Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ, Oakland

On leaving church on Sunday, our friend Tim said, "That's the friendliest church I've ever been to." His wife, Popie, agreed. And Tim and Popie have been to a lot of churches. I'm not sure I'd be quite that definitive (Mindy and I were quite impressed with the hospitality of Our Savior's Lutheran in Ferndale, for instance), but "friendly" is certainly an apt adjective for describing the Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ in Oakland.

We parked in the BART station parking lot, where they have begun charging for events. I thought about complaining that we were going to church, but we were planning to go to the game afterwards, so we paid and walked a few blocks to find a distinctive sign below three crosses and a large white building with blue trim.

We were impressed with the size of the sanctuary of Acts. Like the exterior, the interior is plain but welcoming. We met a gentleman who has been part of the church for thirty years. He's raised his children and now his grandchildren in the church. He participates in the churches witnessing outreaches throughout the neighborhood every 3rd Saturday (the SWAT team, they're called). He said their goal was to bring people to the Lord, rather than to the church. But if the people don't have a church, if they bring them to Acts, "And well, that's it. They stay."

We noticed red buckets some of the chairs for collecting the offering. We sat in a row behind an usher. We knew this because the seat was labeled "usher" (other aisle seats were labeled "deacon"). Under the ushers' chairs were blue buckets equipped with Kleenex, tracts, information cards and paper fans. Even as the service began we saw people snagging paper fans (and tissues) from the buckets. The ushers and most staff members wore red and white, making them easy to identify.

A couple of rows in front of us there was a very slender elderly woman with closely cropped hair and a vividly pink suit. I enjoyed watching person after person greet her with a hug and sometimes a kiss.

The service started promptly at 11:30 (four screens in the front and one in the very back of the room had the countdown to the service). The choir of about two dozen wore red and black robes. They were accompanied by drums, electric guitar, piano and organ, and they could play. Behind us, a woman sang and trilled and sang in another tongue.

There was a prayer for the usher board, the deacon board, the hospitality board, the senior pastor and the associate pastors and for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers and that Satan would be cast out from this Holy Ground.

In many churches, I've heard the congregation urged to "stand up, if you can, to sing." This was the first time I've ever heard a pastor say at the conclusion of songs, "You may sit down, if you can." At one point, Bishop Bob Jackson, the senior pastor, said he knew there were some people there that needed to get their shout out. He said "the enemy messed up letting you come today!"

Fairly early in the service, first, second and third time visitors were encouraged to stand and a "Welcome Song" was played while the congregation greeted visitors. We were greeted quite warmly by many people with handshakes and hugs. And the elderly woman in the pink dress said, "I've been waiting to give you a hug," and I could see why so many people treated her with such warmth. (Mindy had been waiting to give her a hug and was delighted to have the opportunity.)

A representative of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) was invited to give an announcement encouraging people to volunteer for various opportunities in that program. Bishop Bob, who had welcomed the visitor in Spanish, reinforced the announcement by adding, "Most of those kids are African American kids, they're our children, who are in trouble from no fault of their own and we need to help them."

There were also announcements for Souls Restaurant, for Teen Church taking place next door and Charlene's Clothes Closet ("as fine as Ross Dress for Less"), and also announcements via video for various methods of giving (website, apps and texting) that would help the church go from a "good church to a great church." There was an announcement for weigh-ins for a church fitness program (Bishop Bob would be participating), a men's Bible study, and a meeting of Women of Excellence (with a talk targeted for young women, "Keep Your Cookies in the Cookie Jar").

As Bishop Bob came to the pulpit to speak, large prop door was wheeled out to the front of the sanctuary. He encouraged people to turn in their Bibles to Exodus for he was going to be speaking on the Passover, and he waited to read until the congregation responded that they were ready to read. I appreciated that he used a fair deal of Scripture throughout his message, and it all pointed to the lamb of Passover as a shadow of the sacrifice of Jesus. He concluded the sermon by striking the door with a brush and red paint to show how the Israelites painted the door at the top and on the sides with the blood of the lamb, and how the marks at the top and sides of the door served as a symbol of Christ's blood on the cross. (I'd first seen this image in Chic comics as a kid, but it was more impressive in life rather than drawings.)

He urged the congregation again and again to not "plead the blood but apply the blood." He broke into song, urging the congregation to go out and live different lives by applying the blood. He then invited people to return that evening at 6:00 pm for a healing service, and another staff member, a woman, concluded the service with an encouragement to pray and an altar call.

The gentlemen we talked with at the beginning of the service said, for a lot of people, once they visited Acts Full Gospel Church, that was it, they were there to stay. Though Mindy and I are committed to go to a different place next week and the week after that and on, we could understand why for many, "that was it."

Service Length: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 35 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeted many times as we entered, all visitors invited to stand in order to receive a visitors' packet, and warmly welcomed during the "welcome song"
Our Rough Count: 1,150
Probable Ushers' Count: 1,500 at this service (there was also an earlier worship service)
Snacks: available for sale to raise money for children's choir
Songs: I Just Want to Praise You
            Lord I Love You
            I Love You More Each Day
            I Love You Lord, and I Lift my Voice
            Welcome Song
             I'm Standing on the Promise of God
            Oh Lord, We Lift You High
            When I See the Blood
Miles to place:  72 miles
Total California Miles: 6,337 miles

-- Dean