Wednesday, May 31, 2017

We Go to Church for the Adventure

Adventure Community Church, Fresno, California
Adventure Community Church in Fresno CA
“Adventure” is a favorite word of mine. When I describe our quest to visit a church and bar in every state last year, I tend to talk about the “adventure” we had. That’s why I’m more than okay with it being used in the names of churches.

Last Saturday night, we went to Adventure Church in the Tower District of Fresno. The first little parking lot we drove into was full, but signs pointed us to alternate parking across the street, where we parked. We crossed the street and saw a canopy in front of the church with tshirts for sale and a sign saying “information.” We went up to talk to Felicia and Liz, who were manning the table. They welcomed us (warmly) and let us know that as first time visitors we were eligible for shirts and cups emblazoned with the Adventure Church logo.

Adventure Church information center, Fresno, CA
If you were wondering, there is no “Adventure” denomination (that we are aware of); this congregation is part of the Foursquare Church. (We have been to other Foursquare churches that used interesting names, including Hope and Spirit of Life). The denomination is Pentecostal, but most of the Foursquare churches we’ve visited value the spiritual gifts but are not excessively wild and woolly. (Aimee Semple McPherson, the founder of the denomination, had a fascinating life you may wish to Google some time.)

The worship center is cozy, but attractive (I liked the aquarium-like space for the drummer at the back of the stage). The service started a couple of minutes after the hour with a greeting from the worship leader, “Good evening, Adventure! It’s been a long road to the weekend, so I’d like to invite the Holy Spirit here… I want to leave here forever changed.”

After singing a few songs, we were invited to greet those around us with a handshake or a high five. There was occasional awkwardness, when one person high fived while the other person tried to greet with a handshake, but it worked out in the end. We saw several hugs. Then the worship leader, Jake, called people back and encouraged people, “Let’s give God a hand!” After more praise music, there was a break when people were encouraged to get water, coffee, and snacks at different stations at the back of the sanctuary. It was an interesting snack assortment; breakfast bars and CheezIts among the options.

We came back together for a baby dedication. Jake and Liz, the worship leaders, (and a different Liz than the one that greeted us initially) were dedicating their young child. Pastor Anthony Flores said, “I’m going to have to brag on these two for a bit. He called Liz an “OG” (original gangster) because she had been around since the church’s beginning. “She sings so beautifully, but at first, she wouldn’t sing. I’m so proud of you.” He said that the first time Jake came to the church, on their last weekend in their old building, he was dressed in a three piece suit. (No one that night was dressed in a three piece suit. I did see a number of motorcycle jackets.) Pastor Flores said that even though Jake was dressed fancy that first Sunday, he helped with messy work projects that day after services. “Six years later he is leading worship and I did their wedding.” And now he was presiding over the dedication of young Anakin (whose name, we were told, means “warrior” or “key” and apparently not “Jedi”).

It seems there has been a bit of a baby boom in the church. They built a corral for baby seats and strollers, with room for a dozen. The Sunday before our visit, we heard, it was filled up, and two strollers had to wait outside it. (At the information booth, by accident, we were initially handed a Baby Dedication form rather than a visitor form.) Anakin put up nicely with being held for the dedication. Pastor Anthony offered him the mike so he could preach, but Anakin declined (perhaps because he’s not talking much yet).

Pastor Anthony then began his sermon entitled “Poles and Nets.” He read Luke 5 and John 21 about Jesus and the disciples’ miraculous fishing adventures. Pastor Anthony said we are all called to fish for people, but some of us will use a net to reach a wide group while others use a pole to target one person at a time.

Pastor Anthony acknowledged that many people who have been in a church a long time lose contact with non Christian friends (those people you used to go clubbing with). When we hang out in churches too much, “We become soil testers rather than seed planters” (switching from the fishing analogy to a farming analogy).  He encouraged people to challenge themselves to reach one person a month.

Then Pastor Anthony gave what I thought were three practical tips for reaching folks. First, he said, Make Outsiders Feel Like Insiders. (Admittedly, this is to reach people who are already visiting a church. But as ongoing church visitors we appreciated the encouragement for the congregation.) “If you call Adventure home, you are commissioned as a greeter and to smile, and not with a cheesy smile.”

The second tip was to Add Value to People.  This was a call to treat others with kindness and respect. He quoted the saying, “On Earth, we value gold and walk on people...In heaven, we’ll value people and walk on gold.” He said that one of the ways we can show people we value them is to take the time to really listen to them.

And the third tip was to Be Available for Prayer. He said we should just ask people whether we can pray for them or a need they’ve mentioned, and with permission, do it then (because we often forget to do it later). He encouraged people to pray briefly and on point, but to take advantage of that gift from the Holy Spirit.

He encouraged people to get right with God and asked people to raise their hand if they were coming to Christ for the first time or recommitting their lives.

On the way out, we went to the information area again to talk with Felicia and Liz (we took a cup, but not a shirt). I asked what they felt were the strengths of Adventure Church. Felicia said, “Our sense of community. Healed people heal people. We’re always bring people one step closer.”

Liz said, “It feels like family, you’re made welcome here.”

We were certainly made to feel welcome and were happy to see people on the Great Adventure of showing others the love of God in Christ.

Service Length: 1 hour 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 26 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Visitors were encouraged to fill out an information card and turn it in at the information booth outside. Liz and Felicia were very friendly and helpful when we asked questions about the church.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none We got a letter the next Tuesday, and Jake from the church messaged us via facebook on Thursday.
Our Rough Count: 88
Probable Ushers’ Count: 100
Snacks: Coffee, water, granola bars, CheezIts, fruit snacks, and a few other packaged items.
Musicians: keyboard (woman)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric and acoustic guitars (2 men)
Vocals (woman)
Songs: “Irresistible”
“You Make me Brave”
“I Surrender”
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

We Drive to Church (but we could have gotten a ride)

Bethesda Churches in Fresno, California
The Bethesda Churches, Fresno, California
If there is one word I’d use to describe Bev, the woman who greeted us at Bethesda Church, it would be “Wow.” Or “W.O.W.” since at Bethesda, the word is used as an acronym for “Welcoming Others Willingly” (a greeting ministry of the church), and she did do that, hugging both Mindy and me as we entered Bethesda Apostolic Church -- but her husband, Brother Stafford, had greeted us first. We were outside taking pictures of the church buildings and he came out to chat with us.

The church takes greeting visitors seriously. I appreciated the world “willingly” in their acronym, since there are times when the greetings of ushers in church can be rather rote and a matter of duty. The greetings from Bev and Stafford were anything but that. Bev also spoke of The Net, a ministry that tries to insure that visitors won’t fall through the cracks.

We had time to chat with the couple in the lobby while we waited for the sanctuary to open (a minister’s training meeting was in progress when we arrives). I asked Bev what drew her to the church. She had gone to the church when she was young, but had moved away and met her husband. When they moved back to the area, they attended another church where she said she was “slowly dying, not getting the power of the Holy Ghost.” So her husband agreed to attend Bethesda “one time.” And they never left.

Bev went on to praise their pastor, Tobaise Brookins, “his teaching is awesome!” She appreciated that he’s “very visual,” using props and media to reinforce his messages. She also mentioned his great sense of humor.

As we entered the sanctuary, we were greeted by a number of people, including an usher who noting my notebook said, “You won’t be able to write!” I assume he believed he thought we would be too caught up in the service to be able to take notes. It was a good service, but we’ve had a lot of practice. We’re disciplined note takers, even when hand-raising is involved.

Pastor Brookins wasn’t preaching that evening, though he’d led the pastors' training class before the service. The Bethesda Churches are celebrating their 60th anniversary right now, and as part of that celebration they’ve brought back various ministers who were raised or trained in the church before going out to other ministries. That night Pastor O.C. Harris from San Diego was speaking, introduced as “a son of this church.”

After Pastor Harris stood at the pulpit, he recognized people from his days at Bethesda. So he left the stage and walked down to hug old friends. After several minutes of circulating in the congregation, he returned to the pulpit promising to get on with the message. But a time or two more during the sermon, he spotted someone else in the crowd and left the stage to give a quick hug. It was endearing. He said, “I was born in this church, at the age of 14.”

Pastor Harris spoke on the same theme given to all five guest speakers of this month, “Momentum: Moving Forward.” He said, “I’m going  to be with you the length of time it takes to tell you the thing God has for you to hear.” He used as his texts Exodus 9: 27 - 28 and Deuteronomy 2:3, jamming the first part of one verse to the last of the other. He spoke of the importance of momentum, “If you aren’t moving, you don’t matter,” though he amended that a bit when he said, “God is the only one to tell you to stand still, and when He tells you to stand still, you’re still moving forward.”

He spoke much about the importance of being obedient to the pastor of the church. He talked of Bishop Johnson, the founder of Bethesda, and its one  pastor prior to Pastor Brookins. “The only place you get direction is through the man of God.” He argued that our blessing is tied to the pastor of a church and we must support him to obtain blessing.

After the sermon, there was a time of prayer. Two men and a woman stood in the front of the stage with oil at the ready to anoint any who came forward for prayer. After a few minutes of prayer, ushers received people’s offering near the back doors as people were dismissed. =

Bev caught up with us again as we were heading out the back door and encouraged us to go to meet with Pastor Tobiase Brookins, who makes it a regular practice to meet with visitors after services. Bev asked if we wanted snacks or something to drink and we opted for water.

Pastor Brookins, along with his wife Antoinette, greeted us in a room behind the sanctuary.  We asked how he came to serve at Bethesda. He told us he’d been ministering as an evangelist, traveling from place to place, but he felt called to pastoral ministry. Bishop Johnson at Bethesda offered to mentor him. “There are so many young pastors these days who just concentrate on writing their sermons. But Bishop Johnson took me to hospitals to visit the sick and pray for people.”  Pastor Brookins was living in Southern California, but for six months he came every weekend to learn from Bishop Johnson.

At the end of those six months, Bishop Johnson asked Brookins if he would consider pastoring Bethesda (In the Apostolic tradition, the pastor makes such major decisions, including succession). Brookins accepted the offer, not fully understanding all the political ramifications the decision would have in the congregation. Some men who had been discipled in the church for a much longer time than Brookins felt “sideswiped” by the choice, and Pastor Brookins felt “sideswiped” by the reaction of many in the congregation to his coming.

But that was seven years ago, and Pastor Brookins’ ministry in the church seems to be prospering. Bethesda has two other Fresno campuses for ministry along with the Central location (at Dakota and Milbrook) we attended; the Southeast campus and the Riverpark campus. There are other pastors on the other campuses, and the musical and worship styles differ at each place, but they all share the same message.

I mentioned that we were regularly attending the Bridge Church in Fresno, and Pastor Brookins said how much he appreciated the friendship of a recently departed pastor of our church. He told us that historically Apostolic Pentecostal churches tended to be more isolationist, but that was changing.

We talked about our adventures visiting churches, including our trip to churches to every state last year. As we walked to the parking lot, we showed him the back of our van covered with bumper stickers from the trip, and he pulled out his phone to take a picture of it.

Pastor and First Lady Brookins were so warm and gracious, we could certainly understand the abundant praise that Bev had lavished on them earlier. And before we left, Bev gave another hug and Brother Stafford gave another handshake.

The central campus of Bethesda is near us, and we’ve passed it many times on walks and drives. (The sign encourages those who need a ride to church to give them a call.) It was wonderful to find that not only was the church near our home, it was a place we were made to feel at home.

Service Length: 1 hour 47 minutes
Sermon Length: 1 hour 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: The church not only has a visitor greeting ministry with designated parking spots for guests, they also have a special entrance for visitors. Bev asked us to fill out a visitor card when we first came into the sanctuary, and everyone was encouraged to greet those around them
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 75
Probable Ushers’ Count: 100
Snacks: We didn’t see any, but there may have been some in the fellowship hall, where guests generally meet Pastor and First Lady Brookins
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Songs: “Chasing after You”
Distance to Church: 1 mile
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: too many to count (plus a bow tie)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mindy Goes to a Wedding

The Woodard Wedding at Farm Kitchen, Poulsbo, Washington
Last year, we thought it would be good if, in addition to going to a church in every state, we could attend a wedding and a funeral., since those two events frequently take place in a church.

When my mom died rather unexpectedly, we returned to Indiana for her memorial service, and Dean wrote about it. But we weren’t able to attend any weddings (though at least two of our hosts got married after we visited), so we couldn’t write about them.

This year, we were invited to our nephew’s wedding near Seattle. As it happened, the wedding didn’t take place in a church, but it was decidedly a Christian worship service. There were prayers, a sermon, worship songs, and the bride and groom shared communion. I think it’s fair to think of this particular wedding celebration as a worship service of the Church even if it wasn’t technically in a church.

In lieu of the usual statistics (since taking notes at the wedding might have been a bit tacky), here’s a dozen or so things that seem to be true about weddings and church services:

1. There will probably be some way to show you were there
2. Snacks are appreciated. Coffee is especially appreciated
3. Somebody is really glad you're there
4. There will probably be a prayer. Possibly lots of prayers
5. It's likely that not everybody will take communion
6. Somebody should make you feel welcome
7. Children add to the fun
8. Dancing may or may not be encouraged
9. There will probably be flowers. Possibly lots of flowers
10. You're likely to sit with people you know
11. There will probably be music. Possibly lots of music
12. Somebody will preach a sermon
13. And sometimes, there are games

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We go to Church and Find a Business Meeting

Riverpark Bible Church, Fresno, California
Riverpark Bible Church, Fresno, California
We didn’t mean to go to an annual meeting. We thought we were going to the regularly scheduled Sunday evening worship service, and the website didn’t tell us differently, but upon arriving at Riverpark Bible Church, we found a table full of annual reports in the foyer. We arrived a minute or two late and people were already singing a chorus in the chapel, but we knew something different was coming.

We were grateful to be assured from the platform that it was okay for us to stick around. In the introduction to the meeting, the pastor said that visitors to any church should really go to a church’s annual meeting; if you want to know if there’s unity in a place, you need to go to a business meeting (which is generally what a church's annual meeting is). I’ve been to business meetings that have shown the church was not a happy place to be, and I’ve heard about a lot worse (death threats and such). This was not a death threat type of meeting. It fact, someone said, “There is a high degree of love in our church right now.” And it certainly seemed to be the case.

An annual meeting is a good time to hear about a church’s ministries and philosophy of ministry. We usually have to ask a lot of questions to find out about the kinds of things that are the chief topic of discussion at a church’s annual meeting.

Riverpark Bible Church has an elder led form of government, as opposed to the congregational government in the Evangelical Free Church I grew up in or the hierarchal form of government found in, say, Episcopal and Methodist Churches, where many decisions are made outside of the local congregation.

There are elder led congregations that allow for no congregational input. The church I grew up in went from a congregational form of government to an extreme form of elder leadership, and because the elders had little regard for the thoughts and feelings of the congregation, the church fell apart.

That’s why I was pleased that Riverpark acknowledged the importance of bringing in the whole congregation in on important decisions and direction for the church, using Acts 6 as the Biblical basis. In that passage of Scripture, the Greeks in the congregation complained they were being ill treated, their widows and orphans not receiving the same treatment as the Jewish widows and orphans. The Apostles, who were the “elders” of the new Church, knew they needed help with these things, so thought the best thing to do was appoint men to care for these needs, men in the office to be called deacons. But they brought this decision to the whole church and “The statement found approval with the whole congregation.” They acknowledged a Biblical basis for a congregational say in choices. (In this explanation, the pastor said pointed for the need for a Biblical basis for their actions, “That’s why ‘Bible’ is in the middle of our name.”) They also pointed to Philippians 2 and the importance of the church “being of one mind.”

Ballots were distributed and we took one. (Mindy said, “Remind me not to vote.” In the church I last served, we were not actually members. When there was an oral vote, she often found herself responding in chorus with a firm “aye” vote.) Members were asked to raise their hands. Mindy (and I) managed to keep our hands down and there was a quick visual estimation. It was announced, “We have a quorum. So we’ll be voting on a few things: elders, deacons and the budget.”

There wasn’t much drama in the election for elders and deacons (and after last year’s presidential election I don’t think anyone would object to the lack of drama). Three elders and three deacons were nominated, and all six were voted in. “If all you guys could stand,” and all the men stood, the newly elected along with the incumbents.

Mindy noticed that two new staff members were mentioned in the annual report; one was a woman hired to oversee the children’s ministry. The annual report read something like this: “Adding a Children’s Pastor to our staff was a matter of prayer for some time, but then we realized that a highly qualified woman could do what was needed just as well.” This rankled. Does it mean the church decided to hire a woman to save money? Will she do the same kind of work a “children’s pastor” does, just not have the title? Or was the report just carelessly worded? (To be fair, both women on staff -- children's ministries and women's ministries directors -- seemed well qualified and enthusiastic about their work.)

The discussion about the budget was a little more lively. A solar project to provide for the energy needs of the congregation was proposed. Three of the buildings on the property needed roof work done anyway, so the installation of solar panels could be combined with that project. A committee, which included construction and energy experts, had come up with a plan, and a fifteen year loan from the Evangelical Christian Credit Union would pay for the project, and according to the church’s projections, the savings in utility bills each month would more than pay for the monthly loan installments.

A woman asked about collateral for the loan. She was assured from the platform that the sanctuary building, which will be used as collateral, was not at risk and could not be lost.

A man then asked whether it was wise to take on another loan, as the church is already paying a loan on another property (which the city had required the church buy in order to provide for parking). “Perhaps we could hold off a few months and see if God provides without taking out a loan,” he suggested.

“You’re a Crown guy, aren’t you?” was the initial response from the platform. "That's fine. I'm a Crown guy too." Crown Financial Ministries was cofounded by Larry Burkett to help people with their finances, and a basic principle of the ministry is staying out of debt. Again, there was an assurance from the platform that the utility savings made this a practical financial decision.

Someone asked, “What about the elevator project?” (We never did hear in full about this “elevator project,” but apparently a previous project had cost overruns leading to a decision that on future projects, a committee with experience would make the plans, and any prospective indebtedness in excess of 10% of the annual budget must be approved by congregation.)

But again, there were assurances from the platform of the wisdom of this choice, “Solar is the way to go in the future.” Eventually, after it seemed people had had their say, a vote was taken. “That was exciting,” the chairman said after the votes were collected.

It was time for verbal reports from the staff.

Eben Sherwood, the Executive Administrator, said, “I don’t think the buildings are what is important, it’s the people. We have a warm, caring congregation but we need more small groups, people getting together. Who’s discipling you? Who are you discipling?...That’s my report, such as it is.”

Karen Drew, the Director of Women’s Ministries, said,  “Just put girl or woman in front of everything Eben said.” She also talked about Mirror, Mirror, an upcoming event with what was described as a very unique fashion show.

Mike Bohr, the Worship and College Pastor, said, “Let me say a word about the music ministry here at Riverpark. God will use all different kinds of music. We all have preferences, but we want all ages to worship here at Riverpark. We no longer have choir robes but we desire to see all generations worshipping together.” About the other half of his job description he said, “I love, love college ministry.” He also talked about the staff at Riverpark, “Everytime I go into Eben’s office I get saved. As a staff, we all talk all the time, and we are all on the same page, and we love one another.”

John Cox, the Pastor of Adult Ministries, has been on staff less than a year. He said, “I’m new to the church, but not new to ministry. The plan is to make every little area of the church about discipling. In the parking ministry, we want the parking people praying for the people that park. We want the people who visit here to be greeted by seven people on the way into church. There is much fruit in the church, we want more.”

George Posthumus, the Senior Pastor, spoke last, “We’ve got to be mindful of younger people. I’m a part of pushing for changes so we have all generations worshiping God. Blending songs so generations are brought together. Ties are not a part of that. Robes are not necessary; if God said wear robes, we’d wear robes. If you look at the pictures from 1905 on the walls at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant, you’ll see things have changed. We need to give the Gospel without distractions. Paul said in I Cor. 9 to be all things to all people. I do all things for the sake of the Gospel.”  He spoke about the importance of making choices in the church in a Christlike manner,  “We disagree agreeable. We have preferences, but we have to put preferences aside to reach other people. Good Bible teaching attracts people to church, but relationships connect people to a church -- discipling, doing life together.”

Then he said he was changing the subject. “I’m hard of hearing, so you need to say, ‘New subject.’ My Mom would see something and say, ‘That’s a disgrace to the ministry.’” He talked about certain things his mom might call a disgrace to the ministry: the restrooms in the Family Center, the Chapel, and the children’s check-in area. He had proposals to improve all those areas. He also talked about a relaunch of the website. Speaking about the ministry in general, Posthumus said, “I have intense optimism.”
The results of the vote was announced: 207 ballots, with at least a 2/3rds majority in favor of all the issues.

Pastor Posthumus said, “We want to be stewards of what you give to the Lord’s work.” To us as visitors, that certainly appeared to be true. If you take worship as a means of honoring God and serving Him, this annual meeting was a fine worship service.

Service Length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon Length: Though not a sermon, Pastor George spoke for about half an hour
Visitor Treatment: People around us were pleasant, and we weren’t the only non-members there, but beyond a nod or two as we entered, there wasn’t much in the way of greeting visitors
Followup by Tuesday Morning: None (we filled out a connection card and dropped it in the offering box in the lobby, but that had probably been emptied for the week after the morning worship services)
Our Rough Count: 225
Probable Ushers’ Count: 250
Snacks: none
Musicians: acoustic guitar (man)
Songs: "I Believe/The Creed"
Distance to Church: 4.5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 1
Church Website: