Connections: Alton Garrison
May 25, 2014
Impacting Lives Across a Movement
Alton Garrison was an Assemblies of God evangelist, pastor and district superintendent before serving as executive director of AG U.S. Missions from 2005-07 and assistant general superintendent of the Fellowship since 2007. He spoke recently with Scott Harrup, Pentecostal Evangel managing editor, about each level of ministry leadership and the unchanging responsibility to shape people’s lives with the gospel.
evangel: Talk about the role of the evangelist and what believers need to understand about evangelism.
ALTON GARRISON: Whether you say you have a gift of evangelism or not, you still have a responsibility to witness, to evangelize. In 2008, we surveyed Assemblies of God pastors and discovered more than 90 percent asserted it is the responsibility of every Christian to share their faith. And yet, even among pastors, about 1 in 5 felt ill-equipped to evangelize or feared personal rejection if they did so. So there’s a big gap between those who recognize their responsibility to evangelize and those who actually do so.
Other research in the larger culture has demonstrated that most people would be predisposed to accept an invitation to go to church, and yet only a fraction of those people expressing that willingness are ever invited. There is a disconnect between our focus on evangelism from behind the pulpit and our commitment, both among clergy and laity, to put that into practice.
Those men and women who have answered God’s call to full-time evangelism are an enormous blessing to our Fellowship. Women especially, during the early history of the Assemblies of God, were instrumental in evangelizing rural areas across the United States and planting churches.
I ministered for 18 years as an evangelist. As a younger evangelist, I spent every summer speaking to students in youth camps. I remember a camp where in just one night more than 300 young people were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Youth are the lifeblood of the Assemblies of God, and it was enormously fulfilling to speak into the lives of young men and women who would go on to become ministers and vital laypeople themselves.
There is a real shift in our culture that is creating challenges for evangelists today. When I was traveling, it was not uncommon to hold meetings for a week or 10 days. It’s far more common to only meet for a weekend or three days now.
But God continues to call men and women to this ministry, and evangelism will continue to breathe life into our churches into our next century. Assemblies of God churches are incredibly diverse, and evangelists in particular are gifted in adapting their ministry to different communities of believers.
evangel: You transitioned from evangelism to the pastorate. What did you discover in that role?
GARRISON: When I was district superintendent, I used to tell churches that were in pastoral transition, “Pray, pray, pray, and then look at track record, track record, track record,” when they were considering a candidate. But I would always follow that counsel with my own story.
I became a senior pastor without one day of pastoral ministry experience. There were probably 100 résumés sent to First Assembly of God in North Little Rock (Ark.), and every one of those candidates had more pastoral experience than I did.
I was 39 years old, and I had never baptized anyone, had never dedicated a baby, had never done any number of things even a young pastor has done dozens of times. But God kept me at First Assembly 15 years and blessed our church.
If God calls you, He can equip you. Track record is important, and your past performance is a solid indicator of your future behavior. But the Holy Spirit will help you if you have a heart to learn, if you’re willing to be critiqued, and if you have someone you will be accountable to. God can use you anywhere you will let Him use you.
There’s no single right way to develop or lead a church. If God takes a person, knits their heart with a congregation, and they work together on a common goal built on a shared vision with a common Spirit-inspired language, that church is going to thrive even if it looks completely different from every other church in the area.
That’s what I think is so wonderful about the Assemblies of God. We are a huge Fellowship with a lot of diversity; rather than that becoming a weakness, I’m convinced it is a great strength.
evangel: District officials have been described as “pastors to pastors.” To what extent was that true in your experience as superintendent of the Arkansas District?
GARRISON: I really felt like God spoke to me to equip and encourage pastors and churches in a very specific way. We developed a survey for our pastors, and we identified eight needs they had. I built a curriculum to address those eight needs. Every month I would have a teaching day in Little Rock, and I and other presenters would address one of those needs. We went through the year and then repeated the cycle so as many pastors as possible could participate.
One challenge of being a district superintendent is the loss of access to the people you lead. As a pastor, you have weekly access. As a district leader, you might speak twice a year to member pastors. In a sense, you’re transitioning from throwing touchdown passes to coaching others to throw touchdown passes. So that transition has to be a heart movement; it has to be a cognitive movement. And I believe there is a different mantle that falls upon you for that.
evangel: As you survey our Fellowship from a national perspective, what do you observe?
GARRISON: I really believe the Assemblies of God was built upon a Spirit-empowered passion for evangelism and mission and church life, and I believe 100 years later there has not been a doctrinal drift or a missional drift. At our core, we have held true, and that is something I can give my life to.
At the National Leadership and Resource Center we have a chance not just to be administrators, but to cast vision, to promote interdependence vs. dependence, to celebrate Spirit-empowerment and to model for people what that looks like.
It’s going to be difficult to adequately tell the story of this Movement’s first 100 years during this centennial, but I’m excited about it, and I look forward to living and serving at least a few years into the next 100. I’m not naïve about the challenges we face, but I’m as hopeful as I have ever been about the future. The extent to which we face the future optimistically or pessimistically hinges largely on our attitude, our faith, our perception, and our passion for God.
I wasn’t raised in the Assemblies of God. I was raised in a small town in Texas and attended the independent Pentecostal church my dad pastored. We might have 60 in church on Easter. The fact I don’t have a background or relatives in this Movement makes the fact I am occupying this role as big a shock to me as anybody. I’m grateful, but I’m extremely humbled.
I don’t believe I have ever made a ministry transition in which I felt in myself I was adequately qualified. At each stage — pastoring, district leadership, national leadership — I came into a position I’d never had. But I feel that gives a strong impetus to be totally dependent on God, on the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to be open to people’s counsel.