On my way to Fort Mill, South Carolina; I stopped by North Cleveland Church of God, a church that prides itself on “being the oldest Pentecostal church in America.” (This has been widely debated by the way!) It is considered the mother church of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). I also know since last writing about it, they got a new pastor.
I have been in many “old Pentecostal churches” over the years. I went to Central Assembly in bible college and have attended services at some of the most traditional Pentecostal churches in the Church of God in Christ. To say that many of these old assemblies are neck deep in the customs of man is an understatement. I realized this going into the visit.
One thing that is important to understand is the growth of North Cleveland Church of God is not driven by evangelism. It is driven by transfer of letter. A lot of Church of God people end up moving to Cleveland for different reasons and they ultimately end up at NCCOG as their home church. Church transfer is not church growth.
the visits to North Cleveland Church of God
I came into the church and sit down. I found the worship to be lacking. Having a bunch of people jumping around on the stage pretending to be worshipping was a little off setting. It was not Pentecostal dancing or anything spiritual. It was to try and get people “excited” about praising God. (If you have to “encourage” people to worship the Lord, something is seriously wrong!) It was almost like the lady leading the worship was trying her best to be the next Lisa Brunson. It was a far cry from what we will be doing for eternity in the throne room of God. (Revelation 4)
Next, we have two guys trying to “hip” come up trying jokes and trying to be cool. This was a quick way to quench the Holy Spirit in real Pentecostal meetings. They were all too worried about this “fam fun day.” It has nothing to do with winning souls or the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What I saw in preparation for the offering was downright sinful. Scripture is very clear that we are not to give under compulsion but none other than the Pastor’s wife was in the pulpit “encouraging” people to give. The real problem was she asked people to “fund the Kingdom.” I am still not sure why Jesus needs us to pay for the reign in the millennium!
Next up, the new pastor, Dr. Mark Williams (which is the former General Overseer for the Church of God) came up to preach a very short message (so they can get to “fam day.”) He spend 20 minutes explaining away the Holy Spirit and there was real evidence of the Holy Spirit in the meeting.
The concern of everyone was getting to the bouncing house so they can could jump around and get their face painted. All at a cost, of course! I left after the service because I could not help but think about Jesus with his whip in what North Cleveland Church of God was doing that day. There was nothing Pentecostal about it!
Encountering James 2
On my way back, I stopped on a Wednesday night to take some pictures of the church for my photography stuff. I found they had a special parking spot for “church staff” as close to the door as possible. This was alarming. The odd thing is right about this time, two men came up to me and started questioning me. They were security from the church. They were doing what they are there to do. I had no issue with them but I did find them comparing a guy taking pictures with concerns over ISIS odd.
As I told them, I was very concerned about the preferential treatment that staff of the church would be given over sinners. James wrote about this very problem in his letter. James said, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” (James 2:1)
But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (James 2:10)
While this is a trend around the country, especially in the South, it does not make any less sinful. It is one thing to have parking for the pastors in the back of the church but another to tie up all the close spots for church staff. It is showing favoritism based on one’s employer and it is quite honestly wrong.
Hyper Security at NCCOG?
In my encounter with their security team, I was left walking away wondering how Pentecostals could be so paranoid about safety. After all, we are Pentecostal and fire baptized. Angels surround our camp. It make me wonder if we actually believe this or just preach it because it sounds good.
As they told me, they have “cameras everywhere.” I am not sure why they need CCTV coverage over 100% of their facility if they really believe God will protect His house. In the end, it is God’s house according to the leaders of the church. I do understand we live in a CCTV culture that everyone wants to have cameras in every corner for security. However, I wonder why Pentecostal church feel the need to be part of the world’s culture?
I have a friend who pastors a church in the deep ghetto of a major city in America. He has felt the need to hire off duty law enforcement for services. This is something that he really struggled over and at the time, got the wrath of Azusa Report for! However, the reason for this was he had gotten real death threats from drug lords because he was seeing so many drug addicts saved in his ministry! While I do not agree with the practice of law enforcement in the church, I did understand his reasoning.
This morning as I was preparing to write this article, I came across this video from the new pastor where he defended his use of media to “reach the lost.” There is several problems with what he said that I want to point out (in love).
Trendy Shortcuts don’t change lives
Having big screens, skinny jeans, fog machines, slick marketing are all things that the world does but this is not what the Pentecostal church should be about. We do not need the fog of man because when He comes, the smoke of God will fill the temple! Laser lights are not want set the captive free; the light of the world is what they have to encounter. Our Pentecostal churches including North Cleveland Church of God has become way too worldly!
Drug addictions in Bradley County
He goes on to say that he is sick of seeing people walk away from the church (and by default he seems to think from the Lord) only to end up as a stat of another drug addiction in Bradley County. The numbers provided by the State of Tennessee about drugs are alarming. However, it is only because the churches like North Cleveland Church of God have failed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth in their city.
Commitment to the Word
As the former General Overseer, Mark Williams had the opportunity to address some of the unbiblical views within the Church of God (that many pastors reject today) but did not. It would lead me to believe that he holds to the extra-biblical view of “entire sanctification.” This is still on the books with the Church of God and he made no effort to fix the error.
Commitment to Biblical Pentecostalism
I am not even sure North Cleveland Church of God defines “biblical Pentecostalism.” A biblical view of Pentecostals would require a people who were baptized in the Holy Spirit with POWER. They all spoke in tongues but they did more than just that. They also cast out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead. Anything short of causing revival or riots after someone is raised from the dead can’t honestly be called “biblical Pentecostalism.”
Making it hard to drift away from faith!
The problem here is it seems that Mark Williams thinks that being “hip” is going to make it hard for kids raised in church to walk away from the faith. The truth is that up to 4 out of 5 kids in youth groups have lost their salvation by the end of their freshman year in college. Reaching them is pretty hard given the Church of God has no real outreach to the campus of America’s universities to speak of. The Assemblies of God have taken this task to heart for decades with Chi Alpha.
The other thing I will add what will keep young people under the conviction of the Holy Spirit is not lights, fog, and cool giveaways. What will keep them is those praying grandmas in the prayer meeting weeping over the young people. Pentecostals were always knew by its’ intercessors. You want to see a move of God happen in Cleveland, put the prayer meeting at the center of all you do.
The struggle for revival at North Cleveland Church of God
I was in a meeting with a few evangelists and one of them was Church of God. As we were talking about the Church of God in general terms, someone asked why they don’t see a revival happen. What I replied made everyone stop. Here is what I said.
It is very hard to have revival in your church when you believe are already in revival.
In the heights of the great revivals of the 1990’s (that I was saved in), the churches that align to Cleveland largely were not impacted. At least, God did not moved in a way that required weeks and weeks of revival meetings. Man’s attempts to make it happen were there and they failed. They did everything they could to get revival started in the Church of God. It all failed.
The reason I believe is spiritual pride. The Assemblies of God were struggling after the fall of major leaders like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. A book was even written saying the Assemblies was at a crossroads. They know nothing short of a Azusa Street style revival would save them. The Church of God did not have that desperation.
In my mind, North Cleveland Church of God is nothing more than a product of a large problem within the Church of God movement.
A staggering crisis in Cleveland
What is mind blowing to be is how divided that Cleveland, Tennessee really is. It seems that downtown is the No man’s land between the prosper side of the city and the poverty stricken side. Poverty in Bradley County is very high. It is believed to be 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. Those numbers are scary considering how many churches that claim to be Pentecostal are in the city limits.
The question is how what does a church do for the poor but how is the church bringing people out of poverty? The gospel itself has the creative ability to provide for the believer. While prosperity is not a promised outcome for all believers, it leads me question how deep the roots of North Cleveland Church of God has on “wrong side of the tracks.”
When I am traveling to “poor countries,” I like to tell people that a bowl of rice will never exchange for the presence of the Holy Spirit. The same could be said of how Cleveland is today. Giving a sack of groceries is important but what is the church doing to destroy the systematic culture of poverty on the side of Cleveland no one wants to visit?
All in all, North Cleveland Church of God has some serious issues to address and from all accounts, it seems they are happy just having church as usual.