Wednesday, July 26, 2017

We go to Church at a Car Show

Full Gospel Revival Center, Dinuba, California
Full Gospel Revival Center 50th Celebration and Car Show, Dinuba, California
It’s a good thing for a church to consider what unique strengths and gifts they have and to use those things to reach people.

As a way of celebrating their 50th Anniversary, the Full Gospel Revival Center in Dinuba decided to do something special: they held a Christian Car Show in a downtown park in Dinuba. We drove down to Dinuba on Saturday morning. We and parked our van far from the cars on display because though our 2006 Dodge Caravan, Harold Bijoux, has been very good to us, taking us to 47 of the 50 states last year (you won’t be surprised that we flew rather drove to Hawaii and Alaska, but we flew to Washington State as well), Harold isn’t cool.

The Cruisin’ for Jesus cars were very cool. Here are pictures of a number of cars cooler than ours:

Some of those cars were the work of Central Cal Street and Strip, a shop that does custom car work. Rick, the owner of the shop, was happy to be part of the event along with a couple of other men from the company. (Some of their cars were entered in the competition. Cars were divided into various categories, such as pre and post 1980, and trophies were to be awarded to the winners as the end of the event.)

I saw a Suzuki among the Harley Davidsons. There’s nothing un-American about the Japanese import, of course, and patriotism was on display right from the opening when JR, the pastor of Full Gospel Revival Center, led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. A man tucked a flag into the back of one of the classic trucks. Then MMLJ, the musical act (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) played the Jimi Hendrix version of the National Anthem.

The band’s guitar player, Keith Toms, said that since it was a hot day, they’d be starting out with  surf music, including “Pipeline” and “Wipeout.” He added, “We play old rock, and try to redeem it.”  They played a different version of “Louie, Louie” singing, “We’re all saved, so we get to go.” They said Jimi Hendrix had originally started with “Purple haze, Jesus Saves,” but “the studio didn’t care for it. We’ve restored it to its roots.”

The motorcycles on display were mostly the property of the Sequoia Chapter of Guardians of the Children. There are 25 or 26 chapters of the organization, according to “Bullfrog” (his real name is Jeremiah). He said the purpose of the organization is to protect and mentor at risk kids. Sometimes these are kids that have been abused at home, sometimes kids that have been bullied at school or in their neighborhoods.

The Sequoia branch is just starting up. It’s only three and a half months old, but they’ve already taken three kids under their wings. Just as the member have a cut (club patch) and road name, adopted kids are given the same. I talked to another member with the road name “Wrench” (Tony) who said that his own kids had two teenage friends that had committed suicide because of bullying, and he wanted to be a part of something that could protect kids.

I wandered over to where the hot dogs were grilling. The church was providing lunch to all who came to the event, and I met the pastor of the fellowship, JR. He’s been pastor of the congregation for 26 years; prior to that he was the youth pastor for a couple of years. When he proposed this event to other churches, he was told they couldn’t pull it off -- which made him all the more set on pulling it off. He said the city had been quite cooperative in providing the park for the event.

I asked him more about the Full Gospel Revival Center, He said they were a small group, usually twenty to twenty five people in attendance each week, but it was a committed group. I asked about the group’s strengths, and Pastor JR said their congregation was quite committed to prayer. He said they wanted to have this event in the park to reach out to the community. “If we can reach at least one person, it will have been worth it. If we reach more, it will be a bonus!” I asked JR if there were any unfamiliar faces at the event, and JR noted three young men who had just walked into the park to look at the cars. JR went to speak with them.

I don’t know if one of those three men or the bonus of all three might have been drawn closer to Christ that day. But I appreciate the Full Gospel Revival Center making the effort to go out into the world and present Jesus in creative ways.

Service Length: 3 hours (we were there for 1 hour 30 minutes)
Visitor Treatment: Whenever we approached a booth or person, people were more than willing to engage in conversation
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 47
Probable Ushers’ Count: 75
Snacks: Water, hot dogs, chips
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric guitar (man))
Songs (all performed by MMLJ): “Star Spangled Banner”
“Louie, Louie”
“Purple Haze”
“All Along the Watchtower”
“The Lord is Coming”
“Open the Eyes of my Heart, Lord” (with The Who-style intro)
“Simple Kind of Man”
“Children of the Future”
“Your Love Never Fails”
"God Shall Wipe away Every Tear"
Distance to Church: 27 miles
Open WiFi: none at the park
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: none

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:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

We go to a Church within a Church

what word of mouth looks like at Fresno Deaf Church
Fresno Deaf Church, Fresno, California

“Word of mouth.”

It’s really a great quote, one of my favorites this year. I’d asked Pastor Keith Catron how people are drawn to the Deaf ministry of the Bridge Church, and he told us, “word of mouth.” Though actually he signed his answer in ASL (American Sign Language), and Tiffany interpreted it into spoken English. But I guess if he’d said people were drawn to the ministry by “word of hand” that would sound pretty strange as well.

We’ve been to lots of worship services in other languages -- Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish. Sometimes there have been translators and sometimes not. When we’ve had translation we’ve sometimes had someone sitting next to us but more often we’ve had headphones with the interpreter speaking in our ears.

Things were simpler this week. As happens most weeks, an interpreter sits in the front row at Fresno Deaf Church with a microphone and speaks, so anyone who doesn’t know ASL can feel included in the worship service.  

The Sunday afternoon Deaf ministry worship services are held in the Cafe on the Bridge campus. On Sunday mornings, the room is used as an alternate worship space, with the sermon from the main sanctuary projected on a screen during the 9:30 and 11:00 am worship services.

Mindy noticed before the service began that the people tended not to sit right next to each other when they were chatting because they needed room to use their hands and to see the signs. There was a mix of older folks and young, along with some little children who apparently weren’t deaf and some others who were. People were enjoying talking together, and starting the service right on time didn’t seem like a priority.

The service began with announcements. The first was about the ASL translation in the 11 AM sanctuary services of the Bridge on the first and third Sundays (there aren’t enough translators to cover every week). There was also an announcement for Bible studies during the week. There was a time for prayer requests and prayer.

A Youtube video of Hillsong Worship singing “What a Beautiful Name” was projected on the screen for praise time, with an ASL interpreter, Cathy, signing in front of the Cafe as members of the congregation signed along. Another woman came forward to sign “Jesus Set Me Free.” Some people clapped along with the music.

One dynamic that is different in this church from any other church we’ve visited is that children can be loud and no one cares. We also heard someone snoring on Sunday, but it didn’t bother anyone. (I’ve sometimes heard preachers say about people sleeping in church that it is good they have a place to rest. But they usually draw the line at snoring.)

When Pastor Keith came forward for the message, he urged people to sign along with him, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.” He then talked about faith, and the need for people to exercise their faith like a muscle. He asked the congregation what makes faith strong and some responded with signs for “prayer” and “service.”

It was communion Sunday. The ushers dismissed people row by row to get the bread and the cup, then everyone returned to their seats to eat and drink together. There was another song. Then Ronald, the worship leader, asked who had a birthday in July. There was cake available to celebrate the July birthdays.

Pastor Keith had agreed to meet with us after the service but we were able to meet a number of other people first. We spent a little time talking with Tiffany, who was going to interpret for our time with Pastor Keith.

Nobody in Tiffany’s immediate family growing up had a hearing disability, though her cousin was deaf. Though she wasn’t particularly close to her cousin, she got the idea in her head she wanted to learn sign language, and while she was in high school she began bugging her parents to find someone to teach her sign. Eventually her father found someone who led a class at their church. She learned all he had to teach in a few weeks. Tiffany went on to college and graduate school and continued to learn.

Through Tiffany, Pastor Keith told us his story. He grew up in a deaf family. His parents are deaf, and he was born deaf. As a freshman at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, he met his wife, Lisa. After three years there, they went on to North Central Bible College in St Paul, Minnesota, where he prepared for Deaf Culture Pastoral Studies.

He worked in ministry in Florida for about two years, then was called to Fresno to serve at what was then Fresno First Evangelical Free Church (now the Bridge), where he’s been for the past twenty six years.

The Deaf ministry at the church began before he arrived. Cathy (who still serves as an interpreter), began a Sunday School class for the Deaf, which grew.  The church decided to call a pastor for the ministry and called Keith.

There was a hope with some that the Deaf congregation would grow to a point that they would be self sustaining, but since the great majority those in the congregation can’t get full time employment for a variety of reasons, independence has never been a possibility for the congregation. When the Bridge had financial challenges in the last few years, Pastor Keith went from full to part time ministry. He has since found other part time employment (teaching college-level ASL at a local college while pursuing further education in that area himself) that allows him to continue ministering at the Bridge.

I asked if there were other ministries for the Deaf in the Valley. Though there are some congregations that provide interpretation during worship services, Pastor Keith is the only Deaf (ASL signing) pastor in the area, and the Bridge has the only church ministry specifically for the deaf that he’s aware of.

I asked how much the deaf congregation interacted with the general congregation of the Bridge. The answer was not much. Since the Deaf Ministry meets at 1:00 pm, and the Bridge’s other services are 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00 am, there is little opportunity for interaction. The Deaf ministry hopes that will change in the future, with a change to a morning service time. This would allow children to go to Sunday School, and allow people of the various congregations to interact.

Pastor Keith said his desire is to more deaf people come to know Jesus and to see spiritual growth.  “That’s my desire,” Pastor Keith said. I believe that’s God’s desire as well: God’s Word going forth through language, spoken and signed.

Service Length: 58 minutes
Sermon Length: 22 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Pastor Keith picked us out as visitors (and we had been in email contact with him over the past few weeks, so he expected us) and welcomed us. Tiffany and Cathy both greeted us and made sure we could understand what was happening in the worship service. In some ways, the language barrier was more difficult to overcome than it’s been in churches where few people speak fluent English; we know only a couple signs. Still, we were made welcome
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 36
Probable Ushers’ Count: 40
Snacks: Coffee, lemonade, and chocolate cake
Musicians: none
Songs: “What a Beautiful Name”
“Jesus Set me Free”
Distance to Church: 500 feet
Open WiFi: yes
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: