"Holy Spirit, we invite you into this place," intoned the singer from the stage of the plush green Sanctuary. "Have your way. We love you." Then he broke into buoyant song, his driving acoustic guitar backed by bass, piano, two saxophones, another guitar, drum set, and gently pulsing bongo beat. The teenagers in the front pews poured into the space before the stage, clapping and swaying side to side. "You set my feet to dancing/You set my heart on fire." Thirty minutes in, during a meditative guitar interlude, a weeping older woman in the audience let out a high wail that hung and shook in the air: "HaaaAAAAlelujah; thank you Jesus, Hallelujah; HaaAAAAlelujah." Later, she cried out in an unintelligible stream of syllables.
"She's just loving God in her love language," explained Pastor Barry Sappington from the stage. "The New Testament teaches that there's a supernatural language that can be acquired when you come to know Jesus. God's loving her; she's loving God."
Sappington called a tall young man out of the congregation -- he was bound for military service in the Middle East. "You're being deployed by the military, yes, but I want to say this by prophetic word: that you would be deployed by the Lord to be a light in the midst of a very dark region."
Sappington called the soldier's wife; he called his assistant pastors and their wives. They formed a huddle at the foot of the stage. Sappington placed his hand on the soldier's forehead. "Take a deep breath, the touch of God, right now. Take that now; believe it.... May he carry an Elijah anointing as he goes on foreign soil."
"Amen!" cried many in the congregation. Throughout, there were cries of affirmation, bursts of applause, and murmurs of responsive prayer.
After a woman testified about being spiritually healed, the pastor abandoned his planned talk on The DaVinci Code . A woman stepped forward and said she had received a vision "of an African-American person...and then I saw some boxing gloves, which to me represent that you're contending for something. Then I saw a picture of fragmented pieces. I feel that...we need to pray for you, that God's going to put all those pieces back in place." And with that, a black woman in the congregation rose, approached the altar, and entered into prayer with the woman who had called her forth.
"Jesus...Jesus...Jesus..." repeated Sappington. "Those who need healing this morning, I want you to come quickly.... There's faith in this house right now." About half the congregation gathered in front of the stage.
At first, it was a mass of bodies praying and being prayed over, hands on shoulders, hands on foreheads, hands gripping forearms and other hands. Again, the murmur filled the church. After a while, it became clear that some were there in a (literal) support capacity. Now and then, a person receiving prayer collapsed -- sometimes seeming unconscious, sometimes wriggling -- lips moving, eyes closed. Someone caught the body as it fell, lowered it gently to the ground, and covered it with a white cloth.
Sappington participated in at least one such event -- his hand on the forehead of a round, balding man who shook back and forth, his arms waving before he went down -- but most of the time, he stayed on stage, continuing to speak. The guitar lilted beneath him. "I don't care what your need is...if you need Jesus Christ as your Lord, as your friend, come. We'll introduce you to him. The Lord told me a moment ago that there's someone here -- and this is very delicate -- but there is a condition you're dealing with that's because of your promiscuity in the past. God wants to heal you of that today. Come, and we'll pray for you."
The music and the prayer swelled and subsided and swelled again. Sappington continued, "Passion -- hunger -- is something that we always pray for in this house. We say, 'I just want more...I want something that will drive me, compel me to be more about the Father's business, Jesus' business, than my own.... I pray in Jesus' name: more, more. Let's ask the Father for more right now, just say: more, more, more. Prophetically declare: 'I will love you, Lord Jesus, more.' I just feel affirmation of the Lord to speak over you this morning: He's pleased with your passion. The impression that I get is that He's saying, 'Keep coming toward Me; keep coming after Me; don't stop.' Because the closer we get to His presence, to the person of Jesus, the more He releases His glory."
What happens when we die?
"If people are believers in Jesus Christ and have accepted Him as Lord in their hearts," says Sappington, "they go to heaven."
8809 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Denomination: Assembly of God
Founded locally: 1924
Senior pastor: Barry Sappington
Congregation size: 250-300
Staff size: about 6
Sunday school enrollment: 45 children, but many small groups for adults
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes, for adults over 40
Dress: casual to semi-formal, some dresses and skirts, lots of jeans
Diversity: majority Caucasian, some African-American and Hispanic
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 6 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 45 minutes