Breakthrough in the Bible Belt

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Cedric Harmon

In Greenville, South Carolina-a stronghold of religious fundamentalism-a multiracial charismatic church is breaking centuries of prejudice and tradition.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Redemption World Outreach Center is located across from the municipal airport in Greenville, South Carolina. The jets that race from the runways in clear view of the church’s parking lot are a reminder that this min
istry has skyrocketed in a community where political conservatism and religious fundamentalism keep everything else moving very slowly.

In less than a year, Redemption World Outreach Center has tripled its membership to 1,600. Known for lively praise and worship and more than 60 outreach ministries, the church thrives in a region dominated by Baptists. Typically, Pentecostal and charismatic churches struggle to see any growth here.

Redemption Outreach’s success in establishing a truly multiracial congregation is another dynamic that sets it apart in a state that has proudly flown the Confederate flag over its capitol. And remember: Greenville is the home of Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist bastion that made the news earlier this year because of its antiquated policy forbidding interracial dating. After intense media criticism during the Republican primaries, the school rescinded that policy in February (see related story on page 66).

“Given the spiritual climate here, [this church] is the first of its kind, and I think it’s been paving the path for many more churches to come,” says pastor Ron Carpenter, 31, who started Redemption Outreach in August 1991 with three people. “This could not have been done by man,” Carpenter told Charisma. “God is showing Himself to be God.”

Greenville County, with 350,000 people, boasts the second-largest population in South Carolina. Baptist churches account for nearly half of all churches in the Greenville area. Pentecostal, charismatic and nondenominational churches are the second-largest group, comprising about 30 percent. It’s a religious city, but sometimes that means old traditions die hard.

“You’ve got a lot of Bible-believing Christians in the area,” says Carpenter’s father, Ron Sr., who serves as national evangelism director for the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), with which Redemption Outreach is affiliated. “I think a lot of people in Greenville have a working knowledge of the Bible, but what they are looking for is the manifest presence of God. And I think that’s where a lot of Pentecostal churches have an opportunity to reach out to people in ways that weren’t there 20 years ago.”

Redemption Outreach attracts many of its first-time visitors through curiosity generated by its weekly 60-minute television program, Back to Acts. Aired on Greenville’s local Christian station, WGFV-Channel 16, the program gives viewers a good sample of Pentecostalism–including black and white worshipers singing, dancing, shouting or running down the aisles.

“Whatever we’re doing, it’s working,” says Redemption Outreach member Alfred White. “It’s pulling people there. People are hungry. They’re hungry for that Word.”

That hunger is changing the spiritual climate in South Carolina, but this new spiritual liberty didn’t come without a price tag. The young pastors who came to plant their church had to dig deep before revival could flow in this dry place.

Breaking Traditions

Ron and Hope Carpenter say they are proud of their Pentecostal heritage, but they insist their congregation is a radical departure from the norm in their 120-year-old denomination. It was out of their confessed disdain for their traditional upbringing in old-style Pentecostalism that their passion for liberty was birthed.

“We’ve got a part of them [in the IPHC] that love us and part of them that have difficulty figuring us out,” Hope told Charisma.

When Ron and Hope were growing up, their image of church consisted of small congregations in red brick buildings, men in starchy-white shirts, women wearing long dresses and no makeup, and a fire-and-brimstone brand of preaching. All that tradition did was produce rebellion in both of them by the time they reached high school, they say.

Ron admits he hated church because of the legalism. “I was tired of being a preacher’s kid. I was tired of having demands and expectations I didn’t ask for. I wreaked havoc during my last two or three years as a teen-ager. I caused a lot of heartache for my parents,” he says.

Hope, the daughter of an IPHC deacon, also despised the form of religion she saw and its traditions in her hometown of Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. “I saw a lot of church, but I didn’t see God,” she says.

If either had it their way, they would have attended a secular university rather than Emmanuel College, a school in Franklin Springs, Georgia, backed by the IPHC. The couple met during the first semester of their freshman year at Emmanuel in 1986. They
were married in 1990 and now have three sons.

Ron says he never would have attended Emmanuel had it not been for the basketball scholarship he was offered. But the desire for basketball changed as soon as he set foot on campus. A week before he was to start classes, Carpenter says he was radically saved while attending a campus revival. He knew basketball was not his calling, so he gave up his athletic scholarship.

“With tears in my eyes, I told my coach I was not here to play basketball. I was brought here to prepare for ministry,” Carpenter recalls.

Hope, a former beauty pageant contestant and high school cheerleader, says she wanted to go to any school that would offer her a music scholarship. But her parents demanded that she attend a Christian college. “I knew the whole time I had a call on my life,” she recalls. “My mother told me I would marry a preacher.”

It was during their years at Emmanuel while performing in the school’s choir that the Carpenters were exposed to large congregations that numbered into the thousands. They also witnessed the creative ways others worshiped God. They both realized that spiritual liberty is produced by a personal relationship with God–and
that rules without intimacy with God produce rebellion.

After a year’s internship at a church in Tennessee, the Carpenters embarked on planting their own church. They spent six months visiting other churches in the Greenville area to gauge the spi
ritual climate, and they found that the religious community was no different from what they had seen in their youth.

Redemption Outreach opened in a concrete warehouse on a backstreet nobody could find. Hope, Ron and his former college roommate, Sam Shelton, were the only people in the first service. They borrowed a 50-year-old piano from someone’s basement, and they used shower curtains to cover up loading docks that made the sanctuary uninviting.

Hope insists it was worse than uninviting. “It was pitiful and horrible,” she says of their first building.

“It was depressing,” Ron adds. “You had to have a move of God to get some joy.”

Shelton agreed to drive up from Emmanuel College each weekend to lead worship in exchange for dinner after church. But all three envisioned something better–and different from the status quo.

“Ron preached with zeal, whether there were two people or 100,” Shelton says. “We knew God would send the people. We made up our minds we would serve Him and worship Him.”

During those early days, the
Carpenters struggled to live on a meager $1,200-a-month stipend from their denomination. Carpenter, an admitted workaholic, says he would put in 70-hour weeks, pray until the wee hours on Sunday mornings at the church and still have energy to preach a message later that morning. To build his ministry, he went door-to-door sharing his vision with anyone who would give him the time.

In his zeal, Carpenter admits that he nearly lost his marriage. He came home one day and saw Hope with her car packed.

She had become frustrated because they had no money, and because Ron was consumed with ministry concerns and left little time for her. Because she was raised in a wealthy family, she couldn’t handle the fact that being a pastor’s wife meant she had to buy all her clothes from Wal-Mart.

“I was like, ‘God, if this is the way I have to live the rest of my life, I don’t want to do it,'” she says.

But Hope did come back to Ron in a few days. “When I came back, I didn’t know the outcome. But I knew I loved him. If I had to live in a hut in Haiti, I’d live with him,” she says. “God had to do a work in me.”

The Carpenters, an attractive and friendly couple, have a reputation for sincerity and love for people. Many of Redemption Outreach’s members find that liberating for a church in the Bible Belt–where people are sometimes judged by whether they wear a coat and tie or if they conform to legalistic standards.

“There are some people who say they love people and they accept everybody–but if you’re around them a while you’ll see that’s not exactly true,” says church member Vicki Wright. “What comes out of Ron’s mouth is what he lives. He genuinely loves people,
and that spirit draws people. He’s created that atmosphere and a Christlike attitude.”


Shattering the Status Quo

The Carpenters realized early on that they wouldn’t see success just by following a familiar religious pattern. One of the first
things they did was nix Sunday night services, a move that brought criticism from denominational leaders.

“We were taught to have church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night,” Carpenter explains. “The only way you got out of it was if you were dead or dying. To get to heaven you went to church. It was like duty and going through the motions.”

Redemption Outreach went to two Sunday morning services last March to accommodate the church’s growth. Its main service, which starts at 10:30 a.m., usually lasts beyond 1 p.m. That in itself is another tradition-breaking barrier in a region where Christians hit the local restaurants promptly at 12:15 p.m.

“When it’s 12 o’clock in South Carolina, you’re out of church. I don’t care what denomination you’re in,” the pastor adds.

“But we have found out if God is involved, our church members don’t care what time it is,” Hope adds.

The Carpenters’ openness to change seems to be working. By the mid-1990s, Redemption Outreach’s membership had grown to 200, a plateau that many congregations reach but never climb over in Greenville. In 1995, the congregation broke through that invisible barrier.

Carpenter attributes the church’s growth to a yearlong teaching series from a book by Kevin Connor, The Church in the New Testament (Bible Temple Publishing). In his efforts to distinguish himself from his Pentecostal upbringing, Carpenter realized prior to the teaching that his ministry was not modeled after the pattern God had set for the body of Christ. So he restructured the church government, establishing it according to apostolic principles explained in
Connor’s book.

“That was a bumpy road,” Carpenter remembers. “[But] I understand now what the apostle Paul said in being careful how you build. Everywhere God dwelled, the people built it [the tabernacle] just as He designed it, and His glory came. He rewards obedience with glory.”

Redemption Outreach hit 500 members within a matter of months after the teaching. The growth spurt enabled the congregation to construct its first church
building near one of Greenville’s busiest business corridors.

During the next four years, the church went to a two-service format on Sunday mornings. But the increase that soon followed came unexpectedly.

It began when Carpenter secured a commitment from pastor Tommy Barnett of Phoenix First Assembly of God to be his “Back to Acts” conference keynote speaker in March 1999. In one of the services, Barnett related a story of how a pastor in Mexico started a church with 12 people that grew to more than 250,000 members in 12 years.

The pastor preached a message to Barnett’s congregation on the “multiplication anointing,” and he later laid hands on Barnett. Barnett, who has since written a book on the subject, Multiplication (Creation House), went on to say his ministry experienced unmatched growth after that.

On this particular night, Carpenter was the next to receive the multiplication anointing. “I had been in a lot of good altar calls. I was wondering if it was a creative way to do an altar call,” Carpenter recalls. “Tommy dropped some mustard seeds in my hands, laid hands on Hope and I and imparted the anointing.”

Remarkably, Redemption Outreach has since tripled its membership and shows no signs of leveling off. “It’s truly remarkable,” Barnett told Charisma. “It’s a great move of God with a very special young man for a pastor.”

“The harvest has overwhelmed us,” notes Carpenter. “It took us seven years to go from zero to 500. It’s taken us less than a year to go from 500 to 1,600.”

The growth has Carpenter and his ministry staff of 17 scrambling to meet demands. Earlier this spring the church completed its transition into a new church building constructed on an adjacent piece of property. The old church building now serves as the education and day-care center.

The ministry’s latest transaction of purchasing a building next door to the day-care center will soon be devoted to educational purposes. And negotiations began in March to purchase another four acres behind the current main sanctuary with plans of constructing a 5,000-seat domed facility.

“Preachers come back and will ask what did we do? We haven’t changed a thing,” Ron says emphatically. “It’s all God.”

“When you look at the whole thing,” adds Carpenter’s father, Ron Sr., “I don’t think anybody can doubt that the church has been favored of the Lord. It has been given unusual opportunities and invitations that seem to be out of the norm.”

And that’s exactly what’s needed in this Bible Belt stronghold, observers say. It just may prove that if churches in the United States want to grow, the first order of business might be to break a few traditions. *

Cedric Harmon is a free-lance writer based in Columbia, South Carolina.


The Sound of Racial Harmony

At Redemption Outreach, music was the key to breaking racial barriers.

In the sanctuary of Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, South Carolina, flags from many nations are displayed in the church’s 1,200-seat sanctuary, sending a message that God’s Spirit is being poured out on all people. That is especially significant in this segregated Southern city, where most churches represent only one racial group.

More than 30 countries are represented by the church’s attendees, says pastor Ron Carpenter. African Americans make up the ministry’s largest segment, representing about 60 percent of the membership, and there are many interracial marriages.

“It took a long time [for our church] to get to that place [of multiracial fellowship],” observes Phillip Doub, an elder at Redemption
Outreach. “It’s a reflection of leadership–a tremendous amount of maturity. We believe in that ‘trickle-down’ effect. It’s got to start with leadership, or it can’t flow to the body.”

Carpenter says the issue of race relations had to be aggressively dealt with before his church could experience any growth. “You would have thought for a while I had nothing else to preach,” he told Charisma.

In 1995, Carpenter publicly repented for the sin of racism and slavery by his ancestors. Then he conducted a foot-washing ceremony as a statement of humility and reconciliation.

Carpenter’s wife, Hope, believes there is a misconception in many ministries that boast of having a multiracial congregation. There’s more to just saying that one attends church with people of a different race. “That’s what we tell our people here: Don’t pat yourself on the back and think you’re so wonderful that you come to church with different people and then you don’t fellowship with them during the week,” she says.

Ron Carpenter says he’s learned several hard lessons concerning race relations. One of the most influential moments occurred during a lengthy discussion he had with five men in his church. The men concluded that poor race relations in the Christian community are the result of ignorance.

“What I learned about racism is there are things that are not offensive to you–you meant nothing by it–but they are highly offensive to others,” he says. “Things I said in jest with no motive of hurt, by the time it got through the wall of perception, it was highly offensive, highly upsetting and divisive.”

South Carolina has the nation’s highest rate of interracial marriages, about 4 percent. But it was not until November 1998 that an obscure law banning such marriages was repealed by voters and
ratified the following spring by the state legislature. And it was not until last February that Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in Greenville, reluctantly rescinded its long-standing ban against interracial dating on its campus.

Carpenter’s father, Ron. Sr., a national evangelism director for the Oklahoma City-based International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), believes a key factor in Redemption Outreach’s success is the church’s music ministry, which has ditched traditional Pentecostal church-organ sounds in favor of a Top 40 and funk groove that intentionally affirms a musical style favored by black church members.

That’s the way Redemption Outreach music directors Sam and Paula Shelton want it. Shelton admits the sounds that emulate contemporary black Christian artists are contrary to his conservative beginnings in Wytheville, Virginia.

But Shelton prefers the black style. “I didn’t watch American Bandstand on Saturday afternoons. I watched Soul Train,” he says, mimicking the sound of the show’s trademark train whistle enunciation.

Both Shelton and Carpenter say they’ve taken a lot of criticism from Greenville’s church community. Most of it is directed at the ministry’s weekly telecast, Back to Acts, which features segments from the worship service and shows people singing, dancing and running down the aisles in uninhibited praise.

“I can show you the e-mails we get,” Carpenter says, nonchalantly. “[But] I knew the music would be the [key to] crossover for a multicultural church.”

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