Remember those toys called transformers that were popular about 20 years ago? The toy would start out as a car or a truck, but it could be transformed by a child into an action figure that didn’t look anything like the vehicle with which you began.
That’s sort of what happens every Sunday at the church building located at the corner of Hannah Avenue and Adams Street.
At 10:15 a.m. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which owns the building, holds its morning service with hymns accompanied by an organ and the words of the service printed in a book. Many at worship feel emotion, but the culture of St. Peter’s encourages people not to express it spontaneously.
Between 11:15 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., the atmosphere in the building transforms from the liturgical restraint of the Lutheran tradition into the exuberance of a Pentecostal congregation.
The church, which began renting space from St. Peter’s a year ago, is called New Harvest Christian Fellowship. A drum set and two keyboards are set up in front of the altar. The fifty adults who gather at 1:00 p.m. head for the fellowship hall where, divided into men’s and women’s groups, they devote themselves to half an hour of prayer in preparation for worship. The women sit in chairs, while many of the men pace back and forth. Most pray out loud or in quiet tones. Many are speaking in tongues.
For those new to the phenomenon, speaking in tongues may sound like babbling or like recognizable words being repeated over and over.
One young man name Saul explained it this way: “Satan can’t understand the spiritual language that comes from the heart, but the Holy Spirit knows what we are praying.”
At 1:30 p.m. the adults move upstairs to the worship area, while fifty children move into the hall for Sunday school. Worship begins with a period of singing praise songs which, if you didn’t pay attention to the words, would sound very much like light rock ‘n’ roll.
The song leader’s face is full of emotion as, microphone in hand, he exhorts worshipers to praise God. Many of the people in the pews are moving their bodies to the music.
Towards the end of the singing, Pastor Edwin Melendez strides to the microphone and leads his congregation in prayers for the people who have written their concerns on index cards before worship.
He then launches into his forty minute sermon which is a combination of teaching and exhortation. Pastor Melendez often preaches in a normal speaking voice but at times will crescendo into emotional outbursts of praise and enthusiasm, to which many in the congregation respond with equal fervor.
After the sermon, Pastor Melendez has an altar call during which, perhaps, half the congregation will come forward for the laying of hands and prayers for any need they might have.
The pastor’s prayers are often loud and forceful. The intensity in his face reveals an experience of spiritual warfare, in which God is seeking to work through him to defeat the evil that is holding some of His people in bondage. Many in the congregation provide a background chorus as they speak in tongues and clap their hands in praise.
When the altar call has ended the band and song leaders take the people through one more up-tempo Christian rock song and the worshipper discovers that two hours have passed since the beginning of the service.
At the helm
The life of New Harvest Christian Fellowship’s pastor is emblematic of the mission the congregation is trying to do. Edwin Melendez grew up near Humbolt Park and the Pilsen Neighborhood, a Hispanic kid surrounded by drugs and gangs.
A turning point came when a teacher named Lloyd Jones offered to help him improve his reading. Jones used the Bible as his textbook.
“He prepared the way for me,” Melendez said. “Some time after my experience with Lloyd Jones, I heard music coming out of a church one Sunday. Curious, I went in, and at the age of sixteen I received Jesus.”
The church in which Melendez had his conversion experience was the very same congregation which he now pastors.
New Harvest at that time was located on the West Side of Chicago in a pretty rough neighborhood. The pastor took the young Puerto Rican under his wing, mentored him and taught him all the ins and outs of ministry.
That apprenticeship, if you will, and the completing of correspondence courses from the mother church in Norwalk, Cal., is how Edwin Melendez was, and all New Harvest pastors are, trained. In contrast to mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic seminary education, which is mostly academic, New Harvest believes in on-the-job training for its church leaders.
A vision and a mission
Pastor Melendez sees it as his mission to replicate his personal experience over and over in his congregation. The church seeks to welcome all people, be a channel for God to release them from whatever bondage is enslaving them, and then disciple those people to become ministers in their own right, either lay or ordained.
Another part of his vision for his congregation is to eventually own their own building.
“I am very grateful to the people of St. Peter’s for allowing us to use their building,” Melendez said, “but we plan on eventually expanding and growing. We want to start recovery programs that are Bible based and spiritually inspired. We want to be community oriented”a church that can actually meet needs. For that we need our own building.”