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2008 Conversations

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Conversation: James T. Bradford

Depending on the  Holy Spirit

The Executive Presbytery unanimously appointed Dr. James T. Bradford, 56, to the position of general secretary of the Assemblies of God. Bradford, pastor of Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Mo., since 2003, recently spoke with General Superintendent George O. Wood.

WOOD: Could you talk about your family background and a little about your ministry?

Bradford: I grew up in Canada in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Ours was a Spirit-filled family; my father was a layman, a businessman. When I was still in high school we moved to the United States.

I love the sciences, and I had a heart to become an aerospace engineer. As a junior in college I transferred to the University of Minnesota to pursue a Ph.D. I got involved in the Chi Alpha group there. It was a small group, and the campus pastor was just leaving. I became the student leader.

By the end of my senior year, I’d shrunk the group from 12 down to three, but I felt in my heart God was birthing something. I stayed at the university for another five years of graduate studies. We had a spiritual breakthrough and grew pretty quickly from a very small group to nearly 100. I pastored that group while I finished my dissertation.

A year later we became a university church. We started with a core of 120 out of the campus ministry and planted a church right in the University of Minnesota. It’s still there, Sojourn Christian Campus Church.

WOOD: You did your Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, and I’ve joked that you’re the only pastor I know who’s scientifically competent to make a church fly.

Bradford: I didn’t do anything romantic like design aircraft or spaceships, but we did basic science that added to the literature. And every time I hear you say that I’m scientifically trained to make a church fly, I always say, “I wish it was that easy.” Many days I drive home as a pastor saying, “You know, rocket science is pretty easy compared to this.” Pastors have huge challenges.

WOOD: You encountered some resistance to your leaving the program to become a pastor.

Bradford: The head of my department really took me to task one day. “So what are you doing with the rest of your life?” he asked a month before I graduated. I told him, and he absolutely turned on me. “Don’t you know how much the state of Minnesota puts into a Ph.D. student?” he asked.

He couldn’t begin to understand, but God had called me, and that’s why I never want to grow cynical about the call of God. I tangibly believe in the call of God. My own personal advisor, a Jewish man, was more understanding. He said, “Probably the skills you learned here will apply to many areas of your life.” And I have found that to be true.

WOOD: You have a great ministry in prayer. Prayer played a pivotal role in an experience you and I shared.

Bradford: You had been at Newport Mesa Christian Center in the heart of Orange County on the campus of Vanguard University just south of Los Angeles. You had been there 17 years and had built a church from a few dozen to 2,000. When you were elected to district office you called me out of the blue and asked if I would be willing to talk to the board. I said no to you once, and I said no to them once. I thought that was it. I was 35 years old, and I thought it was a ministry suicide assignment going from a university church where I was the oldest person to a multigenerational, very large church. But I came to a different decision after praying about it. I ended up serving there for 12 years, and it was a great gift to me.

WOOD: God really flourished your ministry. Then you came to Central Assembly. Under your leadership Central has really reached out into the community.

Bradford: The congregation has become very missional locally. Globally they’ve always been quite missional, but locally it started with an after-school program at Pipkin Middle School right next to us. It’s just grown and grown. The church is now doing Adopt-a-Block programs, oil change ministries for single moms, feeding programs, food pantries, several more after-school programs. And people are getting saved. God just keeps raising up people with a heart to reach out.

WOOD: Tell me about your passion for the Assemblies of God and for young ministers.

Bradford: I’m excited about our future, and I want to see young leaders’ creativity tapped. Yes, we need to stay primitively dependent on the Holy Spirit, like our forefathers did. At the same time, I have a passion to open up our Movement to young leaders so they can feel like, “I have a place here; my voice is heard. My creative ideas will not get vetoed, will not get preached against at General Council. I’ll be encouraged, rather than shut down.”

At Central Assembly we have hundreds of college students who attend the church, many of them here because of our proximity to Evangel and CBC and the seminary, many of them in ministry preparation. I see them as our future, and I’m really excited about investing in them.

WOOD: The Assemblies of God has always given strong focus to the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Talk a little bit about your relationship to the Holy Spirit, your focus on the Spirit.

Bradford: My very first year in college, before I transferred to the University of Minnesota, I had a friend who was two years ahead of me and was Pentecostal. He was a prayer warrior. We used to take a break at a church near campus and pray every afternoon. He kind of mentored me.

Then when I went to the University of Minnesota and shrank that group from 12 to three, a guy sat in my dorm room and said, “Well, maybe we ought to pray and fast.” And for three months I was just undone. It was like God just surrounded me with a sense of His holiness and the Spirit. Sometimes I would pray for two hours, and all I could do was just groan. I felt like God was birthing something in me.

About a year and a half later, very suddenly, we had a spiritual breakthrough. We grew from a little group to 100. That experience made me passionately committed to corporate prayer.

I would pray with 200 people every Wednesday night at Central. We would just do extended corporate prayer.

I never want what I do to be a performance, something put on. It’s got to come authentically out of who I am. I want to just love Jesus, serve Jesus, and depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.

You know, I’m a little quiet in my disposition at times, but I just see the power of the Holy Spirit. I love the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, walking with the Lord, just depending on Him. I think because I haven’t had any of the formal training to do ministry in the way others have had the privilege of doing, maybe that’s made me a little more desperate. I’ve just needed to lean on the Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit is not old-fashioned; the Holy Spirit is not archaic. I don’t think we need to relate the Holy Spirit to stylistic subcultures of 40 or 50 years ago. Yes, our culture is different, but the tangible, evidential power of the Holy Spirit never changes. We need to keep giving place to that.

AGTV: Watch the AGTV video feature of this interview.

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