Conversation: Alton Garrison
Alton Garrison serves as executive director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions. His passion for reaching America for Christ is built on many years of personal ministry. He was an evangelist for 18 years before pastoring First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Ark., for 15 years. Prior to leading U.S. Missions, Garrison served as superintendent of the Arkansas District and as an executive presbyter of the Assemblies of God. He spoke with Hal Donaldson, editor in chief, about some of AmericaÕs greatest spiritual needs — and his belief that Assemblies of God churches are divinely positioned to meet those needs.
tpe: How would you describe the spiritual state of America?
GARRISON: We have 296 million people in America. By some estimates, 205 million are still non-Christian. About 2 million Americans are incarcerated; 22 million are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. Americans are looking for spiritual answers and finding them in false religions. Islam is growing rapidly in the United States. You hear of celebrities turning to Buddhism or some New Age philosophy. Witchcraft is on the rise. So we have a troubled population that needs answers.
tpe: Why is ministry multiplication so vital in America today?
GARRISON: If we are going to touch the United States of America, we must help the church become more outward focused than inward focused. And the church needs to direct much of its resources toward reaching the lost. Every district, every church, and every specialized ministry needs to view itself in partnership with one another.
tpe: At the same time, you believe each individual needs to assume his or her responsibility for sharing Christ with lost people.
GARRISON: Absolutely. When you begin to think missionally, you realize, This is not somebody elseÕs responsibility; itÕs my responsibility. ChristÕs commission to the early Christians was to reach out to Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the corners of the earth. I have to take care of my ÒJerusalem.Ó
As people begin to think like a missionary, they begin to take responsibility for the lostness of people in their Jerusalem. And they see those people as individuals. As followers of Christ begin to build a bridge to individual lost people, they create personal, tangible evidence of their Christian testimony.
We have to be involved in an incarnational theology. We have to demonstrate the reality of Christ in all that we do. Yes, we have beautiful buildings and our churches offer lots of programs and activities. But we canÕt expect the lost to come to us. We, as ChristÕs representatives, have to seep into every fiber of this society so that we influence people positively for the Kingdom.
tpe: Talk about the challenges facing the church.
GARRISON: By some estimates, half of the evangelical churches in America did not report a single convert last year. A 2002 Southern Baptist Convention report noted that 88 percent of children reared in evangelical homes leave the church at the age of 18, never to return. So weÕre really living in a post-Christian nation. Our kids did not grow up in Sunday school; they grew up watching cartoons. We need the LordÕs help.
tpe: What are some of the initiatives coming out of U.S. Missions to reach America?
GARRISON: We are pursuing three simple action steps. Number one, we want to build a prayer initiative. We want to encourage people to pray for the lost and their unsaved loved ones. WeÕre forging a relationship with our National Prayer Center to help reach that goal.
Secondly, we want to promote a unified outreach to America through the widest possible means. This includes getting out the story of AmericaÕs spiritual need to the widest possible audience through avenues like TodayÕs Pentecostal Evangel. This includes partnering with Convoy of Hope, the Seven Project, the Evangelism Commission and the entire array of specialized ministries within the Assemblies of God.
Third, we want to network people who have like passions and we want to develop and distribute resources to anyone and everyone who wants to touch their own Jerusalem.
tpe: Can you elaborate on your prayer priority?
GARRISON: I like to illustrate it this way. My dad never finished high school. He was addicted to alcohol, drinking a fifth of whiskey a day. God saved my dad five months before I was born. Dad didnÕt have an education; he didnÕt have training; the only weapon in his toolbox was prayer. Whatever occurred, whatever needed to happen, Dad knew it had to happen through prayer. So prayer became part of my spiritual DNA. Nothing is going to happen, no ministry plan will succeed, without prayer.
We have a general and a specific goal. First of all, we want people to start praying for their unsaved loved ones. We start there. If I am praying for the people I know, I can branch out and begin to pray more effectively for the people I donÕt know. And when GodÕs people are praying, I can also be sure God will cause somebody else to have a burden for my needs.
tpe: Some believe AmericaÕs problems are too enormous — that there really is no hope for a national revival. Why do you have hope for America?
GARRISON: ItÕs not because I necessarily see outward circumstances changing; itÕs because I have confidence in the God of hope. Circumstances would say to me, ÒItÕs hopeless.Ó But when I look at what God says, my faith in Him restores my hope. God has not given up on America. God has not given up on the world. He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
I believe the devilÕs attack is not so much against our faith as it is against our hope. He cannot alter Scripture, but he can make us give up hope on our health, our marriage, our finances, our kids. Collectively, Satan can make believers give up on America, on their ministry to their Jerusalem.
American Christians need their hope restored. When I travel, thatÕs one of the things I try to do. I want to give people a fresh perspective on hope. How do you do that? You go to Scripture. Romans 15:4 says, ÒEverything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hopeÓ (NIV).
tpe: How would you like the people in the pews across America to be praying for you and the U.S. Missions team?
GARRISON: Pray for three things. First, pray for an open heaven. By that, IÕm talking about GodÕs favor. One day of favor is worth a thousand daysÕ labor. GodÕs favor with people means He will draw them to you. He will create those divine appointments.
Second, pray that there will be a spirit of urgency. By that, I mean a pressing, urgent sense of the eternal stakes weÕre dealing with. There really is a hell. I know nobody likes to talk about it, but lost people who die in their sins are going to hell.
You know, some say that John 3:16 is the greatest missions Scripture in the Bible. But another verse that cannot be excluded is Hebrews 9:27: ÒIt is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgmentÓ (KJV).
Third, pray that every person in our churches will accept his or her responsibility to think like a missionary and live out the truth of Christ in direct contact with the lost around them. Those are three very specific prayer needs. Those are three keys to reaching this nation.
tpe: Is there anything else you want to say about either U.S. Missions or our nation?
GARRISON: The power of unity is more significant than people realize. IÕm seeing a willingness and an openness to partner together among our ministries and departments. Bridges are being built. When any ministry experiences this kind of unity, this level of togetherness, at the core, then it works its way out to the circumference.
As our ministries in Springfield, Mo., work together and collaborate on common outreach projects, we will see new ministry opportunities explode across our Fellowship. It will become an inspiration and an impetus for people in our churches to think with a Kingdom mind-set.
ThereÕs not a person who sits in our churches who wouldnÕt believe and wouldnÕt say that America is a mission field. I know our people agree with me on that. The challenge is, our actions need to back up our conviction.