- Three weeks ago — treated like I didn’t exist at a congregation in Las Vegas.
- Two weeks ago — treated like I barely existed at a congregation in north Stockton.
- Last week — treated like I existed, then subjected to really bad doctrine at a church in east Stockton.
So it’s been a rough month or so for your roving blogger. After three straight bad experiences, I was less than enthusiastic about continuing the Congregational Journey this week. But God gives the orders, not I, and He isn’t offering me any vacation days. So I determined to assume nothing about my next stop, Bethany Temple Assembly of God. It might be a continuation of my cold streak of congregations, or it might be a break from it. I was making no guesses in advance, only committing to showing up and seeing what happened.
And … I’m glad I showed up and saw.
Bethany Temple, aka Templo Betania, is a bilingual Assemblies of God congregation in an industrial section of northeast Stockton, right near Highway 99. The congregation used to have a building at the south end of town, and only moved to their current location — a former elementary school turned disabled-care facility, which they bought from the county — about three years ago. At first glance it still has the look of a public school: the big gate and bus stop areas in front, the off-yellow paint scheme, the modular buildings to one side, and very little parking (which must be a pain for the members). A vinyl banner listing their name in Spanish and English was really the only hint that the complex was being used for Sunday worship services.
But if I needed an extra indicator, I got one within a minute of getting out of my car at 9:05 this morning. As I came across the street (I had parked on the other side to let others have the better spaces), a man in a suit and tie stopped, then altered his trajectory to meet me in front of the gates. I soon found out his name was Steve and that he was an usher for the English-language service held there. (It turns out that the Spanish and English services are held separately except for the first Sunday of the month, when they meet together.) Nor was this the “church-friendliness” I had witnessed in previous weeks — hi, how are you, shake hands, walk away, five seconds max. Steve invited me in, showed me where the English-language service met, brought me to the little kitchenette where the ushers metm and even offered me a cup of water (I confessed to not being much of a coffee drinker). Soon I was sitting down, sharing testimonies with Steve, Steve’s wife Becky, and Andy (another usher) and enjoying a little Christian fellowship. Now, this is a pleasant change, I thought.
I’d called the church office earlier in the week (I’m learning, see?) and was told that the Sunday service began at 9:30. Turns out — you guess it — that 9:30 was when the Spanish service began; the English service started at 11:15, preceded by an adult Sunday School class at 10. So I was there way early, but took advantage of the opportunity to get a little taste of the Spanish service. The Spanish-speaking congregation meets in the main sanctuary, a mostly bare-walled room which seats about 150. There were 50-60 there when I arrived, about a third of which were children (I suspect they stayed with their parents for worship, then went to their Sunday school classes), and by the time I left it was well over 80. A four-piece worship band (guitar, bass guitar, trap drums, synthesizer) and four singers led the congregation in a series of praise songs in Spanish, at a loud enough volume that I had to put my earplugs in immediately or risk a massive headache. My high-school Spanish wasn’t up to the task of understanding the lyrics, but I could tell the congregation was into it.
Just before 10, I stepped out to go to the modular where the English-speaking congregation met. This room seated about 64, and eleven people were there when I came in. The folks there seemed a bit busy/preoccupied, but several came over to say hi, ask my name and generally welcome me. Lily, the Bible study leader, asked for prayer requests before beginning the lesson, then prayed for all of them, asking also a blessing for their new visitor (me), which I thought was nice. (Incidentally, I sensed no objection to Lily, a young woman of about 30, leading an adult class in which she was one of the younger members — and female besides. A good sign.)
The lesson seemed to be a stock one on evangelism, teaching from John 1:29-51 about how Jesus’s first disciples joined His ministry. What could have been just another sermon spoken to a passive audience, though, turned into a remarkably interactive experience. Lily took a while to get comfortable with being in front of everyone — she hinted at being new in the position — but did a great job of involving the class members, having them answer questions about the text or reading verses aloud. She even allowed questions and input from the people in the class, making it that much richer and really bringing home the message of sharing the gospel ourselves (rather than just dragging people in on Sunday mornings to let them hear it from someone else, an unfortunate habit in the American church). I will admit to being pretty lousy at personal evangelism — it helps to have more social skills than I possess — but I was convicted not only by the lesson, but by other people sharing their experiences of how they learned not to overlook opportunities to share their faith, or that “Jesus had time for everybody” (quoting a member of the congregation). The Bible study alone was better than most of the Sunday services I’ve attended in recent years.
The study was adjourned at 11:05 so the musicians could set up for the 11:15 service, and people began streaming into the room, including many teenagers who I’d guess were heading over from their own class. This swelled the attendance to over 35, and it would reach almost 50 by the end of the music at 11:25 — pretty full given the number of seats. This room had the same four-instrument setup as the main sanctuary, including a full drum set, and after a look at the low ceiling I knew that the acoustics would require deployment of my earplugs again. (Actually, the plugs almost weren’t enough; I don’t know how everyone else stood it.)
The music was typical for a Pentecostal congregation — three fast songs, then two slow ones, lyrics put up on an HDTV screen behind the band. After the level of involvement during the Bible study, I was surprised by the lack of interest shown during worship — less than half of the people were singing along, and only a few were clapping, very unusual in Pentecostal circles. Most of the people just looked bored. Even the worship leader seemed to be going through the motions — her voice lacked emotion even when she briefly went over the announcements while the ushers collected the offering.
Pastor Robert Pimentel, who also led the Spanish service (I remembered seeing him on the platform while I was over there) arrived near the end of the music. A vigorous older man, he had his left hand swaddled in a bandage due to a recent operation to remove some small tumors; he mentioned that he expected to hear from the doctors this week as to whether they were benign or malignant. He asked the congregation to pray regarding both those results and for his wife, who is scheduled for more blood tests (he didn’t specify why, only mentioned how tired she’d been).
Pastor Pimentel started his sermon by reading Isaiah 62:6, talking about the watchmen on Israel’s walls, and said that God calls us to watch over our city. “We are the prophets of today … we are our brother’s keeper” was just one of the things he said along those lines. He emphasized our focusing on the well-being of others and ministering to and praying for each other (Colossians 3:16 came up a couple of times). He placed specific emphasis on parents’ responsibility for guiding their children, relating his own experience with an abusive dad and how he had to overcome it. (Let’s just say that my antenna were really perked up at that point!) And while he knew the people he was speaking to were not perfect (he addressed some of the sins he knew of in the congregation, but didn’t embarrass anyone in the process), he clearly believes in their ability to reach out to a world in need, and to each other as well.
Throughout the sermon, the congregation was attentive and supportive … but also restless, fidgety, almost as if they were so eager to go and carry out that message that they could barely sit still. Nor were they the only ones — Pastor Pimentel talked about how sometimes he would feel ill due to overconcern for those under his care, and mentioned that he wanted the congregation’s ministries to give him the rosters of those involved in them, so that he could make sure someone was keeping in touch with those people. It was a good sermon, but even better was the heart that the pastor showed for the people under his care, and vice versa.
As the service ended and I headed back to my car, I couldn’t help but contrast what I’d just experienced with what I had seen six weeks ago at Living Word Christian Center, the first stop on my Congregational Journey. The two groups have a lot in common — both are small congregations, largely Hispanic with Hispanic pastors; both are Pentecostal in theology and practice; both had similar orders of service; and both are fairly new in their respective locations (Living Word was founded in 2006, the same year Bethany Temple moved to their current building). But while only one person at Living Word even asked my name and most of the congregation ignored me entirely, I was treated warmly at Bethany Temple and welcomed into their activities. The congregation at the former showed no interest in the sermon, but the one at the latter almost hung on every word. There was no freedom to share experiences at the former; at the latter it was encouraged and rewarded. It’s alost a cliche to say there was “a different spirit” about Bethany Temple, but I know no better way to describe it.
Except maybe this. Both services seem to follow what I have in the past called the System — a standard method of operation for Pentecostal services, that I’ve seen in at least a dozen different congregations. But while Living Word Christian Center seemed trapped by the System, Bethany Temple appears to be developing beyond its confines and toward more authentic ministry by all its members. Most of the congregation seems quite knowledgeable in the Scriptures and mature in their behavior — there were a couple of young ladies experiencing what the Supermodel and I call “holy hysteria” during the after-service prayer time, but they were gently ministered to by Lily and other members. Pastor Pimentel’s statement of feeling ill for concern over the congregation sounded like an invitation for others to come share the burden of ministry. Even the apathy during the music time carried an undertone of frustration — it felt less like a lack of concern for praising God than a recognition that they weren’t really going about achieving that goal effectively.
Recently, I’ve been working on a monograph that I hope to have finished before the end of this month. It primarily addresses how the current congregational standard in American churches is failing to train up people into maturity, and to provide opportunities for those who achieve maturity to reach a lost world. To fix that problem, I suggest a refocusing of pastoral activity on training a small group of people to minister, just as Jesus trained His disciples, and not only to give them chances to exercise their gifts in the church services, but also to have them train others just as they were trained, eventually bringing everyone in the body to spiritual maturity and the freedom to operate as “the priesthood of all believers” to each other and the world. My one back-of-my-mind worry has been that it would be very difficult for even a willing pastor to implement such a program in most congregations, because of the expectations of both the members and the denominations. But it struck me today that Bethany Temple would probably have an easier time of it than most — they have a pastor who is passionate about training people up, and a congregation full of folks who seem eager to be trained. Even before I left, God spoke to me to pray for Pastor Pimentel that he would train and release his people to minister, because he is ready and so are they.
Right before I headed out, I shook hands with Andy the usher and told him I’d be back. I don’t know if he heard me — the band had returned to the stage, so it was pretty loud in there. But even if not, he’ll still see me again. I think good things are going to happen there — and boy, it’s nice to be able to say that again!
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: A- — though I wouldn’t mind even more Scripture (can there ever be too much?), it was referenced thoroughly, in context, and clearly and pragmatically applied.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: A, because you can actually feel the eagerness to know God and be about his businesss.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: B+; a little “church-friendliness”, but more than balanced out by a healthy dose of real friendliness and interest in each other.