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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

R.I.P., Carpenter's Home

Sunday I was reading a story in the Lakeland Ledger that immediately got my attention because it is big news - the famed Carpenter's Home Church building is coming down after 30 years.  The story had originally been prefaced on February 17th, but the new one claimed front-page coverage.  This is significant not only in the history of Lakeland itself, but for many people it has a personal dimension, and I am no exception.

Much of what was taught at Carpenter's Home over the years was stuff I would not personally agree with, and there has been some controversy with the megachurch over the years too.  Despite that, however, a part of my own history has Carpenter's Home in it, and I wanted to talk about that here.  I was never a member, nor did I attend, Carpenter's Home - nonetheless, I am involved in its legacy.

First though, a little about the history of this famous and sometimes notorious church.  Lakeland has always been a sort of church-going "mecca" for decades, and for some reason the Assemblies of God has had roots here since the beginning - it has a college (Southeastern University), its district offices, several affilliated churches, and of course the largest megachurch in all Florida; Carpenter's Home was the latter.  However, Carpenter's had humble beginnings, as its history goes back to what was then the original First Assembly of God in Lakeland.  First Assembly was founded in 1921, and it met in a building on Lemon Street we now know as the "old stone church."  This is where my first intersection with Carpenter's history comes.   When Barb and I first came here in 1992 and I started my classwork at Southeastern, I was a member then of the Foursquare denomination and we desperately needed a church to attend.  So, upon looking, I found one - it was called Family Praise and Worship Church, and was pastored by Rev. Gene Pansler (the son of the former Vice President of Southeastern, the late Dr. Clarence Pansler).  Family Praise and Worship Church at that time met in "The Old Stone Church" on Lemon Street, so I got to know that building well.   Over the years, as First Assembly expanded, the property of "The Old Stone Church" was acquired by the Shelton family, and they were the ones who leased it to Rev. Pansler when he made the decision to affilliate with Foursquare and start a church here.  Unfortunately, the Foursquare congregation only lasted a few years until it closed, but its presence in the historic building kept it around for a while longer.  Unfortunately, no extant photos of it could be found to show here, and I am not sure if it even is still there or not, but it is significant to see that a functioning congregation of some sort lasted all those years.

Around 1964, First Assembly had grown to the point that it needed a bigger building, and it purchased a large parcel of land between Main Street and Rose Street just east of downtown Lakeland, and there it built a larger building.  Two years later, in 1966, its most notable pastor, Rev, Karl Strader, took the reins of the First Assembly congregation and it grew more.   Strader, who at 83 is still very active, also drew some fire because of his more "charismatic" teaching, which included among other things a great emphasis on personal prophetic ministry and other things the soon-burgeoning Charismatic movement would be noted for.  As a matter of fact, he was noted as a sort of "maverick" in the Assemblies of God (Stephen Strang, "Strader, Karl David," in Burgess, McGee, and Alexander, The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements {Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1988}p. 833) despite his progress at growing a huge congregation which Gary White in his Ledger article Sunday rightly said anticipated the rise of the large megachurches later.  The growth was so phenomenal, as a matter of fact, that it compelled Strader and the church leadership to plan in the early 1980's a larger facility, and that is where the current building came into the picture.  The Main Street property was later acquired by another congregation, a Word/Faith church affilliated with Kenneth Hagin's ministry called Family Worship Center, and they too became a large church - they still occupy the property today, although since they have had to build two new large sanctuaries to accomodate their crowds too.

The immense 10,000-seat Carpenter's Home sanctuary

It was in 1985 that the new facilities, located in north Lakeland near US 98 North, were opened, and this facility was the biggest anyone had seen to this point - it seated 10,000 people.  In addition, a school (Evangel Christian School) was started, as well as a radio station (WCIE) and a large retirement complex (Carpenter's Home Estates).   This is the building which is also today being demolished.  Both Barb and myself had a lot of history with Carpenter's at this juncture too, as in 1986 at a concert Barb received what is called the "baptism of the Holy Spirit," with evidence of tongues.  Interesting enough, I was having a spiritual transformation of my own over 1000 miles away, when earlier in 1986 I was born again and baptized in water.  It would be three more years before I received the Pentecostal experience in a whole different way and another place, but all of that factored into how we ended up in Lakeland in the first place.  Carpenter's continued to have a few issues even in its heyday in the new mammoth sanctuary, as soon Strader attracted attention from the local Assemblies of God district for some of his more controversial teachings, and the result of those was a church split in 1989 from which sprang Victory Assembly - Victory acquired land a couple of miles away on Griffin Road and built a sizeable church of its own, which today is itself a megachurch.  Later, in 1992, a controversy surrounding a Ponzi scheme involving Daniel Strader (Pastor Strader's son) landed him in jail for a length of time and also affected the church's publicity negatively.  Then, in the same year, a controversial South African evangelist by the name of Rodney Howard-Browne began holding revival meetings there which evolved into the "Holy Laughter" movement, and this in turn created some problems due to its excesses.  To be honest, Barb and I attended some of those meetings in 1993, and I was not overly impressed - the theatrics seemed staged to me, and people were "falling under the power" more out of a Pavlovian response than they were to a real moving of the Spirit, and the general irreverence displayed for things holy was almost blasphemous.  This led to a slow decline of the famed megachurch in the late 1990's, and by 2005 the membership of the church had dropped to about 10-15% of what it used to be, compelling them to sell the facilities to another rising megachurch organization, Without Walls in nearby Tampa, which was founded in the early 1990's by Randy and Paula White (now divorced) who had Church of God roots.  Without Walls, however, soon was in its own decline, and by 2011 the great edifice stood vacant.  And, today it is slated to be demolished.  It is a tragic ending to the story.

I also share another part of my own story with Carpenter's Home, in that from 1995 to 1997 I worked as a security officer there.  Given the immense size of the congregation and the active schedule of concerts featuring a lot of superstars of Christian music, security became a necessity.  When I was hired on in April 1995, I was mostly assigned to the adjacent Carpenter's Estates (the retirement community), but did work some concerts and other events at the church too.  Carpenter's, despite its controversy and excesses, did provide a great service to many of us Southeastern students then, and although the job didn't pay much, it still was sufficient to pay the bills.  Many of my co-workers, as well as a couple of my ranking supervisors, were actually my classmates.  The experience of working there also helped me to meet a number of fascinating people, which was a blessing in itself.  However in time I moved on, and it soon became apparent that the church was declining and couldn't maintain the security detail it had, so it was later dissolved.

Carpenter's Home was also where I walked the aisle and received my Bachelor's degree in 1996.  For many years, it was a tradition for Southeastern to hold its commencement services at Carpenter's Home (Strader, to his credit, always supported Southeastern and its mission back in the day, which is why so many of us students were given good employment opportunities there too), and that continued to be the case I believe up to the early 2000's, when the venue was changed to Victory Church nearby.   Today though, I am not even sure Victory is the venue anymore, as Southeastern has itself in recent years seemed (at least to me) to disconnect itself from many of the local Assemblies congregations that once supported it, which is an unfortunate story for another time.

To give some concluding thoughts, Carpenter's was an institution in Lakeland for many years, and ironically had the congregation still been around today, I am sure they would have had quite the celebration for their 30th anniversary - Gary White, in the Ledger article, also made that observation.  The tragic saga of Carpenter's Home though is one that many should learn from, because there are lessons.  First, bigger is not always better - often, with large megachurches, they lose a lot of what made them into the great institutions they become, and as they do so, there is no place to go but down.   Second, excesses can do more harm than good, despite intentions and sincerity.   In my many years of involvement personally with the Pentecostal tradition, I can say honestly that I have seen it all - and, some of that involved some pretty bizarre stuff.  Excesses are a lot like a triple-fudge layer cake though - it may taste good, but if you indulge in a lot of it you will end up dying of some diabetic-related malady.  The Holy Spirit still operates today - God is immutable, and that includes the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead.  But, we also need to exercise good discernment skills too, lest we fall into some potentially dangerous trap.   Pastor Strader now lives at the Estates he helped build, and by all indications he is still vibrant and active at age 83.  And, a remnant of Carpenter's still exists in Lakeland, just to the north of the original sanctuary - it is called Ignited Church, and is pastored by Stephen Strader, Karl's son.  Ignited doesn't draw near the crowds it used to, as it has a more modest facility and unfortunately is prone to some of the same excesses that brought down the original church - a few years back, Ignited tried to re-create the "Laughing Revival" of years previous by inviting an offensive, foul-mouthed, tattoo-covered bully by the name of Todd Bentley to conduct "revival meetings," but it was to no avail.   Bentley, like so many other charlatans, quacks, and slick-talkers before him, soon generated his own controversy and the "revival" ended with no fanfare or fizzle.  I only hope that Stephen Strader and his pastoral staff will learn to exercise a little more discernment regarding who steps onto their sanctuary platform, because the last thing Lakeland needs is another hyped-up "revival."  In recent years, Lakeland has become sort of a "burned-out" district in regard to religious phenomena - there are still solid churches and individual Christians of all denominations to be found, but they are not quite like they used to be.  It is sad really, because the once-great spiritual legacy this town had is something that could enrich those who learn about it.  However, with charlatans, showmen, and others faking revivals to put money in their own pockets, much of the newer generation here has grown cold - and Southeastern has even followed suit, because for all the talk of creating a distinct Pentecostal identity you hear on that campus, it has yet to be put into practice, especially with professors in the Religion Department there who have their own agendas and don't really concern themselves with the spiritual formation of the students they teach.  Is there hope for a true spiritual renewal in Lakeland, that can bring back some of the good legacy of the past?  With God, all things are obviously possible, but it's not totally up to God - people need to have a desire for it.  Maybe one day God will have mercy and make it happen, as there may still be hope for Lakeland yet.

This sort of concludes my own chronicle of the ending of a great legacy of a famous church in Lakeland, and the good thing is that many o of us who have had some involvement with the old Carpenter's Home will preserve the best of what it was.  God be with you until next time.