After the debacles of the last two Sunday mornings in my Congregational Journey, I was finding myself in dire need of a success. Consecutive visits to congregations that don’t act as if they care you exist will do that to you. So as I approached the next stop on my journey, Tabernacle of Faith Community Church, I did so somewhat tentatively. On the one hand, I had been curious for awhile about what this congregation was like and what they had to offer; on the other, I didn’t want to go in with high expectations only to have them dashed. You see the tension inherent there, I think. But regardless, I was going.
Tabernacle of Faith Community Church is an African-American Pentecostal congregation that meets in a storefront in the old Italian Growers’ Building on Wilson Way in Stockton, about three blocks from my house. This particular address was previously home to another congregation, Philadelphia Christian Fellowship, which never quite got off the ground; I once passed by and saw the preacher speaking to a congregation of three. It’s not a big space – the sanctuary clearly used to be an office of some kind, narrow and deep, and might seat 60 in an emergency. Your typical “storefront church,” in other words.
I arrived for the 11:30 Sunday service at 11:10, with my usual plan of settling in and meeting people … only to find that no one was there. And I mean no one – twenty minutes before the start of the meeting, the door was locked with no sounds coming from inside. I couldn’t help but think of the congregation I was going to visit the previous week, only to find they were no longer around, and wondered if I should be kicking myself for not phoning this one first.
Little did I know that this would set the tone for what was to follow.
My fears that they had closed down, at least, were unfounded. At 11:27, a Jaguar pulled up in front of the door and a couple got out, introducing themselves as Edward and Teresa Wright, the pastors. They opened the door and began bustling about, turning on the sound system and getting things ready for the meeting. Other people began coming in around 11:35, and Teresa handed out bulletins. I spent a few minutes flipping through it, finding among other things a service order with the caveat “THE ORDER AND DURATION OF THIS SERVICE IS SUBJECT TO THE HOLY GHOST”. That was promising, at least in principle, I thought. (And it was their actual practice, from what I could tell – I know the entire “praise and worship” section of the service ended up being skipped.)
At 11:40 Edward Wright began the opening prayer with twelve people in attendance (seven adults including myself, three teenagers, a grade-schooler and a toddler). Two of the other adults were accompanying him (fairly typical for an African-American congregation) on a keyboard and a set of trap drums. Within a few minutes, the volume had gotten high enough that I had to pop in my earplugs to avoid a headache. Soon he began to add “huhuh” to the end of every sentence (“We pray for healing for those afflictedhuhuh! We declare that the sick be healedhuhuh!”), and his wife was laughing and shouting along. But the rest of the congregation looked to be bored long before he wrapped up; the toddler fell asleep despite the loudness of the pastor and the music.
When he finally did close, I couldn’t resist checking my watch – 12:02. No joke, the opening prayer ran twenty-two minutes. I have been in several African-American congregations in my years, but that was a new experience for me.
Then it got a little stranger. Pastor Wright read aloud from Proverbs 4:1-7 (a passage on the importance of getting wisdom), but did not expand on the passage, instead talking about the Super Bowl and ragging on one of the teenage parishioners who had apparently rooted for Arizona instead of the pastor’s choice, Pittsburgh. (Why this would be considered a suitable message for the pulpit was not explained, and I have no theories.) Then Teresa came up and led the congregation in the reading of their Affirmation of Faith and “I Declare,” both of which were printed in the bulletin. The first was a fairly standard document for a Pentecostal church; it was the second that I found alarming. I’m reproducing it here exactly as written, right down to the capitals and punctuation:
- I DECLARE that we are a Holy Ghost filled Church;
- I DECLARE that we are 100% tithing Church;
- I DECLARE God’s blessings over my life, my family and my job;
- I DECLARE that everything that I speak into my life SHALL come to pass;
- I DECLARE increase over our Church;
- I DECLARE that there is NO weapon that is formed against me, my family, my Church, my Pastor and his family that will prosper;
- I DECLARE VICTORY in all things…Today and forever more;
- I DECLARE by the Word of God that I have the power of life and death in my tongue;
- I DECLARE good health;
- I DECLARE long life;
- I DECLARE prosperity in every area of my life.
Now, if you aren’t familiar with this sort of theology, it’s usually called “the prosperity gospel,” also known as “Word of Faith,” “positive confession,” “the health-and-wealth gospel,” “name-it-and-claim-it,” “blab-it-and-grab-it” and several other names. It’s very popular in some Pentecostal circles. It’s also a pernicious, destructive, anti-Biblical heresy, a blatant form of religious selfishness that removes God and His will and power from the center of the church’s life and replaces it with man’s power and will. Look over the above passage and you’ll see that “I,” “me” and “my” are used 21 times, while God is only mentioned three times, all of them indirectly. That’s the prosperity gospel in a nutshell (pun intended): man on the throne, in control, speaking things into existence, with God little more than a battery than man plugs into and pulls power from. It’s the exact opposite of the message of Scripture, that God is Lord, that He spoke the universe into existence, that His will is paramount, and that we are invited to be in relationship with Him. And I can’t condemn it strongly enough. So needless to say, I was silent during this declaration.
Nor was this declaration just a theory to the pastor. After that reading, he came back and began talking about his plans to move the congregation out of their current building and into one they were planning to buy further downtown, before the end of 2009. (The one they have their eye on is currently owned by another congregation, but there have already been talks between the two.) He emphasized their need for more space for the youth outreach they run – “we need a place to put these kids” – and showed a pledge form he’d had printed to raise money for the new “complex.” He stated his intent to distribute pledge forms as far and wide as he could, including in barbershops, restaurants and in the program for an upcoming youth crusade. (At that point, I had a vision of my own – of an unsaved teen coming to that crusade seeking spiritual enlightenment, receiving a program … and finding a flyer hitting him up for money. Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect that could turn off some potential converts.)
By this time, we were almost an hour into the service, and the attendance had risen to 18, including the pastors, myself and six teenagers. And from statements made by Pastor Wright and others, it was clear that this was about average. Needless to say, I was feeling some cognitive dissonance at this point. Seriously, pastor, you need a new building to house your congregation of less than 20? You need a bigger “place to put these kids” … all six of them? If the teenagers are willing to meet separately in the kitchen, my house could hold your entire congregation – all I’d need to do is buy a few more folding chairs. (No, I didn’t actually say this aloud; I’ve never been bodily thrown out of a Sunday meeting, and I don’t feel the need to break that streak. But honestly, cool the jets on the big building push until you have something to put in one, please?)
Topping it off, one of the things the bulletin listed for us to “REMEMBER IN YOUR DAILY PRAYERS” was “500 SOULS For 2009.” I wonder how much thought they’ve given to who would disciple 500 new converts if God were to drop them on their doorstep … or why He would entrust that many baby believers to a congregation that hasn’t even figured out when their service begins.
As one might expect from a congregation that holds to the health-and-wealth canard, a big deal was made about the offering. Offering envelopes were handed out, and Teresa Wright spoke for a couple of minutes about making sure we filled out the envelopes correctly. No kidding – granted that it was a very detailed envelope, including a spot for the giver’s “member ID” number. (Insert “being treated like a number” joke here.) Then one of the teens held an offering plate at the front of the sanctuary while the members formed a processional and put their envelopes in it. I was tempted to simply write “Matthew 6:4” (“…so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you”) on the envelope, but instead left it blank, with my gift inside, on the seat beside me.
A time for fellowship was announced, and a few people came up to me to hug me or shake my hand, but none of them volunteered their name or made any effort to strike up a conversation. With only two exception is was hi, how are you, walk away before I could say much – what I’m coming to call “church-friendly” instead of actual friendliness. The exceptions were Edward and Teresa Wright, but the only thing they had on their minds was to press me to fill out the visitor’s card I had had forced upon me earlier.
There are times like these when there’s just so much strange input that I can’t sort it out, when I need to step back and ask God “what in the dickens is going on here, and what do I do about it?” So as three teen girls came to the front and sang a couple of songs (off-key), that’s exactly what I did. The prosperity-gospel emphasis had put me off my feed a bit, naturally, but there was more to it – the atmosphere was uncomfortable, oppressive, tiring. It felt like I was trapped in the cogs of a huge, grinding machine …
… and that’s when God opened my eyes to see that I had been here before – five weeks ago, during the first stop on my Congregational Journey. (You can read about it here.) What I was seeing was The System: African-American Version – different in emphasis, different in theology, but just as mechanistic, anti-relational, organizationally-minded and spiritually counter-productive. The people were more outwardly friendly, and the theology was worse, but otherwise I might as well have been back at Living Word Christian Center – a place I have no reason to go back to. In both places, the leaders were doing everything they had been taught to do, regardless of its effect on the living, breathing human beings that were Jesus’ whole reason for coming. Both sets of leaders had big visions, big dreams, and small, bored-out-of-their-skulls congregations that they were doing little to disciple except the same old ineffective methods that everyone else was using.
Finally, Pastor Wright got to his sermon, which I won’t go into in much detail. The title of it was “Weapons of Real Destruction” and its theme was using Scripture as a weapon to drive back the enemy – and thus get what you want. It was full of Bible verses pulled out of context, statements like “The Word will create an environment of wealth” and “Whatever you say shall come to pass” and “We need to be speaking the anointing,” and the word “amen” used as punctuation a couple of times per sentence. The whole thrust was on our using God’s Word to do what we want, not on God using His Word to change us or communicate with us. It was a thoroughly man-centered, not God-centered view of the Bible, one that again puts man in the place of God. And it was again a mechanistic, not a relational approach – he even said “you do this, and God will do that!” as if the Holy and Righteous Lover of Our Souls were just a vending machine we drop our quarters in and pull our goodies from.
Even though he used Genesis 1:3 to bolster his point, he totally missed that in that verse, GOD (not man) speaks, and there is light. Instead he urged us to speak things into existence, in essence expecting us to usurp an ability that only God has. (There’s a word, I believe, for people speaking special words in order to bring things into being or change them – I think it’s called “witchcraft.”) It didn’t help that he later demonstrated his lack of knowledge of the Scriptures when, while off on a tangent, he recited that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” … and then couldn’t remember where it was in the Bible. After two minutes of struggling, he finally saw me waving a piece of paper with “Romans 8:1” written on it. (A truly embarrassing experience – for me at least. He seemed to regard it as normal that a preacher wouldn’t know the Bible very well, and said as much.)
And the congregation responded to it by … well, they really didn’t respond much at all. Except for the pastor’s wife, there was nothing resembling an “amen corner.” The other parishioners sat with scowls on their faces most of the time, and when Pastor Wright told them to “turn to your neighbor and say …” (a common practice in Pentecostalism), no one did. Only at the end did they jerk out of their seats, when he urged them to high-five each other and say “use the Word!”, and then when he went through a series of appeals for them to come to the front for prayer (though only a few did the latter).
Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the altar call – because I knew I’d be able to leave at that point largely unnoticed. As I reached the door, I noticed that one of the other men in the congregation was seated next to it … fast asleep. I did my best not to wake him as I ducked out and walked the three blocks home.
I have the stray thought of wanting to check back with Tabernacle of Faith Community Church in, say, October – not to fellowship, but to see how they are holding up. It seems highly unlikely that a congregation of their size, with their absence of enthusiasm, could even approach the goals they (or at least their pastor) have set. Indeed, what I believe God prompted me to pray for the Wrights is that “when the fall comes, they would draw closer to God.” But what God meant by “fall” – “autumn”, “the collapse of their dreams”, “the revelation of some sin” or a combination of these – is unclear. And I suspect I’m better off not knowing … or returning.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: F — it’s quoted sparingly, taken out of context, left unexplained and used to prop up heresy … when its importance isn’t being belittled.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: B- for the Wrights, D for the audience. At least they weren’t welded to the order of service, but evidence of changed lives or enthusiastic worship was in short supply outside of the pastors.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: C-, because while they displayed a thin veneer of sociability toward me and each other, they seemed to show little affection for their pastors.