Thursday, November 25, 1999
Asmiling young woman handed me a program as I walked into the Seaside Assembly of God on a recent Sunday. I slipped into a pew near the back, hoping to watch unnoticed as people filed in. An elderly man greeted me, shaking my hand. "Good morning! God bless you!" As soon as he released my hand, another man took it. "Welcome. What''s your name?" Mere observers wouldn''t be tolerated. I would be a participant, and I''d be up on my feet singing for the next half-hour.
Men and women, holding microphones and accompanied by a keyboard, led hymns. Words to the songs flashed on a brightly lit screen overhead. "Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! Amen!" people shouted, raising their hands heavenward. The hymns were upbeat, charged with energy. I found myself clapping along as the roomful of worshippers sang in chorus.
During prayer, a jumble of voices spoke as people in the pews linked hands. Contemplation was difficult amidst the constant talking. A woman cried out in an indecipherable stream of vowels. She was speaking in tongues.
Pastor David Kast spoke briefly, introducing the Rev. Paul Schoch for a conference on the Holy Spirit--the pillar of Pentecostal faith. My eyes wandered the room, a mixture of young and old, whites and blacks, Asians and Latinos. But Brother Schoch did not suffer fools gladly. "You can sing and sin at the same time!" he bellowed. "I see some of you out there, and when the sermon begins, you start to wilt!" He leaned his ample body over the podium, and pretended to go to sleep. "If you''re not going to be here in the spirit as well as the flesh, you might as well stay home and catch up on your sleep!" I sat up straighter, for the sermon, too, required active participation.
It is in Acts that the apostles are confronted by "a sound like the blowing of a violent wind from heaven" and "tongues of fire that came to rest on each of them." Just as the apostles were "filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues" on the day of Pentecost, worshippers that Sunday were encouraged to speak out as guided by the Holy Spirit.
There was more shouting. When Brother Schoch referenced the part of Luke that describes Jesus against the Devil, cheers and claps rang out. I felt like I was listening to a football game and Jesus had scored the winning touchdown.
Announcements spoke of the church''s youth groups: Royal Rangers for boys and Missionettes for girls. People were invited to attend a baptism. "Full immersion. You haven''t experienced anything if you''ve just had a few drops sprinkled on your head."
The sermon ended and we were dismissed. Another sermon would follow that evening. We were instructed to shake hands with our neighbor and say, "See you tonight!" As I stretched and attempted to exit the pew, the woman next to me reached out to embrace me. "Bless you."
I was struck by how welcoming and happy those around me seemed. It was not subdued, as I am used to. The packet of information someone handed me summed up the church''s philosophy. "Seaside Assembly of God was truly born in God''s fire. May we therefore never settle for mere smoke."
The "fire" of the Assemblies of God has been burning since 1914, spreading to more than 2.5 million believers in the United States and some 30 million worldwide, and bringing in nearly $300 million last year. The church is making good on its goal of becoming "the greatest evangelism effort the world has ever known," with 1,100 missionaries throughout the U.S. and 1,800 more in other countries.
In no uncertain terms, the Assemblies of God proclaims it is about people. "People who are troubled by any of a multitude of things that keep people from being happy and fulfilled need someone who cares," the church''s Web site reads. "That''s the message of our Fellowship."
Whether Pastor David Kast has fulfilled that message in his dealings with Barbara and Dave Johnson is a question that the more than 500 members of the Seaside Assembly of God will have to ponder. As passionate as Kast''s congregation seems to be--folks with the power to stop a sermon when stricken by the Holy Spirit--the question will no doubt be the subject of deep contemplation.