An Open Door - The History of the Potter's House Christian Fellowship
Ron Jones found himself launched out of Prescott to the beautiful mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a university town setting in the shadows of the San Francisco peaks. An old Foursquare Church there had been offered to Mitchell. It had been sitting petrified in religion for years with a handful of people when Jones stepped in.
He had come to town less than excited. He wasn't sure this was the place God wanted him to be, and this nagging doubt would torment him over and over during the next year and a half. It led to a principle in church planting: the fellowship never forces a man to go somewhere he hasn't chosen to be.
Ron arrived in town to learn that the founder of the city had vowed that no Pentecostal church would ever be in Flagstaff. It didn't add to his sense of well being when everyone told him how sIifficult the city was. When Ron and Marie arrived, one lady met them at the door of the church to tell him that it was cursed and God had written "Ichabod" over the door. Jones called Mitchell to tell him the horrible news. Mitchell wasn't fazed. He told Jones to go back and tell her that when he came to town, revival came to town. Jones hoped and prayed that Mitchell was right.
He opened up with great hopes, but from the beginning it was a battle. The people who were in the church gave him no support. In fact, within a month, almost all had deserted ship. He cranked up some movies and people came out by the hundreds. The little building was crammed to the windows. Afterwards, people came up excited about what he was doing. He learned that two hundred people around town had been praying for a church just like his. Sadly, though, not one of them ever showed up for a regular service. They wanted someone to reach the lost, they just didn't want that "someone" to include them.
Flagstaff is a picturesque winter haven, and the chapel was a beautifullittle white clapboard building that could grace the front of a postcard. Snow fell often at that 7,000 foot elevation and during the winter it was a rare day that a chill wind didn't blow. Jones began to discover that cold winds were blowing in the spiritual regions as well.
It only took him two months to whittle the crowd down to nothing. The only ones who stayed were most of the weirdos in the city. Yet there was a militancy to his message, and a feeling of purpose as he pressed forward. He often declared that "If no one comes I'll preach to the chairs." And at times it looked as if he might have had to. Converts were hard to come by, so when a couple of young men stopped in one Sunday morning Jones wasn't letting them out. When the altar call was over Joe Weidinger looked up to see Jones pointing his finger at him and telling him to come up front. Joe slipped out of the chairs and went to the front to get gloriously saved. From that moment he knew he was called to preach, so he dropped out of college to be ready to pastor. Several years later his chance would come.
A small core began to form. Becky Robinson came up from Prescott to go to college and was drafted to be the piano player. Judy Gardner had also come to Flagstaff for college. Having been popular (but lost), she tell in love with the Joneses and the praise. She was excited about serving God and ready to be shaped. Marie mentioned to her that she might want to wear a dress rather than pants so Judy wore one of the only dresses she had. It was the era of the mini skirt, so Judy's was right in style. Unfortunately hers only seemed to reach a little below her naval. Marie Jones decided then and there that slacks were just as good as dresses.
After the first handful came in, it became impossible to get anyone else to stay. They came out in droves to see the free movies, but weren't interested in more than entertainment. This was the pattern in most of those early works. A handful would respond, then the environment became unproductive until the young men enlarged their faith and capacity to help people. The problem was that each pastor only told the other pastors about the victories. Each was convinced that he was the only one failing. This drove the men to greater and greater levels of frustration as they tried to force revival.
People got saved, but it seemed impossible to keep them. In each beginning church, the Devil loved to send in great quantities of nuts and people giving empty promises. It wore down the young pastors. Tied to this were the dependable assaults of the religious community. In Flagstaff, Jones was believing for great things when a group of twelve young Christians asked to speak to him. These were men who were leading Charismatic Bible studies in town, and said they wanted to see God move. He was excited until they began laying out their rap about unity. They didn't want to unite with him; they (as all the unity crowd seem to) wanted him to unite with them. When he showed a lack of interest in "their thing", they fired off their attack on everything Jones was doing. The praise was wrong, the evangelism too aggressive, the people too immature. Jones was stunned, then enraged.
For weeks he came to church to preach, only to have the anger rise once again to the surface. He would tell the few faithful, "I was going to preach a blessing sermon, but now, I'm going to chop wood." He'd then proceed to rail on every devil in Flagstaff. The problem was they were all going to other churches. Jones "chopped" enough wood in these first few months to deforest Siberia.
I had gotten saved at the same time as Weidinger. We were saved only weeks when Jones decided it was time for us to start reaching out. Prescott had released men and Jones was going to release us. He scheduled in Thief in the Night and we set up places to show it in Winslow and on the college campus in Flagstaff. The night before the movie outreach to Winslow I found out that Jones wasn't going to be there and that I was supposed to run the show.
Fear gripped my heart. Joe and I had had several bad experiences in that city. Joe had been raised there, but recently we had been thrown out of the redneck community for being hippies and trouble makers. Now, here we were, just a few weeks later, coming back to do a gospel presentation. Somehow I doubted there would be a loving and open response.
In hope of getting Divine Guidance, I decided to_play Bible Roulette. A friend seemed to be able to just flip open his Bible and get a word from Heaven, so I closed my eyes and let the Bible flop open, my finger blindly searching the page looking for the place that God would use to bring me peace. I opened my eyes to read Joshua 7:25, "And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned him with fire ... " It was immediately obvious to me that Bible Roulette was an unscriptural method of finding guidance.
The night of the movie we loaded up an old bus the church had. We were a strange army, two of which were spiritual crazies Jones had specifically warned us about not letting them do anything. None of us had been saved long. There were four Navajo girls from the high school going along and a handful of others. Jones' last words were spoken with great urgency, "Whatever you do, don't let anyone get ahold of the mike."
I wasn't sure what would happen if they did, but I was prepared to bean anyone that showed an inclination to get too close.
Over seventy five came out to the Winslow High School to see the movie. At the midpoint, Weidinger stood to give his testimony. As he 100 began to nervously relate his sordid past of drugs and booze, it was obvious that his words were having an impact on the audience. Only later did we realize that his mother and several of his relatives were there. For the first time they were learning that little Joey hadn't been as pure as they had imagined.
At the end of the movie, I stood to give the altar call. I'd only been saved a few weeks myself, and it dawned on me I had no idea of how to pray a sinner's prayer. Quickly, I grabbed a tract and copied the prayer off the back onto my palm, only to have it just as quickly disappear as a result of my overactive sweat glands. The moment of truth came too quickly. The film was over. Walking quickly to the mike, I decided to copy my pastor's smooth, refined delivery. At the beginning of every altar call he would take the mike and say, "With the piano playing and Christians praying, I'd like to ask, who would like to get saved." I started out alright. "With every head bowed" rolled off of my lips. Then, confidcntly, I added, "Now, with the piano praying and Christians playing ... " It was a miracle the place didn't erupt with laughter. Yet, God was there and in spite of the stumblings, several raised their hands and came forward, including Joe's mother. It was an exciting time, yet it did nothing to build the Flagstaff church.
Outreaches that year led to over 800 people getting saved, but the church couldn't seem to stay over 35. The attendance would rise only to tall again. It was like a wild roller coaster ride that always ended back where we began, with just a handful of people.
In those early days the men themselves had little idea of what lay ahead. When they first went out, they felt that they were the answer to the dead lifeless churches that filled America. But as they began to face difficulties, doubts about what they were involved in began to rise. It looked like there were several other things happening in Christianity at the time that were a better idea than what Prescott was involved in. This led to problems with these early pastors. They often violated what Prescott had been founded on only to reap the consequences later.
Jones knew there had to be a way to bring revival to Flagstaff. The great thing in the old days of Pentecost had been gospel tents. Prescott had a tent, so Jones knew if he set it up near the college, people would surely flow in. He got one of the wickedest and most powerful men in the city to donate a piece of land across from the college to put the tent up on. This shocked the city council so much that they approved a tent meeting for the first time in the city's history. Everything seemed to be coming into line for a great time.
The only problem with the whole scheme was that the days of the tent revival's popularity were over. Very few people came. In addition to all the other difficulties, it rained every day, soaking the sawdust on the floor and giving half the congregation colds from night after night of wet feet.
The damp did add one spark of life to the meeting. A couple of the young men had wired the tent. Knowing nothing about electricity, they had done a less than adequate job of grounding the system. Things worked fine as long as the preacher stayed on the platform, but if he stepped off-beware!
This was discovered one evening when Joe Weidinger was taking a turn at preaching to the small crowd. He was plugging away at a pretty good pace until he stepped down onto the wet saw dust. All of a sudden, Joe came alive! He was leaping and jumping as he preached like the wildest of old time evangelists. It was only later that we learned his energy wasn't divine but part of thc Public Service Company. He was being electrocuted from the wet ground.
Pastor Jones found an accidental benefit of the wiring the next night. The preaching was over and a woman had come to the front to be prayed for. As He reached out to lay hands on her, a waiting bolt of electricity arced across the void and zapped her. She let out a scream, crying, "I felt it, I felt it." It set the place afire. She later came to Ron and told him, "I've been prayed for by many men, but I've never felt the power like that."
Jones felt it was better left without explanation.
The only tangible result of the meeting for Ron was that some people left the church. He was about to go crazy. He wanted to leave and go out as an evangelist again, anything but fight it out in this difficult situation.
Jones wasn't alone.
Harold Warner was clawing his way forward in Tucson. It was a real battle to break through the religious lethargy of the community. Just finding something to attract people was a battle. He brought in almost anything he could find. Music groups played that were squirrelly in their music as well as their doctrine. Some revivals would have been comical if he hadn't been so dependent on them. Finally, a core started coming together. It was then that he decided to try an "illustrated offering."
Malachi 3:10 speaks of robbing God and Jack Harris had gotten inspired after reading it. He wanted to bring the thought of this scripture home powerfully to the few faithful coming to church. Most hadn't gotten the idea of tithing down just by Jack's preaching, so he thought that maybe a dramatic portrayal would convict them to tithe.
He asked a young man in the church to stage a robbery. It was hysterical. The guy wasn't the type. He couldn't find a stocking so he bought a pair of panty hose. He pulled them over his head and came prancing into the service with the legs trailing behind like rabbit ears. As he bobbed and weaved into the building with a squirt gun, the crowd went wild. Harris, trying to hold back tears of laughter, still made his point.
Harold liked the idea. He got a young man to wait outside the building until the evening offering was being taken. He had a stocking pulled over his head and a gun in his hand. On cue, he threw the door open and pointed the gun at the crowd.
Everything was supposedly arranged. The thief was to steal the morning offering and then Harold would use the people's shock to bring home the point that if they weren't tithing they were as big a thief as this man.
There were only a couple of problems. First, he had picked an ex-thief. When he threw open the door, terror gripped everyone. Second, he had forgotten to tell his ushers. When the villain told them to stay put-the ushers didn't. They jumped the thief and proceeded to drag him out to the parking lot. Ignoring his muffled cries, they began to work him over.
Harold tried to bring order back inside and wheel to the back and save the poor actor's life while there was something left of him to save. He came back to give an embarrassed explanation and watch the service barely limp along to a conclusion.
He became much more cautious about the things he did.
Jack Harris had left the explosive revival in Prescott to come to a border town that seemed to have the hardest people in the world. He had seen miracles happen in the bullring, but now in his own church he didn't even seem able to get anyone filled with the Holy Ghost.
In frustration, he called Pastor Mitchell and told him that he wanted to quit.
He expected a different response than he got. Mitchell laughed at him. Then he began to share a sermon he'd recently preached. In it he spoke of how Isaac was a man with God's promise on his life to take the land. More than this, his father had seemingly paved the way for Isaac, but when the day came for Isaac to call the shots he found every promise contended against.
He was told that the land was his, but when he went to claim title deed through the claiming of the wells of his father, Abimelech fought him. Isaac found every well clogged up. He had to re-dig. Pastor Mitchell then applied this to Jack. Sure they had the promise of revival, but the Devil wasn't about to just roll over and play dead. Each man would have to re-dig the wells of his spiritual father. They would have to contend and prove that what Prescott did would work for them. Jack saw hope, and started once again to work the barren soil of Nogales.
These battles were beginning to wear on Mitchell. He hadn't lost any hope in what God could do. He knew that the church had tied onto something powerful, but he wondered if he was the man to bring God's plan into fruition.
The men all seemed to be struggling along, and they faithfully cast most of the blame for this at Mitchell's feet. Several men were starting to show a blossoming ability and it was agonizing to try and find the right directions for their lives. He didn't have any simple answers for them.
Then, in August of 1974, the Devil struck hard. That night Mitchell had preached a scorcher of a sermon on sin and he had hammered especially hard against homosexuality. While he was ministering, he could feel real opposition in the service. It turned out this wasn't a fantasy.
He was awakened early that Monday morning to find his church in flames. Someone had stayed hidden in the church until everyone left. Breaking into the office, he took the door and broke it into kindling. The arsonist built the fire in a room with no windows to keep it from being discovered, then turned on the air conditioning so the smoke and flames would be sucked into the duct work of the building. The only thing that saved the church was that the building had fuses built in, to shut down the ducts at a certain temperature. A neighbor finally saw the fire and called the fire department.
Over $55,000 worth of damage was done but the building itself was saved, though it had been within ten minutes of being destroyed. The next few months were some of the most difficult in Mitchell's not so easy life. Peter and Starla Edwards had to be brought back to the church after being sent to Cottonwood. Some still thought that Harold Warner's accident had been some kind of divine judgment, and were upset at sending these young, inexperienced couples out.
Tied to this, a battle raged in the church with some disgruntled folks who felt they weren't given the voice and power that they deserved. Mitchell had angered some who were used to doing their own thing. They liked to preach mini-sermons at the end of the pastor's message by calling it prophecy. They couldn't believe it when Mitchell put a lid on them.
Others were upset because the costs of church planting put pressure on them to give. The church was strapped for finances and yet it didn't seem to be having much impact. People were openly doubting the idea of church planting, and a real rebellion was being orchestrated by a major figure in the church. As if all this wasn't enough, one of the evangelists who Mitchell had used was calling and writing letters undermining him as a pastor and trying to win the loyalties of the people over to himself.
An honest person couldn't escape the gnawing feeling that some of the problems were because of him. Pastor Mitchell had never seen himself as a great administrator, and knew that he lacked leadership skills.
It seemed like he had taken the church as fdf as he could. Maybe God should bring in someone with more experience who could do a better job, someone who had background in dealing with a large church and could cause the full impact of what God was doing to be released.
Mitchell knew that God would bless his life, though, and was willing to go and start over again. He contacted Wes Baker. Wes was a tremendous evangelist and was pastoring a leading church in the Foursquare denomination at the time. He seemed like the perfect man to take over the Prescott church.
Mitchell had a real burden for cross cultural evangelism. He was tired of the old prejudices that made churches into little havens of bigotry. Nogales, Arizona, had always weighed heavy on his heart. Here was an open door to reach down into Mexico.
This wasn't just a passing fancy. A plan began to be put into practice over the next several months. Mitchell started the wheels turning to allow him to leave Prescott and go to Nogales. Wes began to make the arrangements needed to leave Los Angeles and come take over as pastor of the Potter's House.
It was all set to come to pass, when Wes called Mitchell and told him that he felt the whole thing was a mistake. Wayman was stuck with the responsibility and kept plodding forward doing the best he could. In Psalms, David wondered whether the promise could ever survive the attacks. Moses knew what it was to have his leadership questioned and hard choices placed before him. What must the persecution of the early church have done to the minds of some of those early leaders? Yet, the power of the gospel isn't in making all the right decisions, but it's being where God wants his men to be. God can take the weak choices of men when they are mixed with faith and accomplish great things.
Later, Mitchell was able to see that leaving would have been a tragic mistake, and thanked God that Heaven can intervene to keep us on track. Yet, at the time there was an awesome assault on his mind.
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