Posts Tagged ‘ Greater Life Ministries ’

Greater Life Ministries, Part II – Visited Again on 9/25/11

Greater Life Ministries of Clover, SC holds two full worship services each Sunday: one in the morning from 10AM to Noon, and another 6PM to 8.  On the weekend of 9/18, visited on behalf of Churchspotting to observe the morning service; a week later I returned to observe the evening devotions.

The crowd is lighter at GLM in the evenings–the morning service boasts up to two hundred worshippers, but the evenings draw somewhere between 100 and 150 into the cool half-light of the sanctuary.  The congregation’s welcome was even warmer this week, when I was known to a surprising number of Greater Life Ministries’ worshippers as ‘that blogger’, than it was the week before when I might’ve appeared as a possible new member for the church.

The lobby where members of GLM wait before the service begins in earnest hummed with churchgoers young and old who seemed eager to welcome the stranger back, shake his hand, and wish him well.  Truth be told, there was no shortage of good-feeling or welcome for anyone in that hall–the most striking characteristic of Greater Life Ministries must be how freely the congregants there express their emotions, and the last fifteen minutes before a service begins is full of hugging, back-slapping and welcoming on all sides.  The sense of community, even before worship begins, is palpable.
That night’s sermon arose from themes I’d seen taking shape on my first visit a week before.  Pastor C. Milton Smith still drew from the allegory of the “wall” that underlay his sermon on the 18th–if anything, he’d refined the concept considerably over the previous week.

On my previous visit Rev. Smith drew copiously from the Book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament, in which the eponymous Nehemiah directed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls after that city’s invasion and overthrow by the armies of Babylon.  The Sunday I watched as Smith appointed his “wall-builders,” a half-dozen older men from the congregation to each of whom he presented a brick and a Bible, which he named “the sword of the Word.”  That week the “wall” served as an allegory for the unity and community of the Church, and its struggle to protect itself from what the pastor described as the surrounding society’s corruptive influences.

This week the function of the “wall” broadened further.  Rev. Smith described in detail how the battlements of Christian moral rectitude in America were torn down over the last several decades, leaving the souls of its people open to corruption.  He criticized pastors in California who’d opened their church for a performance by Lady Gaga, “in her nudity and ungodliness,” and associated her act and similar media with an overall moral decline in the United States.
To counter the climate of unbelief and sin he attributed to modern society, Rev. Smith called on his congregation to work on rebuilding the wall of their faith: “We need to build a wall and say to the devil, ‘The families of God belong to God.'”  Time seems to be running short for such spiritual self-correction–almost in passing, the pastor remarked on how the End Times grow near.  As a sign of this he pointed to the Church’s rising generation, whom he claimed would be a new generation of evangelists preaching in the strip malls and fast food restaurants of America, winning hearts to man the “wall” in preparation for a final reckoning with the forces of evil.

Like my first visit to Greater Life Ministries, the evening service was peppered with moments to set it apart from other religious groups observed thus far.  At times the entire congregation went silent as the church’s music coordinator broke into tearful glossolalia; Bobby, a particularly fervent member of the church, paced the back row of sanctuary, murmuring hosannas under his breath; towards the service’s end the pastor called upon the whole congregation to join him before the stage, heads bowed, as the men of his “Armor Bearers” laid their hands upon his shoulders and joined him in directing the church’s prayers.

The Armor Bearers drew my particular interest.  One of their number, a younger convert to the church named Jake, explained to me who the armorbearers are and what they do. They represent a small sub-group within the church, approximately eight lay members plus two seminary students, who act as a kind of support staff for Rev. Smith.  The society draws its inspiration from Old Testament passages that describe the kings of Israel making war alongside their rather more literal armorbearers, the squires who prepared the king for battle and guarded him on the battlefield.
The group formed less than a year ago, prompted by complaints from Rev. Smith that he felt he was taking on all the burdens of the church alone.  The armorbearers answer that complaint by acting as a “spiritual pillar that holds him up,” to use Jake’s words.  They pray with the pastor before each service, as well as during the week when Rev. Smith calls upon them.  They provide him with moral support when the pastor feels overwhelmed by his tasks, as well as acting as a kind of public relations buffer for Rev. Smith–Jake described how the armorbearers sometimes have words with detractors and the discontented within the church.  Each member of the armorbearers must read “Where are the Armorbearers,” by Bryan Cutshall of the eponymous Bryan Cutshall Ministries.

After the service on the 18th, Rev. Smith sat for a brief interview with Churchspotting.  As a young man he served in the US military, as an enlistee during the Vietnam War and as a soldier of the National Guard afterwards.  During his sermons he describes at length how he turned to Christianity during his time in the National Guard; he received his theological education at East Coast Bible College, a seminary affiliated with Lee College of Tennessee, which is in turn affiliated with the Church of God, Cleveland, TN, an international Pentecostal denomination with some seven million adherents worldwide, over a million of them within the United States.  Greater Life Ministries is one of several churches in the York County area affiliated with the TN Church of God.  He has served as a pastor for the Church of God for the last thirty years.

Regarding his church’s charitable works, Rev. Smith described a battery of mission programs as well as bi-annual program where church members service the cars of those in need, free of charge, with a DMV representative on hand to provide certified inspections.  Finally, when asked about the proper relationship of Church and State, Smith said that a division exists between the two but that Christianity should have an effect on government; govt., meanwhile, should no legislate to churches.  Greater Life Ministries disagrees with certain extant practices of the US government, particularly on the issue of abortion, but acknowledges the government’s secular authority.

Passage of the Day, 9/29

Today’s reading comes from the KJV Bible, Psalms 11:12.  Check in tomorrow for Part II of Greater Life Ministries.

Greater Life Ministries, Part I – Visited on 9/18/11

Travel south down Highway 321 from the town of Clover a few miles.  Keep your eyes to the left.  Eventually the trees shouldering their way up to the roadside retreat, hacked back to reveal a broad green field.  At the top of the gentle, grassy slope a building rises, its tan, unadorned metal walls framed by the hewn edge of the surrounding forest.  A sign by the roadside announces the property far more effectively than its boxy, aluminum exterior: this is the home of Greater Life Ministries, a Pentecostal church whose staid exterior hides the most fervent practice of faith yet recorded by Churchspotting.

The entrance to Greater Life Ministries is an antechamber scattered with low chairs and tables, notices tacked to bulletin boards, and summer camp t-shirts laid out in ranks on fold-out tables, where members of the congregation prepare morning coffee and gather before worship.  Contemporary paintings of biblical scenes adorn the otherwise bare walls; two sets of double doors in the far wall lead to the real purpose of the building, the sanctuary.

Services at Greater Life Ministries take place in a single chamber that comprises a majority of the church building: the sanctuary, a cavernous space filled with rows of padded, portable chairs in lieu of traditional pews.  A low stage dominates the far wall, while speakers from the church’s audio equipment hang from the ceiling.  Though not an inch of the building was built of bricks, the wall behind the stage boasts an uneven coating of false brickwork raised by the congregation in recent weeks, hung with a banner displaying a passage from the Book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament: “So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together to the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.”

The people who trickle into that sanctuary wear their Sunday best for the service, whatever that shakes out to.  Some look as though they’d be at home in the office parks of nearby Rock Hill and Gastonia townships; others more clearly resemble York County’s working class, mustering the best they can to greet the morning.  The congregation represents an even spread of age and sex, and is the spiritual home for young and old, families and the unattached.

Once the congregation takes its place around 10 AM, scattered in files and clusters throughout the ample seating, the music begins–and does not wholly end until noon.  Though it lacks a full band, the church does boast a music coordinator and musician, and between themselves and the church’s sound system those two manage a complimentary tune for every turn of phrase and recitation of scripture that follows the beginning of worship.  Added to the music is the stylized, theatrical delivery of the church’s preachers, which can shift from the easy cadence of a stage comedian to the howling fury of a revivalist.

Any visitor to Greater Life Ministries must be prepared for the sheer emotional intensity the service can reach.  At his highest highs the pastor, Rev. C. Milton Smith, storms across the stage, roaring his sermon to constant and enthusiastic musical accompaniment as members of the congregation chant in tongues, or sing, or simply pray aloud.  For two hours the whole congregation throws itself into the experience, praying with an open fervor entirely at odds with the quiet, introspective services of most other area churches.

The service observed by Churchspotting was unique beyond even the usual fervor of Greater Life Ministries, according to members of the congregation that day.  The preceding Sunday, at GLM’s evening service, Rev. Smith was apparently “seized by the spirit” and inspired to single out a half-dozen older men of the congregation.  At the morning service on the 18th, he called these men out again to address them before the whole congregation.

Hearkening back to the passage from Nehemiah hung upon the stage wall, Rev. Smith called these men his “wall-builders,” and gave them each of them a Bible, which he named “the sword of the Word.”  The ‘wall-builders,’ he declared, would be the strong supports of GLM’s community, building up the church as book of Nehemiah described the rebuilding of Jerusalem after its sack by the Babylonians.

The end of the morning service is a breathless affair–the pastor, not mention some members of the congregation, has likely shouted himself hoarse after two hours upon the stage.  Come noon the worshippers tickle out of the sanctuary to rest and eat, but their reprieve is only temporary–they’ll return with sunset to take part in the church’s evening service.

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This concludes Churchspotting’s first article on Greater Life Ministries, Clover, SC.  Later this week we’ll be proud to give you Part II, with coverage of an evening service at GLM as well as information from our interview with Rev. Smith.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow’s Update

Tomorrow Churchspotting visits Greater Life Ministries, a Pentecostal church south of the town of Clover.