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Prayer and outreach fuel revival

By Joel Kilpatrick

The walls in Pastor Earl Banning’s office can barely contain the sound of the people and the music coming from the nearby sanctuary. One by one, staff members step inside and greet one another, standing in a loose circle. The energy is palpable not just in the offices but in the foyer, the hallways, even the parking lot.

The people of Braeswood Assembly of God in southwest Houston have trouble keeping calm when they come together on Sunday morning.

The pastors clasp hands.

"We ask You for souls today, Lord," says Pastor Banning, leading a high-volume prayer. "Sweep them in, we pray. We claim southwest Houston in Your name."

As they walk into the sanctuary, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary church. The group of 1,000 or more gathered for the 10:45 a.m. service, one of three morning services, could be mistaken for a Jamaican or African congregation. Many wear clothes from their native countries: purple, red and green dresses and loose-fitting tunics, beautifully embroidered and with matching headdresses. People of other ethnic groups are here, too: Hispanic, Asian and white.

"Everything in the temple shout ‘Glory!’ " the people sing, shouting and raising their hands. After the worship and choir music, Banning exhorts: "The river of God is flowing, and He invites us to jump on in. Let God be God and do what He wants."

Later he takes an impromptu poll: "How many here were born outside the U.S.?"

More than half the people stand.

"Missions full circle," Banning says. "When I was in Bible college, I thought God was calling me to the island of Jamaica to spend my life there. I married a beautiful young lady who thought God was sending her to China. But God didn’t call either one of us to those places; He called those people to Braeswood."

The people applaud.

Braeswood is perhaps one of the liveliest churches in Houston, America’s fourth-largest city. Braeswood is also one of the most ethnically diverse churches, with people from more than 50 nations.

The combined emphases on soul winning and racial harmony have fed a revival that has grown the church from 125 people in 1970 to 2,600 in regular attendance today.

"Pastor Banning always tells us he’s color blind, and it’s true," says Ralph Jacob, 66, originally from Egypt. "That is a gift God gave him. Braeswood is all backgrounds, nationalities."

"This is not a white or black church," says Steve Banning, Earl Banning’s son who will become senior pastor in the fall of 2000. "This is a church for whosoever will come."

Braeswood has "been in revival mode since 1970," says Earl Banning. "It has grown by taking territory and holding it."

When Earl Banning first came to Braeswood, he found himself in the middle of the burgeoning charismatic renewal. The all-white congregation began experiencing revival, and people came literally off the streets to find salvation.

"God began a work in our hearts," Banning says. "We saw a great number of people saved."

But Banning wondered where he fit.

"One Monday morning at the church I was feeling bad because I didn’t feel important," he says. "The Holy Spirit was moving, souls were being saved, especially young adults, and I felt it was happening without my particular leadership. I cried out, ‘God, I need a job description. I feel like what’s happening would happen whether or not I was here.’ The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, ‘I have never sent a hungry man to an empty table and never sent a thirsty man to a dry well.’ That was my job description from that day to this. I was to keep the Word on the table before the people. The well of living water was the excitement of worship and the celebration of the presence of God. So we became a Word and worship church. That’s what we’ve been to this day."

At 12:15 p.m., after an impassioned sermon from the elder Banning, people flood the altar in response to the call for salvation. Eighteen indicate they want to meet the Lord.

"It’s harvest time," Banning says. "Jesus, bless these people and let this be a day where You pour out Your Spirit on them."

One of the men in the congregation this morning is Jay Afini, 43, who came to Houston from Lagos, Nigeria, in 1978 to go to college. Before then he had never traveled more than 200 miles from home.

"I did not know the Lord when I first came to this country," he says. "Thank God, I didn’t get too deep into the religion [of my parents]. I knew there was God, but I started to question the god I was made to know."

In 1989 he came to Braeswood, defiant yet searching for answers.

"I felt a peace I had never had, and it was not the air conditioning, but something inside my heart," he says. "I was curious to come back and prove God a liar. I wound up getting saved in the process. Since then I want to know everything I can about Him."

Ralph Jacob came to Houston from Cairo, Egypt, in 1969 and helped build one of the first Coptic churches outside of Egypt, but he was dissatisfied with his own spiritual life. He started attending Braeswood in 1975 and joined the congregation officially in 1979. He is now a deacon and Sunday school teacher.

"We feel this is our family," he says. "I look forward to coming every time the church door is open. God is using people to win souls here."

The church seems to run on the twin engines of prayer and evangelism.

"We believe that nothing happens until someone prays," says Earl. "Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The heart of all prayer requests is for souls. The more we pray, the more victory we have over the devil’s territory."

"This is a Spirit-filled church, and we emphasize praying in the Spirit," Steve says. "The gifts of the Spirit function regularly in the worship services. We come into our services expecting a miracle from God."

People come forward to receive salvation nearly every service, sometimes 15-20 in the three morning services, says Steve. The church has also chosen not to move to the suburbs. "We’re going to minister here," Steve says firmly.

Teams go out during the week to hand out Christian literature in shopping malls and on street corners. Sunday school plays a major part in growing new believers to maturity. The church’s goal is to have total participation in the Christian education program. On Sunday morning, anyone who has been to Sunday school wears an orange "We Build People" sticker. Those without stickers are invited to attend Sunday school the following week.

"Three of the larger classes study revival, how to nurture revival. Other classes study intimacy with God. The classes give altar calls, have times of intercession for the lost. There is a commitment to allow the Word to have its place," says Steve Banning.

Carol Bass, 37, says the strong Christian education program and the church’s ethnic diversity have made her a faithful attendee for seven years.

"I have grown tremendously because of the Sunday school education," she says. "The standard Braeswood has in growing in the Word — I’ve not seen a church like it. The people we’re around love the Lord."

Bass was born and raised in small-town Texas where "we were all white," she says. But she hungered to be with people from different cultural backgrounds and to raise her three children with a broader worldview.

"People from other countries come here and are familiar with war, or having to trust God for their next meal," she says. "I’ve learned so much. I’ve seen their faith, and my faith is strengthened."

Homer Stewart, 35, came to the United States from Jamaica in 1983. He says that in the course of his business travel he often meets people who have attended Braeswood.

"It’s almost like a missionary outreach," he says. "I don’t think I’ve gone to another part of the world where I haven’t met a brother from Braeswood. You mention Braeswood and people come running."

The church’s evangelistic efforts are based in part on Earl Banning’s belief that the time has come to compel people to come to salvation.

"I feel God is calling the church to be graciously and righteously aggressive to bring souls into the Kingdom," he says. "The compelling force is love and the Holy Ghost. He’ll honor any church that will be bold for the Lord in reaching out."

Joel Kilpatrick is an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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