Church Experience #21 – May 29, 2011
Bethel Temple Assembly of God – Hixson, TN
Call Me Crazy
Once again on my ChurchSurfer journey I was venturing out to my weekly “first-time” church visit without my wife Laura, who was traveling to Florida to help a long-time friend of ours move to Chattanooga. For you analytical folks out there, one of the things I have found to be very interesting along the ChurchSurfer journey, has been to compare the way different church experiences have gone (sociologically, I suppose) based on various environmental factors…such as whether I’m alone or with Laura, whether we are dressed up or casual, how different we are from the majority demographic, etc. Of course, none of these analyses can be scientific or definitive, but I often find myself thinking about them anyway…what might have made the experience go differently, either for the better or worse, and why does any single experience turn out the way it did in the first place? Let me take a moment and speculate on what God’s perspective may be on these issues (an ignorant undertaking, of course, but I’m OK with that). I would be inclined (or, not be declined…inside joke for my wife) to think that one area in which God would especially want all the individual local churches to be of the same accord, would be on how they receive guests or visitors. I’m not taking the time to search for any Scripture references to back me up here (dangerous, I know), but shouldn’t every single church be looking for the opportunity to “wow” their guests and visitors? I do not say this meaning that churches should put up some kind of superficial exterior that is not a true representation of the hearts and attitudes of the individual members. What I mean is, shouldn’t having a guest or visitor in a church be one of the easiest and well-timed opportunities for us to share Christ’s love with someone? I would think that Christ Himself would want us to welcome people with hugs and brotherly kisses, with visible excitement over their presence, with sincere interest in getting to know another fellow heir to the Kingdom, and with the desire to serve them, esteem them, and honor them. Whoa! How completely awesome would that be? Some of you are probably thinking I am crazy right now, but that’s OK with me too. Now, let me tell you a quick story about a church called Bethel Temple Assembly of God that came closer to that word-picture I just painted about how visitors should be treated than any other ChurchSurfer experience I have had on my journey thus far.
Nice to Meet You
I pulled in to Bethel Temple not really knowing what to expect. I know that Assembly of God churches are cut from the Pentecostal cloth, but that can mean quite a few different things these days. You could get anything from the “we believe in the gifts of the Spirit” end of the charismatic spectrum, all the way to the “we don’t consider it church until everyone in the room has spoken in tongues and hit the floor” at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m joking of course, but you get the point. Ready for anything, I crossed the parking lot and came to the front door, where I was greeted by a sweet lady named Pat, who asked my name and whether this was my first visit to Bethel Temple before I had even set foot inside the building. I confirmed to her that it was my first visit and she lit up like a firecracker, welcomed me, and walked me over to the guest reception desk which was positioned only a few steps inside the entrance, front and center like the host(ess) station at a restaurant. At the guest reception desk I met Arlene, who handed me a visitor information card and an ink pen, and then began blistering me with questions as I attempted to fill out the card and answer her questions simultaneously. Arlene was dressed in a flower-print frock, with a vibrant and youthful countenance, and is one of those indescribably sweet old ladies that you could sit with in rocking chairs on the front porch and just talk all day long without realizing any time had passed. In fact, we did stand there at the guest reception booth and talk for about twenty minutes as she asked about my family, my job, and my life history…all while introducing me to various other church members as they came to say hi and give her a hug and then move along. After finishing my guest card and conversation with Arlene, I headed toward the sanctuary, receiving a greeting and handshake from basically every person I passed along the way. I met a couple of more ladies, Nancy and Sheila, who were extremely sweet as well, and they introduced me to more people who were all just as nice. I can’t even remember the names of all the people I met (and it was way too many to write down), but each one wanted to know my name and find out a little bit about me. Needless to say, I was blown away by the warm weclome I received from these kind-hearted people.
On the Lord’s Time
The sanctuary at Bethel Temple was spacious and simple, colored with neutral tones and lined with padded chairs. The building was modern and clean, with more focus on function than on any kind of ornate aesthetic. The praise band took the stage and launched into contemporary worship music with guitars, drums, keyboard, and bass as the congregation joined in singing “Open the Eyes of My Heart”. There was clapping, dancing (subdued, not crazy), and many hands raised among the congregation and I joined in like manner, truly engaging in a meaningful worship experience. After two songs we were lead in a prayer for all service men and women (for Memorial Day weekend), and then listened to the church announcements followed by the personal testimony of one of the women from the congregation who had recently had an answered prayer in the form of a financial breakthrough during a bad situation. During the collection of tithes and offerings, an older couple sang a duet to the hymn, “Master of the Sea“, with a good old-fashioned country-gospel twang that we don’t get enough of anymore (in my opinion) in modern worship services. The praise band then jumped back into action as we sang an additional four or five songs, getting right back into the same spirit of worship, lifting hands and swaying to the music. At about forty-five minutes into the service, the worship music wrapped up and we were invited to take about five minutes of fellowship time to greet those around us. During this time I met and was greeted by basically everyone that I hadn’t met before the service. There may be one or two people in the congregation that I didn’t meet, but I would be surprised (and it took longer than five minutes). One of the Pentecostal stereotypes that was confirmed at least on this church visit, was that they have no concept of time when it comes to church…we started at 10:15 am and finished at about 12:45 pm (not that I have a problem with spending two and half hours at church, but I’m just making note of the fact because it is out of the ordinary for most churches).
Giving = Sacrifice?
After the first half of the service, Senior Pastor Terry Evans took to the stage to give his sermon. He began by teaching on Luke 19:45-46 and referencing Isaiah 56:1-7, but also ventured out into the subject of giving, sharing a sentiment from David, who basically said that if it’s not a sacrifice to him, he’s not going to offer it to God. Think about that for a second…if David’s offering was not a sacrifice to himself, then he did not want to offer it to God. This sparked a thought in my mind about my own giving and whether I offer my first and my best to God, or whether I offer the left-overs. This sermon seemed to also reinforce a portion of the C.S. Lewis book “Mere Christianity” that I had read recently in which Lewis makes the argument that if you are able to live according to the same standard of living as other people at your income level, then you are not giving enough. Wow…that hits home, doesn’t it? His thought, much like David’s, is that there is no sacrifice in giving out of your excess. Sure, Old Testament offerings and modern day offerings are way, way different, but I would argue that giving out of excess is sort of like saying to God: “Here you go God. Thanks for the abundance you have blessed me with. Since I’ve got more than I need, why don’t you take a little as well?” Seems pretty silly, huh? If the abundance came from God in the first place, don’t you think He deserves the most of it? The best of it? The first of it? Don’t you think God will judge us according to how we were stewards of what he gave us in this life?
A Lasting Impression
Pastor Terry continued to teach some tough truths accompanied by his opinion that “fluffy butterfly messages” and prosperity doctrines that many churches are teaching are simply not true. He then segued into a Memorial Day tribute video, and with two microphones placed at the front of the sanctuary, asked for members of the congregation to come forward and offer prayers for the military, their families, and our government, and also victims of recent natural disasters. Several people came forward and offered heartfelt and sometimes tearful prayers, which reflected the sweet spirit that I saw in so many of the people I met at Bethel Temple. Pastor Terry urged the congregation to continue praying for these specific issues in our world right now, adding that “prayer is where the battles are won”. I spoke to Arlene, Pastor Terry, and a few other people after the service and left feeling like I had just been to a family reunion where I was a long lost family member that had just been discovered and everyone wanted to meet. I was humbled and honored to have been welcomed with such love and enthusiasm, and will thank God in my prayers for Bethel Temple’s example of how to treat a visitor. As for the “Pentecostal” experience that I was unsure of…the worship was spirited, but pretty much like many other contemporary church services I have attended that have an open atmosphere where people feel free to raise hands, sway and dance, and clap to the music. I did hear chanting in tongues during some of the worship and prayer time (which was a little distracting when I was trying to listen to the pastor’s words), but only by a few women, not by the entire congregation (which can be overwhelming for a visitor), and the pastor’s message was a Bible lesson, not a Holy Ghost shouting spectacle. So all in all, my experience at Bethel Temple Assembly of God was on the conservative end of the “Pentecostal Spectrum” and I would say most Christians would feel quite comfortable visiting there…especially if they get to meet Arlene.
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