Reformed Churchmen

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

My recent experience in a Pentecostalist Hothouse

Rivers of Life (ROF) or Rolling on the Floor,  Jacksonville, North Carolina

In partial fulfillment of the course requirements for REL 211, students were required to attend a local congregation other than their own and submit a reflection-narrative-paper vis a vis Acts 2.42-47 (cf. appendix). This is not a historico-exegetical, theological or historical paper, but is a narrative reflection—a personal narrative—on a service at Rivers of Life (ROL), 1940 Gum Branch, Jacksonville, NC. The church appears to have several pastors, although a Mr. and Mrs. Chris and Miriam Phillips are the “Senior Pastors.” According to a service bulletin, they draw 1200 per Sunday over three services: 8, 10 and 12 A.M. Rivers of Life warrants close analysis, this Pentecostalist hothouse.
Some contextual observations are made. Upon arrival, the parking lot was packed. Security personnel directed incoming and outgoing traffic. The security personnel appeared to have communication devices associated with Secret Service and law enforcement agents, that is, circular-corded ear-pieces while speaking into devices on/around the wrists. The building is rectangular with a beige-stucco-exterior. A light-green “Dove” is affixed to façade. The sanctuary has dark-grey walls to match the carpet. A movie-type darkness obtains with minimal lighting on the walls and ceiling. A rough estimate suggests 200 feet by 100 feet, or, about 20,000 square feet. Greeters glad-hand attendees with words of welcome. In the pre-theatre period (before the service), everyone—in one combination or another—stands, talks, laughs, backslaps and mingles about. It is chatty and chummy. By assumption, this may be what they probably call “fellowship,” or, κοινωνίᾳ. A few older folks, like myself, take a seat. This scribe sat in the middle towards the rear, just in front of the elevated DJ-stage, occupied by sound and light technicians. Oddly, the man next to me had his security device as he spoke quietly to his wrist. The man to my right, as I would learn after the service, was a 1st LT, USMC, a battalion adjutant. The service was 106 minutes long. As a service, it lacked all the difficulties, challenges, austerity, and demands (e.g. thinking) associated with my background in Confessional Presbyterianism and Prayer Book Anglicanism—those generations of demure and rational types. ROF was a stark contrast.

A Brief Look at Acts 2.42
Acts 2.42: “ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ, τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς.” Or, in English, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The English translation (ESV) correctly gives the reflexive sense and middle voice with “they devoted themselves.” Although not technically accurate, an active voice works suitably in translation for reading purposes, e.g. “They were constant,” “they were devoted,” or “they were steadfast.” The use of the participle, προσκαρτεροῦντες, suggests the active and continuing nature of the action, namely, the early church’s dedication and steadfastness. Four datives as spheres of governance and interest are specified by the text: apostolic teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers.” The question at bar: Did this service, or does ROF, reflect “devotedness” and “steadfastness” in these four areas of apostolic doctrine (teaching), fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. In short, “apostolic doctrine” would not describe the service. As to “prayers” (plural), there was one. As to the Lord’s supper, that was promised in the few weeks to follow. As to koinonia, that was impossible to assess.
The Worship Service Itself
Although conditioned to quiet prayer (with kneeling), quiet preparation and reflection prior to worship (as taught), there was none of that here. The contrast between austere and disciplined preparation for worship with reverence and 400 people milling about, chatting, laughing, backslapping, and talking was stark and vivid. This scribe arrived early—20 minutes before showtime—and observed the (my) tension with the ethos as well as the inattention, the indiscipline, the noise, and giddy socializing. Also, it would be false to think the crowd was discussing apostolic doctrine (theological inquiry) or praying.

While the chatty crowd continued, a group of 19 singers filed to the stage—never mind the concept of a preparatory prayers, a pipe organ prelude from the classics of sacred musical literature, a nave, chancel, choir stalls, quire, reading desk, LORD’s Table, or pulpit. There was no pulpit—until later. When the Pastor arrived later, they place a plexiglass-looking pulpit on the stage. The acting stage was raised perhaps 5 feet above the floor level. Each of the 19 singers had a microphone. That is correct; each singer had one microphone…19 microphones. There was no opening prayer, no invocation or call to worship, and no biblical citation thereto by a Pastor or Rector. Among hundreds of invocatory texts, one might think of Psalm 95.6-7 (ESV):

Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Rather than use the Bible, the 19 singers started the show—showtime—by singing as the chatty crowd sought out seats.

The 19 performers started the show. The first of five songs lasted 11 minutes. The song-time was 46 minutes in length. “Let us jump for joy” was the first line of the first song. The second line is now forgotten, but it was equal in length and on the same vocabulary level. The vocabulary depth for all five songs was probably seven words, all monosyllabic. They sang this two-line song repetitively—again repetitively—for 11 very long minutes. From the standpoint of crowd control, it was enough to get the crowd seated and—within minutes—the enthusiasts were literally jumping around like an aerobics class. Levity and non-doctrinal-depth is a fair characterization.
But, in fairness, one rebuttal might be registered. This song allowed ease of memorization. Every six or seven year old could read the lines projected onto the dominant wall screen. It might be argued that worship, literacy, and vocabulary parameters should be geared to an elementary school level; poly-syllabic words are not allowed. While this might not satisfy Shakespeare or a Professor, simplicity prevailed. Thus, any objection that the Christian message is incomprehensible will not stand. Furthermore, the simple message was ratified by jumping, loud singing, mind-numbing repetition, loud accompaniment and periodic shouts of “Glory!” and “Hallelujah!” However, as a rejoinder to the rebuttal, “apostolic doctrine” as a body of faith, well-digested thought and competent literacy hardly characterized the songs—not to mention the hand-waving atmospherics. I had one reaction: “Eegads!”
As noted, the folks (about 1/3 of the congregation) began jumping up and down and around repeating the mantra. In addition to these 19 microphone-eating and hip-swinging singers, there were 9 musicians to the right—an electronic piano, a drum kit, a bongo drummer, a bass guitarist, and a few others. Fortissimo was the only musical dynamic on offer. The extremely loud beat was at a pace of about a normal heartbeat—normally about 60-80 beats per minute. It was 46-minutes of loud noise with small literary achievements for these revivalistic enthusiasts—enthusiasts, a term employed by Cranmer, or Schwarmerei, Luther’s favourite. It was a hothouse atmosphere.

As noted, the first song was 11 minutes long followed by four more song of the same literary depth, quality, and significance—or lack thereof. Liturgically, the service was simple. 46 minutes of music, a 50-minute sermon, followed by a 10-minute pitch for money. Thus, it was 106 minutes long. This scribe remembers the fifth song.
The fifth song, another two-liner, was “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing!” While they repetitiously sang this for 9-10 minutes, yes, 9-10 minutes, difficulty was entertained. Everyone stood during the song-show. At the 40-minute point of 46 minutes, I experienced some light-headedness—I then realized that there may well have been substantial de-oxygenation throughout the room (it couldn’t be called a sanctuary) with the significant exhalation of carbon dioxide and the inhalation of the remaining oxygen---this was a serious consideration during the service and afterwards. With all the hype and hoopla, this scribe wondered if scientific metrics might explain the personal light-headedness. While most were waving their hands and complying with the revivalist ecstasies, if not Dionysianism with a “few” allegedly Christian themes, this scribe’s mind developed rebuttals. Onwards they sang with gusto: “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing!” However, what about Bob’s Salvage Yard” on Highway 258 and Highway 17, full of cars after car accidents? What about Dad’s death last year? Or, what about the Onslow Sheriffs, Fire Department, and hospital personnel who attend to accident scenes and the ill? Or, my own scarred war memories? Or, our “Wounded Warriors” at Camp Lejeune Hospital? While they continued the repetitious mantra, my mind was objecting. Or, what about Al Quaeda, the nation’s fiscal crisis, or the range of uprisings in the Middle East? As long as they sang, my mind ran averse to the lyrical mantra (as usual, all Fortissimo), “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing!” Or even biblically, what about the Wilderness wanderings (Exodus-Numbers), Judges (used during Lent for Confessional Anglicans for the OT lections), David’s conflicts with Saul, Job’s sufferings, Jeremiah conflictions with the leaders, Christ’s Cross, St. Paul’s imprisonments, or the Imperial persecutions under Domitian or Decius? Or, closer to my tradition, what about the English Reformation martyrs put to fire under Queen Mary 1? What about that august Oxfordian, William Tyndale, in 1537, strangled and burned at the stake in Vilvroode, Belgium? What about Hebrews 10.32ff., a catalogue of suffering but faithful saints? Or, what about St. Paul’s list of imprisonments, shipwrecks, lashings, beatings and sorrows suffered during ministry (2 Cor.11)? How could they sing, “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing”? Tell that to a combat veteran without a leg, I thought. The divagation or distracted thoughts, however, was promptly corrected by more repetition. The troubling thought re-arose later, “Leave the brains at the doorstep of the church.” In fact, that thought fairly characterizes this scribe’s view of the doctrinal, intellectual and moral content of the songs—ignorance in the music as well as the sermon to follow.
As to the 46-minute musical dance and drama, the question of “apostolic doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers” was not an issue. Who needs doctrine, prayer and the Lord’s Supper? Just turn up the volume, sing five songs (10 lines total with perhaps a 30- word vocabulary depth ) for 46 minutes, hype the crowd, toss the brains out and EMOTE.
The Sermon and Acts 2.42: Anti-intellectualism

Following the interruptive (my personal) objections to the fifth song, “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing,” Mr. Chris Phillips ambled to the stage, suavely dressed in a grey-suit. I thought he might have had grey-suade shoes. On cue, the 19 singers filed offstage. Thus far, there were no prayers. Phillips delivered a 40-minute sermon followed by a 10-minute “alter call.” He had three points: healing, a rant about anti-doctrine, and the new building (about to be built). After the 40-minute sermon and the 10-minute altar call, a 10-minute pitch for money followed. 
Mr. Phillips sauntered centre-stage and played off the theme of the fifth song, “Nothing is broken, nothing is missing!” The general theme in his first sermon-point was that the Christian Church “prayed for healings” but that—throughout history, his term, “throughout history”—was inadequate. Phillips wanted a “move of power” beyond these insufficient prayers. He mentioned Benny Hinn of TBN-infamy. For this scribe, things had already gone south earlier, but this was a deeper nadir. Phillips wanted to see miracles. One point resonated, to wit, “Let us unleash the power of God.” Phillips spent about ten minutes on this point, “unleashing God.” “Apostolic doctrine”—a biblical doctrine of God—did not come to mind as he exhorted the enthusiasts to “unleash God.” God’s absolute sovereignty was put on the human leash, much like a dog. On Phillips’s defamatory view, His Majesty is a lapdog on our leash; unless His Majesty. My reaction? Has this man ever read any books about God? 
The second and third points appeared to be the centre of the sermon: (2) proud and arrogant doctrine and (3) the architecture of their new building. He appeared to spend about 15 minutes on each point.
As the second point was developed, he read quickly a portion from Acts 17 and the early verses of Acts 18. Sub-points were developed. First, St. Paul engaged the “proud Greek philosophers”—the Epicureans and Stoics on Mars Hill, geographically, about 1000 feet downwards at the foot of the Parthenon in Athens. As a result of their “proud philosophy,” Paul left Athens. However, given Phillips’s view that God could “be unleashed,” St. Paul must have failed to unleash God on these Greek philosophers. Phillips pointed out that doctrine was problematic. Doctrinal Christians were “dead Christians.” At this point, it became noticeable—in terms of a repetition of the word “power encounter”—that this was a formative concept. I did not notice that until about half-way through this odd soliloquy—“power encounter.” Phillips suggested the mind is dangerous to a “power encounter.” This invoked consideration of a debated concept, to wit, cultism that disabuses one of one’s rationality and orients one to the authoritarianism of the cult-leader. But that was an aside as this scribe attempted to follow Phillips. Second, St. Paul moved onwards from Athens to Corinth because of obstructionist pride in these Greeks. Suffused throughout this was the rant about “indoctrinated Christians” being problematic. One wondered if he was arguing with himself or with some recent interlocutor. Phillips was working it. The theme was clear: thoughtful, informed, well-read, well-considered doctrine and teaching results in “proud Christians” who are not—in fact—Christians. So much for “apostolic doctrine” as a matter of reason, thinking, words, phrases, paragraphs, summaries, and discussion. It was Phillips’s “Doctrine about Anti-doctrine,” a smooth and suave rant. Phillips tanked here.
Personally, after this second point, it was hoped that Phillips would be self-consistent and end the sermon by concluding, “Words, reason and doctrine does not matter, including my own, so, like the London philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who stopped writing, lecturing and talking, let us end this service without a further word, without further ado, without further reading, without a further thought of any kind, and without anything else. Words and reason are worthless, so I hereby end point two in this sermon about `doctrine.’ Again, leave your brains at the door. Good bye.” However, with a great contradiction, Mr. Phillips pressed on to his third point. No one appeared to be the wiser in this raucous crowd.
The third sermonic point was a description of architectural concerns that Phillips had for their proposed new building. A building project begins in Sept 2011; ground will be broken in Sept 2011. They have raised $174,000 for the $8 million dollar project. Phillips wants the money to be in hand and to proceed without a mortgage. (Why doesn’t Phillips just “unleash God, but that is a justifiable aside.) Then he reported about his trip—that very week—to Chicago to talk with an architectural firm dealing with churches, called “Church Solutions.” One architectural pattern was presented to Phillips by the firm. The new church was to have a main sanctuary with a mezzanine-level above, replete with tables, chairs, waiters and waitresses, like a restaurant, where worshippers can order popcorn, sodas, pizzas and other things. Without making much sense at all, Phillips disliked the proposal since it argued against a “power relationship with Jesus.” Yes, it is estimated that Phillips used the term, if not fifty times, then at least thirty times about a “power relationship”—a real “power tripper.” This third point was not developed much further than this disapproval of this architectural plan.
Following this inane 40-minute sermon of three points, Phillips offered an 10-minute altar call. He directed attendees to bow their heads while he made a pitch for those seeking salvation to raise their hands. I refused the direction, kept the eyes open, and assayed the obedient crowd with lowered heads. Six ambled to the front during the pitch. With mike in hand, he publicly interviewed each of the six. He asked each one, “Are you coming to be re-saved?” Each answered yes. So much for “apostolic doctrine” concerning God, predestination, providence, the fall, covenant, Christ’s atonement, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance of the saints, and assurance of salvation, salutary rubrics for exposition amongst thinking Churchmen in the Confessional tradition. Rather, such teaching as Phillips—as Luther rightly observed about the Schwarmerei and Wiedtauffer of his time—at heart they remain Romanist in doctrine. Following this Charles Finneyite event, the six were directed offstage to counselors. This raised the very legitimate question of Phillips’s understanding of St. Paul’s verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, participles, sentences, paragraphs and arguments—“apostolic doctrine”—in his Epistle to the Romans. Again, there were no prayers here either; we had a brief 2-3 liner at the beginning of the sermon. In fact, “prayerlessness” of the entire service might be a fair characterization. Following this 50-minute ordeal, the money pitch followed.
Following this, another man—with the last name of Phillips—came to the front. Whether this Phillips had any relationship to the Mr. Chris Phillips is unknown. This exhorter had the same last name. He conducted a ten-minute call for money, including a handout of envelopes and a collection. At the end of these 10 minutes, quite abruptly, the man said, “That’s it. Have a great week.” Again, no prayer.

Charitably put, there was little “apostolic doctrine” in the songs or sermon vis a vis Acts 2.42ff or other texts. Fairly put, it was a prayer-less and irreverent service. In terms of the breaking of bread, the service bulletin indicated that His Majesty’s Table, the Lord’s Supper, would be held on Easter Day. As to koinonia, fellowship, that would be impossible to assess on one Sunday. Recommendations: (1) I will never return to that hothouse and hotbed of anti-intellectualism, ignorance, enthusiasm, and revivalism. (2) Put out an advisorial to friends about this place. (3) Perhaps write a book to vitiate and void this embarrassment to apostolic doctrine, prayers, and the Eucharist. Who can have “fellowship” with these types? Not this scribe, not now, nor ever, world without end.


Kepha said...


This reminds me of my ignorant college days. Too much of Pentecostalism seems "motor" driven. I wonder if a lot of the lack of attention, need for entertainment, and the like that I see in High School students isn't connected to the kind of church experience you describe. said...

Thanks, Philip. I don't "get out" much and have few oportunities to visit churches other than my own URC. In fact, worshipping at a Presbyterian (PCA) church while visiting my son in Tucson, and attending a Protestant Reformed Church about an hour's drive from home, are about as far as I have strayed in several years.

I have been invited to a local Missionary Baptist Church, and would like to have visited, but they meet at the same time as we do, so that is a no-go. I have been in their building. Their statement of committment is beautifully hand-letterd on the wall, and places strong emphasis on spreading the gospel everywhere, and vowing to abstain from alcoholic beverages and from tobacco. In the narthex (I think they call it a foyer) a portrait of Martin Luther King, and one of President Obama are prominently displayed.

I appreciate your first hand report from a Pentecostal service (better you than me); that was probably all (or more than) I needed to know about that sect.

In Christ's care,


Dawg said...

That's about one of the saddest accounts of a church visit I have ever read.

Of course I don't mean your witness and transcription of it; I mean the shallowness; the absence of the holiness of God; the insensitivity of coming before God to worship to name just a few.

I cannot fathom staying in a service like that for a single moment save for the sole purpose of a course requirement.


Reformation said...

Friends, aside from the general problems, point two--a pitch for anti-intellectual and anti-doctrinalism--really raised huge red flags, e.g. cultism. By the way, this is one of the largest and, perhaps, most influential Pentecostalist outfits in town.