Nobody’s perfect. That’s what we’re all told, isn’t it? And it’s true. Everyone has weak points, everyone has things about them we’d hate if we knew. Each of us knows that we aren’t right, true and shiny clean every second of every day. “We’re only human,” claims the world; “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is how the Apostle Paul put it. And as I like to say, only one person in history had a perfect theology … and we crucified Him for it.
So on my Congregational Journey, just like every time I look in the mirror, I don’t expect to see perfection in action. If no person on earth today is 100% on, then no congregation made up of people will be either. But I do hope every Sunday to find a congregation that is at least moving in the right direction, that’s (quoting Paul again) “press[ing] onward toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” A place where the people are allowing Jesus to work on them, to conform them to Himself. Sometimes I go somewhere that’s happening, and sometimes not. It’s nice when it’s happening.
This morning, I think I saw it happening, at a little place called Family Worship Center.
Family Worship Center meets in a little building on Cherokee Avenue, several blocks east of Wilson Way in east Stockton. They were a dying congregation (only a handful of senior citizens left) in 2001 when Ron Martinez came on as pastor, and since then have slowly built up, including joining Praise Chapel Fellowship (a Southern California-based Pentecostal denomination). They meet in a low-ceilinged concrete building, tastefully apportioned with beige walls, ceiling fans and a combination of teal stackable chairs and a few red-upholstered pews, to make seating for about 80. (Some of the pews and chairs face the back of the sanctuary; when I first entered, I thought for a moment that I had accidentally come in the wrong door.) A door in the back (next to a water fountain, oddly enough) goes to a windowed “crying room” for mothers with infants, while doors at the front lead to a prayer room, the nursery and the children’s Sunday school classroom. The congregation is ethnically and generationally diverse, with an even split between men and women; dress styles ranged everywhere from white shirts and ties to T-shirts and flannel.
I arrived at 10:40 a.m. for the 11:00 service, to find that the congregation’s small parking lot (maybe room for ten cars, tops) was already full. A promising sign, I thought as I parked down a side street. When I entered the building, though, the sanctuary was almost empty; I guessed (correctly) that everyone else was either praying or otherwise preparing for the service. But the first person I met was Anthony, whom I’d known from when the Supermodel and I were Sunday school superintendents for the congregation he and his parents attended. He had left there about the same time we had, and was enthused about the ministry he’d joined, emphasizing how Pastor Martinez’s discipling him and others. I got to talk with him for a few minutes, and also with Rashaun (whose name I’m sure I’m misspelling; sorry, bro), another young man in the congregation. In addition, I was able to look over a bulletin board detailing the foreign missions the church sponsors, including outreaches in England, Spain, Estonia, Malaysia, Nicaragua and Iraq. So: diversity, friendliness, discipleship, mission support … some very good signs here.
Right at 11:00, the service started (a change from many places I’ve been, when the service times are more like guidelines) with Anthony giving a word of praise and inviting the congregation to give a “clap offering” (applause to God, for those of you not used to Pentecostal phraseology). Then the band started up at typical church service volume (read: I popped my earplugs in immediately). It was a substantial band too: guitar, bass, trap drums, keyboard, two percussionists and seven singers — 13 in all, which made up one-third of the people in attendance. Nor was there a single leader — Anthony passed the lead mic to a lady who led two songs, then switched with one of the percussionists (Pastor Martinez, it later turned out) who later switched with one of the backup singers. Kind of an interesting setup — was this part of the discipleship process, letting different people lead the music?
There was no overhead projection of the lyrics, and perhaps no reason to; I had heard all of the songs before numerous times, and no one else seemed to have trouble following. Not that they all followed; only about half the adults not on stage were singing or clapping along, and few raised their hands during the one slow song. Seven small kids were in the sanctuary and were clearly bored, thus once again causing me to question why, why, WHY more and more congregations keep their kids in the sanctuary for the music without any attempt to accommodate them or help them understand what it’s all about. (The Supermodel’s congregation has begun doing this, and it doesn’t lead to our kids worshipping — it leads to the Supermodel not being able to because she has to watch the kids.) Though it did give me an idea today — why not get all the young’uns together in one front corner of the sanctuary, and designate one of the band singers (it wouldn’t have to be the same one every week) to stand in front of them and lead them specially, the way some congregations have a person doing sign language for deaf parishioners? Just a thought — and it has to be better than someone having to leave the stage because their three-year-old, looking for something to do, is wandering all over the building. (Which did happen this morning.)
The music paused for a prayer for the offering, then resumed with a medley of faster songs, giving the singers an opportunity to jump and dance. (No one not on stage did, though. Huh.) Then Pastor Martinez — who incidentally is a dead ringer for a young Al Pacino — began the announcements. The band was scheduled to go to another congregation that afternoon to support them, as well as visiting yet another one in Sacramento on Friday; the latter apparently caused a scheduling conflict with the singles’ ministry, so the singles were invited to join the trip north if they wished. The next Sunday, the speaker was going to be a missionary helping start an undergorund congregation in Iraq, and Pastor Martinez challenged the congregation to pledge money for a special offering for that work. The method of doing so — pressing people to make pledges publicly — made me rather uncomfortable (I’m a devout believer in Matthew 6:3-4), and I couldn’t help but wonder what a nonbeliever would think of it. Throughout, there was a constant din from the now-restless kids, who were finally dismissed to their classes. (That didn’t stop the noise completely — apparently there’s insufficient insulation between the sanctuary and the children’s area — but the congregation seemed committed to ignoring it.)
Maybe it was the children’s antsiness that threw him off, or he just had a bad day, but Pastor Martinez’s sermon got off to a bumpy start. Apparently he’s going through a series on “what it means to be a believer”, but he began with several minutes on the “liberal culture” in the United States and got so sidetracked that he almost forgot to read his opening Scripture passage (it was John 6:66-69). He clearly knows his Greek and Hebrew, but between that and his use of the King James Version, I was left wondering how much of what he was saying was going over the heads of his working-class congregation. Several times he asked “are you with me this morning?”, to minimal response, and he seemed to be repeating things a lot, saying them several different times in a row. (Ironically, he also would introduce each passage of Scripture by asking people to turn there “very quickly”, but saying it over and over and over … probably using up in repetition any time he hoped to save by hurrying.) This was in addition to the habit — common in Pentecostal circles — of using “praise the Lord” and “hallelujah” as punctuation. Overall, he seemed nervous and uncomfortable preaching; I don’t know if that was the case, but that was how it came across.
Once you got past the foibles of the presentation, however, it was a really solid sermon. The main point was that the kind of belief God asks of us is not a mental assent or a simple acknowledgment of His existence, but a faith that changes who we are and how we act — changes us to be more like Him. Pastor Martinez also talked about how belief is progressive, that it grows in depth through “stages and levels and dimensions” (these seemed to have specific and different meanings from each other, but he didn’t explain the differences so I’m not sure what they are), and that it takes some work rather than just happening naturally. Eventually, the congregation started getting into what he was saying — not hard to do, since even with all of the above Pastor Martinez is a dynamic speaker. The service concluded with an altar call specifically for people who wanted to commit to growing in their belief in God, which brought about half the congregation to the front to pray.
After the service was dismissed, only a few people left immediately. The rest stayed around for fellowship and I got to talk with several of them, all of whom were quite open and friendly. The last of them was Pastor Martinez, and we had a long conversation that ended with him suggesting we get together for lunch sometime. Which I think I’ll do once this Congregational Journey ends in the next few weeks (one thing at a time).
Overall, the service was fairly typical of what I call The System (standard Pentecostal liturgy), but without the sense of being beholden to/imprisoned by the System that I’ve seen in many other congregations. It’s more like this is the way they were taught to hold a Sunday service, so that’s how they do it — but with a willingness to try different things as well (like the rotating worship leaders, or having people just come forward at the end instead of the impersonal “raise your hand where you are” approach). I’ll be praying for Pastor Martinez that he would progressively see through the weaknesses of The System and break out of it as need be, discipling people even further in relationship with God. Plus, you have to like a congregation with such a clear commitment to missions.
Family Worship Center isn’t perfect — it has its share of weaknesses, no doubt. But they all strike me as eminently fixable weaknesses. And since this is a congregation that seems to want to grow deeper in their relationships with God and each other, with a pastor who is committed to furthering that growth, I think they’ll get them fixed in time. I don’t know that I would be a regular attendee there — they seem to be working more on the basics of the faith, and I’m in a different stage (or level … or dimension) in my own walk with Christ. But I’d certainly recommend it for a newer believer who needs a good grounding in the Word and in fellowship, as this is definitely a group that’s heading in the right direction. Good soil here, and getting better.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: B+, due to the repetition, and the overuse of Greek, Hebrew and the KJV for a congregation that may not be equipped to handle it. But the basic message was good enough that were it not for those things, I’d give it an A.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: B-; still a work in progress, with the congregation participating sometimes and sitting out others, and the spiritual impact and changing lives occasionally offset by more worldly methods (like the public challenge for the missions offering).
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: A- — while there were a few people settling for “church-friendly” handshakes, most were willing and eager to talk and listen in fellowship.