Tree of Life Ministries
Tree of Life Ministries (Pentecostal Holiness)
Feldbericht von Cameron Abadi
(Aufenthalt: 9.-13. April 2006)
The Tree of Life Church is located along the south-west border of Lynchburg, the direction in which Lynchburg is experiencing its most rapid expansion. Not far to its north are brand new housing developments and shopping centers; to the east is the burgeoning Liberty University. The headquarters of Tree of Life Ministries is located, then, at a strategic place; today, the large property abuts a quiet rural road and faces a pasture on which cows graze, but one doesn’t have to strain the imagination to envision the area soon dense with families and suburban sprawl.
The church announces itself with a billboard, visible from hundreds of meters away, on which flash advertisements for upcoming services, as well as the current date, time and temperature in Lynchburg. A driveway opens up underneath the sign, which leads to the main building, itself set back several dozen meters from the road. The building does not resemble a church, but rather a cross between a high school and a barn. And with good reason: the building was designed to serve not as a sanctuary, but as a space primarily used for youth activities. While a new church is built on the property, the building is temporarily being used for services, and church activities, as well as serving as the administrative headquarters for the four TOF ministries in the Lynchburg area.
The large center hall is used as sanctuary space – though the cinder-block architecture, and folding-chair atmosphere, lacks the refinement one would usually associate with sacred territory. Adjacent to the sanctuary is a space used for a child-care center, as well as central administrative offices of the church. This building is still undergoing construction to finish activity space, as well as offices for the ministry.
Henry Dodson was raised as a Southern Baptist near Lynchburg not long after the turn of the 20th Century. He received “a calling” to the ministry at an early age and set out as a young man to open his own Southern Baptist church. An accident resulted in the burning down of the building he had planned to use as a sanctuary – soon thereafter, he began attending services at a nearby Pentecostal church, where he discovered his affinity for the Pentecostal tradition.
Henry raised his own family in the Pentecostalist church and was active with the denomination throughout his adult life, occasionally contributing sermons. The desire to found one’s own church was passed down to his son, Mike Dodson; Mike received his own calling to the ministry at a young age.
First, though, Mike founded a distribution business and spent a large portion of his adult life shipping goods around southern Virginia. Having achieved financial success, or at least stability, for his family – his wife, two sons and one daughter -- he decided in his middle age to pursue his religious calling. In the early 1990s founded the Tree of Life ministry and began organizing services in the living rooms of interested parties. As interest grew, Tree of Life rented out a former church, and then a former animal feed store, eventually buying the property where its current headquarters are located. Today, TOF has four other branches in the Lynchburg area.
The head minister of one of these TOF branches is Mike’s son, Mike Dodson, Jr. Contrary to his father, and grandfather, Mike Jr. did not receive a religious calling at a young age. Instead, he was a self-described rebel, whose life was “out of control” –he joined the motorcycle sub-culture; became an alcoholic; married, had children and divorced at a young age. In his mid-twenties while living down-and-out as a rock and roll bassist in Florida, he was “saved” by Jesus. Humbled, he returned to Lynchburg and became a minister in Tree of Life. Today, he administers the smallest of the TOF branches, in downtown Lynchburg; he has transformed his church into an exclusively “biker” church.
The Dodson family is the center of the TOF network. Henry, now in his 80s, was invited to deliver the Eater sermon; Mike Sr.’s wife, Debbie, a former Presbyterian, is always present in the Church to greet people.
On Sundays, TOF headquarters is in full operation. The church hosts three morning services (8, 9:30 and 11 am), two bible study courses, a children’s service and an evening service. Spiritual pop music is filtered into the parking lot, which begins filling up early in the morning.
Most people go first into the “Fellowship” room, where coffee and cake is available, before entering the sanctuary. The sanctuary accommodates between 900 and 1000 people – nearly all the places are filled at the 11 o’clock service, less so at the earlier services. As the service nears its start, a several-piece band (piano, guitar, drums, bass, electric piano, etc.) takes the stage. An assistant minister then welcomes the group, and a collection plate is passed around. The audience stands as the band plays a series of rock hymns. Texts, in a sort of PowerPoint format, are projected onto screens on either side of the stage, so that the audience can sing along.
After a customary shaking hands with one’s neighbors and several more rounds of singing, there comes the high point of the service: the sermon delivered by Mike Dodson Sr. Dodson, dressed in a full suit, approaches the front of the stage from his previous, inconspicuous position at the back; the micro-phone headset he is wearing is switched on so that his voice emits from the speakers that surround the hall. Among the parishioners, all of whom are still standing, there is a feeling of anticipation, a collective holding-of-breath: it’s Showtime.
Dodson begins quietly: a few more announcements, a plug for the men’s ministry, prayer requests, etc. The sermon begins in earnest, though, with the reading of a passage from the Bible. Dodson’s tone is casual and folksy. He also repeats himself insistently; the bible passage is not read once, or twice, but goes through multiple iterations. These repetitions serve less to clarify a point than to strengthen his utterances’ rhythm and momentum.
Dodson’s exegesis of the Bible passage is prosaic. The passage he selected for Palm Sunday was about St. John’s journey to Jerusalem and the dangers he faces along the way; in the sermon, the text became a rather flat analogy, a warning to avoid sin. Or, in Dodson’s instruction to his parish: “Get hyper with your viper!”, pronounced “Get hah-per with yer vah-per!” It is not an interpretation that taxes the intellect. But, Dodson has nothing else to offer in the way of content. Thus, he alternatives between repeating his line about the viper, and listing the sorts of sins that ought be avoided, fluctuating his tone, rhythm and volume as he paces about the stage.
The lack of substantive content does not seem to bother the people in attendance. For all intents, Dodson’s rhythm is itself the purpose of the speech – this is a distinct instance in which the “medium” is, in fact, the “message”. It is the surface of Dodson’s performance that matters, not the depths of his analysis. The audience offers positive reinforcement to Dodson, responding with applause or shouted exclamations when Dodson’s momentum reaches an impressive pitch or makes a convincing transition.
The significance of the sermon is measured, then, by the physical passion it displays and inspires, not by its intellectual coherence. The audience wants to be excited by theatrics, not swayed by an argument. Thus, Dodson’s sermons culminate in stretches during which he abandons any pretense that he is in control of his own speech; his arms begin shaking, his gait stiffens, his face and neck reddens and his voice drops into a growl. He leaves the stage and prowls the aisles. He seems possessed. This is the “speaking in tongues” for which Pentecostalists are famous. The message of his exhortation is no different than it was before, but the delivery is more fantastic. The audience joins in, with shouts of their own; some cry familiar church exclamations (“Halleluiah!”, “Amen!”), while others moan incomprehensibly or mutter quietly.
The sermon winds down with a general call to prayer and an invitation to the audience to make their prayers at the altar. Those who approach and kneel on the steps before the altar – usually between five and ten people from the audience -- are received by one of a team of “ministers” who wait on the wings. Thus, a personal consultation is initiated – which always involves a touch on the head or back and whispered communications, followed sometimes by sobbing. The rest of the audience prays on their own while watching the self-selected few who are publicly praying at the front of the sanctuary.
After one more song, the service is finished. Dodson, who has worked up quite a sweat, quickly makes his way to the back of the sanctuary, where he is available to exchange words with all the people heading for the exits. Many people exchange words with Dodson, but not many linger for more than 10 minutes. Within 20 minutes of the conclusion of the final Sunday service, the parking lot has nearly emptied out.
Though the church is less than 15 years old, there are over a thousand people who regularly attend services at Tree of Life. They expect church to be a “spiritual” and social experience, but not a formal ceremony. Thus, they come casually dressed and prepared to interact in boisterous fashion with friends and strangers alike. They are attracted to Sunday church service because it has the air of an amusing event and not of a solemn ceremony. As one Church member put it, “Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.”
This is not to say that attendees don’t take their church at all seriously. The primary audience at Tree of Life consists of lower middle-class white families from the Lynchburg area who have consciously decided that they would like religion to play a role in their lives. Many of these blue-collar parents were exposed to religion as children, but lapsed as adolescents and adults. They want religion again to play a role in their lives and the lives of their children – this desire seems partly a reaction to the alienation they feel in day-to-day life, and partly due to a sentimental recollection of their childhood.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive description. There a few faculty members of Liberty University, as well as their families, attend services at the church. Minority groups are seldom, but not absent: a few black families attend services, as do a few Hispanics (one of whom would shout out “Go White boy!” whenever Dodson began speaking in tongues) and at least one converted Jew. There are also several teenagers and young adults who attend on their own. Some teenagers attend in pairs or groups, while other more alienated teenagers attend alone. The latter tend to be more moved by the services, while the “cooler” teens remain more restrained.
The church’s non-traditional services aren’t designed to attract the elderly and for the most part they stay away. Prospects for Tree of Life, though, are good. Lynchburg is in the midst of a real-estate boom that is bound to bring more young families to the area as well as to the church.
The Christianity of the Dodsons is mediated primarily through their personal (supra-personal?) charisma. Mike Dodson Sr. needed no special schooling in order to become a Pentecostal minister. It is not entirely surprising, then, that his knowledge of the Bible is less than stellar. Mike Jr, his son and minister of the downtown TOF church, even struggled to answer remedial questions about the Bible to which I (a non-Christian) knew the answers.
It is also unsurprising, though, that Mike wasn’t ashamed of his relative ignorance. He might concede that mastery of the Bible might be necessary for religious knowledge and understanding. But, he would argue that such a focus would be to misunderstand religion.
According to the Dodsons, religion is best, most truly, realized in concrete and effective action. The Dodsons place little emphasis on politics, though. (Mike Sr. knows Jerry Falwell and while he likes him “as a person”, he doesn’t endorse his politics.)
Rather, in practice, their religion demands the “savior” of souls – above all, religion signified for Mike Jr. the saving of his own soul from a life of drink, motorcycles and rock and roll. In his own ministry, he focuses on saving other alcoholics, drug addicts and social misfits from their lives of sin. Mike Jr. often uses the metaphor of “spiritual battle” – he says he is engaged in a fight against evil. And for such a task, reliance on a holy book that demands interpretation and exegesis is a hindrance.
Regardless of their formal qualifications, the Dodsons, as ministers of the church, have the authority to confirm the savior of a soul. They derive this authority from the members of the Church who recognize their charisma. The Dodsons withhold their blessing until some evidence has been furnished that a soul has, in fact, been saved. Unsurprisingly, this evidence is rarely in the form of a substantively changed life, but rather in a single moment of tears and sobbing.
This, alas, is the spirit of the entire Tree of Life ministry; desires – for community, for self-esteem, for religious insight -- are satisfied, but in the easiest, least “nachhaltig” fashion: in single moments of communal or personal spiritual experience, without the necessary work that would allow these moments to persist over time.