I suppose there’s a point in every journey, no matter where one is going, when all the scenery begins to look the same, when all the roadside stands and souvenir shops and souvenirs are ticky-tack copies of the ones you saw a hundred or five hundred or two thousand miles before. And you get to the point where all you can think about is the number of miles to your destination, and nothing matters except just lowering that number as quickly as possible.
I think I’m hitting that point right about now. With a little help from a congregation calling itself House of Grace.
House of Grace is a storefront Pentecostal congregation on Main Street in the old central business district of downtown Stockton, which does make it easy to spot on a Sunday morning — it’s almost the only door that’s open in that section of town. The people behind it, led by “Chief Apostle” Jason Horton, also have just started a congregation they call House of Hope in south Stockton. They call themselves “God’s House of Many Colors,” and that slogan is reflected in their ethnic diversity.
I arrived around 10:50 this morning for the 11 a.m. service, to find fourteen people in attendance, half of them children under the age of ten. The House of Grace sanctuary is typical for a storefront church, bare-bones with no foyer, fluorescent lighting, a ceiling fan, a pulpit (but no raised stage) and about 90 stackable chairs. On the walls on either side were paper banners (the kind you produce with a tractor-feed printer) saying “Nothing Missing, Nothing Broken”, and four cloth ones reading “LOVE”, “JOY”, “PEACE” and “PROSPERITY.” As I sat down I saw the last one and went “uh-oh …”
Uh-oh, you may ask? Well, aside from the fact that prosperity, unlike the other three, is not listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5, the fact that the banner was up there was an indicator that I’d stumbled into yet another congregation that has fallen into the “prosperity gospel” heresy. If you’re not familiar with this particular brand of institutionalized religious selfishness, I invite you to read the account of my visit to Tabernacle of Faith Community Church four weeks ago, where I go into it in some detail. Suffice to say that I have found this set of beliefs to be “a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all” as Paul put it (also in Galatians). This quite aside from the fact that it warps new believers into seeking their own will rather than God’s, and leads entire congregations to try to do God’s will in man’s ways. This has never ended well, not in the entire history of the Christian faith, and there’s no reason to belive God will change His infinite mind on this.
But, like Tabernacle of Faith and Shiloh Delta Valley Church (which I visited a week ago), House of Grace is committed to this false teaching. They’re also committed to really loud noise — when I got there a woman with a scratchy voice and a cordless microphone and a man with a headset mic were praying in a mixture of English, Spanish and tounges, in no particular order and at a volume that forced me to put my earplugs in before they even started the service (a first for me). Occasionally the woman would sing along to the instrumental music playing over the speakers. As I settled in and watched a woman in the second row lecturing her husband in front of their kids, a young man in a suit (the only one wearing one in the whole congregation) introduced himself as Mr. Bonner and gave me a visitor’s card to fill out. In all the time I was there, he was the only person who gave me his name.
At 11:05 with the congregation up to 24, counting myself (still 50% underage), the scratchy-voiced woman motioned for the congregation to stand up and join her in a song. (Despite the presence of a keyboard, organ, trap drums and congas, all the music was pre-recorded with vocals — and often the voices on the recording were louder than those in the congregation.) Most of the adults (but none of the kids) did stand. As the man with the headset continued exhorting people in mid-song, I noticed that aside from the lady on the mic, only one other person was singing along: the woman (let’s call her the Lecturer) who’d been publicly chewing out her husband a few minutes before. But now she was in total thrall to the music, hands in the air and swaying side to side.
The second song, a disco-style number, led the man and woman with the mics to start dancing in a crazy, almost drunken manner, one I’ve never seen in a Sunday service before (and I’ve been in a lot of hyperactive Pentecostal services). Now the Lecturer was in the center aisle, spinning around like a top; her husband was still in his seat. After the song finished, they played it through again, with the man ordering everyone to get up and dance — and implying that if you weren’t dancing, you weren’t thankful to God or truly worshipping Him. (I stayed seated anyway. I have two bad ankles, and dancing for me is just an invitation to injure them. When I have an imperishable body in Heaven, I look forward to dancing before God; for now, it would not be wise.) They played a couple more songs afterward, but they were slower and no one was considered an ingrate or unspiritual if they didn’t dance to those.
Between songs, the man talked some about his past — apparently he’d been up on several charges in court, and been looking at a long prison sentence. The testimony was sincere, but with two surreal elements. One was the habit of a few people in the congregation to shout “amen!” and “halleluah!” at inappropriate times. (“I was looking at 99 years in prison.” “Amen!” “I had done some really bad things, man.” “Hallelujah! Amen!”) Since “amen” in Hebrew means “let it be so” and “hallelujah” means “praise God,” this was a little odd. The other was his tendency to jump around and interrupt himself with yelling in tongues, often in mid-sentence. His excitement didn’t seem faked so much as forced, as if he had been told that that was how he was supposed to act in such a situation and was only following orders — it did not seem to be a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm so much as a carrying out of a ritual. This was reflected in the congregation: even as he was talking about not getting locked away for decades, half the adults (and again, ALL the kids) looked bored. By now it was 11:35, and attendance had reached 29 (still half kids or young teens), but people were still trickling in — in fact, they continued to do so for as long as I was there.
At that point, the lady on the mic invited (okay, more like demanded) the children to come up and sing a song. They barely sang at all, though — you couldn’t hear them over the recording until near the end — even when urged on by the lady on the mic and the Lecturer (taking a break from berating her hubby again). One little girl, maybe two years old, kept leaving the group and running back to her mother, who was sitting behind me; Mom kept sending her back up to the stage (in expectation of what, that she’d sing lead soprano?). Afterward, the lady on the mic insisted, “we gotta choir in the house!” and that “this is something they [the kids] wanted to do”, though their performance had very much a forced-to-be-up-there quality about it. The kids returned to their seats, which was a stunner for me — they had no children’s ministry operating, apparently expecting the little ones to just sit in the service for however long it took. (You have to wonder about a congregation that has 25 adults but none of them taking care of ministering to the young’uns — is it the leader’s philosophy that they should be in the grown-ups’ meeting, or is just no one willing to do the job?)
Finally at 11:45 Chief Apostle Horton (I dunno, it seems like a demotion to just call him “Pastor”) emerged from the door behind the pulpit area, accompanied by several others who presumably had come from the House of Hope meeting. He told people about the great things he expected that God would do through this ministry and instructed the members to go around greeting each other with “God is able!” Several did so, which led to a few exchanges like this one:
- Unnamed parishioner (shaking my hand): God is able!
- Me: Well … of course He is.
- Unnamed: (looks stunned, walks away.)
So that was fun. Then Chief Apostle Horton asked Mr. Bonner to give a testimony, and he began to talk about some of the struggles he and his wife had been going through trying to stay in their apartment. I think they’d gotten behind on the rent or something — the testimony itself was hard to follow because Mr. Bonner kept meandering from the topic, and because the lady behind me kept alternating between loud “hallelujahs” at the wrong times, jumping up and down (unnerving, as the floor was rather thin and when she landed the whole sanctuary would shake), and being quite physically rough with the two-year-old, who was getting a bit cranky. (As, I suspect, would any two-year-old forced to sit for the better part of an hour doing nothing and surrounded by sudden loud noises and occasional tremors). Worse yet, the woman behind me … was Mrs. Bonner, the testifier’s wife; the toddler was presumably his daughter.
The offering was next, and Chief Apostle Horton didn’t even wait for it to end before starting his sermon. He had the congregation turn to Matthew 7 … then began reading from Matthew 6:25. The rest of the sermon proceeded in a similarly disjointed manner. The message was on hope, which he interpreted to mean asking for what you want, then believing it will happen — less a definition of hope than a distillation of “prosperity gospel” theology. He was a big fan of telling people to repeat particular words or say them to their fellow attendees, sometimes seeming to pick the words at random. His grasp of the Bible was frightening in its weakness. At one point, he quoted 1 John 3:3 (“And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”) and from it declared “you need to purify yourselves!” — although the verse is about being purified by the hope of heaven and one day being like Jesus, not about working to clean up oneself. Nor does he recognize the ramifications of his own (bad) theology — he openly admitted he preaches prosperity, yet five minutes later said he gets tired of folks using God … which is where prosperity theology always leads people.
And in the meantime, the disastrous idea of keeping the kids in the meeting was bearing its logical fruit. None of the kids were attentive, which in turn led to half the adults being distracted. The Lecturer kept relocating herself and one of her two daughters to different parts of the sanctuary, including once in front of me, which led to me spending several minutes trying to keep the restless little tyke from shoving the chair in front of me into my shins. Other kids were acting up, talking, occasionally getting hauled outside by parents. In addition the guy with the headset mic was wandering around in front of the pulpit with his Bible open, as if he were preparing to tack an extra sermon on after Chief Apostle Horton got done. I suspect that this is not what the Apostle (not “chief”) Paul had in mind when he encouraged the Corinthians to use their spiritual gifts but to “let everything be done decently and in order.”
Throughout, Chief Apostle Horton and others used the catchphrases of the blab-it-and-grab-it crowd — “Speak all these blessings into existence”, “In your praises to Him is everything you need”, “if you get off track, then the blessings get off track” and the like. I asked God what to pray for Chief Apostle Horton, and believe He told me to pray that he would withdraw from all of his own works, and would seek God for His will, not forcing anything. Which, given how forced the entire service had seemed, made great sense to me.
Honest to goodness, folks, I do try to stay to the end of these meetings, but by 12:40 I needed a breather and stepped outside. I was followed by a man who’d come with Chief Apostle Horton from House of Hope. He didn’t introduce himself, but instead went on for five minutes about how House of Grace was so different from “traditional churches” and how Chief Apostle Horton really knew the Word of God and how much he’d learned once he’d spent many weeks under this ministry and … well, you get the idea. I suspect he was a new believer and enthused about his subject, but he basically made it sound like a cult without intending to. After several minutes of this I let him know that what he was describing and what I’d just seen appeared to be two different things, and bid him good day.
If anything good came out of my visit to House of Grace, it was that it clarified my antipathy toward the “prosperity gospel” heresy. I have often said in the past that God’s will done man’s way is man’s will, and will not succeed. At the heart of the “prosperity gospel” is the emphasis on people trying to advance the kingdom of God their own way, through positive confession, praying for what we want instead of God’s will, claiming powers as ours that belong only to Him, and so forth. It’s almost a modern Pentecostal equivalent of the Crusades, the medieval Christian attempt to advance God’s interest through human means. The Crusades led to bloodshed, heartbreak, the devastation of many Christian and Jewish cultures, and an almost completely closed door to the gospel to this day among Muslims. One wonders what damage the modern equivalent will do in the long run.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: F — Chief Apostle Horton and his followers use the Scriptures the way a drunkard uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: D+, as the few people whose lives seemed to be changed are balanced by the ones who act far worse than I’ve ever seen displayed in a Sunday meeting (nagging spouses, roughing up toddlers, etc.).
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: F; the cultic follower as I left was the only person to talk to me other than Mr. Bonner instructing me about the visitor’s card and seven people who only said “God is able”; no one expressed interest in me as a person. I was inclined to give them a break (and a D) because I sense many of them are recent converts … until I realized that most NON-believers I’ve met are friendlier than that.
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Postscript: a little after 2 p.m., I was driving back down Main Street with my two kids for our weekly trip to the public library. As I passed House of Grace, I took a look … and the meeting was still in progress, over three hours after it began. I feel for the children who were there the whole time, stuck in their seats with nothing to do and no opportunity to have fun. What must they think of the church, and of Christ, after experiencing that?