Grace Bible Ambassadors Fellowship, started in 2014, has no formal membership roll.
LAKE TWP. The Rev. Stephen Yoak's pulpit doesn't look much different than most, with one small exception: The space behind the wooden podium is occupied by a whiteboard.
Yoak, 38, uses it during his sermons to illustrate a point when he feels it's necessary.
"People only retain 5 to 10 percent of what they hear," he explains.
The founding pastor of Grace Bible Ambassadors Fellowship at 3077 Mount Pleasant St. NW has several novel ideas. For instance, the church he started in 2014 has no formal membership roll.
"If you are saved, the Gospel says you're a part of the Body of Christ," he said. "You can't do any better than that. The idea of some litmus test puts me between you and Christ. The other thing it does, if you can vote people in, you can vote people out. It creates church politics."
Yoak confesses that it used to bother him when people visited the church and didn't return. Currently, about three dozen regularly attend.
"I used to wonder if it was something I was doing wrong. But at the end of the day, they're gone and they're not going to tell you," he said, laughing. "If you want to come and be a part of us, we won't follow you around."
Yoak said those who attend are welcome to donate but he doesn't solicit offerings.
"I grew up in a Baptist church," he said. "Somebody was always begging for money. The conversation was always was 'money, money, money' or 'love offerings.' That always rubbed me the wrong way."
"I had questions"
He also rejects the principle of "tithing," the practice of donating 10 percent of one's earnings as detailed in the Old Testament. Christians are split on the issue.
"God ended tithing long time ago," he said. "We're supposed to give out of our heart's purpose, our desire, rather than being pressured."
Yoak, a graduate of the Dispensational Bible Institute, an online school based in Dayton, was ordained in 2013.
Every worship service is followed by a question-and-answer time.
"When I was a child, I had questions," he said. "But a lot of times, if you questioned doctrine, you were looked at as a trouble-maker. But people have honest questions. Usually, it's the best part of the meeting."
Yoak, a native of Springfield Township, started the church in a borrowed living room in Randolph. They moved to a space in Uniontown, then to the current building, which previously housed a church that recently merged with another.
Several churches across the country connected with the Dispensational Bible Institute share the name "Grace Bible Ambassadors Fellowship," but all operate independently. Yoak doesn't receive a salary. Donations, he said, go to cover rent and utilities.
Conservatives are growing
Churches need to emphasize more biblical teaching, Yoak said.
"I think we coddle people too much," he said. "If you look at the churches that are growing, they're the fundamental churches that are teaching people they have a responsibility. We are to take the liberty Christ has given us, and do something with it."
Statistics bear out his argument. According to "Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy," a five-year study published in 2016 by the Review on Religious Research, the growth of conservative and fundamental churches who hold a literal interpretation of the Scriptures is outstripping traditional mainline churches.
"What you (attract) people with, in church, is how you keep them generally, but it doesn't always work out that way," Yoak said. "American churches have been getting people with entertainment and emotionalism for a long time. It doesn't take too long for people to realize that they can obtain better entertainment and emotionalism in places other than church, sans the guilt trip and/or begging for money."
"That's the point that people usually hit the door and don't return. We're at a point now where two dwindling/dying churches combine with each other, and then turn around and call it church growth."
The solution, he said, is "sound Bible doctrine."
"The audience for that message is much smaller, but we'd see far better results in the smaller crowd of people who spend their time thinking and studying in church, rather than feeling or being entertained," he said.
Yoak is ardent fan and student of the King James Bible and is convinced that modern-day American Christians have commandeered Scripture meant for another time and different people. He cites Jeremiah 29:11 as an example, arguing that it was written for the Israelites, who were about to enter 70 years of captivity.
"I would be committing spiritual larceny if I applied it as a promise for my 'happy American life,''' he said. "With regard to not begging for money, or not passing plates, or not teaching people to observe any of Israel's law tithes, or not taking a salary, when folks ask me about that, I usually tell them, 'It's called the 'ministry,' not the money tree.'"
Services are at 10:30 a.m. Sundays. For more information, contact Yoak at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Grace-Bible-Ambassadors-294653034023930/
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or email@example.comOn Twitter: @cgoshayREP