PIVOTAL – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
It was a very eventful year. Jane Wyman, who would become an Academy Award-winning actress and the first wife of Ronald Reagan, was born. John F. Kennedy was born, too, as was American jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded and the National Hockey League was formed. Finland declared its independence from Russia, but the Czar had bigger problems to worry about: Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks would later in the year assume full control of what would shortly become the Soviet Union.
Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting President to address the Congress of the United States in person. On April 2, he gravely toned, “The world must be made safe for democracy…it is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to hang in the balance. But, the right is more precious than the peace, and we will fight for the things we have always carried near our hearts.” The next day, the United States entered World War I; the conflict already raging in Europe and the Middle East that day became a world war. Heavy stuff.
Just weeks later, another historic moment took the stage. Not long remembered by the press—or even by those most affected—still it marked the turning of a page, the unleashing of a new paradigm in the Movement’s life. In 1917, the General Assembly of the Church of God met for the first time.
The Church of God swept into view in the 1880s, as the Gospel Trumpet Company unleashed the truth on the printed page. Dynamic and impassioned preachers began to span the country—and even the world—by the 1890s, waving the Trumpet paper, holding the Bible high, and attempting to redeem the world before its imminent end. In 1892, Daniel Sidney Warner, riding horseback into the countryside beyond the Trumpet Company’s headquarters in Grand Junction, Michigan, came upon a stunning lake, surrounded by many acres of standing wood, and was smitten. The property was so beautiful, so serene, so favored, that Warner knew the Lord had led him there to establish a camp and ministry engine for the evening light years. In July of this year, we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of that ground’s continuous ministry use, now called Warner Camp. Warner himself built a house there, died there (quite unexpectedly) in 1895, and is buried there.
After his passing, some confusion reigned. Allergic to even the most elemental organization, the young Church of God wondered what was next. Warner was an owner of the Gospel Trumpet Company and its principal voice. Other charismatic and determined leaders stood in the wings. The Trumpet Company moved on, Enoch Byrum purchased Warner’s stake in the company, and other voices rode the rails to the far corners of the country.
Missionary training homes began to pop up, not by any coordinated strategy, but by the inspiration of individuals. These homes (from Oakland to New York to Kansas City to Seattle to Los Angeles) would, in a few years, number forty or more. Each of the homes set its own course, developed its own agenda, pursued its own trajectory; the Trumpet newspaper became a kind of advert for the competing visions. One home proposed sending a missionary to China. Another saw the Middle East as the next step. D. Otis Teasley (who, with his wife, founded the New York City Missionary Home) believed God had called him to raise $10,000 (an astonishing sum in the day) to build a four-story ministry and transit center to house foreign missionaries coming and going abroad in the big city. Different homes sponsored different training courses; there was no uniform curriculum and no standards for what was taught. It was each to his own. They would all close by 1921; the wholly autonomous and dissembled front lines could not be materially or spiritually sustained.
The Trumpet Company would find riding the wave in this increasingly chaotic sea troubling. It did not manage the homes, but often received complaints about them. If something did not work according to plan, the saints (and some outside the Movement) knocked on the Company’s door demanding answers. Money was a constant headache—how to raise it, how to channel it, how to guarantee its intended use, and all the rest.
In 1909, the Trumpet Company established a self-appointed Missionary Committee (the origin of what would become the Missionary Board and ultimately Global Strategy). The Trumpet itself began to ask donors to direct all funds to the Committee, so that wrinkles could be ironed out between the many initiatives in play and funds most efficiently distributed. Iron boxes were actually distributed to the local churches, into which offerings could be made and sent to the Missionary Committee, without passing through local hands.
Still, the waters churned. To top things off, the railroads, which had previously allowed Church of God ministers discounts and passes to travel as clergy, withdrew this perk, arguing that there was no way to authenticate the pastor’s claim that he was a legitimate beneficiary of the clergy pass. No definitive records or rosters were kept of Church of God ministers; the railroads said, Pay full fare. Our pastors were fuming, righteously, of course.
And so it was, in 1917, the ministers of the Church of God came together for the first time to formally organize the General Assembly. Between 360 and 400 pastors gathered, elected officers, passed a motion to launch the Anderson Bible Training School (now Anderson University, also celebrating its centenary this year), assume control, for the first time, in common, of the previously privately held Gospel Trumpet Company and, oh yes, develop an approved roster (now the Yearbook) to get pastors back on the railroad with a pass.
From that day until this, the General Assembly has been the primary forum in which the Church of God family in the United States and Canada wrestles with big ideas, seeks the Lord’s direction, and maintains its unity. Some meetings of the Assembly have proved to be raucous and detoured, seemingly short on the Holy Spirit’s healing balm. Others have been deeply spiritual moments, when the palpable sense of the Spirit’s leading covered the whole.
Over the last quarter century, the Assembly has been in decline (as measured by both number of people participating and demographic and geographic representation). This has been symptomatic, I believe, of the Movement’s slide. This trend, though, began to turn in 2014, each year substantially outpacing the last, by every measure.
The reinvigoration of the Movement is hinged on the reinvigoration of the Assembly. The General Assembly’s meeting is now fully integrated into the larger program of the Church of God Convention; it is not now possible, as had sadly become the custom, to attend just the Assembly and skip the worship and unity of the Convention meetings. The Convention and the Assembly, while in a way separate events, are part of a tightly woven, single fabric. Singing, learning, praying, and experiencing together in the Convention services transforms the Spirit and focus of the Assembly itself. The Spirit moves all over the place.
In this 100th year of the General Assembly (meeting as part of the Church of God Convention in Wichita, Kansas, June 20–23, 2017), we stand at another historic pivot. The Movement’s trajectory for a generation—and, perhaps, a century—is in play. There is no other forum, no other venue, no other side meeting or table, that can speak into the church’s life like this one.
It’s time to get registered. Now. In 2015, the Assembly voted to meet biennially instead of annually. This allows people, churches large and small, from all fifty states and the provinces of Canada to save, prepare, and plan to be a part. The day quickly draweth nigh.
If you cannot afford to attend all of the church meetings annually in your normal groove, this year choose to be a part of the Convention and Assembly and let the other ones slide. Do not pass on the Wichita meetings because you normally meet up in another state or regional confab. The stakes are too high to only later hear about it. You need to speak into it and be present.
Every licensed or ordained minister of the Church of God is eligible to vote in the Assembly. Every congregation can also send lay delegates (one delegate per church if you have 99 or fewer people each weekend in worship, one delegate for every 100 people who worship in your local church after that). It is important that pastors and ministers register, lay delegates, too. But note: a letter or e-mail from the church authenticating lay delegates is required for participation (and must be received in our office by May 15). Churches can appoint their lay delegates in any way they wish, but they must alert us who they are. We have had some pretend to be lay delegates who were not authorized by their local church to represent them; no, I am not making this up; yes, it can be awkward.
This column has been framed by history. But, this meeting of the Convention and Assembly will frame our future. We need you there. The church needs you there. Jesus will be in the house, too.
Thanks for getting on it. Today. Blessings to all, for Jesus’ sake. He is the subject.