Sometimes in life, half the problem is getting past your own biases. You want to look at something with a fresh approach, but too often you can get sidetracked by previous experiences or the opinions of people you know and trust (or know and distrust). So often, you have to take steps in order to get some distance from a situation, to step back and view things from an angle other than your usual one. That’s why companies hire consultants, so they can get input from someone who doesn’t have the same history as those already inside the firm. That’s why television and film people do pre-release screenings, to get the reactions of eyeballs that haven’t been staring at their project for months on end.
And that’s why I took a couple of days before posting my impressions from the latest stop in my Congregational Journey, Calvary First Assembly of God. I needed a little space first.
Calvary First Assembly has a longer history than most of the congregations I’ve visited this year. First Assembly of God, one of the two congregations that later merged to become Calvary First, was founded before 1920, and in 1925 started the “Christ’s Ambassadors” youth program, a forerunner of all youth ministries in the denomination. The combined congregation moved to its current location in 1984, on Kelley Drive in northwest Stockton; it’s a modern-style building and a large one, clearly visible from northbound Interstate 5, and I suspect they get more visitors because of it. The congregation has had its ups and downs over the years; I had heard that it was close to reverting to “home missions” status (Assembly of God parlance for “they can’t pay their bills without headquarters’ help”) several years ago, but couldn’t confirm that.
Either way, I was pleased to arrive around 10:15 a.m. for the 10:30 service and found the large parking lot already close to full, with a mixture of cars ranging from beat-up minivans to new Cadillacs (Kelley Drive is a mostly working-class part of town). I entered the building during a time they call “Calvary Cafe,” where there are tables set up in the lobby and a counter where you can get coffee and snacks. At the front door, I received a bulletin from an usher who looked past me immediately after shaking my hand, even though no one was behind me. Uh-oh, I thought to myself – ten seconds in and I’m getting the “church-friendly” treatment! (Check out my visits here and here for the definition of “church-friendly.”) I did get to see that the congregation had a lot of ethnic and age diversity as I looked around the building – they have a very well-appointed nursery and lots of Sunday school rooms, both good signs – but no one else showed any more interest in me than the fellow at the door.
Until I walked into the sanctuary and a burly fellow in a suit did a double-take. I had known Jeff Etcheverry from when we were in the same congregation in the early and middle ‘90s, and where we were both taking Bible college courses (along with Dean Kenedy, whom I talked about a few days back). So we got to spend a few minutes catching up, and he introduced me to several of the locals, always a help from my viewpoint. Jeff is apparently on staff there (whether paid or volunteer, I forgot to ask) and is a good person for the job, IMNVHO – he was always the best student in our courses, has a heart for evangelism and a good head for theology. If there was ever such a thing as a born preacher, Jeff’s the dude.
Nor did the sense of deja vu stop there. As I looked around the sanctuary, I saw three banners on the walls that I recognized from Faith Tabernacle, where the Supermodel and I once served under Dean Kenedy as Sunday school superintendents. (Whoever’d made them had decided to take them with them upon their departure, I surmised.) And taking a look back at the cafe, I realized that the lady manning the counter was the Supermodel’s old friend Kathy Heard, whom we knew from our time at Bethany Community Church. (I also saw a couple that we’d known from Faith Tabernacle, not banner makers, who basically left there after it was made clear that the pastor and his staff – including the Supermodel and I – weren’t going to set up everything according to their whims. And they made a loud hue and cry about that perceived injustice before going. I did my best to avoid those two yesterday.)
The service started right at 10:30 with a little over 100 in attendance (the sanctuary was about one-third full). The worship leaders are a husband-and-wife team with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, supported by a full band (guitar, bass, trap drums, keyboard, piano) and about ten backup singers. The music was standard for a Pentecostal church – a couple of fast songs, a few slow ones, most of which I knew, played with enough volume that I had my earplugs in before the first song began. About two-thirds of the congregation joined them, singing along or clapping, which is better than average from what I’ve seen in previous stops.
In between the fast and slow tunes, Jeff made a couple of announcements – a pancake breakfast before the Easter Sunday service, a potluck and “roast” was taking place that evening for Larry Rust, the senior pastor who was (quoting Jeff) “celebrating his 18th birthday … for the 44th time.” Pastor Rust laughed along with the congregation at the jokes, and I thought it was good to see that the staff could poke fun at themselves. In addition, Jeff mentioned that there were “growth groups” (cell groups?) being held in various homes; I checked the bulletin and found only a note saying that information on them could be found at the visitor’s desk in the lobby. After the announcements, there was about a five-minute “greeting time” where I got to have two short conversations and received about thirty rushed “church-friendly” handshakes. By the end of the final song, the congregation had grown to about 130.
After a fairly low-key offering, Pastor Rust took the stage and, before starting his message, talked about the congregation’s plans for Easter. He pushed for Easter morning to be a “friends’ day”, where people were to bring their unsaved friends to the service and hear the message. I must admit, I have some qualms about the effectiveness as an evangelistic method of bringing people to hear a long monologue from a stranger; studies have shown that the vast majority who give their lives to Christ do so through interaction with someone they already know (myself included). However:
- Since I admittedly stink at personal evangelism (not for lack of effort, just lack of skill), who am I to argue methodology?
- Even if the Easter outreach isn’t a success – and it might be a huge one – it’s better to put any effort into evangelism than no effort at all, which I’ve seen all too many times in my travels.
- Apparently, almost a third of the current congregation either gave or recommitted their lives to Christ in the last year, so clearly someone is doing something right.
Pastor Rust’s message was the second in a series called “You’ve Got Style,” dealing with how different personality types encounter and assimilate the basics of the Christian faith. (It seemed like some sort of pre-packaged program, including as it did a large, professionally-done banner at the back of the stage and a video clip to introduce the week’s topic. I did a little Googling later and found out it was produced by a large congregation in the Atlanta area.) This week’s emphasis was on the Bible, and Pastor Rust emphasized that we need to be students of God’s Word, knowing it personally rather than being dependent on others. He spent a lot of time on basic doctrines (Jesus being the only way to God, the Bible being God’s concrete revelation to us), appropriate for a congregation with a large percentage of new believers, and stated clearly that he and the other leaders were there to help people grow in their knowledge of God – even referencing Ephesians 4:11-12 (that God has appointed them for the purpose of equipping others to minister).
Pastor Rust clearly has an evangelist’s heart, and delivered the components of his message (whether going through the program’s different personality types, or using a sponge to illustrate how we need to “soak up” God’s Word so that it will come out when life squeezes us) with great clarity and simplicity. He showed a great sense of humor (my friend Jeff seemed to be a favorite – and willing – target) and a recognition of his own weaknesses (he mentioned his own struggles with dyslexia, which must make it VERY difficult for him to do the studying that sermon preparation usually requires). All in all, he struck me as very human and personable. Occasionally his sermon could be hard to follow, as it a) was aimed toward a different spiritual demographic than mine (that of the “church veteran” looking for greater depth), and b) sometimes seemed to have bits of other messages tacked onto it tangentially, but I’ve heard a lot worse messages.
The service ended with a standard Pentecostal “altar call” (complete with bowed heads, raised hands for those who wanted to give their lives to Jesus, et al.), but without the interminably long “hard sell” that many evangelists use. A fellow did come forward for that purpose, and while the congregation applauded he went with an elder to the building’s prayer room so they could talk. In their absence, Pastor Rust dismissed the service. I got brief chances to talk with him and with Jeff and his wife before each of them had to hurry off to other things (Jeff mentioned he was going to a retirement home to do a service there). On the way out, I stopped by the visitor’s desk to check out the “growth group” info, and found that there was one group for singles, two others focusing on spiritual warfare, and not much emphasis on (or enthusiasm for) any of them. It didn’t seem they were being given a high priority.
It took me the extra time to sort out my impressions of Calvary First Assembly, because I had to untangle what I experienced on Sunday from my knowledge (good and ill) of the people there that I knew long before Sunday. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it was in many ways similar to Family Worship Center, where I visited the previous week — a congregation that was rebuilding from the ground up, an ethnically diverse membership, a dynamic and friendly pastor, a real desire to do evangelism and discipleship being lived out. I even knew people in both places from other congregations. Calvary First has more people and a nicer building, but otherwise they were very much alike – I bet Larry Rust and Ron Martinez would become fast friends (if they aren’t now; I don’t know if they’ve even met or not). And I think great things are in store for both, based on what they and God are doing already.
Would I go there again? Welllllll … maybe to visit Jeff. The ministry there is clearly geared toward newer Christians and the unsaved, categories I haven’t fit into in a long time. And as I’ve mentioned before, evangelism has never been something I’m very good at, so I don’t know if I could be much help to them either. But I can recognize that just because a ministry isn’t in my wheelhouse doesn’t mean they aren’t right where God wants them to be. I can pray for Pastor Rust, that he would continue to follow where God leads him to minister, and to not be afraid if He leads him to some unconventional decisions. And I can let people know that Calvary First is a good place for a recent convert or a seeker to go if they want to draw closer to Jesus and His people.
Maybe I’ll say it in a blog entry … oh, wait. Just did, didn’t I? Well, if you do go, hunt down Jeff Etcheverry or Kathy Heard and tell him Ray sent ya.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: B – I would’ve liked more depth in the teaching, but the message and the Gospel were presented clearly, in a no-frills manner appropriate for newer believers.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: A-; how can you argue with about forty legitimate conversions and recommitments in the last year or so, out of a congregation of 130?
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: B-, and let me tell you, I’ve changed my mind on this grade half a dozen times! I finally concluded that there was too much “church-friendly” going on to go any higher, but too much real friendliness (even not including people I knew before this weekend) to go any lower. This is a potential growth area for them, but they’re on the right track.