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Building a kingdom of good feeling and holiness: Two days at the Rock

by Jordan Green

It might have been the effect of the drugs, but he believes there was a force more profound and intentional operating within him.

For more than a month the 39-year-old pastor Whit Toland has been away from his congregation, the Rock Christian City Church of Greensboro, at home recuperating from hip replacement surgery. Now he stands before them during a Wednesday night prayer service and tells them about the vision that was revealed to him.

‘“It’s almost like I saw this building of incredible glass, the complete wow factor,’” he says. ‘“I had a vision that it was going to be called the Holy Spirit Center, and there was a low om’” ‘— he demonstrates, and calls them to join him ‘— ‘“come on people, do it. When we get feedback, it reverberates through the body cavity. The place was flippin’ energized with the spirit of God.’”

It has been nearly six years since he brought his wife Ressie and their boys to Greensboro from Asheville to start the Rock in a borrowed room at the Board of Realtors on Wendover Avenue, and nearly 20 years since he stood in the soccer field at Guilford College late one night and asked the Lord why his success as a basketball player, the beer drinking and joshing, the easy currency of sexual promiscuity at the college ‘— why all of it just left a vacancy in his heart.

That epiphany set Toland on a journey that sent him first back to Asheville, where he’d grown up in an upper-middle class Episcopal family. He and his wife started attending church services at the Rock of Asheville. They cleaned the church. They volunteered for the children’s ministry. Toland joined the staff, and before long the pastor, Kirk Bowman, told him that God had chosen him. So the Tolands headed back to Greensboro and started holding services at a board of realtors office on Wendover Avenue. In the beginning there were scarcely half a dozen worshipers.

From there, they relocated to a business park near RF Micro Devices. In November 2003, they started renting space at the AirPark North campus, a sprawling one-story hulk of concrete and glass on the western edge of Piedmont Triad International Airport. They retrofitted the former warehouse into a sanctuary complete with a $20,000 soundboard, two large video screens and soft lighting; a coffee shop in the vestibule; and a warren of offices and children’s rooms in the back.

Tonight, the first Wednesday of the month, is First Fruits Corporate Prayer night. About 150 worshipers, core members of church, are praying with hands extended to receive the spirit, speaking in tongues, singing along to praise and worship songs written by Music Director Jay Christian, or murmuring and nodding as Toland paces the floor in front of the altar and speaks into a wireless microphone extending from his ear to his mouth. He lets them in on an interior monologue; he tells a joke or two; he tenderly calls down the spirit of God. Sometimes he weeps.

This being First Fruits, Pastor Whit directs the purpose and spirit of the worshipers inward to the church community’s collective direction and health. One might consider it a prayer of good housekeeping carried on the wings of uplifting contemporary praise music and an intimately delivered sermon. Given that the Rock has outgrown its temporary home at AirPark North, the purpose and spirit tonight are directed towards real estate.

Two banners in front of the altar reinforce the message: ‘“Possess The Land.’”

After several songs by the church’s rock band, after Pastor Whit’s message, after communion and after the offering, the congregation reaches a deep state, and various members line up before two microphones near the front of the sanctuary to articulate the prayers.

‘“There are things that are going to get shifted in the spiritual life of this city,’” Toland says, as one of the singers, a young woman with tight brown curls named Autumn, scrunches her face and claps her hands in a state of trance.

‘“God, I speak in uprising,’” Pastor Whit continues. ‘“It’s a high call. Holy Ghost’… Ro kah shay pah rah min ayah ray han shaykuk’… God you’re making your will plain.’”

Now Pastor Steve Allen comes to the front. He has led the congregation in Toland’s absence and serves as a kind of operations manager of the church.

‘“Lord, we are fully expecting for that land to become available to us ‘— prepare our hearts,’” he prays. ‘“We pray also that the landowners will receive us. We pray that the real estate becomes available to us at the right price.’”

Toland will meet with an architect in the next week to discuss the new church’s design. A church committee continues to look for suitable land to buy for the Lord’s house. In the worshipers’ prayers tonight they talk about the kind of church they want: one in a prominent place, one accessible and inviting to the people, one that serves notice to the adult entertainment palaces that God has established a righteous kingdom in Greensboro. In the coming days, Toland will reveal the hard numbers in play: $250,000 per acre for land on the NC 68 corridor, a thoroughfare that skirts the airport, carries growth northward from High Point and cuts through a neighborhood set to experience explosive growth with the arrival of FedEx and Dell; in contrast, the committee members have looked at land for $5,000 per acre in areas away from the region’s economic bloodstream.

Toland displays no compunction about asking for money. The congregation has already tithed the past Sunday. Now they are called to make an offering.

‘“There is one small matter of a twenty thousand dollar soundboard,’” he says. ‘“I’ll provide the vision, but you have to take care of the small matter of electronics.’” And he adds: ‘“We talk about finances here; there’s nothing to hide here.’”

‘“Favor is gonna fall on them because God says I can entrust them with much because they have faith on little,’” he preaches. Then he coaches them.

‘“Say: ‘I am getting ready to give generously,”” he says. ‘“Say: ‘That’s me.””

Then he calls the ushers down to the front, who carry white buckets, and a young woman named Andrea cheers. Checks flutter into the buckets as a video advertising the church’s various prayer services rolls on the two screens.

The following Sunday, the seats are about 80 percent full, accounting for more than 500 people. Pastor Jay leads the band ‘— which includes a half dozen singers, two electric guitar players, a horn player, a drummer, a keyboardist and a turntablist ‘— through a song that beatifically proclaims, ‘“High, you lift me so high.’” In its posture, its propulsive rhythm and its joyous intertwining of voices it evokes Sly and the Family Stone but doesn’t quite reach that band’s level of funk and intensity.

The tithing message comes earlier in the Sunday service.

‘“If you made five hundred dollars this week, your baseline tithe is fifty dollars,’” Toland says. ‘“Not ten dollars. Not forty-nine ninety-nine. Are you a tipper or a tither?’”

‘“Come on!’” Andrea responds in affirmation.

There are plenty of ‘“amens’” in the house, but worshipers are just as likely to respond by saying things like ‘“right’” and ‘“good,’” much as Toland sprinkles his messages with modernisms like ‘“flip’”; it’s a proxy for a word that rhymes with ‘“duck’” the likes of which might have been uttered by Paul when he was blinded on the road to Damascus.

Toland launches into a wide-ranging message that hits on themes of disarray in the lives of people who have abandoned God, the stability that God offers, the unhealthy tendency of some Christians to look to God solely as a needs fulfiller, and the mandate to do God’s will on Earth. It circles back to the pressing issue of building the new church. He reads from the Book of Chronicles about how Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and he furnished it with gold and silver.

‘“Sometimes I ask myself: ‘Lord, what’s with all the stuff?”” Toland muses. ‘“The Lord said: ‘There’s a purpose for everything.’”

The congregation has stuck with him through the message about building the temple, and now he asks for those who are aching with spiritual pain to come forward and experience healing prayers.

‘“You’re at the end of your ability,’” he says. ‘“You’re worn out. You’re tired.’” At first, they hang back, even as he says, ‘“Bow your heads.’”

Then three young men come forward so that Toland can pray over them. Then a fourth and a fifth. Ressie Toland, herself a pastor, prays fervently over a middle-aged woman, counseling and encouraging her. A young man wearing a flannel shirt walks back to his seat, accepting a Kleenex from a woman to dab his reddened eyes.

A young woman with red hair who wears a denim jacket, black slacks and heels comes to the altar and falls to her knees. Other women kneel beside her, placing their hands on her back to comfort her.

‘“You know what guys? At the end of the day, this is the deal,’” Whit Toland says. ‘“Messages are a dime a dozen. Lives getting changed ‘— that’s what it’s about.’”

The worshipers who pour into the Rock every week represent many occupations, but as a general rule seem to be geographically mobile professionals who work in private industry or for themselves. The majority of them white, but some of them African American, Asian and Latino, they tend to be hard-working people who have earned some money and gained some stability. One, a former Pentecostal, moved to Greensboro from California to start a furniture company. One is retired from a management position at Roadway trucking. One sells used cars. Some are single mothers and divorcees.

‘“We were swarmed,’” says John Peele, a 31-year-old web designer, discussing what he and his wife experienced the first time they visited the Rock. ‘“The analogy was like being rock stars. It was very purposeful the way they reached out to us. We want [people] to experience the love of God. If I didn’t come up and talk to you, what would that say about me as a person trying to spread God’s love?’”

The Rock is organized into so-called connect groups that allow members to pursue shared interests together such as playing the guitar, whitewater rafting, being young couples or active single people, or any number of other themes. The connect groups allow new members to tap into a social network, and allow the church to reach out to those who are not active Christians.

There are also niche services, which are promoted on the videos that periodically play in the sanctuary. The ‘“Real Men’s Prayer’” service is paired with an image of a southern California surfer dude slamming down on a wave. ‘“EveryWoman Prays’” shows footage of an attractive blond-haired woman jiggling a toddler at a softball game, while ‘“The Edge’” shows teenagers skateboarding a quarter pipe. ‘“Rock Caffeine Ministry’” doesn’t require explanation.

‘“We’re called to be in the mix of where people are, with restaurants and an art gallery,’” Toland says. ‘“We’d like to be a facility where people could drop their kids off for excellent daycare, where they could enjoy coffee and free wireless internet.’”

Meeting in a Starbucks coffee shop near Guilford College for an interview, Toland gives the impression of being not invested in the swirl of controversy currently rending the country and its churches between right and left over such issues as abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, the war in Iraq and the Bush administration in general. He says he wasn’t previously aware of the anxiety among both secular and religious people on the left about the idea of evangelical, suburban mega churches supplanting the governmental role of delivering the kind of social aid programs created through the New Deal.

For the record, Toland says getting more Christians involved in politics is not high on his agenda, he doesn’t believe in legislating morality, and doesn’t go in for condemning people he disagrees with.

‘“I don’t believe in abortion,’” he says. ‘“I have four kids, so I have seen what is there. I would proclaim against it if you asked me, but I’m not going to be out in front of an abortion clinic waving a picket sign.’”

He says he is saddened by the breakdown of respect for institutions of government and family, and thinks government authority deserves respect whether it’s led by people on the right or left side of the political spectrum.

But he makes no apology for advocating traditional patriarchal family arrangements that put the man at the head of the household.

‘“I believe I am qualified to lead my family,’” he says. ‘“We think of ‘order’ as being an ugly word, but there is an order that actually gives my wife room to flourish. There’s an order in a city council or a police force that is top down and hierarchical, and it’s good. Sadly, that taken to the extreme is the dad who walks in at five o’clock and says, ‘Where’s my food? Give me sex.””

These are not topics that Toland seems to relish discussing, however. He’s more enthusiastic when talking about what attracts people to the Rock, namely the music, which he describes as ‘“expressive, upbeat, bright, positive.’”

The music of Carole King pours from the speakers in Starbucks, the singer’s voice warm and supple like late-afternoon sunlight. It supplies Toland with a useful metaphor.

‘“Starbucks is great in creating atmosphere,’” he says. ‘“It’s groovy. Great.

‘“We’re more about lifting up. There’s enough downer information going on.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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