Many mainstream Christians considered our church, at worst, a cult, and at best, very very weird. I didn’t know it at the time. In fact, I thought we were quite a reasonable religion. The name allowed us some relief from the fact. Nothing on Gold Beach’s New Life Center Assembly of God placard announced “we are Pentecostal” (a meaningless theological term to many people) or, more commonly “that Holy Roller church” although, in effect, we were. A brief disclaimer: I’m going to use a lot of terms that may not be too familiar to the unchurched, or to the non-Pentecostal. I’ll try to be explicit as possible in my descriptions and definitions. If I fail in that, I’m sure somebody will let me know, right?
My paternal grandmother still occasionally uses the term with derision; I don’t think she knew we were “filled with the Spirit, with evidence of Speaking in Tongues” as we more theologically-minded Pentecostals like to say, and which, I now notice, when spoken quickly, a lot like Speaking in Tongues all by itself. Even we Pentecostals soften the blow to outsiders: we don’t Speak in Tongues, the scholars among us are evidenced with glossolalia, and the laypeople have the infilling. We aren’t Holy Rollers, we are Pentecostal. It still remains though: we believe that the Holy Spirit does not truly enter a person until s/he has uttered an earthy or heavenly language, totally unknown to the speaker.
You’re not allowed to poke fun: just like the drunk uncle who always shows up at Thanksgiving dinner: family has that particular luxury. If outsiders try to get in on the action, we start handing out the poisonous snakes that we keep in the box under the altar. They won’t bite us, oh no. We made a deal that we read in the Book of Acts.
But I joke: in any Assemblies of God church I’ve ever attended–and I’ve literally set foot in dozens, if not hundreds–they don’t handle, nor will they ever handle–snakes as part of their liturgical culture. Still: my job to poke fun; not yours! 🙂
We were a people set apart, and it manifested itself in different ways over time. In the 50s, it was no drinking, no cards or gambling, no movies, no dancing, no smoking, women must have long hair, and for God’s sake (quite literally, I think), no makeup or rock ‘n’ roll (“the Devil’s”) music! In the sixties, we lightened up a bit as a church, and we started allowing tall poofy hair and some makeup; still, though: NONE of that other stuff. I grew up in a time of transition. Half of us were allowed to do square dancing in Phys. Ed. in junior high, while the other half had parental notes stating they were not allowed to dance. They’d sit, somewhat abashed, on the gym stage as we less-than-holy brothers and sisters spun around in do-si-do. I played cards, though. The rule seemed to change at some point, and the “no cards” edict applied only if the game had anything to do with gambling. I also saw movies: they were quite difficult to avoid in the 1980s in the coming-of-age of the VCR. Rock music was very much a difficult beast to pin down, but I knew with all my heart it was evil. All this holiness wasn’t just for show. We were to be “a world set apart.” We knew Christ would return at any moment, and the Bride of Christ must be pure and holy in His sight, or we’d be cast into outer darkness. WE couldn’t bear to hear those words: “depart from me, I never knew you.” So we persisted, our defenses slowly weakening over time. It was not uncommon to hear some people in our church finish many sentences with “if the Lord tarries.” We took the Lord’s return very seriously.
Where I really noticed the difference, though, was our interactions with other Christians. We were nice to other Christians, of course, but if they hadn’t received the Gift of Tongues, they were somehow less-than-whole; they were drunk Uncle Bernie at the holiday table. We’d tolerate other Christians, but we were somehow nervous of their fully-saved status and didn’t regularly consort with them. I remember praying that “brother so-and-so over at the Baptist church would receive the gift, so he could come to a greater knowledge of Christ.” And Catholics, the church seemed to be split down the middle: some were sure they weren’t Christian at all, but eternally-doomed Mary worshipers and idolaters. Some of us put them in the same category as other Christians, and prayed for their “infilling.”
I loved my childhood church: it was a dynamic place that allowed children to speak their mind (sometimes too freely) and was more exciting than singing those “dead old psalms.” We had great music: Sister Merle on the organ; brother Mac on the bass; brother Fred Eccleston on the guitar; his wife, sister Lydia, on the marimba (sometimes she’d do an offertory on musical saw, to my childhood delight). All these musicians kept time to Pastor Honey, up on the stage at the grand piano, the best and most amazing piano player I had ever seen. We were the Body of Christ turned inward; a cell of believers in a town of 1,500 with probably fifteen places of worship. I think we were under siege, in a way. We were happy in our little enclave, and didn’t want it to change. Still, the signs of slow, steady erosion were present throughout the church, if you knew where to look.
TO BE CONTINUED.