Church Experience #5 – Jan 30, 2011
Joyful Sound Church of God
Lively Up Yourself
It’s the end of my first month on ChurchSurfer and I thought it was about time to take the blog to one of the more…how should I say it…energetic or charismatic denominations – Church of God. We all know the stereotype that all the variations of Pentecostal have earned over the generations, and I usually recall the movie “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall as the Pentecostal preacher, scenes of the rural South, roadside tent revivals, and sermons that resemble “pep rallies” that evoke the Holy Spirit, usually climaxing with people jumping, shouting, writhing on the ground, and speaking in tongues. I mention this not because I buy into this stereotype, but because we all know it. I personally believe most stereotypes of this nature begin with some amount of truth, but you never know how much gets exaggerated and fabricated over time. So I don’t believe the hype until I experience it for myself…and in this case let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed! Not that the stereotype was confirmed, but that I discovered where the truth of it began. So here we go…
Don’t Judge a Book…
I snapped a couple of photos of the outside of the building and then went inside with quite a bit of time to spare before the morning worship service started. Upon entering I realized that Bible study was in session, so my wife Laura and I quickly and quietly sat in a back pew trying not to disturb anyone. There was a well aged lady with long silver hair and a diminutive stature teaching from the podium about love and forgiveness. She sported clothes that were many years out of style by society’s fashion standards (actually the purple and teal colors of her shirt and vest have probably gone out of style and come back in the time that she’s owned them). I point this out not to make fun, but to enhance my next observation…she spoke with a confidence and wisdom that I rarely see out people who obviously “think highly of themselves”. Let’s just say she stood there and taught the Bible without any visible concern of her image or appearance and I couldn’t help but wonder how she would be received if we were in a fancy church in an upper class neighborhood. I think we all know the answer to that, whether we’ll say it out loud or not. I’m not so sure that doctors and lawyers with all their years of education would be able to humble themselves to receive Bible lessons delivered by an old lady from the wrong part of town. Maybe that’s why it’s been said (by Jesus) that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to make it to heaven…oooooohhhh, that may sting a little but don’t get me wrong here, I don’t have a bone to pick with anyone because of their social status or wealth, I’m just trying to make everyone really think a little.
Down Home Worship
After Bible study my wife and I were greeted by my new friend Joel Barker, the worship leader at Joyful Sound, who had invited me to visit this church as part of my ChurchSurfer journey. We were also warmly greeted by many of the others in attendance, and in a church of this size it’s hard not to bump into almost everyone there anyway (this definitely isn’t one of the mega-churches that you can sneak in and out of mostly unnoticed or “blend in”). Being that I grew up in a small rural town, I felt right at home with the 50 or 60 other working class, plainly dressed people. The praise band took the stage and started a rockabilly beat that had purely Southern country/western roots, but also a very contemporary worship feel to it. The band included drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano, keys, maracas, and tambourine. The worship was lively and I welcomed the passion and intensity that this congregation displayed. I sang along and worshiped from the heart and truly enjoyed praising God in this manner. After the music there were announcements including a mention of the youth team that won a huge trophy (which was on display) for having the most spirit at a recent youth rally. The phrase “doing cartwheels down the aisle” was used, and I felt like I was probably in store for a lot more excitement than what I had just gotten from the worship music.
Bring On the Fire
Before Pastor James began his sermon, he spoke to his congregation intently about the current (and at that time new) situation happening in Egypt. He drew a parallel between the countries surrounding Israel and the birds of prey that Abram had to drive away from his animal sacrifices to God, and asked the congregation to pray for Egypt and also brought up the U.S./Israel relationship. I was glad to hear him speak to his congregation about these topics, as I think it is a pastor’s responsibility to make sure the people in their church are aware of world events and their relevance to Biblical history and prophecy. Pastor James then exploded into a sermon beginning with Ephesians 3:20 and dealing with God’s intentions in the way He designed us. His delivery of the sermon was loud, booming through the church sanctuary at levels that I sometimes felt his voice could barely support. The volume of his sermon rose and fell with his Bible references from Genesis and sermon points about God’s promises for His people and the inevitable doubts that we struggle with. His sermon and my experience left me pondering about why Jesus was always attracted to poor people and why He seemed to prefer helping them deal with their troubled lives rather than spending His time with the wealthy and their tendency to judge others and place their appearance and possessions above all else. I think it’s clear who He felt would be more receptive to what He was offering.
From Fire to Volcano
After the Sunday service I decided to come back on Monday to experience one night of a week-long revival at Joyful Sound. Just as I expected, the revival service was a notch up on the charismatic scale from what I had experienced the day before. For someone who has never been to a Church of God, I would warn you that things can get pretty crazy…and this night was no exception. Worship was spirited, and after a sermon from the guest pastor, there was an altar call and that’s when the real action started. As the church members flowed out of the pews and down to the front, both Pastor James and the guest pastor began laying their hands on the people’s heads and praying over them, sometimes in English and sometimes in tongues. The volume of the service ebbed and flowed as some people received comforting words of encouragement and prayer, and others received shouted commands for healings, resolutions to various issues, or empowerment to follow Jesus. In the midst of the crowd as people were prayed over they began to jump, dance, shake, convulse, fall down, cry, scream out, and speak in tongues, and as all this was going on the praise band led by Joel continued to sing and play. I sang along and at times shouted some “Hallelujah’s”, “Praise God’s”, and “Yes Lord’s” as a couple of people chose to answer the calling on their heart and accept Jesus for the first time. One man also spoke in tongues for the first time, which is something the Church of God refers to as the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As this was happening, Pastor James jumped up on the pew in front of us, and reached over to lay hands on that man and pray over him in tongues. I’m not sure how long all of this continued, because I glanced down at my watch and noticed that it was 9:00 and I needed to get home for the evening. As I walked to my car I already began thinking about what had just happened and how different it was from the other churches I had recently attended.
My experience at Joyful Sound Church of God really made me start thinking about different worship styles and wondering how it is that they have become so varied from one church or denomination to the next. The other thing that I find perplexing is the expectation that many churches have for their members to worship according to the style that is accepted at their church. If I laid hands on someone to pray over them or decided I wanted to jump around and dance at a church where that wasn’t a common occurrence, how would those behaviors be received? I can only think that worship styles are as diverse as humans are, and if you aren’t open to something that is different, then you may need to spend some time finding out why. What is it that makes you uncomfortable about it? What gives you the right to dictate how other people should express themselves to our God? I’m finding out more and more as I experience new churches that I prefer an atmosphere of acceptance. If I feel like jumping and shouting, I don’t want to feel like an outcast, or on the other hand, if I feel like being reserved and taking the time to meditate and internalize what I’m experiencing, I don’t want to be told I’m not on fire for God. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about acting out at inappropriate times, what I’m talking about is that true worship that occurs during designated worship time should be open for each person to give their worship to God in the way that they feel He would like to receive it. Should church leaders maintain order? Yes, but they should also make sure people understand that it’s OK to be themselves. After all, if you are believer, then the Holy Spirit who resides in you will lead you in worship and prayer, and I won’t place limits on the Holy Spirit. For what it’s worth, I’ve worshiped in many ways and have been given different gifts of the Spirit, but tongues is not one of them. There are people who would say that means I haven’t been saved yet, but I know that I have. The Holy Spirit is in me giving me wisdom and understanding from the Father and bearing fruit through me in many different ways. I have surrendered myself to my Savior Jesus and have been baptized. If at some point I speak in tongues then praise God, but if not praise God as well, because He has already given me a greater gift…love. I love you God.
Video clips from the revival service will be available at the ChurchSurfer YouTube channel and you can view more photos of all the ChurchSurfer church visits at the ChurchSurfer Facebook page…make sure to “like” it while you’re there!