- Denomination: Church of God in Christ
- Address: 5825 Imperial Avenue, Valencia Park
- Founded locally: 1962
- Senior pastor: Bishop George McKinney
- Congregation size: 600--700 families
- Staff size: 12
- Sunday school enrollment: don't know
- Annual budget: around $1 million
- Weekly giving: around $19,000
- Singles program: yes
- Dress: many suits and jacket-skirt outfits, but some more casual
- Diversity: mostly African-American, a few Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics
- Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 6 p.m.
- Length of reviewed service: 2-1/2 hours
- Website: http://www.ststephenscogic.org
"Let everything that has breath praise the Lord," said the woman at the Lucite lectern. "How many of you have breath? Then you qualify for the commandment!" The band kicked in -- organ, bass, guitar, and drums thundering from the stage, but not overwhelming the youth choir in the risers, swaying and bouncing in burgundy robes trimmed with gold. As they tore into the Our Father, some in the congregation stood, arms upraised, and sang and swayed along. "These people here are just kind of looking," cried the woman, pointing to one side of the aisle. "Can't you all move like these people over here?" That brought laughter, and more people standing. By the time the choir was booming out, "Forever and ever," the floor was shaking. "Hallelujah!" shouted the woman. She asked first-time visitors to stand, "that we might recognize you and show you the love." The choir sang a song of welcome, the congregation applauded, and people left their pews to shake the newcomers' hands.
Bishop McKinney appeared onstage in a magenta cassock and a gold pectoral cross. He called the children to the altar before sending them to a children's service. "It is my privilege to greet you and tell you how much we all love you. I bless you now in the name of the Lord. I rebuke sickness and disease. I rebuke accidents and danger. I come against every evil force that will attempt to seduce you or destroy you. I declare and decree that you belong to God, and the devil cannot have you.
"In the name of Jesus, change us into your image as we look into your face. We thank you; we honor you; we adore you; we worship you; we magnify you, we bless your holy name." As he spoke, the sound continued to build -- McKinney's own volume, the drums and guitar riffing below McKinney's words, the murmuring and stomping and shouts and cheers from the congregation swelling -- "Amen! Yes, Lord! Hallelujah!" -- until an unseen dam burst, and applause spilled forth across the room.
"This house is becoming a house of prayer," began McKinney. "If you want to experience that cleaning experience from God, if you want to experience that healing virtue from God, if you want to experience that impartation of joy that is unspeakable, if you want to see some yokes broken, some addiction destroyed, and some certainty given, Jesus said, 'Just ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you'll find; knock and the door will be opened,' and I'm bold enough this morning to ask him: 'Fill me again; fill me again.'"
The sermon focused on being a "person of power." He began with three readings from the Bible, two of which included Jesus' promises to those who believed -- ordering the mountain to be cast into the sea, handing serpents, drinking poison, casting out devils and healing the sick. "I want to argue that the people of God are not a weak, frightened, cowardly people" he said, "but that we who belong to God are a people of power."
"There are forces at work in our culture and our community that would tend to render people weak, alone, and helpless. Whenever you buy into the lie that you are alone, you set yourself up for the devastating defeat that the devil is going to bring you.... How many of you are tired of having to struggle with the same problem -- that you know comes from the devil or the flesh -- every day?" Some hands rose up. "A few honest folk here," said McKinney, and everybody laughed. He then spoke on the four markers along the path to becoming a person of power -- enrollment in the family of God, the infilling of the Holy Spirit, trust in God, and obedience to Him. "If you're going to be around here," he boomed over the growing din, "dealing with hypocrites and liars, dealing with your own flesh and desires, you're going to need some power, power with God. Power to go through tests, power to stand trials, power to be crucified, to die and not lose your faith in God!
"Now lift your hands, forming a cup," he concluded. "If your need today is for physical healing, receive it. The doctor will confirm that it is done. If your need today is for peace in your mind, receive that gift of peace...Receive a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit."
Several young men responded to the altar call following the sermon to "be united with the body of Christ"; other men prayed with them before presenting them to the bishop. Before the collection and dismissal, McKinney announced, "I got a telephone call from a gang leader who said, 'We cannot go on the way we are going.' I called some of my fellow pastors, and we are going to meet with the gang leaders on Tuesday, and we ask for your prayers." The congregation resounded with delight.
What happens when we die?
"We believe that when the physical body dies, the spirit of that person continues," says McKinney. "I think that, essentially, we are spiritual beings. According to our understanding of the Bible, the spirit returns to God who gave it. Those who have responded in faith to the love of God, to God's plan of salvation, are welcomed into His presence. The wicked shall be turned into hell." But, he noted, "the judge of all the earth will do right, and we are not at liberty to judge who is going to be saved and who will not."