A man falls prostrate on the carpeted church aisle, his body convulsing as he is wracked with sobs. Next to him, a woman sits, her head tilted back, tears streaming down her face. Across the sanctuary, a mother leans forward in a pew and weeps, impervious to her daughter playing with a doll at her side.
It is revival night at the Rock Church of Baltimore, and the spirit is in the house.
For the past two years, people have been coming to this church on a hill in Towson to experience what worshipers describe as a profound presence of God, an experience accompanied by fits of weeping and falling to the floor.
The Baltimore Revival, as they call it, is drawing evangelical Christians from around the world.
"I thought it was time to see what was happening down here," said the Rev. David Shaut, a pastor from Albany, N.Y., who attended the revival last week.
"Any place the spirit of God is moving, we want to be there. And we definitely feel the spirit of God is here."
The revival began when the Rev. Bart Pierce, pastor of the Rock Church, attended a pastor's conference in January 1997 in St. Augustine, Fla. There, he heard Tommy Tenney speak. The preacher had become known in evangelical circles for an October 1996 incident in which a pulpit made of a high-tech acrylic plastic split in two while he was preaching at a Houston church.
"God came in and touched me in a very special way," Pierce said. "I probably laid on the floor for the entire night until the next morning."
Pierce was so taken, he asked Tenney to drive back to Baltimore with him and speak at his church.
After calling ahead, he found two of the church's leaders waiting when he arrived for the Sunday morning church service.
"His elders met him outside the church that morning, and they were weeping," Tenney said. "And when I got up to preach, everything broke wide open. It was unearthly. A lot of repentance. A lot of people weeping, making things right with God. Kind of messy."
The weeping continued all day. "We stayed in church until about 5 in the afternoon. No preaching was ever done," Pierce said. "We went home, changed clothes and got back about 6: 30. To our amazement, people were coming, driving up the hill from everywhere. People that don't go to my church, we asked them, 'How did you know about this, why did you come?' And they'd say things like, 'I was at the table eating dinner and God said to me, 'Get up and go to Rock Church.' "
At that Sunday night service, leaders called for a prayer meeting on Monday night. Hundreds came. They met again on Tuesday, and have continued meeting -- and weeping -- twice a week since then.
Tenney, an itinerant evangelist who typically visits three cities a week, comes nearly every week, flying into Baltimore from wherever.
The weeping is accompanied by a call to repentance.
"God dealt with our hearts, he dealt with the inside of us," Pierce said. "Not only people in our church, but people in their homes began to find breakthroughs with husbands and wives. Healings and things begin to take place between people."
That inner transformation is important, not the tears, said Tenney. "Weeping is merely a symptom of an inner change that's taking place. We don't make an issue over any manifestation," he said. "I'm not trying to promote a manifestation. I'm trying to promote a relationship."
The Rock Church phenomenon is part of a recent wave of revivalism among Pentecostals, with two of the most prominent occurring in Toronto and Pensacola, Fla. In January, 1994, members of the Toronto Airport Vineyard, a church located at the end of a runway, were seized with uncontrollable laughter. The "Toronto Blessing" attracted worldwide attention and has spread to many other churches.
The other well-known revival started at Brownsville Assembly of God church in Pensacola, Fla., on Father's Day 1995, with manifestations similar to those in Toronto.
"All these types of things all have precedents within evangelical Protestant circles going back a couple hundred years, into early 1700s," said Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. "It's just part of the fabric of what makes up this particular style of religion."
Among Pentecostal Christians, revival has a specific meaning -- it is a profound and sustained religious awakening, often accompanied by some manifestation or "gift" of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, healings or a fainting known as being "slain in the spirit."
But there are critics. Some within the Pentecostal movement have denounced the Toronto and Pensacola revivals as being overly emotional and possibly contrived. And a little more than a year ago, a Pensacola newspaper published a series of articles questioning the finances of the revival at the Brownsville Assembly of God church.
Pierce said he has been deliberately low-key about the Baltimore Revival, focusing on bringing people to repentance instead of seeking publicity. He set his sights beyond the Rock Church when he realized that pastors from other churches were attending the revival.
"We haven't tried to blow our own horn, because we don't want people to say, 'Oh, it's a Rock Church thing,' " Pierce said. "This is Baltimore. This is our city. If God only touches my church, I'm really not satisfied. It's got to touch this whole city."
"We know what it looks like when God visits a church," Tenney said. "It revitalizes the church, puts passion back in their lives. But in our day I haven't seen what happens when God takes a city. And in the historical revivals, that's what would happen. It wasn't just a church, it would move over an entire city. And that's what we're in pursuit of here in Baltimore."
Last February, the Rock Church held its first pastor's conference, hoping to build relationships among the city's religious leaders. About 70 pastors from various denominations attended.
In April, several of those pastors hammered in wooden stakes at locations around the Baltimore Beltway to symbolically call for spiritual renewal in the area. "If you're going to buy property, the first thing you do is [have] the surveyors stake it out so you know what you're buying," Tenney said. "It's just a sort of prophetic symbolism that we are claiming ownership of the city."
The Rev. John Cummins, pastor of Joppa Road Baptist Church, said he reluctantly bought into the revival. "I think it related to what takes place throughout the body of Christ: these walls, these barriers, these fences, not sure what agendas there are, what's going on," he said.
Now he's there almost every week, and he encourages his congregation to attend. During the services, he said, "there comes an awareness that [God] is drawing near to us as we are drawing near to Him. There is a sense, a very spiritual awareness that the Lord is present."
And he has noticed a change in his own life, "from that which is not pleasing to the Lord to what is," he said. "My wife says now she has a new husband who just happens to have the same name."
Pub Date: 1/28/99