How I got mixed up with the Assemblies of God.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 September

Gonna talk about my church background a little. (Assuming you care.)

The quick ’n dirty way to size up a Christian is to ask them their church. “What church do you go to?” Then you compare them with all the nutjobs in their church. Never the sane people who go to their church; never the sober-minded, thoughtful, kind, friendly types. (Assuming you know of any.) Just the crazies.

So when people ask my church, I know that’s what they’re up to. I’ll tell ’em anyway: I’m a member of an Assemblies of God church. And off they dig through their memories. If I’m lucky they know a nice person who happened to go to such a church; if I’m not they know some cranks. (Worse, some of our cranks.) Or of various televangelist scandals. Or they know some different kind of crank: The sort who’s anti-Assemblies, who tell anyone who’ll listen, “Do you know what those people teach?” and make us sound like raging heretics.

More often, people don’t know anything about Christian denominations. They know the one they’re in… sorta. They’ve heard of the bigger ones, like the Catholics and Baptists; or the older ones like the Lutherans and Episcopalians. The Assemblies is only a century old. So they don’t always know which prejudices they oughta have against me.

Not that all their prejudices fit. I didn’t grow up in this church. I started attending it only five years ago, less than a year after I moved to town. And I didn’t grow up in this denomination either. I first started attending an Assemblies of God church when I was 19. Before that, I was… well, it’s a long story. But you’re here, and I’ve got time.

My Fundamentalist roots.

Mom was a lapsed Catholic who decided, after having kids, to get back into Christianity. (Dad was, and is, atheist.) So she went to the nearest church to our apartment, the Fundamentalist church right down the street.

I know; the press doesn’t know the difference between “Fundamentalist” and “conservative.” (More accurately “more conservative than me.”) The Fundamentalist movement was started in the 1910s by Christians who were alarmed at how “modern” the church was getting. Too many liberal theologians were claiming this or that doctrine didn’t matter: You don’t have to believe the bible is accurate, or in miracles, or the virgin birth of Jesus, or in resurrection, or anything the creeds teach. Just be nice to each other. Well, Fundies felt Christianity has fundamentals which we ought never compromise, and that’s what they teach. Some of them have too many fundamentals, and if you don’t believe everything exactly as they do, they’re pretty sure you’re going to hell. They’re the problem children of the movement. The rest struggle a bit with legalism—often forgetting we’re saved by grace, not our beliefs—but they’re correct about Christianity standing for something.

And they’re excellent at teaching it. They make quite sure Christians learn what they believe—and learn they believe it quite strongly, and expect us to believe it too. Yeah, sometimes they’re wrong, like when they get anti-Catholic, or bend Christianity so it fits in with right-wing policies, even though Christ teaches the opposite. Bad apples aside, they do get people grounded in theology. Mom felt they did a far better job of explaining God than her nuns had.

Our family moved a lot, so I grew up bouncing from church to church. From that church we went to a Plymouth Brethren church, then an Evangelical Free Church, then a Presbyterian church; Mom preferred Evangelical churches with good children’s programs. Once Dad went into the Air Force Reserves, we stopped the nomadic lifestyle and moved to a city near the base. Mom went church-shopping. One of the churches we visited was Assemblies, but Mom wasn’t yet Pentecostal, and didn’t know what to make of that church. Maybe it was a Holy Spirit emphasis month or something: For a solid month, all the children’s and adults’ classes were about getting baptized in the Holy Spirit. Somebody gave Mom the impression Spirit baptism was meant to be mandatory, and Mom understandably balked. We didn’t stay.

She settled upon a storefront Evangelical Free Church called… well, let’s call it Maypole Church. ’Cause I’m gonna criticize it a little. And even though I’m not giving their name, I still need to insert a disclaimer, ’cause it’ll be very easy for you to get the wrong idea that Maypole was a cult, and nothing but trouble. Every church has problems. Despite Maypole’s problems, I met a lot of great people there, a lot of solid Christians, had profound foundational experiences, and learned a lot of good things. And I learned how to be a thorough hypocrite, but that’s hardly Maypole’s fault. They proclaim Christ Jesus, and contribute far more to God’s kingdom than their problems detract from it.

So we were at Maypole the next six years—my formative junior high, high school, and community college years. During which time they moved out of the storefront, built a building on a plot of land outside town, and instructed us in Fundamentalism and Darbyism.

My Darbyism roots.

While I won’t knock Fundamentalism much, I will knock Darbyism. Specifically the form of dispensationalism taught by John Nelson Darby and C.I. Scofield. Maypole thoroughly indoctrinated me as to how their system works. Yes, I still have my Scofield Reference Bible. I’ll explain that system in greater detail another time.

Most Darbyists are cessationist: They claim miracles were for bible times, but not today. So what happens when a miracle takes place in the present day? Or a prophetic message, a word of knowledge, a prayer in tongues? Cessationists say since God doesn’t do such things anymore, that’d be the other guy doing them. Any so-called miracle must automatically be of the devil. Now, Jesus described that sort of thinking as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, Mk 3.22-30 because it’s calling the Spirit’s works devilish. Good is evil. Light is darkness. I’m not saying cessationism is heresy, but it sure leads people thataway.

At the very same time Maypole taught cessationism, the occasional missionary would come to visit. And they’d tell stories about miracles. Real miracles. Not just things we could chalk up to useful coincidence, like “I prayed really hard for a thousand dollars, and that same day a check came in the mail.” More like, “I prayed for God to heal this woman, and he did.”

Exactly why weren’t our miracle-working missionaries in league with the devil? Maypole’s teachers hemmed and hawed and avoided the question. My youth pastor’s explanation was iffy: According to Darbyists, God switched off the miracles after the apostles finished writing the New Testament. We no longer need miracles to reveal God to us, ’cause now we have the bible. But the heathens in foreign lands don’t always have bibles. (Not till the good missionaries translate it for them.) So God grants a special dispensation in their cases, and switches the miracles back on for the time being. Once they get bibles in their native tongues, God can finally extend to them all the benefits of a miracle-free existence.

Um… what benefits of a miracle-free existence? That part I couldn’t get.

Because a miracle-free existence is progress, explained my YP.

Doesn’t sound like progress. By all accounts, the miracles back in bible times made things sound a lot more awesome than here in the present day. These were my favorite Sunday School stories. Jesus healing bleeders, Elisha making axeheads float, Moses making snakes out of staffs, Samson miraculously kicking ass… Turning them off isn’t progress. It’s cutting us off from God’s help.

It wasn’t more awesome back then, my YP insisted. Because back in bible times, they didn’t have bibles. Which sucked. Without a bible, how would you know whether God was performing all these miracles? You couldn’t. You might get tricked by the devil’s fake miracles. But thank God, now we have bibles, so whenever we have questions, we can crack a bible and get the answers. We don’t have to depend on the iffy evidence of miracles. Which have all stopped anyway.

Why can’t we have both miracles and bible? I still wondered.

We just can’t, he said. “When that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” 1Co 13.10 KJV The perfect, infallible, inerrant bible, has come. Miracles, which are only “in part,” were done away with. (Yeah, I know that’s an out-of-context interpretation. I didn’t then.)

The whole argument sounded fishy. I knew Christians in my high school who went to other churches where miracles took place. I read Christian books which described miraculous things and experiences. Sounded more to me like God had only turned off the miracles at Maypole. So I never bought cessationism, which is why I never entirely accepted Darybism. When I left Maypole, I cast it aside easily.

Democracy inaction.

It wasn’t the bad theology that drove me away from Maypole. Nor hypocrisy (which, again, you’ll find in every church), nor abuse. It was the church government.

The Free Church movement is all about congregationalism, a church run by the congregation. Democratically. It’s bottom-up leadership, not top-down. Even though God’s kingdom is top-down, with Christ as king. But they figure Christ informs each individual member how to vote, and even though a percentage of ’em don’t listen to Christ, in a functional church he’ll still have enough numbers to win each vote and lead indirectly. In practice… well, I’ll get to that.

So the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA for short) isn’t a top-down organization: It’s a loose affiliation between independent, autonomous churches. Each church elects deacons, who run the church and hire the pastors. Every month the membership gathers, town-hall style, to go through the church’s business and vote on it. As for beliefs, the EFCA has a basic Fundamentalist statement of faith: Trinity, bible, salvation by grace, premillennialism, baptism by dunking, etc. But they especially uphold every local body’s right to self-government. Every church runs itself, freely, with no interference from the EFCA, and decides which points they wanna emphasize. (Maypole picked cessationist Darbyism.)

When I turned 16, I became a voting member of the church. That’s right. I—and any other teenager who’d been through the membership class—had a say in how things ran. I could even be elected deacon. Was I qualified to hold any such authority? Absolutely not. Paul spelled out to both Timothy and Titus what sort of character a church leader should have, 1Ti 3, Tt 1.6-9 and I didn’t have that. Bloody few of us did. Yet here I was a full voting member. Any disruptive, self-focused a--hole could become a member, regardless of spiritual maturity; just take the class and sign a paper.

No, Maypole wasn’t full of jerks. But every government has ’em, and they have a bad habit of railroading town hall meetings. Consequently membership meetings were hypocritical passive-aggressive backstabbing, conniving, undermining, manipulating, and power struggles. They were the least Christian things I’d ever seen. I’ve encountered worse since, but congregationalist church government still falls within my bottom 10.

When Maypole’s board wanted to get anything done, they’d post it on the agenda. The meetings would take place right after the Sunday morning services. (Nope, no break for lunch, ’cause they hoped hunger would get us to move more quickly. It didn’t.) They’d follow Robert’s Rules of Order, open the floor for debate, and get it. Sometimes hours of it. They’d thrash it out till everyone was mightily tired of it, and just wanted it decided already. Then our head pastor was asked to pray—and it’d be a prayer slanted in favor of the board, ’cause they did hire him after all. Then we’d vote. Most of the time the board got its way.

Thing is, some of the board’s positions flew entirely in the face of my Fundamentalist lessons. Fr’instance, there was this Bill Gothard-published “Financial Freedom Seminar” I went to. In it we were taught Christians should never ever ever go into debt. Because debt was sin. It’s actually not, but Gothard is one of those Fundies who claim a lot of the “basic principles” he’s discovered in the bible are fundamentals. Breaking them is therefore willful sin against God. (Allegedly molesting interns, not so much.) So Maypole’s teachers convinced me debt was sin… yet Maypole’s board wanted another mortgage so they could expand the buildings. I always voted no: Debt was sin! Yet the board kept regularly proposing debt. Sinners.

The more this happened, the more I became convinced our church had entirely gone astray. Didn’t help that most of my high school friends were hypocrites like me, and as I got to know their parents—who were often in church leadership—learn how they were also hypocrites like me. Plus there were my issues with cessationism. So maybe it was time to switch churches again. Mom, in comparison, was awake nights with worry. I slept just fine.

Well, the board didn’t repent. They came up with some harebrained scheme to hire a pastor whose entire job would be fundraising. How could we afford him, since we just let go of one of our beloved pastors six months before (in a membership meeting which extended well past midnight)? Our new Fundraising Pastor would get a percentage of whatever he raised. Anticipating the dough rolling in, the board also recommended we hire two other pastors we couldn’t yet afford.

This proposal passed. So Mom and I threw up our hands and switched churches.

Fleeing the burning building.

Leaving Maypole would’ve been more traumatic had most of my high school friends still been around. But I had just transferred to CSU Sacramento, and the last of my high school friends were off to college themselves. I was going to Maypole’s singles group, and if you know anything about Christian singles, you know how transient they can be… ’cause if they can’t find someone to date, they’ll see what’s available at a different church. Maypole had little to tie me down, so switching was kinda easy.

My mom was working at a preschool at Christian Life Center, a nearby Assemblies church. My sister was also going to their youth group. “What do you think about trying this church?” Mom said. Well, why not. So we did.

Bit of a culture shock. CLC was Pentecostal, and that movement is absolutely not cessationist. Miracles are kinda expected. But though they believe, like the Fundies, there are fundamentals in Christianity, they’re (annoyingly) not as big on education. No wide selection of Christian classes on a Sunday morning—nor in midweek. If I wanted any instruction about what the Assemblies believed or stood for, I’d have to look it up myself. Harder to do in those pre-internet days.

So I went to their membership class. Maypole’s membership class had taken six weeks, ’cause they were thorough, as Fundamentalists are. CLC’s class took about 90 minutes. Then they took questions from the floor; then you could sign a form and bam, you’re a member. Surprised me. But I really had no objections to their doctrinal positions. My one and only question for them: What was CLC’s position on debt?

“We’re trying to eliminate our debts,” responded one of the pastors, “and not get into any new debts.”

Just what I wanted to hear. I signed the form.

And thus did I join the Assemblies of God. Nope, not with my eyes open. I barely knew a thing about life in that church, or Pentecostalism, or miracles, or anything. Hadn’t even been baptized in the Holy Spirit. That came later. I’ll tell you that story sometime. Not today.

As I said, every church has problems. It took a while before I discovered CLC’s. Yep, plenty of financial shenanigans there too. But I stuck around to see them dealt with; I wasn’t as quick to jump ship as I was at Maypole. And when it came time to drop back into school and study bible, I decided to attend an Assemblies university and find out everything they believed. Turned out you could become even more Pentecostal than CLC was.

School didn’t indoctrinate me into the Assemblies of God: Their professors were good enough to teach every point of view. Kinda had to: My theology professors were Calvinist, whereas the Assemblies is most definitely not. But that was great; I got to hear both sides. In the end, I decided I liked this denomination enough to give it first pick whenever I move to a new town and look to join a church.

Not that it’s always worked out. In the late ’90s I moved to Nevada County, California, tried the Assemblies churches, and found them wanting. At one church I was the only person there under the age of 60, and wondered whether they hadn’t slipped formaldehyde into the communion cups. At another, the pastor had the most off-putting, oleaginous personality. (My non-Christian aunt was weirded out by him immediately, and since I was trying to get her to go to church, I recognized I was never gonna convince her to go there.) At a third the pastor was a conspiracy theorist, and preached of shadow governments and black helicopters. At a fourth: Legalists. I wore a tie to church and everything, but they just wouldn’t stop encouraging me to get a haircut. Yes, hair is a dumb reason to leave a church—but it’s just as dumb to drive people away over it. In the end I found myself in a nice, friendly Baptist church, and stayed there about 18 months. Then I moved again.

When I moved to the city I’m now in: Tried a few other churches first. One fit, so here I am.

Because it’s a comfortable fit? Yes and no. There will always be a certain level of discomfort when God’s truly growing and stretching us. But this discomfort will be the result of trying to live out the Christian life in a fallen world. Not because we’re fighting fellow Christians. Church should be family, encouragement, the support we can’t find anywhere else, the people who challenge us to be better, and forgive us when we fumble. If it’s not, find a better church. If it’s not with your favorite denomination, try another. If the Assemblies doesn’t work for me, there’s always the Baptists. Or Lutherans. Or Catholics. Or Quakers. Or that weird little non-denominational group who meets at the coffeehouse. (Actually, the coffeehouse might get me to look at ’em first… but anyway.) So long that they proclaim Christ Jesus, try to follow him, and live in his grace.

Hope your church is doing that for you. If not, reconsider.