Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We (kinda) go to Church at the State Fair

22nd Annual Multicultural Gospel Celebration, California State Expo Center and Fairgrounds, Sacramento, California
Before we entered the gate at the California State Fair we noticed booths outside. Next to a “Legalize Marijuana” table was a booth with sign reading “Jesus Saves.” I went up to take a picture of the booth and a man inside said, “You need one of these t-shirts” pointing to his own “Jesus Saves” t-shirt. I was wearing an Oakland A’s t-shirt (which, during the summer, is what I wear more days than not).

I was wearing an Oakland A’s cap as well and he brought out a “Trust Jesus” cap and told me where I could order one online. “Why promote a baseball team when you can be promoting Jesus Christ?”

The man was Brother Gary, a street preacher who expects to man that booth throughout the fair, as he has for the last six years since he moved to California from Wisconsin. During the rest of the year, Pastor Gary looks for other opportunities to share Christ through preaching, signs, and tracts.

It wasn’t long before Brother Gary asked me if I agreed that salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ, and I agreed. (Free tip here for dealing with Christian evangelists. If a street preacher should ever ask you, “Do you know if you’re going to heaven?” and you don’t want to have a prolonged conversation, do not say, “I’ll go to heaven because I’m a good person.” If you want a short interaction, say, “I know I will go to heaven because I Jesus died for my sins, and I have trusted in Him for salvation.” That answer passes the test for most evangelists. I do believe it’s true.)

Brother Gary showed us little red Bible booklets he gives out to people who stop at his booth, especially children. It isn’t, of course, a full Bible (it’s about 2” by 1 ½”), but there’s perceived value in that little book. He says he often sees children carrying the booklet when they leave the fair at the end of the day.

Inside the fair (by a Jack Daniels booth), we saw another Gospel booth run by a Baptist church. That booth had a gimmick (Brother Gary had the same one at his booth), a display with three small doors that hide three answers to one question, “See three things God cannot do!” Behind the first door is the answer, “God Cannot Lie.” Behind the second door is the answer, “God Cannot Change.” Behind the third door is the answer, “God Cannot Allow Sinners in Heaven”.  (So now you can show off when you see a Gospel booth, answering the questions like the Amazing Kreskin.)

Both of those booths will be around throughout the fair, but on Saturday, July 15th, we attended a one-day only event, the Multicultural Gospel Celebration (which started at 10:00 am, when the fair opened for the day, and concluded at 9:00 pm). We weren’t there for the whole day, but we stopped in to catch parts of the event between visits to cows and bunnies and watching motorcycles jumps.

A wonderful thing about the Celebration was the location. The stage was right in the middle of a number of the exhibit halls, including the animatronic dinosaurs, the photography displays, and the arts and crafts (and the aforementioned bunnies), so people who were going to look at the T-Rex also heard prayers for the Holy Spirit to come and songs praising Jesus.

On of the events of the Celebration was “Who’s Got Gospel Talent,” a competition for young Gospel singers. We happened to catch some of the contenders, including some rappers and the young woman who eventually won the competition (she was very good). We also were there when she was awarded the first place prize which included a trophy, a opportunity to make a recording with a professional studio, a professional photo session, and an unspecified cash prize. She was quite moved, in tears, and wanted to give thanks to God and her mother “who brought me through hard times.”

We saw the part of the program emceed by Steve Parker (a local radio DJ), introducing a variety of acts between 3:00 and 4:00 pm. He brought out fans as giveaway prizes (and it was definitely a day for fans. In fact, Parker told a joke, “A man went to the Pearly Gates and Jesus asked if he wanted to go to Hell or Sacramento. The man said, ‘Hell can’t be as hot as Sacramento.’”

Parker also proclaimed his faith, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a born again believer, and I’m washed in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

He brought out Tianna Rey, a woman with three backup singers. They sang a song “Yahweh” (“Yahweh, hey, hey, hey!”) and a song partially in Spanish (with some questionable pronunciation but they hit the notes, so that was okay).  He brought out Paul Genesis, a soloist who encouraged with song and word (“I want you to know that if you believe in prayer, God will answer your prayers tonight!”)

I very much enjoyed the Mighty Men of Faith, a quartet. One of the great things with this group was that though they sang wonderful harmonies together, but at times one man would sing while another member of the quartet would encourage him along like we’ve heard African American congregations encourage their preacher (“Take your time, take your time, there’s a message in the music, there’s a witness out there, keep going, keep going!”)

The last group we heard was the Tri Valley Community Choir as they sang, “Lord You Brought Me a Mighty Long Way.” What they did was what most people think of when they think of Gospel Music.

I thought it was interesting that none of the people we talked to at the Gospel booths knew that it was Gospel Music Day at the fair. But plenty of the people who were visiting the fair and looking for a Mike’s Hard Lemonade ended up hearing Jesus Christ praised in song.

(This trip to the State Fair was a Father’s Day gift from our daughter, Jil -- so thanks, Jil!)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

We Go to Church in a Movie Theater

Cornerstone Church, Fresno, California
We always turn in the guest registration cards when we visit a church because we want to know how well churches follow up on visitors. But this Sunday, people were anxiously filling out visitor cards and waving down ushers to take them because there was a drawing involved. We’ve been to churches with pretty good gifts for first time visitors: candy, coffee mugs, t-shirts, books, etc. But somehow the chance of winning something (in this case two free movie tickets) excites people more than a sure thing.

The drawing took place just before the evening's feature movie began, and the audience was asked, “Who’s going to win?”  Plenty of people shouted out “Me!” The guy in front responded, “Alright, we’ll find out which of you is a false prophet!”

Cornerstone Church meets in downtown Fresno in an old movie theater, what was once The Wilson. Usually they do regular church things in the building -- prayer meetings and worship services. But during the summer, the church has teamed up with a radio station (The Spirit, 88.9) to use the building as a movie theater again.

This past Sunday night they showed the 2016 film, Priceless. We saw the film before, last year when we were visiting a church, a bar, and a movie theater in every state (it was our South Dakota film). The good thing about the film is that it raises the issue of human trafficking, a real problem that the church needs to address, that individuals need to be aware of it. But I’m not sure it gives the best solutions for dealing with the problem. There may be flaws in a plan involving a man approaching a streetwalker, offering money, and then using motel room time for job counseling. It might not be best to arm oneself and take on criminal prostitution gangs alone. Good solutions in movies, of course, but perhaps not in real life -- and this is an issue in real life.

It’s good that the organization “Made for Them” was represented at the event, since they have more practical ideas for dealing with the problem. They are a nonprofit organization that works to fight human trafficking through, of all things, fashion. They work to educate people about the issue through their MadeForThem fashion line. They also provide jobs and job training. And they provide resources for businesses that are looking to be socially responsible.

It was good to see Cornerstone promoting this good ministry, and to see they have good ministries of their own. Pastor Jim Franklin founded Cornerstone Community Care, a non-profit that partners with local schools to help at-risk youth and founded Feeding Fresno, an outreach to feed needy families. We also saw promotional material for SUM Bible College and Theological School, supported by the church.

But that night was all about going to the movies. The screening was free, and the refreshments were quite reasonable as movie snacks go ($1 for anything, popcorn, sodas, waters).  Cornerstone does many good things; providing a night at the movies may be a lesser one, but it is still a good thing. We might go back in August for the next summer screening: The Case for Christ (if just for the cheap popcorn).

Service Length: 1 hour 41 minutes
Movie Length: 1 hour 37 minutes
Visitor Treatment: No particular attention was paid to visitors; everyone was encouraged to put their names, addresses, email, and phone number on the cards in order to win movie tickets.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 400
Probable Ushers’ Count: 475
Musicians: None
Songs: None
Snacks: Bottled water and soda, popcorn, candy, pickles, and maybe more were available for purchase
Distance to Church: 7.5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: