Thursday, January 24, 2008

Revival in Bakersfield

This was story ran in our local paper here in Bakersfield this last weekend - On the front page! Actually there were three stories in the paper, two on the front page. I'm on staff at The Garden Community Church were all this started.

God Encounters unite worshippers: Bakersfield is ground zero for a revival drawing local churches together

BY LOUIS MEDINA, Californian staff writer
e-mail: | Friday, Jan 18 2008 9:32 PM

A charismatic revival born here last summer is drawing crowds of seekers and uniting congregants from close to 20 local churches, making Bakersfield an international destination for spiritually hungry believers.

The movement’s epicenter, The Garden Community Church, a nondenominational congregation downtown, has seen its average Sunday attendance surge by 50 percent to 300 since it began hosting “God Encounters” in June.

Divine healings, speaking in tongues, direct revelations from God and testimonies of changed lives are among the signs and wonders participants say have accompanied the awakening. Gatherings include improvised forms of adoration: hours-long music sessions, dancing, even “inspirational art” produced spontaneously at the encounters.

The revival has been compared to major spiritual movements of the last century and is making believers of some skeptics.

Two months after the awakening was sparked, the Rev. Eddie Summers, pastor of the 700-member Grace Assembly of God Church on Larson Lane, and his wife heard of the meetings from members of their church. The couple had their doubts and decided to check out the encounters for themselves, he said.

“We had been praying for our city and when we found out there were other churches — people from diverse backgrounds gathering together — who were praying in the way we were, we decided to participate,” Summers said.

Now his church is a host to the revival as well.

“It has the potential of being a major move of God,” Summers said of the spiritual stirring, which he likened to Los Angeles’ Azusa Street Revival in the early 1900s and Pensacola, Fla.’s Brownsville Revival, which began in the mid-1990s.

That such a movement is happening in Bakersfield isn’t in itself unusual, given the growth of charismatic Christianity and the general receptiveness of Bakersfield’s faith community.

Twenty-three percent of Americans identify themselves as either Pentecostal or charismatic Christians, according to a study called “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals” published in October 2006 by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Rev. George Fraser, associate interim pastor of pastoral care at First Presbyterian Church, said many Bakersfield Christians tend to be open-minded about other denominations, visiting one another’s churches and holding interdenominational prayer meetings, Bible studies and other gatherings.

“When God is meeting people, it’s a God Encounter,” he said. “I think God is meeting people there and I think it’s very real.”

The Rev. Lucas Sherraden, 40, who leads Abiding Life Christian Fellowship in Stafford, Texas, and also preaches and writes about supernatural encounters with God, could be called the spark that started the God Encounters fire. But he said the revival has little to do with him: “This speaks to the Christian community in Bakersfield — that they want to encounter God.”

Garden Community Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. David Goh, became friends with Sherraden when the two met while on a mission trip to Brazil in 2006, Sherraden said. Early last year, Sherraden met the Rev. Al Jones, pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Bakersfield, while on another mission to India.

Jones and Goh knew each other — their churches are neighbors downtown — and they were excited about Sherraden’s ministry. Goh invited Sherraden to visit his church one weekend last April.

“There was an unusual sense that God was doing something” amid spiritually “hungry” believers, Sherraden said.

Goh asked him to return for a four-day series of meetings in June and this time also invited Vineyard, which belongs to the Association of Vineyard Churches, and Good Neighbor Church in Oildale, a Baptist congregation, to participate.

Sherraden said he had experienced the God Encounters he writes about individually but never in a group — until Bakersfield.

Sometimes the worship alone extended to an hour and a half. Sherraden remembers meetings lasting for five hours from beginning to end.

“One hundred fifty to 200 people came storming to the front stage crying out for God,” said the Rev. Andreas Markloff, Good Neighbor’s pastor.

Summers’ church was the fourth to come on board as a host congregation in what has snowballed to several meetings taking place weekly at Garden Community, Vineyard and Grace Assembly, and attended by 100 to 200 people each time.

Sherraden and staff at Garden Community said that, besides the congregants from other local churches who attend, they’ve met people from New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Missouri, Utah and Florida who said they had come to Bakersfield specifically to experience a God Encounter. And at a recent meeting there were visitors from as far away as Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

There is a special incentive to being a part of a revival movement, said Betty of CSUB, “a kind of merging with God’s Holy Spirit. That’s the payoff — that’s what people hunger for the most.”

He pointed out that “there is also a movement of people who are returning to very traditional worship” in America today and he believes the God Encounter congregants will eventually also develop a hunger for more structure.

But Sherraden, Goh, Markloff, Jones, Summers and God Encounter congregants don’t want to pull the plug on a good thing.

“What we have found out through the God Encounters is that God is wonderfully unpredictable and he doesn’t fit into a prepackaged program,” Sherraden said. “But when he is allowed to move, he really does touch the deepest desires of the human heart.”