Going to church as a child was a formative experience for me. I learned a lot about myself, my family, God, and the birds and bees. For most of my childhood and teenage years, I belonged to Dunwoody Baptist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia.
The church, located on Atlanta’s north side, is a Southern Baptist church that helped lead the contemporary worship movement of the 1990s in the Atlanta area. Most of the buildings were brown brick, with a modernist feel. It didn’t look too much like a church, save for the cross-topped bell tower in the center of the church’s campus.
The buildings comprising the church campus consisted of a spacious worship center, several buildings of classrooms, and a recreational complex, called The Family Life Center, that housed a gym, basketball and racquetball courts, and some ball fields.
Though it sounds like all the trappings of any megachurch, these amenities were relatively rare at the time. The emphasis on sports and health activities were courtesy of Cecil B. Day, founder of the Days Inn motel chain, and a longtime member of the church. By providing all the equipment, activities, and facilities as a sports club, the church hoped to draw in community members who were unchurched.
I wasn’t a very athletic guy, but I remember using the gym for youth lock-ins. We’d roller skate around the basketball courts, unroll sleeping bags in the lobby, and find dark corners in which to spend some quality time with a member of the opposite sex.
I had my first kiss at church. It was with a pretty little redhead who’s name was Emily, I think. It was a holy moment, but also awkward and scary. Yeah, holy is the right word.
The first play I was ever in was at church. The church had a school of music and performing arts. One year they put on The Sound of Music. I played Friedrich Von Trapp. My younger brother Michael played Kurt. It was that experience, more than any other, that hooked me on acting.
The church organist, Mr. Sloan, was my piano teacher. Learning to read music was hard for me. I didn’t practice as much as I should have. He was a stern teacher, but a gentle man. Yet I still remember breaking down into tears during a lesson in which I was supposed to have learned Bach’s Minuet in G major. I’d not practiced and didn’t know it. The tears came not because Mr. Sloan was mean, but because I’d disappointed him.
That would become a pattern in my life: fear of disappointing others. I’m sure there were other instances before this, but the breakdown in Mr. Sloan’s office at church is one of the most vivid memories I have of what it feels like to be a disappointment. He never said that I disappointed him, but he didn’t need to. I was convinced I had.
Some of the best memories I have of that church revolve around the age-centered ministries they offered. In grade school, I was a part of Royal Ambassadors (RAs). It’s kind of like a scouting group that focuses on civic duty and Bible memorization. And pinewood derbies.
Oh, how I loved pinewood derbies. I’d spend weeks sanding and shaping my race car, adding weights to the back, a killer paint job, and graphite on the wheels. Then I’d watch with anticipation as the cars zoomed down the track to the finish line. I’m not sure I remember any of the Bible verses I had to memorize in RAs, but I sure do remember the races.
Perhaps the most formative part of my experience at Dunwoody Baptist Church was being part of the church’s youth group. We met on Wednesday nights in a gathering called “PowerSource.” Our youth pastor, Allen Jackson (no, not the country singer) was a gregarious guy who loved his job and loved us kids. He and his wife Judi were probably the best thing about my experience there. Each year they’d lead a trip to Panama City Beach, where we’d spend a week at Laguna Christian Retreat, singing, playing volleyball, diving for sand dollars, and getting airbrushed t-shirts.
Though my understanding of the nature of church has changed a lot since those days, I’m forever indebted to this particular, localized embodiment of the church for its investment in me as a youngster.