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Power: Stepping into the flow of God’s presence

By John T. Maempa

After driving blocks on leaf-strewn residential streets, passing run-down brick buildings of defunct businesses, bumping over an old bridge and railroad tracks, and climbing a steep hill, I begin to doubt the accuracy of directions I’ve been given to Victory Assembly of God on the east edge of Youngstown, Ohio.

Finally, an intersection listed in a memo wedged into the dashboard comes into view. A quick right turn and a short distance more, and there looms a beautiful building before a thick stand of trees. Not the location I expect for a congregation of 1,500 that has been experiencing revival and growth since January 1997.

Steel mills on the city’s east side that once pumped dollars into the local economy have shut down, leaving the immediate vicinity economically depressed. Yet people come to Victory, from near and far — averaging 25-30 visiting families every Sunday. Obviously, the Holy Spirit isn’t limited by the real estate maxim: "Location, location, location."

Though I am 45 minutes early for Victory’s Friday night service, Emma Byler, secretary and assistant to Pastor Dave Thomas, directs me to the old sanctuary. A new, larger 900-seat one is adjacent and is used on Sundays. Two services are needed to accommodate the crowds.

Worship is under way as we enter. Musicians are playing; people are at the altar interceding.

Emma informs me that many of those present are not members of Victory Assembly. Instead they represent as many as 30-35 churches — Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Church of God, independent and more. Forged into one body by the Holy Spirit, worship is united and free. Labels are gone.

After nearly an hour and a half of worship and a message from Pastor Thomas, we pray. Like spokes in a wheel, people line up in the aisles from the altar to the rear of the fan-shaped sanctuary. As Pastor Dave and Kathie Thomas and prayer leaders pray, many fall under the power of the Spirit.

Near midnight we exit the church.

The Friday night service grew out of a burden on Pastor Thomas’ heart. "When God spoke to me about starting a Friday night service, I looked at my schedule and thought there was no way," Thomas says. "There were wedding rehearsals, football games and other activities. So I started a Saturday night prayer meeting instead."

God blessed the Saturday prayer meetings. But after the revival broke out in January, Thomas repented before God and the congregation. He says, "I told the people that God never instructed me to start a Saturday night prayer meeting, but a Friday night service. So, since February 1997, we have been having those services."

From the beginning, the lower level of the sanctuary has always been comfortably filled.

Thomas tells the worshipers that it’s not about them leaving their churches and joining Victory. "I tell them their tithe does not belong with us, but with their local churches," he says.

The Friday night services have been uniquely blessed by God’s presence, a presence that is spilling over into the Sunday services.

Though Victory Assembly had experienced waves of revival prior to January 1997, a major turnaround was signaled to Kathie Thomas about a month before the revival broke.

"[Before revival broke], people were spending a lot of time at the altar repenting," says Kathie. "One Wednesday night I was going to pray for a lady at the altar when God told me to stay where I was and seek Him. When I did, the power of God came on me."

Kathie, who describes herself as "ultra-conservative," felt waves of God’s power roll over her. "All the while I was thinking, Kathie, get a grip! You’re in church." At that point, Dave quietly dismissed the service.

"Afterward a couple sitting next to me said they had felt a force knock them over sideways. The husband, who is a teacher and also conservative, said he was lying on the floor unable to get up under his own strength.

"We left that evening knowing God had done something special," she says.

"Every January we set aside the first week for fasting and prayer," says Pastor Thomas. "On the Saturday night [before revival broke] I was on my face before the Lord. He spoke to my heart and said, ‘Son, you don’t know anything about revival.’ I replied, ‘OK, Lord, I don’t know anything about revival. I’m not going to argue with You. You do whatever You want to do, however You want to do it, and through whomever You want to use. I will get out of the way.’ "

What happened on Sunday night, January 5, is something no one who was present will ever forget. Pastor Thomas and Joe Thomas, minister of music (no relation), tell what they saw.

"It seemed like a regular service," Joe says. "We had just finished praise and worship and Pastor Thomas said, ‘I feel like someone has something they need to share tonight.’

"A person shared, but nothing happened. Then a lady, whom we didn’t even know then, stood up and said, ‘Pastor, please pray for my mother. She is demon-possessed.’ She had a picture of her mother who lives in Morocco, North Africa. It was a sad picture. Her mother was very skinny. Flies were all over her. She was eating only bread and water.

"When Pastor Thomas looked at the picture, it was like someone punched him in the stomach. At the same moment everyone in the congregation responded in the same way. Immediately a spirit of intercession broke out."

"Then God’s Spirit came upon our women’s pastor, Carol Hutchins," Pastor Thomas says. "Normally, Carol is very shy, but she began to call people to the altar. She was trembling like a leaf. Families ran, weeping and repenting. It was absolutely incredible."

Kathie says, "God spoke to me and said, ‘I want you to stand back in awe, even as a mother stands back in awe of her newborn child.’ Then using an analogy only a mother can fully understand, He said, ‘The water is breaking. That seed I planted in your spirit is giving birth tonight in your church.’ "

From that time on, nothing has been the same at Victory Assembly.

Kathie tells of visiting the children’s church. "I talked a little bit about David and how he was anointed in his young age," she says. "Then I asked, ‘Would any of you like to be anointed today?’

"As God began to move, children began to go down.

"Afterward, one mother came to me and said, ‘I have four children. Three of them love God, but my 10-year-old has been very stubborn and cold toward God. All he wants to do is sit at home and watch TV. When he came out of the room, I knew God had touched him. He came running with tears in his eyes. He said, "Mom, I felt God’s presence today! And when I was on the floor I wanted to pray for myself, but God wouldn’t let me. I prayed for people who don’t know Jesus all over the world. God told me I’m going to be a missionary." Then he asked, "Mom, where is Ukraine?"

"‘When we got home, he said, "I don’t want to watch TV. I just want to listen to worship music." I knew his life had been changed.’ "

Before they came to Victory, Dave and Mary Ann Weber would have described themselves as "comfortable Christians."

"But after we came and saw what God was doing, it was scary," says Mary Ann. "I didn’t understand it all, but, then, who does? All I know is that we are two totally different people today."

"People would have thought of us as a couple they could go to for prayer and a listening ear," says Dave. "But when I look back on where we were then, by comparison it’s almost as if we were backslidden. A fire is burning in us now. The things of this world have really paled. Neither of us cares a thing about TV. Wherever there can be a ministry, that’s where we want to be. And God has raised up in me a desire to pray. I don’t remember saying at any time, ‘I’m going to pray more.’ God has raised this up."

Sherri Rossi, a professional photographer from a mainline denomination, was reasonably content with her church, but was searching. Then her mother died unexpectedly.

She says, "I got really angry. I would lose my temper and throw things. As I got worse, people began to worry. I was losing weight."

Through her business Sherri met a member of Victory Assembly who also had recently lost a parent. They became friends; and as they prayed, God took away her anger.

What is revival to Sherri? "I have no idea what it is supposed to be," she says, "but to me it’s God found me, a broken, beat-up, angry, hurting person, and He has changed me and is healing me."

Bill and Mary Ellen DiPaola attended Victory three years ago to "get lost." There had been some strife in a congregation they were part of, so they thought they would find a big church, sit in the back and not get to know anyone.

"Well, that didn’t work," says Mary Ellen. "Pastor Fred Baer, who heads Victory’s pastoral care and visitation, asked our name and introduced himself. Every time we came, he remembered our names.

"We’d sit in a different place every service, hoping no one would be able to track us down," Mary Ellen says. "But the Lord put a special love for us in Pastor Thomas’ heart. He would try to spot us in the congregation. One time he said, ‘You keep moving around, and I can never keep track of you.’ That was the plan."

"One time Pastor Thomas came to us and said that God had given him a word for us," says Bill, a retired fireman. "It was based on Proverbs 3:5,6 — ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding.’ God was telling us to watch, listen and learn, and that everything would be OK."

"We were really enjoying sitting back and being part of all that was happening," Mary Ellen adds. "Then one service the Lord gave a word through Kathie Thomas that some of us could not keep on going with God until we got sin out of our lives. That word shot like an arrow through my heart.

"I went home crying and broken. That’s when God started taking out all the stuff — the love of things, the things of this world and spending time with TV. After about a week of spiritual battle, I finally felt a release from all those things."

"We gave our TVs away," says Bill. "I even gave up golf. I used to play every day. We live on a golf course where I can watch people play, but I don’t miss it. When God takes something away, you don’t miss it."

"Our joy now is to chase Him," Mary Ellen adds, smiling. Both are now intercessors who pray during service times. They also serve as altar workers.

Carl and Stephanie Petrus were struggling financially. They felt led to tithe on their debt, and shortly afterward Carl was promoted to manager of the masonry plant where he works. Since then, not only have they worked their way out of debt, but the whole atmosphere of the plant has turned from worldliness to employees openly praying and talking about the Lord. Breaking all production records, the 164-employee plant is prospering.

Deepening in their relationship with God, Carl and Stephanie have allowed Him to wash away the things that don’t belong.

"We used to just watch TV," Stephanie says. "Now it’s totally different. We hardly ever watch; instead we listen to Christian radio or worship CDs. It’s a constant state of worship."

"We’re learning to minister to the Lord," Carl adds. "Before it was the ‘gimme’ syndrome. When I had devotions it was like saying to God, ‘Aren’t You lucky to have me here this morning.’ Now it’s about building relationship."

"People would sometimes tell me they are having problems with their children," Stephanie says. "Before, I was timid and afraid to step out there. Now I say, ‘Can I pray with you about that?’ That’s the difference in dealing with people. There’s a boldness."

Returning from Youngstown, I realize again that revival is about getting into God — deep into Him — about never being the same and not wanting to be ever again. It is letting God’s presence so thoroughly wash away all the stuff that encrusts and insulates until all that’s left is a raw-nerve sensitivity to Him; where a whisper from Him elicits a response to move. A gentle prod guides to this person or that one in need of Christ’s love and compassion.

That kind of revival can change not only individuals; it can change the world. It is changing the world around Victory Assembly of God, in a location not at all obscure to the Holy Spirit whose wind blows where it will.

John T. Maempa is special assistant to 2000 Celebration.


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