CHURCHES I'VE REGULARLY ATTENDED

CHURCH #2: GOD’S FREEWILL TABERNACLE

(somewhere in rural Indiana)

 

 God's Freewill Tabernacle (1978-1980)

When I began attending Anderson College in the fall of 1978, having grown up in the Church of God, I first visited Church of God congregations in the area when looking for a church to make my home while in school. Since Anderson is the headquarters of the Church of God, there were many choices--many large and vibrant churches to choose from. And yet, none of them really struck a chord in me.

In October, I met a group of friends who became such close friends of mine that I still keep in touch with them today and get together with them periodically even though we live in different states. Most of that group of friends attended a Church of God in Alexandria, but I visited that church and didn't care for it. There were a couple of friends, though, who had discovered a church about a half hour drive from campus. I don't remember my first visit or anything like that, but I do remember regularly attending this church my freshman and sophomore years of college.

A Different Kind Of Church For Me

The church was a definite departure for me from the church I grew up in. Instead of lifeless old hymns sung mechanically to organ and piano at speeds so slow I could hardly stay awake singing, this church did a lot of Scripture songs, which were sung at perky speeds with clapping. It wasn't rock/pop music by any means, and the clapping was on beats 1 and 3 rather than the rock style of 2 and 4, but it was still far better than where I had come from.

The church was not only different musically but also theologically: it was a charismatic church. This was prohibited territory according to the teachings of the church I grew up in. We used to get sermons from I Corinthians 14 that were done to prove that speaking in tongues should not be allowed in church, but to me it seemed more like twisting Scripture to fit your beliefs; I didn't buy it.

This church was not my first experience in a charismatic church. I experienced my first charismatic church in San Jose, California in 1975, and it made a tremendous impression on me. (I’ve written about that experience in the “Churches I've Visited” section.) But this was the first time I had ever attended any church other than Maiden Lane on a regular basis, let alone a non-Church of God church. But having come from a church that was constantly mired in controversy and also dying in my teen years, I was not left with any reason to limit my church world to Church of God.

A Typical Sunday

There were several hundred people in this congregation. We went to Sunday School first. I don't remember much about Sunday School, except for one series that thoroughly fascinated me. In this series, we studied how various prescribed rites in the book of Leviticus pointed to specific things in the life of Jesus or the New Covenant. It was eye-opening and delightful to learn. It made Leviticus, probably the driest book in the whole Bible, come to life.

Church began with the aforementioned Scripture songs. For those of you familiar with the genre, some of my favorite songs from this church were "Sing Unto God" (from Psalm 68:4), "The Horse And Rider" (Exodus 15:1), "I Exalt Thee," "We Bring The Sacrifice Of Praise," "Thou Hast Turned My Mourning Into Dancing," and other such songs. I not only loved the upbeat nature of these songs, but also how they enabled me to memorize Bible verses simply by singing them. My friends and I often sang them together outside of church too--in the car, on campus, etc. These were great songs, and many of them are still sung today in parts of evangelical Christendom.

Also part of the worship service were testimonies. Being a charismatic church, there were many testimonies about God's healing. But there were other testimonies about answered prayer and other such things, too. After the dull and lifeless testimonies I had to endure in the church I grew up in, these were refreshing.

Another part of the worship services was speaking in tongues. Sometimes all spoke in tongues together in times of worship, often accompanied by instruments playing. These were beautiful times of worship, and I treasured them after years of dull church services where I never saw any evidence of people WORSHIPPING God, only going through the motions. Other times of speaking in tongues involved a single person saying something in tongues to the congregation, and somebody else interpreting it.

Then of course there was the sermon. As with other aspects of the worship service, this was cheerful and lively. The emphasis was very different from what I had listened to in sermons in the Church of God. There was a strong emphasis on faith, believing what God can do. There was also a lot of teaching about healing, miracles, and occasionally about casting out demons and raising the dead. It was a totally new look at the same Bible I had studied for years.

Another thing that struck me about this church was how loving the people were--they freely hugged each other as they greeted one another, and also that before and after church, instead of talking about last night's baseball game or some movie or TV show or some other such trivial stuff, they talked about JESUS and their life as a Christian! Not in some "witnessing" kind of way, just normal conversation as you would talk about things that are important to you. That really impressed me.

Navigating The Waters Of The Charismatic Church

For a time, I dove head first into the charismatic movement. It shouldn't be a surprise. I had come from a dead church that was driving me bonkers with boredom to an alive church with intensely inspiring messages about faith in God, faith that he can do ANYTHING! Along with that was an introduction into the spirit world, which was barely mentioned in the church I grew up in. Since this church was alive and I saw evidence of people being touched by God, to me it validated their theology too, which was gleaned from Scripture.

But I got a few wake-up calls about swallowing everything hook line and sinker from this movement with several corrections from my father. The one I remember most clearly was after having read a book by some famous charismatic author--I think it was Harold Hill--who mentioned saying after being robbed, "Praise the Lord, I've been robbed!" One day some of my belongings were stolen while I had been eating in the school cafeteria. Having just read the book, I decided to take the same optimistic attitude and said, "Praise the Lord, I've been robbed!" When I told my father about this by letter, he wrote back that it is not right to praise God that a sin had been committed; the Biblical text says to praise God in the midst of all circumstances, which was different from praising God for what happened. So, it would have been better to say "I will praise the Lord no matter what happens, even though I've been robbed." I was very embarrassed, and this made me become a lot more careful about what kind of teaching I was accepting.

My Testimony

During the time I was going to this church, I was suffering from a chronic illness that had caused me much trouble for more than a year, resulting in much pain and some hospitalization. During the summer of 1978, a year after the illness hit me, I had gone for prayer at a healing service at Springfield camp meeting (see Maiden Lane Church of God, Part 1 to learn more about Springfield camp meeting). I was not healed. During the fall in Anderson, I attended an Assembly of God church when a healer was present one day. I went up to be prayed for, but as he prayed, I felt no sincerity; his prayer felt cold and uncaring, like I was a soul on his assembly line. But one thing I learned at my turbulent church was not to put my faith in people but in God, and since I had already begun attending God's Freewill Tabernacle, I had learned the importance of stepping out in faith and believing in God. To show my faith in God, I quit taking my medicine, expecting him to heal me. Instead, I went through drug withdrawal symptoms and also got sicker. Defeated, I began taking the medicine again. I continued to hear many sermons on healing at God's Freewill Tabernacle, but my previous two experiences made timid.

One day in the spring of 1979, we were in church and began a time of prayer. I don't remember if the prayer was for any specific purpose or a prayer for a particular situation; I only remember everyone in the congregation praying intensely, as was I. During this prayer, the power went out, which to the signs-and-wonders crowd, was a sign that the power of their prayer was so strong that it knocked the power out, and they began to pray even more fervently. As soon as the prayer ended, the power came back on. I tended to view it as coincidence rather than the power of prayer, but whatever the reason, it was cool.

As soon as the prayer ended, I heard a voice inside of me say, "It's gone! It's gone!" I had not been praying about healing and neither had the church, but I immediately knew that this voice was referring to my illness. I also felt a lifting, a weight off of me, that was so definite, that I knew that this time in fact, I was healed, even though I hadn't been praying for it at the moment. I cannot describe the exuberance I felt at that time. For nearly two years by this time, I had suffered with this illness, and now, at last, after much prayer, suddenly I just knew that it was real this time, that I had been healed.

On the way back to campus, I was in ecstasy. We were playing Keith Green's tape For Him Who Has Ears To Hear, and when "The Easter Song" came on, with Keith Green's added verse about being healed today, it was beyond ecstasy. That song still tingles my spine with delight when I hear it. When we got back to campus, I announced to my friends that I had been healed. I dumped my medicine. Remember, last time I did it, I had bad withdrawal symptoms and got sicker. This time, I had not a single symptom of withdrawal. And my illness did disappear. Months later, when I was really, really sure that my illness had really, really gone, I had the chance to stand up in church and give testimony to my healing. It is something I continue to praise God for. I wonder how long I would have suffered with that illness if I hadn't gone to that church.

Cracks Begin To Appear In The Armor

During this time in my newly discovered world of charismatic churches, I read magazines like Charisma and books that are popular with that crowd. As time went on, though, I began to see some things in the writings and in the church services that put up some yellow flags to me.

First of all, the more I read all this faith stuff, the more I began to feel like it had more to do with positive thinking than it did true faith. There was talk about "don't even say anything negative, for what you say helps determine your outlook and what you think God can do." I began to feel like this whole approach was not very honest. It was also frustrating for me, with my personality type. To use the four basic personality types delineated in Ancient Greece--sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholy--I'm definitely a melancholy. I began to feel that this positive thinking stuff may be fine for a sanguine type, but for me as a melancholy, it ended up being frustrating and depressing! From this point, I began to find more holes in the whole charismatic framework.

Another important hole was the issue of healing. I had been healed myself, so I had no doubt that miraculous healing takes place. But I began to be troubled by the view that if you aren't healed, then you don't have enough faith. First of all, that puts a heavy burden on a sick person. You weakling, it's YOUR fault you aren't healed. To me, it seemed to diminish the sovereignty of God. Secondly, if that was all there was to the equation, then anybody who had great enough faith would never have to die because they could always pray to be healed. But we all have to die sometime, thanks to Adam. This theology seemed to not deal with that aspect well. Finally, I noticed that the phrase frequently heard in charismatic circles, "God wants you to be healed," came from III John 2. To make that theology out of III John 2 was definitely taking the verse out of context! I couldn't believe people were using that verse to claim it as proof that God wants you healed!!

Aside from what I was reading was what I was seeing in the church services. After going there a couple years, I began to see through some of these "visions" from God. I began to see that they were merely dramatic ways of presenting things God has said to them. Someone in the church I grew up in would say in simple narrative fashion, "God showed me a little example of what his love is like. I was working with this tool, and while I was doing that, I realized that this action is like...." The charismatic person would instead announce it at high volume with the tone of a prophecy, saying, "God showed me a vision, a vision as I was working with a tool...while I was working with this tool, God said to me, 'My child, this is what my love is like..." and so the story would go in dramatic vision fashion. There was nothing really wrong with that presentation, but it was just overblown.

I also began to feel that some people were more interested in signs and wonders than they were in Jesus himself. Though no one would admit to it, and I don't think the church explicitly encouraged that, I saw enough people be so entranced with signs and wonders that I began to feel that Jesus got left behind.

I attended God's Freewill Tabernacle my freshman and sophomore years in school. I did not attend after that because my friends who took me there had graduated and I no longer had a ride. But by this time I was ready to leave anyway. In a year and a half, I had gone from diving head first into the charismatic world to becoming slightly disillusioned with it.

My View Of The Charismatic Movement Today

How do I feel about this area now? I still do not have the total rejection of it that the Church of God had of it in my teen days (I don't know how the Church of God views the charismatic movement today). But I also cannot totally embrace it, for I feel that a lot of their focus is misplaced. Still, if I was sick again for a long period, I'd probably be attending a charismatic church! In other words, I believe they have a place in the Body of Christ, but like all of us, have some things out of focus. From this point forward, I have tended to prefer churches that are accepting of charismatic elements but are not 100% "Full Gospel" churches, as they sometimes call themselves. The most important thing I first learned at God's Freewill Tabernacle is how to worship God. It's something my church never taught nor participated in; it's something common in churches today, and it was the charismatics who are responsible for this great improvement in church services.


(I wrote this in the late 1990s for a website I planned to build, but never got the website built.  It is now finally appearing for the first time on the web via this website 10 years later [November 2009].)

IMPORTANT NOTE: As with all churches in this section, please remember the following points:

1.All descriptions of the churches reflect my own observations and interpretations at the time I attended; these descriptions are not intended to be objective. The main purpose of these writings is to reflect on the effect churches had on my spiritual journey, thus the focus is my experiences at the churches and not an objective reporting of the churches themselves.

2.Keep in mind that churches, like any organizations, change over time. The descriptions I list describe the churches at the time I attended, but the church could have changed immensely since that time, for better or for worse. These writings are not for the purpose of helping one decide whether the church is one they should or should not choose; the church may be completely different by now.

3.Any criticisms put forth in any of my writings on the churches are not meant to be objective criticisms to be answered by the church, but rather, they are merely my opinions of the church at the time I attended there, and how those experiences and my opinions of them shaped my spiritual journey.

Churches I’ve Regularly Attended is a sub-website of J Lee Harshbarger’s personal website.  To visit other sub-websites, click the links below.

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CHURCHES I’VE REGULARLY ATTENDED

A list of all the churches I’ve attended, plus full stories about some of them. Churches,_Part_1.html

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