Yesterday, I was going through some stacks of papers I had allowed to pile up too long, and ran across a folder full of bulletins I had collected during my Congregational Journey last year. One of them in particular caught my attention, not so much because of what congregation I’d received it from as because of a note I’d made on it.
Said bulletin was from Tabernacle of Faith Community Church, dated February 8, 2009. (You may want to review my account of that trip, just for reference.) That visit was one of the more disheartening ones I made (which is saying something), and one of the reasons why was the gap between the size and perceived spiritual maturity of the congregation and the grandiose plans it had for the future. And by “gap,” I mean “yawning chasm akin to the Grand Canyon.” A rather bored congregation of eighteen (half of them teens or younger) was supposed to be asking God for a huge new complex in downtown Stockton and “500 SOULS For 2009,” according to the pastors. How the tiny group was expected to manage such a project or convert (let alone disciple) so many people was not stated and (I suspect) not even considered.
With that in mind, on the cover of the bulletin I wrote: should √ back in autumn, see if closer to goal (heck, see if more than 20 show up)
Needless to say, I was too busy last autumn to even think about following up in such a way (see the gap in my blog entries between August ’09 and March ’10; same meaning of “gap” as above). But when I found the bulletin yesterday, I sensed a little noodge in my spirit, as if to say, “now is the time” …
First, though, I was going to check and make sure they were still around, ‘cause you never know. So this morning, I called the number on the bulletin – and sure enough, there was an answering machine message stating they were in operation at the same location as before (about three blocks from my house in the east end of downtown Stockton), and the services were at the same times as last year. Great, I thought – since their meeting starts at 11:30 (provided the pastors show up on time; see the original entry), I could just stroll over early in the afternoon and see how they’re doing.
Or so I thought before also checking the website address listed on the bulletin. Turns out their website lists a completely different address and phone number – and when I called that number, I got a different answering machine with the new address, but the same service times as the previous message. So, I eventually figured out, either:
- a) they were holding their meeting in one location and somehow broadcasting it to another in the same town (unlikely), or
- b) they had moved and not bothered to turn off the previous phone number, or even change the outgoing message to reflect the new situation, leaving open the possibility that someone trying to find the congregation might show up at the wrong address, eight miles from the correct location.
In addition, on the website the pastor states that in 2005 he “heard the call of God to move out on faith to begin a Pastorate in the inner-city of Stockton” – but the congregation currently meets in a building on Benjamin Holt Drive, in the middle of a business district that is not much more “inner-city” than Beverly Hills. It’s traditionally been an upper-class part of town, more recently upper-middle-class. Wonder what happened to the call of God in that case …
So this afternoon, with all that cognitive dissonance echoing in my mind, I hopped into my car (not walking eight miles up to Ben Holt Drive, thanks) and checked out both locations. As I pulled up to the Wilson Way address where I met with them last year, it quickly became apparent that b) (moved, didn’t change the message on the previous phone number, thanks a bunch) was the correct answer. Okay, kind of expected that; let’s head up to Ben Holt. Who knows – they may not have seen 500 souls saved, but still enough that they had to find a larger place to meet …
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall where Tabernacle of Faith is now located. They don’t have the whole thing, they’re just one of seven different businesses there, and are way in the back of that. Only one of the other six (a drive-thru coffee shop) was open on a Sunday afternoon. The congregation had more cars in the parking lot at 12:15 than the coffee shop, but not by much.
I don’t want to draw this out, so let’s give a quick comparison of what I saw when I visited this morning versus what I saw in February 2009:
- 2/8/2009 – about 15 adults and youth (plus some infants/toddlers) in a room that could seat about 60, mostly looking bored and not participating much.
- 4/25/2010 – about 18 adults and youth (plus some infants/toddlers) in a room that could seat about 60, mostly looking bored and not participating much.
Tremendous growth! So where are the 500 souls? Must be hiding in the back …
In all seriousness, there was no perceivable change in the congregation in the year-plus since I last visited. No more people, no more interest shown by the people. I was able to get a bulletin, but while the logo on the front had changed, the prayer requests on the back were the same, including “Our New Worship Center Complex” (no closer to reality, and still without justification since they had no more people with which to fill it), “The Wilson Way Properties” (now presumably abandoned) and … wait for it …
… “500 SOULS For 2010”! Apparently they’re going to keep asking until God finally wears down and says, “okay, okay, stop annoying me – here’s twenty souls for every man, woman and child in your group. But you’d better not let them stumble – I meant what I said in Luke 17 about that millstone!”
Now, I can’t say I saw no changes. For one, the bulletin was eight pages this time instead of twelve, and to get one an usher had to take one from someone else, since they didn’t have enough. (Did I mention there were only about 20 adults and teens there? And they ran out of bulletins. Yeah.) But at least the “I DECLARE” statement the congregation read aloud last time – the one steeped in the me-first, God-as-battery-I-plug-into-to-get-what-I-want heresy of the so-called “prosperity gospel” – had been removed.
And replaced by something even worse. Now they read aloud something they call “My Confession” that’s even more selfish, more greedy and more dismissive of Almighty God being anything besides Our ATM in Heaven. I’m not going to reproduce all nine paragraphs here, but here are the last two, just to give you an idea (all punctuation and capitalization retained):
I call my house and all my property paid for in full. I believe I receive raises and bonuses; sales and commissions; favorable settlements; estates and inheritances; interest and income; rebates and returns; discounts and dividends; checks in the mail; gifts and surprises; lost money found; bills decreased and paid off; blessings and increase.
Thank You, Lord, for meeting all of my financial needs so that I have more than enough to give into Your Kingdom. Money cometh to me NOW! You are bringing me into my wealthy place!
“My wealthy place”?!? So much for storing up treasure in Heaven. Or, as singer/songwriter Derek Webb put it, “I don’t want the Father, I want a vending machine.” I showed the entire text to my wife, who is far from being the most sarcastic one in this household (that be me). After about a minute, I said, “let me know when you finish,” and she responded, “finish reading it, or finish vomiting on it?” It’s that bad.
I left before the “My Confession” was half-over. Total time spent there today: maybe three minutes. Move along, nothing (good) to see here.
You know what all this reminded me of? Communism. No joke. Specifically, a story from then-Communist eastern Europe as relayed by one of the great Christian ministers of the last century, a Dutchman known publicly only as “Brother Andrew.”
In his book God’s Smuggler (and if you haven’t read it, seriously, READ IT!), Brother Andrew talks about his first visit to East Germany in autumn 1958, where he was blown away by the full-court propaganda press the Communist government rolled out against its own citizens. Specifically, there was a big PR blitz about how great the wheat harvest would be, even though 1) East Germans had so rebelled against the Communist collectivization of farms that almost no one was left on them to bring in the crops, and 2) weeks of rains at harvest time made it impossible to use mechanical harvesters, since they could only cut the stalks if they were dry. I hope he’ll forgive me quoting him at length:
And then suddenly, all over the country, posters appeared carrying this little verse: Ohne Gott und Sonnen schein, Holen Wir Die Ernte ein (“Without God and without sun, we will get the harvest done”).
I could see that this slogan had really shaken the people. It was a brazen duel between the new regime and God Himself. The rains continued, and the harvest did not get in. Overnight, as suddenly as they had appeared, the posters vanished – all except for the sodden few that you could still see clinging to lamp posts.
And now what did the government do? New signs appeared, along with announcements on the radio and advertisements in the newspaper. “Don’t let anyone tell you there is a bread shortage. There is plenty of bread. This is another example of the victory of socialism over the forces of nature.”
Only there was no bread.
I myself went into grocery stores and found none. Even restaurants didn’t have any.
One line in Brother Andrew’s narrative sums up his reaction: “I was astonished at the baldness of the line.” In other words, he was amazed by the difference between what the Communist leaders were claiming and the truth.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been amazed by what I saw today (or fourteen-plus months ago) at Tabernacle of Faith Community Church, but I was. At this congregation, established to reach Stockton’s inner city but which fled the inner city in the last year, the pastors of some two dozen or so people (most of them acting bored silly whenever they congregate) is expecting his people to not only buy into a gospel that is not a gospel at all – unless you consider the “greed is good” soliloquy from the movie Wall Street to be Scripture – but to also bring in 500 more converts in the next eight months, despite being barely interested in participating themselves.
Their reaction, in fact, is similar to that of the East Germans Brother Andrew saw on the street that fall of 1958:
The saddest part of the story to me is that no one talked about the duplicity. The missing bread was never mentioned. The people were silent.
So are the people at Tabernacle of Faith – silent in the face of their leaders’ ludicrous propaganda. I, however, am not silent. And I am astonished at the baldness of the line.