Tulsa and the Trajectory of My Faith Journey

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Listening to Douglas Young talk about his faith journey at Tulsa Workshop really touched my heart.  I could really identify as he told his story about being a self-righteous young man ready to take on anyone in the brotherhood who disagreed with him.  It so happened that the person in his sights was Jim Woodroof.  Jim’s gracious response became a turning point that really didn’t take hold for a few years.  I could tell you the story, but it’s Doug’s story to tell.  I hope you will buy his message and listen to it a few times. I plan to do so. But Doug’s testimony was one that had me thinking back in time to my own faith journey – and the central role that the Tulsa Workshop played (back then it was known as the International Soul Winning Workshop, which I like better – even though everyone just called it ‘Tulsa Workshop’).

It’s been a long time ago but I believe my first trip to the Tulsa Workshop would have been in 1986. I believe I rode out to the Workshop with my friend Gary Henderson. I didn’t know what to expect, but  it  certainly was an exciting experience.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it a lot. I was, at first, uncomfortable with all that hand clapping. Then there were the loud amens, singing groups, and the variety of speakers there that I recognized as being some of those questionable brothers I’d been reading about in Contending For The Faith.

I wasn’t the only one that was uncomfortable. I remember one night during a rousing worship led by Jerome Williams or maybe it was Booker … with lots of clapping and hand raising and a brother from Mississippi with whom I was acquainted was quite vexed in the hallway of the Pavilion wringing his hands and saying, “I can’t believe they call THAT worship!”. Well, I know you might be smiling but some of us grew up quite conservative! I wish I had kept the programs over the years to know who was preaching that year.

I continued to go each year because of the irresistible combination of spending the time with friends, great connections made in all the booths with tables full of books, coming home with a notebook full of ideas, and quite enjoying that singing with thousands of Christians.

Personalities also drew me there. When Marvin Phillips hit the stage I had never seen or heard anything like it.  I thought we might need seat belts on those chairs! Terry Rush, Richard Rogers, Jim McGuiggan, Jeff Walling … these men (and others) became my preaching heroes. True, I had beloved mentors that I loved back home. But out in mid-America I was seeing a new spirit. I bought tapes and listened to them over and over. Long before there were podcasts there were cassette tape subscriptions.

I wasn’t alone. The energetic evangelistic emphasis had ministers young and old going home … and sometimes inadvertently causing trouble. We started to hear sermons at Workshop like, “How to Build a Fire Without Burning the House Down!

Reuel Lemmons was a treasure. But in my early years of going to Tulsa Workshop I remember accidentally going to one of his classes. As soon as I realized he was teaching, I got up and left. I remember saying, “You can never tell what’s going to come out of him next.” How I wish I had a more humble heart in my younger years and could have listened to this visionary brother. Years later he would edit Image Magazine and I would begin to appreciate him more.

I believe it was in 1990 when I had my own Jim Woodroof moment as I bought and read The Church in Transition. I didn’t like it when I first read it. But I kept coming back to it. I began to have my eyes and heart opened a bit more. This is why I was so riveted to hear of Doug Young’s experience with Jim … I had also been exposed to some new understandings of grace from this dear brother!

I married in 1987 and often my wife, and later my children, went to Tulsa with me. And it was a dream of mine to be able to participate as a teacher on the program. That dream became a reality … twice … and each time at the hands of a disaster. The first, was after Katrina destroyed our town in Pascagoula, MS. On a Wednesday night at Memorial Drive Church of Christ Terry Rush asked me to speak. At the last minute I asked him if my son, John Robert,  could lead a song. It was risky for them, but I knew he would do a great job. He led Lord Reign In Me from underneath a mop of long hair.  It was a special moment for him, and for me. That night I testified to the power of unity with Christians of various faith families in our recovery efforts. A young couple were in the audience that night … they came to meet me … and ended up moving to Pascagoula to do recovery work for a long time. The next time I was invited to speak at the Workshop was after John Robert died, and I talked about grief recovery.

So, significant life events are etched into my memory in connection with the Tulsa Workshop. The workshop has changed over the years. I go home with notes, but most of them are Bible study notes, not the practical church growth ‘hey try this at home‘ type notes. The crowd isn’t quite as large as it was in the day, but it’s still plenty big.  When I first started going individuals led the singing, then professional singing groups, now praise teams from across the country (and in Tulsa). But the basic subtext is the same. Get a lot of Christians together, preach the Word, stretch our faith, fellowship, eat, pray, sing, and talk until you can’t go any longer, then head home.

Thanks, Doug, for reminding me that there are many influences that assist us on our journey from self-assured dogmatism into the freedom of grace and truth. Tulsa Workshop has had a large influence in my own life and faith for many years. That experience joins several others … significant people and experiences through which God has molded me into the person I am today. I’m sure I would be much farther along if I had only yielded more of myself to Him. For whatever good there is in me, God gets all the credit.  As for the rest of me, grace and mercy emerge.

Thanks for reading, JD

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