"Personal testimonies" are as evangelical as apple pies are American. But each one, when told well, is refreshing in its uniqueness and acts as a vivid reminder that God tailors his work to the person. The Spirit cannot be reduced to a formula.
In the April 26, 1999, issue of CT, we brought you Glenn Tinder's story of hearing God on a battleship in World War II. In this narrative, Alice Evans leads us up a winding philosophical road that ultimately reconnects her with the body of Christ. Expect more such accounts under the heading of Testimony in future issues.
The woman was shouting. I imagined she was shouting about abortion. And yet I didn't know for sure that she was even shouting. She might have been singing. But seeing her face triggered my long-held prejudices toward "religious" people.
The face appeared in an ad for Linda Kintz's visit to a nearby bookstore in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to talk about her book Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions That Matter in Right-Wing America. In the ad Kintz, an English professor at the University of Oregon, asks, "Why are so many women involved in what others consider an anti-woman force?"
It was August 1997, and I saw Kintz as an ally and wanted to agree with her. A long-time feminist, I was a political and social liberal. During nearly three decades as an eclectic spiritual seeker, I had rarely touched ground in a Sunday-morning Christian service. My journey had led me down the brilliant path of modern psychology, through the mind-bending experiences of hallucinogens, and into the written work of Western masters of altered perception: Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass, John Lilly, Carlos Castaneda. I had studied in depth the works of C. J. Jung; learned from Tibetan Buddhists, the I Ching, the Tarot, and New Age shamans; taken side roads and detours; turned over rocks; looked behind trees; and crawled through hidden passageways beneath the earth looking for God. I meditated and I occasionally prayed, and I held fervent dialogues with God in my journal. But oddly, amidst all my seeking, I avoided the Bible.
I had not experienced Jesus as a living force since childhood. My parents had broken from a conservative, rural church when I was 12, and although the ethical teachings of Christianity were deeply rooted in my being, as far as I was concerned, the Christian church had nothing to offer me. I was now in my midforties, and Jesus was knocking on my door. And behind him, trailing along as a living entity, stood the church.
I had recently attended a conservative Christian church for the first time in years. I had been shocked to discover myself enjoying the celebratory style of worship I'd encountered at Eugene Faith Center and being stirred by the pastor's eloquent message.
My attendance at this charismatic-Pentecostal, evangelical church was as unlikely as it was surprising. A few months earlier I had been involved in a conflict with a man, and in an attempt to resolve it in a friendly fashion, we met to chat. When the conversation turned to spirituality, Jesus emerged.
The man was an evangelical Christian, and while for a multitude of reasons I respected him, as soon as he mentioned the name Jesus an alarm sounded in my brain: He's one of those! Yeah, one of those, as is my youngest brother. As was my beloved grandmother. As I had been, as a child and young teenager. One of those. A conservative Christian.
He wasn't trying to convert me. He was simply speaking his truth. But later, in trying to understand why any dialogue at all had opened between us, I began to think about Jesus.
Spoken into a person's life at the right moment, the name Jesus becomes an invocation. During this time, I had a dream that suggested I should take another look at my Christian roots. In the dream, I fell out of my grandmother's window, 1,800 stories to the basement, where a man preached about the "blazemark" of Christ, which we all have on our foreheads. In examining the dream, I was struck by that opening sequence. Falling 1,800 stories suggested to me a return to biblical times, to the time of the early church; blazemark, a wedge of bark removed from a tree trunk to mark a path through wilderness; blaze, an intense fire. The image suggested a mark of fire on the forehead, put there by Christ to signify a change of consciousness.
I picked up a Bible and began to reread the Gospels. It was during the Easter season, and giving in to an urge, I finally made my way to the denomination of my childhood where I partook of Communion, sang hymns, listened from the back pew, and sobbed as silently as possible throughout the pastor's sermon.
Though moved, I did not go back. Instead, I visited a shamanic healer. But even in a trance state, I encountered images of Jesus: the fish, the cross, a singing bird that I identified as an emissary of Christ, and finally, Jesus himself.
Still resisting the desire within me to return to church, I sought counsel from the Richard Wilhelm edition of the I Ching, a book of wisdom from Confucian China. The hexagram I received advised me to enter the doors of the temple.
Already three months had passed since my first church visit. All this time, I'd been reading—books by Jungian-trained Episcopal priests Morton Kelsey and John Sanford, but also books about Pentecostal practice: faith healing, tongue speaking, an autobiography by David du Plessis, a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, a book by pastor Jack Hayford about the Church on the Way. Although the thought of setting foot inside the doors of a Pentecostal church scared me to death, I knew that's where I was headed.
My prejudices against Pentecostal churches were long-standing. Where I come from, Kentucky and the knobs of southern Indiana, if you were evolving from rural to city, from hick to civilized, you weren't about to set foot inside a Holy Roller church. But after years of the study and application of Jung's analytical psychology to my own individuation process, I understood that development comes in the zone of that which you most resist. If a person is honorably struggling toward consciousness and growth, pays attention to effect and projection, and goes toward the difficult thing, there's an answer waiting.
"Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever," I read in enormous script on the wall of the church's lobby. I looked out across the crowd and saw middle-class, white, conservative America. I almost fled.
Instead, I entered the sanctuary and took a seat. Within moments, I was up on my feet again, surrounded by many hundreds of enthusiastic worshipers, all belting out songs I did not know, music that sounded more like Christian rock than the hymns of my childhood. People raised their hands toward heaven or held them cupped in front of their hearts in a posture of reception.
The pastor took his place on the platform. He prayed. He directed people to introduce themselves to people they sat next to, to hug them if they felt so moved. He beamed such goodwill and fervent love toward his congregants, I could almost detect the initiation of molecular rearrangement within my psyche.
When he talked about the visit he had just made to the Vatican as a participant on an interfaith council that seeks reconciliation between Catholics and classical Pentecostal denominations, I moved to the edge of my seat. A declaration of international ecumenical effort was not what I expected to hear! Then he began to preach. Cast your nets into the water on the other side of the boat. Follow me. I will make you fishers of men.
I drove home energized. Honesty required that I admit I had not encountered intellectual inferiority but intellectual depth—an intelligence of the heart. The pastor was smart. Smart enough to meet my unconscious criteria.
Still, I did not go back. Instead, I went to the Unity Church. There, too, the preacher talked about Jesus. I'm not going to apologize for using the name Jesus, he said. Jesus. A spiritual master. Whether you believe he was the Son of God or just a man, he's still Jesus. Some times, he observed, it seems that people in this congregation would rather avoid the name Jesus. But there's nothing wrong with standing up here and talking about Jesus. Cast your nets into the water on the other side of the boat, he read from a passage of Scripture. Follow me. I will make you fishers of men.
Those words were beginning to sound familiar. Realizing that God must believe I'm very thickheaded, I went home, took out my Bible, searched for the story. Cast your nets into the water on the other side of the boat. Jesus was talking about a change in attitude. Follow me. A change in consciousness. Try again, Jesus was saying, only try it in this new way.
I replayed the conversation I'd had with the evangelical Christian who had first reminded me that Jesus is a living force. I'm not religious, he had said. I can worship anywhere. It's Jesus. It's all about Jesus.
The Unity Church. The Faith Center. The church of my childhood. At every church I visited, I was confronted by the same simple demand: Follow me. I had been called. I could feel Jesus inside of me and all around me. It was time for me to turn my life over to him—body, mind, soul, and spirit.
I might have gone back to the denomination of my childhood. I knew the hymns; I knew the service. I might have chosen the Unity Church, where shamanic drumming takes place on Friday nights and Jesus holds the stage with Buddha, Mother Teresa, and others who are considered masters. Instead, I returned to the church that challenged and stirred me, the Eugene Faith Center, part of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. I did not understand the directive, but I obeyed it.
I had no idea that three weeks later I would choose to be baptized at Faith Center, born again, to use what had been a term of near ridicule to me. Nor could I have predicted my continuous gold-star attendance at Sunday services at that same church since then as well as regular attendance at a weekly women's prayer group.
The same weekend I returned to Faith Center was the weekend I saw the ad for Kintz's bookstore appearance. After hearing her speak, I bought her book, read it cover to cover, and reviewed it for an alternative weekly newspaper.
In Between Jesus and the Market, Kintz takes a tough stance toward the Christian Right. Women, she writes, have been key players in the rightward movement of American political discourse in the last decade, particularly through their role in constructing what she terms the "emotions that matter." When the "emotions that matter"—keyed by such touchstone words as mother, family, property, nation, and God—find expression in absolute rights and wrongs that are allowed to determine public policy, those outside the circle of familiarity become endangered.
Kintz's discourse fed my inner conflict. I felt like a turncoat. Here I was, suddenly and intensely attracted to a conservative Christian church, desperately trying to find some way to reconcile my spiritual need with my political world-view, wondering if I had abandoned not only myself, but all that I stood for. For years, I could scarcely drive past any of Eugene's growing proliferation of conservative Christian churches without breaking into a rant under my breath. What was I up to now?
I arranged to interview Kintz in my role as freelance journalist. I thought she might bring me to my senses, help me see that I had chosen the wrong church if not the wrong way altogether. Very simply put, I hoped that further exposure to Kintz's world-view, a world-view that I imagined to be similar to my own, would strengthen my resistance to the strong magnetic pull of Faith Center.
Instead, my encounter with Professor Kintz released me into deeper exploration. Whereas before I had been unable or unwilling to differentiate between conservative Christianity and the politics of the Christian Right, a new light began to lay bare my prejudices.
I began to remember that Jesus himself was a political and social radical whose practice of open table fellowship tore in half the mindset of his time. Recalling what I had said long ago to my youngest brother when he became an evangelical Christian—if I can ever find a church that truly attempts to practice the teachings of Jesus Christ, I will become a Christian again—I asked myself: What if the Faith Center is such a church? Biblically based, it appeared to promote all of Jesus' teachings, not just the easy ones.
Still, I had a battle to fight. Jesus I trusted. The church I did not. I scrutinized each Faith Center sermon for indications of prejudice, hatred, misogyny. Week after week, in a style both scholarly and poetic, senior pastor Steve Overman preached self-examination, ethics, and love, all via the Bible. Any mention of the political world came in terms of good will: prayer for God's guidance of our leaders, prayer for wisdom.
As my heart and mind continued to open to Jesus, I opened also to the possibility of finding a home in the church. Rather than the center of condemnation I had expected, I was discovering instead a diverse body that welcomed outsiders. One of the largest churches in Eugene, where every Sunday morning up to 3,000 people attend one of two worship services, Faith Center had a welcoming door.
Overman, who occasionally reminisces about life at the church during the sixties and early seventies when hordes of Jesus freaks gathered to hear the Word, likes to say, "This church happened because people made room for people like me." He sees Faith Center as a kind of "bridge" church, similar to the early church at Antioch.
Highly energetic and unself-conscious about the way in which he worships, Overman is gentle, caring, and downright sweet to the flock he shepherds, a David kind of guy. A prime example of a newer generation of Pentecostal leaders, he is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, holds an M.A. in theology, and is comfortable interacting on a global level. That's important, because the Foursquare denomination to which Faith Center belongs is one of the fastest-growing missions churches in the world. And while Eugene Faith Center is as predominantly white as Eugene itself, on any given Sunday Overman may share or turn over the podium to a worship team from Harlem, an aspiring woman preacher from Brazil, a former gang member-cum-preacher from the Philippines, or the entire Faith Center children's choir. It is basic to Overman and Faith Center that all ages, all races, all nationalities are equally loved by God, to be honored and included in the life of the church.
Despite my deepening commitment, I continued to struggle in my effort to reconcile old with new. With Kintz's question echoing in the back of my mind—"Why are so many women involved in what others consider an anti-woman force?"—I asked myself whether I was ignoring my feminist beliefs in order to experience the energy of a living church. While mindful of Foursquare's legacy—it was founded in the 1920s by legendary female evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—I saw as entrenched the denominational vision of God as strongly patriarchal. It's God the Father all the way, and although sometimes God comes imaged as a rock, tree, or fountain, I never heard God as mother, never as a she.
If asked to state my anger toward historical Christianity most succinctly, I would put it this way: God is not a man. Or, as I put it to Pastor Steve when he invited me to come by his office for a chat, "If God is a man, then God is also a woman. If God is masculine, then God is also feminine. I believe a biblical case can be made for the feminine aspect of God. Is this a heretical position to take within the Foursquare church?"
Overman didn't show me the door. Instead, he himself made a biblical case for the feminine aspect of God. We then talked extensively about women's roles in the church, which he considers to be wide open. Overman told me that he makes a conscious choice to promote women to ministry and to encourage them to take leadership positions at all levels.
My observation told me this was true. There was associate pastor Shannon Kearney, one of several female pastors on the growing pastoral staff at Faith Center. Each week at the pastor's meeting, she sits shoulder to shoulder in full equality to the men. A member of the preaching team and head of the lay counseling ministry, Kearney told me, "When I became a Christian, I was definitely a feminist and was making every effort to find a place for my personality, and what I call gifts now, in a man's world, and being very frustrated by it."
Cultural conditions and attitudes that have kept women from the pulpit are shifting now, she said, and within the denomination, women's leadership is undergoing a resurgence. Three years ago, the Foursquare president read a position paper redirecting the leadership to return to the church's roots, which were to "release" women into everything they were intended to be. "People in America are interested now in what a woman has to say because we are culturally ready. It's time for men to listen to women."
After nearly two years at Faith Center, I sometimes feel as if I have tunneled my way into another world. A paradigm shift is no easy thing for the mind to absorb. But the shift for me comes not in turning to Jesus—that's a return, a homecoming—the adjustment comes in the surrender to the body.
In all my journeying, I had never turned away from God; I had turned away from the church. I had not understood the metaphysics: that the church is the body of Christ, that Jesus acts through the body.
Ecumenical in my outlook, I might have joined any number of denominations. Why, then, did I choose one so initially foreign to my taste? I am confident that my placement at Faith Center came through surrender. Jesus rounded me up and placed me there. Hello, Jesus. You have my full attention.
Alice Evans is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon.
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