After hearing all the negative stories about John and his wife Abigail from a former elder of his congregation, I unexpectedly run into him one day.
In the spring of 1994, I suddenly come across John at an evangelical conference in Philadelphia. We exchange news, and with pride, he tells me about his work in the congregation. How the ‘Joy’ church is growing massively and that God has promised him that his congregation will become the biggest church in New York and the surrounding area, a mega-church with thousands of members. It sounds so beautiful, so overwhelming that I momentarily feel jealous. My own work consists of street evangelism, and in all the years I’ve been doing this full-time, I’ve never led anyone to the Lord. So, not much of a super evangelist. And here’s John talking about the many converts and miracles that God is performing in his congregation. Wow, I want that too.
Upon John’s invitation, I visit his church a few weeks later. The first thing I notice when I arrive and want to park are two parking spots right in front of the church. They aren’t reserved for the disabled or elderly, but for Pastor John and Pastor Abigail. I shake my head in disbelief. They surely haven’t become mobility-challenged. Abigail’ parking space is empty. John’s old station wagon occupies his spot. John himself stands by the door waiting for me and gives me a big hug.
“Would you mind calling her Pastor Abigail? Otherwise, people get confused.”
“Wow, a reserved parking space at the front. Not only for you but also for Abigail. Does Abigail have a car?” “No, not yet! But we have faith for two cars, so they’ll come. God is good! Would you mind calling her Pastor Abigail? Otherwise, people get confused. It’s great to see you!” The conversation moves so fast that only later do I realize what he said. Does he expect me to now call them Pastor John and Pastor Abigail? No, surely not!
Inside the church, photos of John and Abigail are everywhere. A smiling John and Abigail at the church door. A smiling John and Abigail on the announcement leaflet, on the welcome pamphlet, on the business cards. A smiling John and Abigail on a poster on the wall. A smiling John and Abigail on the projector. I even expect a smiling John and Abigail in the men’s restroom, but when I go there, I only find a ‘Hallelujah, God is good’ poster. Thankfully!
The service is vibrant. So much happens on stage. Singing in tongues, prophesying, praying for healing. A young woman passionately talks about Pastor John this and Pastor Abigail that. The congregation cheers and rejoices. John preaches. Every other sentence, the entire congregation shouts ‘amen’. This is going to be a long sit. As a child, I always counted the tiles on the ceiling during a long sermon. Every week there were 226, but you never know – so I count them every Sunday. There are no tiles to count here. I look around. How many people are here? I count a hundred and ten. Maybe it’s a quiet morning. I smile to myself. John has a long way to go if he wants to have the largest congregation in New York.
After the service, there’s coffee. I notice everyone wants to talk to Pastor John. He takes ample time for this, which gives me a chance to look at the small bookstore in the church. Many charismatic books and, of course, CDs and videos of Pastor John. Two hours later, we can leave. They invite me to their apartment next to the church. John and Abigail live in an old rental apartment. It looks cozy inside.
“I feel like I’m the little boy who’s lucky to be having coffee with the successful spiritual leader.”
On my way to the suburbs of New York, I’ve already decided to ask some critical questions based on my conversation with Hank, the ex-elder, but in his house, John completely impresses me. Honestly, I’m not easily impressed, but something about his demeanor makes me feel like I’m the little boy who’s fortunate to be having coffee with the successful spiritual leader. That’s hard to get past.
Abigail asks how things are going with me. “Well, I can’t complain,” I reply. “No, because then you’d be in the wilderness. Negative words have power, you know. God is good. It’s important to stand in victory.” Gee, put me in the corner, why don’t you? Why do I suddenly feel so unspiritual and more than a little angry?
Over a cup of coffee, I ask them why everyone calls them Pastor John and Pastor Abigail, and if this is mandatory. Of course, I don’t say it directly, feeling too overawed, but indirectly that’s the implication. John explains: “Matt, you must understand that when you receive a prophet, you receive a prophet’s reward. The Bible says this. It’s the same with pastors. If you honor and receive a pastor, you get the pastor’s reward. People call us ‘pastor’ because they want to honor us and thereby receive a pastor’s reward.”
“And does the pastor’s reward pay well?” I joke, but the joke doesn’t land. They look at me with concern. I try a different angle: “Didn’t Jesus say we shouldn’t give each other titles because God is all those things and provides? It seems giving titles to people within the body of Christ goes against Jesus’ teachings.” Abigail responds sharply: “John speaks for God. Don’t doubt him. He’s God’s anointed, and it’s dangerous to challenge the anointed.”
“Oh yes, Hank. That man is full of religious spirits. Good riddance with his poison.”
I stand up to leave, but John places his hand on my arm and flashes his most charismatic smile. He acts as if our earlier conversation never happened and asks about my work. He makes me feel valued and important. It feels good for a moment, though on my drive back, I quickly realize this is part of his charismatic package, likely as empty as Abigail’ reserved parking space.
I briefly mention my conversation with Hank to gauge his reaction. “Oh yes, Hank. That man is full of religious spirits.” Abigail chimes in, “And his wife is really under the influence of the Jezebel spirit.” “Yes,” John continues, “For those who don’t want to follow Jesus but want to remain in their religious prisons, there’s no place with us. Certainly not in spiritual leadership. Better they leave with their poison.”
I realize I’ve heard enough and feel a strong urge to spend a long time walking on the beach to clear my head. I make my excuses and receive a cold handshake from Abigail. John walks me to my car. He gives me a big hug and wants to pray for me. I let him. It’s probably the last time we see each other like this. We might’ve been friends for a month, but now we’re on different paths.