Permission given by John J. Davis to offer this on YesterYear In Print (6/12/2007)
Copyright © John Davis 1983 For the Times-Union
Part 2 of Four Parts
It was a humble beginning.
A few students, several young families and one older couple searching for solid Bible teaching and a deeper spiritual experience gathered in the home of Dr. Hobart Freeman on West 12th St., Winona Lake.
There were no stained glass windows and no printed bulletins. Prayer, simplicity of worship and serious Bible study was all that was offered in that spring of 1963.
They came and continued to come until today his congregation numbers more than 2,000 in their new building near Wilmot. There are still no stained glass windows nor printed bulletins.
Having been fired from the faculty of Grace Theological Seminary, Freeman decided to remain in the area and develop his own ministry. The first church was variously called "The Church at Winona Lake: or "The New Testament Church of Winona."
"We didn't get much encouragement in those days, but the ministry of the Word gave us growth," Freeman said. "The real growth came after the baptism of the Holy Spirit."
The doctrinal position of that group was very much like that of the Brethren church from which he had come. At this early stage, the principle of private worship of believers was maintained.
He taught that "the present day popular conception of the worship service of the church as a public meeting stands in marked contrast to the New Testament teaching and practice" (The Faith and Practice of the Church at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1964, p. 4).
That practice is maintained today at Faith Assembly, which meets in an unmarked building and welcomes only its own with few exceptions.
The Winona church did not constitute Freeman's first pastoral experience, however. He had served in pastorates while a college student and at the New Testament Baptist Church, Sellersburg, Ind., during his graduate program at Southern Baptist Seminary.
As the Winona church grew, a new location was sought and secured in Claypool, where about 30 gathered regularly for worship and teaching. "It was a warm group then," a former member recalls. "Everyone was close. We met in the dining room where a few folding chairs had been set up wit a small pulpit in front.
In the fall of 1972 the group moved to a three-car garage in the Barbee Lakes area at the invitation of Jerry Ervin, who currently serves as a minister and song leader at the Faith Assembly.
"The congregation grew rapidly in those days," former member Dave Gilmore remembers, "and a significant part of that growth was due to the dynamic influence of Steve Hill who had appeal especially to young couples."
Hill is married to Hobart Freeman's daughter, Pamela, and is regarded as one of the key leaders in the Faith Assembly today.
The Glory Barn
The year 1972 was a significant year in the history of Faith Assembly, for it was then Freeman joined forces with Mel Greider at the Glory Barn located east of North Webster.
Greider was a bearded, ex-alcoholic and ex-convict who claimed to have lost 30 different jobs in addition to being divorced twice.
It was, for many observers, a strange alliance. Greider wanted his barn to be renovated so he could use it as a rehabilitation center for alcoholics and drug addicts. Freeman needed a larger meeting place so he paid for the renovations and used the upper story for a sanctuary which was capable of seating about 500. Overflow crowds would sit in the lower area and view the service on a television screen.
The Glory Barn was a drawing point for many young people who were struggling with the agonies of drug addition, self-image or family problems.
"I had some personal problems and I was under a lot of depression," explained Dick Aderman who left the Glory Barn in 1974. "Freeman and Greider said I was possessed with demons and laid hands on me for deliverance. My closest contact was with Greider during those years and this was true with many of the young people who were coming."
The Glory Barn also became a teaching center with courses in Hebrew, Greek, Biblical theology, Christian ethics and Old Testament theology offered regularly. Meetings were held Sunday mornings and evenings, Wednesday evenings, Friday evenings and Saturday evenings.
"Tensions began to develop between Greider and Freeman -some small things, but others in significant doctrinal areas," Aderman noted. "Freeman taught that people were never to go to doctors while Greider would allow for that."
Greider then decided to raise the rent on the building to $425 a week which Freeman called "extortion" and vowed not to meet there again.
That division occurred in April of 1978 and on May 12 a permit was sought and later granted to set up a tent on property located just south of U.S. 30 and west of State Rd. 15. The tent remained there for a short time before locating in Goshen.
"You could see some real changes occurring in Freeman's teaching and attitudes," Gilmore observed. "At the Glory Barn there was an openness to other musical groups and publications. In fact, a very fine book store was operated at the Barn.
"But in the tent meetings we were told that things were going to be very different when we moved to the new building in Wilmot," he added. "Either you line up with 'the body' fully in pure faith, or you would be asked to leave. It was a significant turning point in the character of the Assembly."
In December of 1978 the present building near Wilmot was completed with a seating capacity of 2,300. The property on which the building is located was donated to Freeman by Don and Betty Nei, faithful followers of the Assembly.
Mel Greider died of a heart attack April, 1980 and the Glory Barn burned down on July 4, 1980 with arson suspected as the cause.
The present Faith Assembly building, a dark brown metal structure with no windows or identifying signs, has a plain interior with recessed fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. Metal folding chairs constitute the only seating in the building.
The walls are white with only a few Scripture verses painted on the front and on wall in the rear. The verses in the front are found in Matthew 17:20, Mark 11:22-24 and 1 Corinthians 1:10. The first two passages speak of faith and that all things are possible through prayer. The Corinthians passage is a warning against divisions in the body.
As one leaves the auditorium, the passage, "Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy" (I Peter 1:16) appears over the doorway.
There are no black alters for babies to be laid on and no black curtains (as some have reported), but only a simple platform and pulpit in front.
Guards with walkie-talkies patrol the parking lot to assist with parking, watch for vandalism and turn away those who are not welcome, such as reporters.
"We have had sand and sugar put in gas tanks and experienced other forms of vandalism on the property, so the guards are necessary." Freeman explained to me.
Those familiar with charismatic forms of worship so common in Assembly of God and Pentecostal churches throughout the country will find nothing different at Faith Assembly with the possible exception that hymn books and bulletins are absent.
The first hour of the service is devoted to singing and testimonies. Most of the songs are choruses focusing on the theme of faith, but many are just Psalms put to music. Guitars, a piano, an organ, drums, flute and other stringed instruments accompany the singing which is led by Jerry Ervin and others. Prayer requests are given and all "the body" is asked to pray. A low voiced hum pervades the room as all pray softly --some in tongues, others with English.
Uplifted hands, clapping, shouts of "praise the Lord" or hallelujah" are common, but never uncontrolled or distracting to a worshipful atmosphere. All women wear special head coverings during the service. It stems from a Biblical statement from the Apostle Paul.
"Our service is not cluttered up with worn out rituals that detract rather than add to true body worship," Freeman observed.
The testimonies of individuals who step up to one of eight microphones which are suspended from the ceilings normally relate to some special work of God in their behalf. Some describe supernatural healing of a sickness, others how God provided money when needed or how they had received a special vision or revelation.
It is here that some of the subtle peer pressure begins to work on the group. Supernatural visions are described which portray the Faith Assembly as the only "end time ministry" which has the whole truth. Those falling away from it would be severely judged.
Supernatural healings are claimed, natural home births are praised as women in perfect faith free themselves from the Edenic curse of pain in childbirth, friends who were recently saved are mentioned, and finally, many praise the Assembly for the fellowship it provides to his members.
Young couples regularly go to the front and announce their forthcoming marriage which is greeted with enthusiasm by the congregation.
Simplicity of worship and fellowship are clearly attractions to the many young families who attend. It is estimated that 80 percent of the congregation is younger than 45 years of age. The vast majority have only a high school education since higher education outside the church is discouraged.
Crucial to the ministry of Faith Assembly are its speakers, the most important of whom is Freeman. Messages will last from one to two hours, usually on the theme of faith, but other topics are covered as well. Copious notes are taken by all in attendance and Bibles are brought to every service. There is a significant quality gap between the messages of Freeman and other "ministers" at the Assembly. I found most messages apart from those presented by Freeman to be shallow, filled with absurd generalizations, saturated with Biblical quotations that are taken out of context and loaded with veiled threats to the congregation.
Freeman's messages are generally well organized into homiletical units, profusely illustrated and laced with humor and wit. They are delivered with a quiet confidence but underscored with many subtle warnings.
Denominations are regularly criticized and charismatic churches generally come in for perpetual barrages of denunciations. "See, most Pentecostals stopped at Pentecost," Freeman announces. "Pentecostals are 76 years old now and the Pentecostal movement hasn't gone anywhere."
The implication is regularly given that all churches --liberal or conservative, charismatic or non-charismatic, denominational or non-denominational -- are dismal failures and theologically bankrupt. Only Faith Assembly has the full Biblical truth concerning faith and healing, according to Freeman.
Freeman only speaks twice a week (Sunday and Wednesday evenings) while other associate pastors such as son-in-laws Bruce Kinsey and Steve Hill, Jack Farrel and others fill the pulpit on Sunday morning and Friday evening.
The second most powerful man in the Assembly is probably Bruce Kinsey, who selects all the speakers for the pulpit when Freeman is not there.
Getting information on the sensitive inner workings of the Assembly is difficult because few really know how the church operates financially or organizationally. Mrs. Freeman, according to source, handles many of the operational details of the Assembly, such as paying utility bills and the like.
The congregation is regularly warned not to talk to reporters or outsiders and when approached by the media to simply say "no comment."
No offerings are taken at the assembly, but several boxes are placed at the rear of the auditorium with names of Freeman or other ministers on them.
Worship services are informal and lively conversation is common before and after the service as the women exchange recipes and men talk about fishing, car repairs or sports.
The recorded messages of Dr. Freeman are now circulated around the country and several foreign countries. "Tapes are sent to Germany and there is a man who is highly skilled at translation work who is able to put them into good German almost instantly," one member explained to me. Several of Freeman's books have also been translated into German.
Small home groups have sprung up all over the country utilizing Freeman's tapes and books. The Faith Assembly has about 40 "word ministers" who conduct meetings in homes or auditoriums throughout the West.
Individual cassette tapes of Freeman cost $4 each while a reel tape with several messages on it sells for $10.
Large branch ministries of the Faith Assembly are located in Illinois, Michigan and southern Indiana. Other states have smaller groups developing. Bruce Kinsey and Steve Hill regularly minister to some of these satellite groups, primarily in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
Those donating to Faith Assembly cannot claim their gifts as tax deductions because the church does not have a non-profit status and official records are not kept by a board of trustees as is common at other churches. the church, which does qualify for tax exemption under Indiana state law, has not claimed it and last year paid more than $6,000 in taxes according to Noble County records.
Faith Assembly does not believe in conducting Sunday school for children and, therefore, all children are in all services with their parents.
Individuals drive from Michigan, Ohio and occasionally Illinois to attend Faith Assembly services. One man and his wife flew up from Texas three or four times a year just to hear Freeman speak.
For some whose lives were on the brink of wreck or ruin, Hobart Freeman and Faith Assembly worship have proved a haven of rest. But to many, the Christian life with the demanded "faith walk" has become a spiritual nightmare fraught with fear, insecurity, doubt about reality and deep sorrow as loved ones agonize on the road to death.
For these, it has been and continues to be a house of fear.
How can such a body of believers with the apparent joys of simple worship and belief in Scripture walk by screaming babies in torturous agony lacking needed medical care, or young wives slowly bleeding to death from childbirth hemorrhaging and are never passionately moved or emotionally saddened? Herein lies the spiritual paradox the group presents --a matter to be examined in the next article.
Warsaw Times-Union Wednesday, September 28, 1983