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Guest speakers help lead a lively conference, the CGOM's first major meetings in two years
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Guest speakers help lead a lively conference,
the CGOM's first major meetings in two years

By Dixon Cartwright

TULSA, Okla.--The recent annual conference of the Churches of God Outreach Ministries heard about "personal evangelism" from Guy Swenson of Plainfield, Ind., and the "democratization of the Holy Spirit" from Jim O'Brien of Liberty Township, Ohio.

Representatives--elders and stewards--of CGOM-affiliated congregations as well as delegates holding individual CGOM membership (some of whom are members of non-CGOM affiliations) met here the weekend of March 17-19 for the first time in two years and the ninth conference since the CGOM's founding, in 1996.

The CGOM, according to its mission statement, "provides leadership, information and biblical teaching in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ."

It aims to assist independent Sabbatarian Church of God congregations in their missions without attempting to operate as a "denomination."

In other words, its affiliated congregations still all consider themselves autonomous, making their own decisions regarding preaching the Word, feeding the flock, sponsoring Feast of Tabernacles sites, even spending money.

Although the congregations are independent, the CGOM staff, with its volunteers and with offices in Tulsa and the United Kingdom, assists the independent congregations as finances and other resources permit.

The CGOM's statement of purpose notes that it helps "local assemblies" to "voluntarily cooperate with one another on various agreed outreach (evangelistic) and support programs which need more than the resources of a single assembly or individual."

Four committees

In general, the CGOM facilitates such help to local congregations by means of four committees.

The conference agenda included the selection by voice vote of committee chairmen and other members for the next year. Committee coordinator Julian Cruz of San Antonio, Texas, announced recommendations for staffing the committees, and the assembled conference delegates approved all the recommendations by acclamation.

The four committees, committee coordinator and CGOM webmaster are as follows:

  • Overall committee coordinator: Jeff Henderson of Half Moon Bay, Calif.

  • Financial Oversight Committee: Richard Gawith of Broken Arrow, Okla., chairman; Lawrence Gregory of Tulsa; Gene Lamb of Strasburg, Colo.

  • Publications/Editorial: Steve Kieler of Fort Dodge, Iowa, chairman; Shelby Faith of House Springs, Mo.; Wayne Holmes of Batesville, Ark.; James McBride of Lincoln, England.

  • Outreach: Brian Davis of Enid, Okla., chairman; Mr. Henderson. (An active member of this committee, Pat Dennis of Coffeyville, Kan., died in May 2005.)

  • Member Services: Mr. Gregory, chairman; Steven Andrews and David Hope of Tulsa; Suzanne Kieler of Fort Dodge, Iowa.

  • Webmaster: Richard Gawith.

New ideas

Over the years, CGOM delegates have seemed frustrated at not being able to do as much as they would like in efforts to preach the gospel: spreading Jesus' message around the world.

This year's presentations by Mr. Swenson and Mr. O'Brien had delegates excitedly talking about ways to implement new ideas to spread the Word.

Following is a more or less chronological report on some highlights of the sessions, which spanned parts of three days.

Rounds of prayers

Mr. Gregory, chairman of the Member Services Committee and a CGOM founder and pastor of the host church, the Tulsa Church of God, welcomed the delegates Friday evening.

His remarks included announcing rounds of prayers. As is the custom at CGOM meetings, at regular intervals between sessions and at other appropriate times, delegates at the conference and even visitors are called on to pray aloud during a meeting. Three men offer three prayers in succession during an appropriate break in the proceedings while standing at their places in the audience. At the next break, the next three men in line in the audience offer prayers.

And so it goes throughout the conference. Sometimes the prayers are to ask for God's inspiration on the meetings. Sometimes they're more specific: to ask for healing for people who are ill, injured or bereaved.

After Mr. Gregory's opening remarks and the first three prayers of the conference, he talked about this year's theme, "Personal Evangelism," and mentioned Mr. Swenson's and Mr. O'Brien's guest presentations.

In memory of Pat Dennis

Then he spoke of Pat Dennis, pastor of a congregation in Coffeyville, Kan., who had died a few months earlier. Mr. Dennis's wife, Aletha, addressed the conference about her husband's work.

Mr. Dennis, she said, was passionate about "personal evangelism."

"He could bring the Bible into circumstances and situations with anyone he talked to," she said. "For example, Pat would go into a fast-food restaurant. He would ask someone, 'How's your health?'" and then talk to the person about "choices and consequences, two of his favorite words."

Mrs. Dennis said that, after her husband's death, "people would come up to me to let me know how he had changed their lives . . . I didn't know half these people."

Mrs. Dennis said her husband had "hired a fellow named Grant" to help with their rental-property business in 2003. Mr. and Mrs. Dennis liked Grant, and Grant tried to be a good employee, but Grant had problems that included overindulgence in alcohol.

Grant had his ups and downs and would sometimes lose his resolve not to drink.

After Mr. Dennis died, said Mrs. Dennis, Grant somehow "heard Pat's voice" sternly informing him that it was "his choice" whether to clean up his act or not and firmly recommending that he make the right choice.

"I don't know what he heard," Mrs. Dennis said, "whether it was his subconscious, but to him it [the apparent visit from Mr. Dennis] was real. God spoke to him, and Pat spoke to him."

Since then, "Grant has cleaned up his act. He dresses better; he's clean-shaven. He's had that witness, and it's changed his life. And that's what personal evangelism is all about."

Mrs. Dennis summarized her husband's approach to the subject: "Personal evangelism is easy," Mr. Dennis would say. "It's just caring for your fellow human beings."

85 countries

Mr. Gregory, at the lectern, noted that 2006 is the 11th year of the CGOM, although this year's was only the ninth conference.

"The first year we had two conferences," he said, "in the spring and the fall . . . We skipped or did not have annual meetings in 2002 and last year."

He noted that the CGOM has limited funds, even though it has provided an "outreach" to people on its mailing list in 85 countries.

Mr. Gregory introduced his stepson, Richard "Rick" Gawith, to talk more about CGOM finances.

Net cash flow for the calendar (and fiscal) year Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2005, was $46,282, and outflows totaled $46,975, Mr. Gawith reported. The CGOM's bank account at the end of the period totaled $4,004.

Income from the CGOM's beginning, in 1996, has ranged from $36,721 for 1997, the first full year, to $89,284 in 2001.

The year 2001 saw the most income in the CGOM's history because of a special effort that included placing a full-page ad in a national newspaper, USA Today, for which many CGOM supporters specially and specifically donated funds.

'We have our part'

Mr. Gawith's report included summaries of literature and other mail sent out. In 2005, 36,791 pieces went out, averaging 707 a week.

The Web site ( attracted 82,072 "hits" from Jan. 1 through March 16, 2006.

The CGOM's mailing list in the United States has about 5,250 names and addresses.

"We're small," said Mr. Gregory, back at the lectern. "We have a small niche. God is using us in a small way." But "we have our part, and we're doing it."

He mentioned that the CGOM's motto is "People working together to proclaim the gospel."

Mr. Gregory said the CGOM needs to "discuss and consider" the question "Where are we going to go from here? . . . How can we outreach more? How can we minister more? How can we serve more?"

He continued: "This world, I think we'll agree, has gone mad and is crazy, and the only soundness in it seems to be the morals and ethics and standard of God's law and Jesus Christ and the Churches of God and others, and we're a part of it. But where can we go? . . . What more can we do as a small group of willing individuals trying to work together to proclaim the gospel?"

Stone figurines

Jeff Henderson, elder from Half Moon Bay, Calif., stood frequently behind the lectern to lead discussions. At the lectern he noted that human beings don't typically want to "serve." Normally, they would rather "be served."

"Just try requesting for volunteers to do things," he said, and "a hush falls over the audience. All of a sudden people turn into little stone figurines."

He ended Friday evening's meeting by encouraging delegates not to shy away from involvement in CGOM-inspired programs.

Exciting prospect

Saturday morning at 8:40 Mr. Henderson was back and talking about this year's "excitement" at the conference at the prospect of the two new speakers, Mr. Swenson and Mr. O'Brien, and the general theme "Personal Evangelism."

He noted that in December he had visited Lexington, Ky., and attended a weekend full of activities for Church of God families (that took place during schools' Christmas holiday) sponsored by a Church of God congregation in Lexington, pastored by Mr. O'Brien.

The congregation, not affiliated with the CGOM, has played host to church families for fellowship, seminars, dances and games for several years running.

At that function Mr. Henderson had invited Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Swenson to attend this year's CGOM conference.

Egalitarian Christianity

Mr. Henderson introduced the next speaker, Mr. O'Brien, who spoke about his concept of Christianity as egalitarian, or, as he put it, the "democratization of the Holy Spirit."

"What is the most powerful force in all of the universe?" Mr. O'Brien asked. "The Holy Spirit, absolutely right."

Then he asked: Is it ironic that this room is filled with people who possess the most powerful force in the universe, yet the Sabbatarian churches are some of the smallest congregations in the world?

Since there is obviously a "spiritual hunger" in this country, why aren't the Churches of God growing?

A solution to the problem of a lack of growth, he said, is the Holy Spirit.

"What are some of the principles of leadership of the Holy Spirit?" he asked. "One of the things I would call it would be the democratization of the Holy Spirit."

Christianity, properly understood, is an "egalitarian" movement, he said.

In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires individuals, irrespective of their positions in any church organization, to do its work.

Too many church organizations, he said, take a counterproductive approach.

"They say you can't do evangelism--unless you ask me. You can't invite another speaker outside our group; we have to have control of it.

"But why? Why can't the common man make that choice?"

Jesus "came to proclaim freedom to the prisoners," Mr. O'Brien continued. "He came to give His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to the common man. Don't believe that? Check Acts the 2nd chapter. That Holy Spirit came down like a dove, a tongue of fire, and landed on not just the apostles, not just the ministers. It landed on every person in that congregation . . . And God was telling us something with that."

He compared the Holy Spirit to a rising tide, which "lifts every ship in the sea."

Mr. O'Brien concluded: "You and I have the same spirit that Jesus Christ had. Let us spread that spirit and watch the tide rise."

Catch the vision

Mr. Henderson, at the lectern again, commented that he felt "the spirit of change here" while listening to Mr. O'Brien's words. "We are moving forward. It's just the beginning, and it's exciting, if we catch the vision."

Are we our enemy?

Julian Cruz, the pastor from San Antonio, was at the lectern talking about pioneers.

"The model CGOM is trying to develop," he said, is that of pioneering.

But some of the pioneers in some of the Churches of God have a lot of trouble getting along with each other.

"It is a shame that the various churches of the Churches of God in our tradition see ourselves as enemies."

Some read Jesus' words in Scripture that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, Mr. Cruz continued, but they conclude that they should build their church by "stealing brethren" from other groups.

It is unfortunate, he said, that some try to grow their groups by "badmouthing other church organizations."

Church members should recognize their real enemies and present a united front against them. Who are their real enemies?

"Satan, society, television, the breakup of the family: That's the enemy," said Mr. Cruz, "not the Churches of God."

Improper proselytizing?

After a brief break, Mr. Gregory was back at the front of the room. He noted without elaborating that a problem with recruiting members in the Churches of God is the traditional COG doctrine that it is not proper to "proselytize."

Overseas assistance

Then Mr. Cruz brought up the subject of assisting overseas ministries that write the CGOM to request money.

"We do have as a policy that somebody that requests money is not sent money," he said. "We send them literature."

Mr. Kieler, from the audience, noted that a visitor to the conference in 2003, John Walsh of Napa, Calif., had brought up for discussion the suggestion that the CGOM actively help fund Church of God–related projects of other groups in other countries.

But, said Mr. Kieler, that was "just beyond the scope of what we were set up for and able to do, particularly because we don't have the capability to do checks and balances to monitor these people over there."

A visitor to this year's conference, Leon Avery of Tulsa, mentioned the ministry of Church of God member Leon Sexton.

Mr. Sexton "has favor with the queen of Thailand," Mr. Avery said. "He gave up a good life in Dallas, Texas, about five years ago, and he has started schools for groups throughout Thailand, Burma, parts of China. He speaks about eight languages . . . He really has needs, and right there would be a great door for Outreach Ministries to get behind and support."

Mr. Gregory noted that he has been in contact with Mr. Sexton, whose organization, Legacy Institute, is making use of CGOM printed materials.

Ambrose Whaley, a delegate from Eldon, Mo., from the audience commented that it is easy to "get caught up" in the process of sending money to people overseas who request it for what sound like worthy projects.

He cited an example of a ministry in another country receiving money from the congregation Mr. Ambrose attends in Missouri.

Stepping on CG7 toes

First the Missouri congregation sent the foreign ministry $50 a month, as well as pieces of literature.

"As time went on," Mr. Whaley said, "he [the leader of the foreign ministry, who was affiliated with the Church of God Seventh Day, based in Denver, Colo.] asked for more and more money, so at that point in time we did get in touch with Mr. [Bill] Hicks, who is with the Seventh Day church, and come to find out [the leader of the overseas ministry] is indeed legitimate. But we decided that, if we would continue to supply money to him, we would go through the Church of God Seventh Day."

However, a problem came up. Some of the literature the Missouri group sent to the ministry leader advocated the observance of the annual feast days of Leviticus 23. Mr. Hicks, of the CG7 based in Denver, took great exception to CG7 members reading literature that advocated the keeping of the annual days.

Mr. Whaley said his congregation has decided not to send any more literature as a group to overseas ministries and suggests that if individual church members want to donate to them they can do so as individuals.

"We love the Church of God Seventh Day but we do adhere to the holy days," Mr. Ambrose concluded.

Mr. Kieler, from the audience, commented that the CG7, "as a body," is moving toward acceptance of a version of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Since CGOM affiliates do not preach or believe in the concept of the Trinity, he said, distribution of CGOM-approved literature that teaches against the Trinity can clash with CG7 efforts in the same geographical areas.

Mr. Whaley noted, however, that some CG7 congregations and members do indeed observe the feast days.

This writer commented during this discussion that a CG7 congregation in Harrisburg, Pa., pastored by Bruce Chesney and Bob Wertz, has sponsored a Feast of Tabernacles site for at least the past two years, even advertising it in The Journal.

Canadian support

Len Labunetz of North York, Ont., Canada, addressed the gathering.

Mr. Labunetz, who represented a congregation in Ontario, expressed his gratitude for financial support from the CGOM.

"Without you, we couldn't do it," he said.

He noted that his congregation will sponsor a Feast of Tabernacles site in Collingwood, Ont., in 2006 (see

Phone call from James McBride

The conference heard, via telephone hookup from England, a report from James McBride, who could not attend in person this year because of health problems.

"We're very much at a standstill at the moment" because "the income has dropped too much to do very much," Mr. McBride reported. "This past couple of months we've had virtually nothing. I think [Church of God members in Britain are] just dividing their money around a lot of different places."

He said CGOM activity has come to "almost a standstill" since "we had the trouble with the [feast day] calendar four or five years ago. I think everyone has scattered to the four winds. But we're trying to do our best."

Mr. McBride said that, however things work out, "we're looking forward to eventually getting back on track."

He noted that lately, because of his health problems, he has not conducted Sabbath services in his own Church of God UK. Rather, he and his family have attended services with the Global Church of God (which is affiliated with the Church of the Eternal God in the United States.)

Mr. McBride has stayed quite busy with CGOM publications, including New Horizons magazine, although recently he has converted it to a strictly Internet-based publication, which is less expensive to produce.

He noted that one problem the CGOM faces in Britain is that "most English people aren't really interested in religion at all."

Rather, Brits tend more and more to want to have a personal "New Age spiritual experience" rather than embrace any organized religion or attend any congregation.

Regarding the other Churches of God in Britain, "they're doing a little bit," he said. "The Global Church I was mentioning is still advertising, and they're getting some responses to the booklet they're advertising. I think they had about 1,000 responses . . . I think they're promoting Raymond McNair's booklet." (Mr. McNair pastors the Church of God 21st Century, based in Temecula, Calif.)

If a ministry can afford to advertise, then "some people are responding," Mr. McBride noted.

"But I was talking to Brian Gale [of the Global Church of God], who was talking to that group over here, and [Mr. Gale said that the requests for literature were] not translating into people who are asking to attend services or asking for baptism."

Mr. McBride said he has decided that "it's up to us to send out the message, and then from among those people God is going to select those that He wants for His church, for His Kingdom."

Ray Kurr, a CGOM individual member and pastor of an independent COG congregation in Mounds, Okla., affiliated with the Church of God Big Sandy (Texas), spoke to Mr. McBride from the audience: "I want to encourage you and let you know that everything you send I always read."

Short shoestring

Mr. McBride brought up the subject of local CGOM-affiliated assemblies perhaps earmarking funds to send a percentage of local donations to the CGOM committee that would send it overseas for worthy projects in other countries.

Mr. Gregory asked Mr. McBride: "You mention your income has been zero for the past couple of months. Financially, how is this being underwritten, because it's obviously expensive to do that?"

Mr. McBride's reply: "I don't like spending money that we don't have, so the Outreach [newsletter] has been going out solely on the Internet this past couple of months."

Mr. Gregory commented to Mr. McBride and the delegates in Tulsa that he would ask the CGOM to find ways to better financially support Mr. McBride's efforts in Britain.

Mr. McBride responded that "it's encouraging to know that you're all there rooting for me because it tends to be a bit lonesome . . . The nearest people are about 100 miles away, so we don't see them very often."

Mr. McBride concluded with words of appreciation for the late Mr. Dennis.

"He [Pat Dennis] was basically the prime mover in our first conference [in 1996] . . . I think something should be written into the record about that."

Sabbath services

At the Sabbath service, Saturday at 1 p.m., a guest speaker, Jerry P. Morgan, pastor of a Church of God Seventh Day congregation in Tulsa, spoke on his views about personal evangelism and what he sees as the need for Christians to be spiritually "separate" from the world.

The second of two speakers was Mr. Swenson, who, with Bill Jacobs of Albuquerque, N.M., operates Common Ground Ministries (

In his sermon, which served as a preface to his later presentation on personal evangelism, Mr. Swenson noted that "if evangelism were easy, or if it was even as fun as a good computer game, we'd do it."

After Sabbath services

Later on the Sabbath, Mr. Henderson, at the podium, fielded a comment from a man in the conference audience who noted that "I just can't get [James McBride and his telephoned report from Britain] out of my mind."

Mr. Henderson noted that the CGOM would have to find better ways to support Mr. McBride's CGOM-directed efforts in the United Kingdom.

Julian Cruz, the San Antonio pastor, announced that his group will again sponsor a Feast of Tabernacles observance in the Alamo City.

"There are rumors of no San Antonio Feast," he noted, "but we've already signed the contract" with the host hotel for the 2006 observance.

After the selection of the new committee configuration for the coming year (see the list at the beginning of this article), Mr. Swenson gave his main presentation.

Two extreme views

Mr. Swenson noted that, in the Church of God milieu, he has seen two "extremes" in attitudes toward the subject of evangelism, or preaching the gospel.

  • "One extreme, No. 1 in my experience," he said, "is the pastors who didn't want the members to do evangelism and, remarkably, didn't want to do evangelism themselves."

  • The other extreme: "Those people who maybe have a desire to do evangelism but they don't want anybody to tell them how to do it or make recommendations or observations or teach, because if there's any kind of structure to it it's against God."

Mr. Swenson noted several other concerns with the concept of personal evangelism in the minds and attitudes of many Church of God people.

One issue is the word evangelism.

"A young man came up to me after services [today] and said, 'Every time I hear the word evangelism, I kind of go yuck.' Why is that? Is it because it sounds evangelical? Protestant?"

Here are some specific criticisms of the concept of personal evangelism from some of the folks Mr. Swenson has talked with recently.

  • John 6:44, which says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him."

Church of God people read this verse and conclude that it is God's place to recruit members into the Church of God, and not the place of human beings to do that.

Another criticism:

  • "Evangelism doesn't work," Mr. Swenson quoted critics as saying. "Our churches don't grow. God has stopped calling people, so let's just take care of the flock we have."

Mr. Swenson's responses to those criticisms included verses in Isaiah 58, about crying aloud and sparing not, and citations of Matthew 28, especially verse 19: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Camp Outreach

As an example of personal evangelism that he himself is involved in, he talked about a project called Camp Outreach back home in Indiana.

Camp Outreach involves young people in congregations volunteering their time and labor to help people who are needy because of their deficient economic situations.

An unexpected benefit of Camp Outreach, he said, was conversations about it he had with people including total strangers.

"I would stop people in the grocery store," he said. "I'd say to the lady next to me, 'You know, we just had the most remarkable week,' and I would tell her what I had done. I was so excited about it."

A lesson from the Camp Outreach experience: Not only is it a good thing to do, it's also a handy conversation starter even long after the project is over.

Mr. Swenson talked about "house churches," a term that refers to what Church of God people might call living-room fellowships or small independent in-home congregations.

"Did you know that churches under 100 in attendance generate 16 times as many baptisms as the same number of people if you put them in a church of 1,000?" Mr. Swenson asked.

Eight principles of healthy congregations

He talked about eight characteristics of a healthy congregation (he credited the recognition of these points to a ministry in Germany):

  • The congregation should be "empowered" rather than dictated to.

  • It should embrace the concept that an individual member can have a ministry and that God equips members with spiritual gifts for works of service.

  • The group needs to be passionate about one's spirituality, including Bible study.

  • When spending money as a congregation, it should spend it on projects that will further the mission of the congregation.

  • The church should have inspiring worship. "You should walk away more inspired than when you came in." What about the congregation's young people? "Are they excited about it?"

At this point in his enumerating of the eight points, Mr. Swenson noted a "super secret study" the Worldwide Church of God undertook while he was a member and employee of that church.

The WCG spent $1 million on the study, he said, back in the 1980s.

The study found that "over one million people" had begun attending services over the years, since that church's beginning in the 1930s, but only about "100,000 or so" had made a lifelong commitment to continue to attend.

  • A church needs to encourage the founding of small groups, rather than be intimidated by such groups. Just because a group is small doesn't mean it has to be isolated from other groups, large or small. The larger group can be affiliated with the smaller groups it encourages to start.

"Small groups are a tremendous opportunity to build leadership in men and women," he said.

  • The congregation should determine people's needs and help them fulfill their needs.

  • It should help people learn about and have "loving relationships." Treat each other well, respect each other, care for each other.

Mr. Swenson announced that he and his wife, Jennifer, had begun a home fellowship on the first Sabbath in January 2006.

For the first few services, only two people attended: Mr. and Mrs. Swenson.

After 10 weeks, attendance was up to 12-14 people on most Sabbaths.

"We have one young lady who's ready to be baptized," he said.

Changing minds

After Mr. Swenson's presentation, Mr. Cruz, from the audience, stated he was thankful for Mr. Swenson's and Mr. O'Brien's presentations.

"I can't thank you enough for inviting these two men," Mr. Cruz said to Mr. Henderson. Now it is obvious that "we have a choice: either to grow or to die. It's so difficult to change the mentality."

Sunday morning

This writer for The Journal could not attend the Sunday-morning conclusion of the conference. The printed agenda stated that it was to include a session on "marketing: ideas for the future"; a report on the CGOM's "800 number"; a clarification of one of the CGOM's statements of belief; and a final interactive discussion of the conference topics.

Contact information

Contact the CGOM at P.O. Box 54621, Tulsa, Okla. 74155, U.S.A.; P.O. Box 2525, Lincoln LN5 7PF, England; 100 Northcote St., Aberdare, N.S.W. 2325, Australia; or P.O. Box 476, Don Mills Station, Don Mills, Ont. M3C 2T4, Canada.

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