The first stop on my Congregational Journey was unique in a few ways. Of the twelve churches on my list, Living Word Christian Center is one of only two that is primarily Hispanic. It’s also the only one where I’ve been inside the building before.
Living Word Christian Center’s building was originally built to house Eastside Presbyterian Church, founded in 1929. I visited Eastside Pres about two years ago, to find a congregation that had no pastor and only about eight remaining members. It wasn’t a dying congregation so much as a congregation that had already died, standing up, and was still in the process of toppling over. While I was there, I was told that a growing “Mexican” group met later in the building’s fellowship hall, and had already shown interest in buying the plant if Eastside chose to sell. That group was Living Word Christian Center, and apparently that’s just what happened. (Though the south-facing wall of the building still says “EASTSIDE PRESBYTERIAN” on it, so they could just be renting …)
Said building is on the corner of Miner and Sierra Nevada streets in Stockton, roughly four blocks of my house. So instead of having to worry about parking, I simply walked over in plenty of time for the 11 a.m. service. When I arrived, two men in suits and ties were in front of the door. One of them greeted me with “how’re you doing?” (“Well enough so far,” I responded) and commented on the large Bible I was carrying. (I had brought a four-translation Bible, not knowing what translation they used in the meeting.) Then he asked, “how’re you doing?” again — to which I replied, “ummm … about the same as thirty seconds ago.” He then chuckled, realizing his faux pas, and welcomed me to the church, in the process moving in such a way so that I could actually go inside the building.
Two other oddities about that conversation struck me later:
- He never asked me my name, or volunteered his.
- He never mentioned that he was the pastor.
I went in, received a bulletin and a prayer request slip from a young man named Joshua (who DID ask my name), and took a seat in the fourth row of pews. The bulletin told me that the pastors were Adam and Angela Vasquez, which was how I figured out who the fellow at the door was. All the furniture from the Eastside days were still in use, with only a few changes — a roughly made banner on one wall, amplifiers and a drum set behind the lectern, an overhead projector and a pull-down screen on the left side of the sanctuary. The service started around 11:10, with 15-20 adults in attendance. None besides Joshua introduced themselves or showed any curiosity about my presence there, despite me being an obviously new face.
When the music started, so did the sense of deja vu. The music was loud, but not as loud as some services I’ve been in — the singer/guitarist had probably turned down his amps to adjust for the acoustics of an older church building, and the drummer was using brushes instead of sticks. But I knew all but one of the songs, and with the exception of one tune, all of them were sung in English; for that one, the singer went from English to Spanish and back again. (I thought it an odd choice for a meeting where there were at most five Anglos, self included — I live nearby, and most of my neighbors speak Spanish first or only.) Plus you had the usual mix of sounds for a small Pentecostal congregation — one or two people singing loudly, the rest quietly or not at all; a couple of women moaning; at least two praying in “loud tongues,” totally ignoring Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 14. It was exactly like “worship time” at every small Pentecostal church I’ve ever visited, right down to the music leader directing people when to clap or raise their hands, and using “amen” and “hallelujah” as punctuation.
At 11:40, Angela Vasquez stood up and read John 1:1-4 as a jumping-off point for exhorting us to put God first … which immediately led to her talking about all the things God will do for us. (Wait a second — putting who first?) She went on to the announcements, starting with telling us that the Sunday service was at 11 a.m. (yeah, I think we’ve figured that out, seeing as we’re here and all …). By this time, attendance had peaked at 32 adults, counting myself, the pastors and the musicians. Only one other besides myself was sitting in the front four rows; she left shortly thereafter.
Adam Vasquez came up to the lectern at 11:50 to prep us for the offering, and spent ten minutes talking about the need for us to financially support the church. (At one point, he said that “it’s up to us to keep God’s house open for business.” I restrained myself from quoting Psalm 127:1. You would’ve been proud of me.) He also asked us to pray that “the transition into Foursquare will be smooth”; as he elaborated, it became apparent that the congregation was working to join the Foursquare denomination in order to be eligible for home missions funding. I’d never heard of a group treating joining a denomination as if they were applying for a government grant, but maybe I’ve just been sheltered. Other than the Foursquare part, the pre-offering message was precisely what I’ve heard at numerous other meetings elsewhere. The offering was followed by Communion — again, a copy of so many other churches, right down to the hexagonal crackers and teeny plastic tumblers of grape juice handed out to the congregation.
Another strange choice given the largely working-class Hispanic congregation was Adam’s preaching out the King James version, all “thees” and “eths” included. He read Hebrews 12:1-6 but his message, titled “Staying Focused in Out-of-Focus Times,” had little connection to the passage and was fairly … well, unfocused. Few in the congregation showed much interest, except for an occasional mumbled repetition of one of the hundreds of “amens” Adam used in the sermon. (Sometimes not in the most appropriate places, considering “amen” is Hebrew for “may it be so.” “A lot of people don’t care about God, amen?” “I remember I was living under a bridge, amen?”) The sermon was a basic one, calling the audience to remember that they needed God, to remember to ask God for His will, and how he wanted the people there to be a people of prayer and a people of love. It was extremely elementary, with no central point, no depth and no real power behind it. Following that was a typical Pentecostal altar call, complete with everyone’s head bowed, everyone’s eyes closed and people who wanted salvation being asked to raise their hand. The same procedure I learned in the Assemblies of God campus group where I gave my life to Christ. In 1987.
My overwhelming emotion by the end of the sermon was sadness. Adam Vasquez seems like a nice enough fellow, with a strong testimony of how God led him from drug use and homelessness to where he is now. It’s clear that God has done a miracle in his life. It’s also clear that he’s been trained in — and has bought into — a system of “doing church” that was created in Anglo Pentecostal churches, and that frankly is almost completely ineffective at reaching Anglos with the Gospel, let alone Hispanics. But that’s the way so many congregations do things, that’s the way I suspect the Vasquezes were trained to do things, so that’s how they do them.
They’re doing what all the other places are doing, the same way they’re doing them, and seeing the same result: a lackluster congregation that is stalled in the low double digits. This isn’t a recent start-up, either; one of the other announcements was for their third anniversary banquet next Saturday. Yet Adam preached that God was bringing them “into a harvest season.” I have visited in my life over a dozen Pentecostal and evangelical congregations of roughly the same size as Living Word Christian Center, and in every one of them — literally, EVERY single one — the preacher said something similar. Not one of them has grown significantly beyond where they were, in numbers or maturity. Some have closed down altogether. Does this mean it won’t happen here? No. But I’m not holding my breath either.
There is no doubt in my mind that Adam and Angela Vasquez are committed Christians, full of the Holy Spirit and with a passion for doing God’s will and seeing His will done in others. But at the same time, they are also committed to a system (maybe I should call it The System) of rigid performance in church services that does little to foster maturity in their congregation and dramatically limits what God is allowed to do therein. If God wants to do mighty works in the Sunday service, He’ll have to follow the service order like everyone else. It doesn’t lead to an Acts-of-the-Apostles-level work of the Holy Spirit anywhere else, and there’s no reason to expect it to lead to one here. And until (if?) they manage to get free of the limitations inherent in The System, I’m concerned that the Vasquezes are going to find it a very frustrating experience. They are sincere, they are loyal, they are enthusiastic for God … but they’ve bought into a lie. And that lie will hold them back until they see it for what it is, and break free of it.
Because that’s what has to happen. As the service was winding down (and it wasn’t all that “wound up” anyway), I was asking God how I could pray for the Vasquezes, and in what other ways I could minister to that body of believers. His instructions:
- Pray that God would open Adam and Angela’s eyes to see that The System has failed them and their people — but that God’s way will not.
- Praying is all I can do to contribute, since helping in any other way would just perpetuate The System
Not what I had hoped to hear. But then, that’s how life is sometimes. I had come to Living Word Christian Center a little nervous that I would be witnessing something different. I left heartsick because I hadn’t seen anything different at all.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: D — it’s quoted, but the messages don’t have any strong connection to it.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: B for the Vasquezes, D for the audience.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: D, unless God’s people are supposed to look bored. Joshua saved it from being an F.
Incidentally, Joshua was disappointed when I passed on giving him my address after the meeting so they could send me a welcome letter. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I thought it would be a waste, as there was no reason to send a welcome to someone who wouldn’t be back.