Friday, August 13, 2010

Among the Assembly

So my wife loves another man. Not in a romantic way, thankfully. But she just loves this Assembly man from a neighboring city. She hears him preach on TV most every Sunday morning as she’s getting ready for church. And as we were planning my Sabbatical, she said she only had one request: “Can we visit his church and hear him preach in person?” So I restrained my pastoral jealousy and said yes.

That’s where we went last Sunday morning for worship. I’m almost 54 years old, been going to church my entire life, have visited all kinds of churches, but I’ve never set foot among the Assembly of God. I suppose it was time. And honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In the town where I finished growing up we had an Assembly of God church. It was a small town. I was acquainted with the pastor and his family—went to school with his kids. And his kids had to wear dresses all the time. When I started public school all the girls wore dresses, but somewhere near the end of grade school or the beginning of junior high, the dress code changed. Girls started wearing jeans and pants just like the guys. Well, not all the girls—not the Assembly girls. It was dresses for them. The pastor’s girls were good athletes but even when they played sports for the school teams, they had to wear skirts over the bottoms of their uniforms. That struck a Presbyterian kid like me as odd.

And I had heard other stories about that Assembly church too. They spoke in “tongues.” Right during the service someone might stand up and start speaking in this babbling, unintelligible language that no one could understand. I remember a friend of mine telling me that he visited there and those “tongues” darn near scared him to death. Hmmm. Would we be exposed to that practice in the Assembly church we were going to visit? Since my youth I have heard people speak in “tongues” so I knew it wouldn’t scare me, but if tongues broke out on Sunday morning, I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d feel or what I'd think. We sat at the back just in case.

And another thing was on my mind as we prepared to visit this church. I’ve heard that Assembly churches are pretty boisterous and enthusiastic in their worship. I figured there would be a lot of clapping, a lot of shouted Amens, a lot of hands of praise held high in the air, and maybe even see a member or two get “slain in the Spirit” and fall out like they’d been hit with a taser. Not a big deal for me there. Except for never seeing anybody “slain in the spirit,” I’ve worshiped in black congregations and have had enough experience with animated worship to deal with that. Heck, even the very Baptist church I serve has resorted to applause as their way to express affirmation and appreciation, a way to say Amen with their hands instead of their mouths.

So I had some reservations about worshiping among the Assembly. I carried with me some stereotypes I’d been packing since my youth. But my wife loves the preacher and I love my wife, so that’s where we went last Sunday.

It was not like I expected. Was the worship enthusiastic? Not so much. There were very few shouts of Amen and very few hands of praise waving in the air. Did anyone break out in “unknown tongues”? Not a peep. It was never invited, let alone mentioned. Were all the women in dresses? Nope, not even close. As for the men, I saw maybe a couple of ties but most wore open collar shirts, including the pastor. The music involved a choir and an ensemble holding microphones. A praise band and orchestra backed them up. They sang a couple of contemporary choruses I did not know but easily sang along with after the first time through. They even sang an old hymn, I Stand Amazed in the Presence. There was a prayer and a welcome. There was a video commercial of what was going on in the church that coming week. There was a solo with choir backup. And then the pastor preached. The room was darkened with the exception of a spotlight of sorts on the pastor. It was a techno sermon. Though no one ever asked me to open my Bible, the pastor’s texts from Deuteronomy and Joshua were shown on the screens. And they even had some kind of fancy-schmancy techno-gizmo that allowed some of the pastor’s main points to be shown on the walls around the church. Pretty cool effect. The pastor preached about Joshua overcoming his fears and how we can learn from Joshua to overcome our fears. While the sermon was kind of a pep talk to the fearful, it was rooted in the grace of God who protects and encourages and comes alongside us when we are afraid. On reflection, I would call it worship-lite, gospel-lite—sort of what Vance Havner used to say about "putting the cookies on the lowest shelf." If one didn’t know the great heritage of the Christian faith and this was his only worship experience, he might come to think that this whole Christian deal is more a here-and-now, hip thing than a there-and-then and a yet-to-come thing as well.

For me, the most compelling part of the service was the testimony of a missionary from a south Asian country who, as a kind of conclusion to the sermon, spoke of their work—a modern day example of God coming alongside His people in a scary and dangerous place and giving them the resources to do Kingdom work even there. At the pastor's request, a few folks circled this missionary family and prayed for them. They took an offering for the family too. It sounded like they were doing Jesus-work, so I tossed some offering in the bag when it came my way. The offering was accompanied by a slick video of the missionary's work and when it was finished so was the service. The Youth Pastor or somebody said, "That's it, have a good day." And that was that.

The bulletin stated that communion would be offered to those who wanted it at the end of the service near the front of the sanctuary. I thought I might like to do that if they offered it to someone outside the Assembly, but no word was ever said about it in worship. That must be an inside thing, I guess.

Anyway, I found the people friendly and Christian and lovers of Jesus. In spite of the large size of the church, the pastor was very accessible to everyone before and after the services. And I was pleased that a large church that needs plenty of resources to keep itself staffed and its bills paid still had a heart for the world and a commitment to keep these missionaries in South Asia, sharing the love and salvation of Christ with that culture’s throw-away children. I worshiped God—which depends as much on the worshiper, I suppose, as it does on those who lead the service.

Still, I left a bit disappointed. Not in God and not in the church. I was disappointed in my experience. I feel like I didn’t get the normal Assembly experience by visiting this particular church. It was very tame and clearly structured. Honestly, that worship service was no different than I could have experienced in pretty much any “contemporary” style church in America regardless of the denominational label. Perhaps I need to find an Assembly church more like the little one in my hometown. But then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have been looking for an experience; I should have been looking for Christ who can always be found where two or three people are gathered in His name to worship Him, regardless of the style or the label of the people doing the worshiping. Like Psalm 26:12 declares: “My feet stand on level ground; in the great assembly I will praise the Lord.” We are one in Christ after all, and I can praise him in the Assembly as thankfully as I can praise Him in any Baptist church I know.


  1. I don't know if it is still the case in most AG church, but it used to be normal practice that the morning service was more structured with the night service being more "charismatic" featuring more of what you'd expect in an AG service.

    AG communion is open as well, but I guess some congregations offer it every service upon request. Growing up, communion was always congregation-wide and pretty infrequent.

  2. John, enjoyed reading this and the one below re First Methodist. Love your combination of "convinced Baptist" and "body of Christ lover". I've worshiped over the years in Baptist, wild charismatic and high church Episcopalian services. And others in between. Like you, I've found it mostly depends on ME, not on them. Hope the sabbatical is big time refreshing!

  3. Hi Pastor,
    We've really missed you, but we found another Church in Bossier City. Our visits around town there haven't been nearly as colorful as yours (above) we jus decided to stick with Baptist. We will be joining First Baptist Bossier (Dr. Fred Lowrey) He's growing on us. Actually I was 12 yrs old when I got saved there..... and haven't returned there until just now. After we went to Shreveport to work; my little brother died suddenly (a shotgun ) and we have decided to stay close to home from now on. Gods grace has been amazing though and he has carried us as smooth as on doves wings through this. Especially my mother; she has amazed us all.
    Anywho....we will return and visit from time to time, and I will always follow you here.
    Love In Christ, Lori Gomez

  4. John,

    As a Pentecostal (Church of God, Cleveland, TN) I am disappointed in your experience! Like Dru, I have worshipped in and been blessed by a variety of traditions, but I think Pentecostalism in its truest form offers something that can't be found anywhere else. There is an expectation of a dynamic move of the Holy Spirit, an energetic participatory worship experience, and a certain freedom to express the emotional, affective, domain in your encounter with a living God. This is balanced with just as high a regard for Scripture as any Baptist or card-carrying evangelical (Dru!) and a true respect for 2,000 years of church history and tradition. Certainly our movement has its excesses that can be troublesome, but I have seen excesses in different forms in other movements. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am confident we have our place in the salvation story alongside others and I wish that you would have had an opportunity to experience that again.

    Anyway, I hope you are having a great sabbatical and I really do want to get together with you soon.

  5. Thanks, Ben. I did expect something different in the worship than what I'd find at a thousand other places and among a number of other denominations. I look forward to visiting with you soon. By the way, our backpack day went well, and it looks like yours did too. We helped do Camp Hot Springs this past week at Spring Lake camp and thirteen 5th and 6th graders from the HS Middle School decided to follow Jesus. Praise the Lord!

  6. That is wonderful news!

    Blessings on you as you take a well-deserved rest.

  7. DYK that the Assemblies of God was started in Hot Springs? There is a plaque on the westside of Central in downtown that says it. The best AofG pastor I've ever heard is Hot Springs' own Harold Thompson who was a long time pastor of 1stAG in Hot Springs.

  8. I did not know that. I knew their HQ is in Springfield, MO. Very interesting. Thanks.

  9. Well, I have to say that I hoped you'd be experimenting with more traditional/orthodox ecclesiastical behaviors. Anonymous is right, it all started downtown (by the Aristocrat parking lot I think). Still, I kinda wish they had partied down with the snakes and arsenic and ecstastic ululating -- didn't they know they had tourists in the audience?

  10. John, I've been to most of the tradtional/orthodox churches. Plus, I promised Dayna we'd go hear the guy. I don't like snakes so I'm glad none were present.

  11. I understand on all counts (wives and snakes), but trying to transcend denominational differences by suggesting that theological distinctions are always trivial (not saying you are) tends to dilute what remains. A comedian once remarked about how he hated it when girls told him, "I'm spiritual, but not religious." He wanted to respond, "Yeah, and you're attractive but I'm not honest."

    Here's a case in point: "A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will." This is the premise of a writer's recent argument that the appearance of God will be the end of atheism, and Christianity ( Sorry, but while that may be a tenet of someone else's fundamentalism, to me it smacks of an outsider's understanding, like those who define Baptists only as people who don't drink or dance (as long as there's at least two to keep an eye on each other).

    Hope you're enjoying your furlough. Bill Newton did a good job this morning. We especially liked the way he explained OT history to help us understand the context of an oft-misused passage in Jeremiah...

    Hope you get to hear Robert Norris ( or Mark Dever ( when you're in the DC area.

  12. Yes, a fine man and a fine preacher. My wife watches him most every Sunday mornign on TV.