I became a believer while attending the most liberal Episcopal church in Austin, Texas, maybe the most liberal city between the two coasts. But I was hungry for understanding and had a long drive into town, so I spent a lot of time listening to the local Christian radio station. Chuck Swindoll was like a warm bath, Charles Stanley (with that Virginia gentleman’s accent!) more like a shot of ultra-smooth bourbon, J. Vernon McGee folksy and unpretentious, the Bible Answer Man a short, intense course in Scripture. Soon enough I was haunting the local Christian bookstore (we had a good one, Logos), buying their books, following them where they took me.
So I ended up an evangelical among the mainline liberals, which bothered me not at all. There were a few others at the church who had ended up in a similar place, and we gravitated toward one another. We mostly did not feel at odds with the parish, because the doctrine promoted was so weak and vague that it didn’t really conflict with evangelicalism. At most we felt like we had a more detailed understanding of certain things, but not a radically different one.
There was a social distinction, though, between the different flavors of Christianity. Once I came across an old platitude that in a southern town the working class that went to the Baptist church, the middle class to the Presbyterian and the upper class to the Episcopalian. That was accurate in Austin, and it was fun sometimes to disturb the rarified Anglo-catholic atmosphere at All Saints Episcopal Church by tossing out a distinctly evangelical locution, e.g. having fellowship or being blessed by something. I did it sparingly, usually to poke gentle fun, occasionally to jar listeners into paying attention.
I was on the vestry in the middle of a building fund drive (the church met in a beautiful gothic chapel on the edge of the University of Texas campus, a historic landmark that was very expensive just to keep from falling apart). We decided that over a series of Sundays each of us would make a brief pitch for the fund during the service, saying something about what the chapel meant to us. Most of the others were members of long standing, so their history with the chapel was something they could easily speak about. But I had only been attending for about three years, and puzzled over what to say.
What I ended up saying was that the chapel meant a lot to me because it was where I had become a Christian—and then, pointing, I said “In that pew right there.” Conversion wasn’t a common topic for polite conversation already, and pointing at the spot was verging on testimony, the kind of things Baptists did. But it wasn’t something that could be denied—unbelievers did become Christians after all—and the fact that it happened in their chapel was a startling but intriguing thought.
And it was true, although the drama depended on a bit of vagueness. I had come to that church an unbeliever, and six months later I realized that I now believed. But I couldn’t have pointed at the date of transition. I could only point at the pew, where as a creature of habit I sat in the same spot every week for the years we attended.