for giving me eternal life / Thank you Lord Jesus, Amen."
With that, the preacher would ask those who had just prayed to go to a back room where they would be given a Bible and instructed in the basics of living for Jesus. The band would play one last song and then then everyone would leave the pews, mill about and there would be a lot of hugging and exchanges of, "Praise the Lord!" among the crowd.
I knew this routine by heart. In previous recent alter calls I had sometimes felt some inner stirring or a softening of my heart and a longing to perhaps know what it was like to be a follower of Jesus. At other occasions I'd felt an oppressive psychological heaviness, a burdensome mental weight which felt also at times like real lead weights on my shoulders. Sometimes I felt nothing, or just an inner emptiness and weariness. Tonight, Father's Day, was different however. Tonight...