DENOMINATION Southern Baptist
PASTOR Stan Coffey
ADDRESS 801 Tascosa Rd.
PHONE 806-358-7681
MAIN SERVICE Sundays At 10:15 A.M.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, the fifteen novels of the Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, have racked up nearly 70 million sales, making them the fastest-selling adult fiction books in the country. These novels describe a near-future world in which the last acts of history follow a complicated scenario known by the ungainly name of dispensationalist premillennialism, an imaginative elaboration of the Second Coming. According to this script, faithful Christians will soon be “raptured”—snatched up to meet Jesus in the clouds—leaving the lost to endure the seven years of Great Tribulation, as well as betrayal and persecution by the Antichrist. At the close of this period, Jesus and a heavenly army will return, engage the Antichrist and his forces in the Battle of Armageddon, and usher in the millennium, a thousand-year period of peace, prosperity, and pleasant weather. Millions of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians subscribe to this doctrine, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit Amarillo’s five-thousand-member Church at Quail Creek, whose pastor, Stan Coffey, was in the midst of an extended explication of its details, drawing heavily on The Return, his newly published book on the subject.

The church, located in Amarillo’s prosperous and growing northwest section, was known as San Jacinto Baptist until last year. Although it retains and explicitly acknowledges its Southern Baptist affiliation, it follows the contemporary fashion of choosing a nondenominational name and features the casual dress and up-tempo worship style associated with today’s megachurches. To open the service, a man announced that more than forty men would be traveling to a Promise Keepers rally in Colorado Springs that week and that the women of the church would soon have the chance to spend a day with Laurie Cole, “a premier women’s speaker” whose Priority Ministries Web site touts presentations with such titles as “You Glo Girl,” “We Have a Latte in Common,” and “6 Gifts You Can’t Find at Neiman’s.”

A lengthy period of musical offerings featured a sixty-voice choir, a six-member praise group with individual microphones, a soloist, and a large orchestra whose composition seemed to be based less on traditional sectioning than on which instruments people were willing to play. Led by associate pastor (and former mayor of Amarillo) Trent Sisemore, who wore a striped short-sleeved shirt and brandished an electric guitar, we moved through a mélange of traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, several of which emphasized adoration of the name of Jesus; at one point, following Sisemore’s direction, the congregation murmured softly for an extended stretch, “We love you, Jesus.”

After prayers and a call for the children to attend a service designed specifically for them, “Brother Stan” came to the pulpit. The 61-year-old graduated from Wayland Baptist University and Southwestern Seminary and holds a doctor of divinity degree from the California Graduate School of Theology, an institution with no outside accreditation that specializes in distance education. He wore a tan suit, a blue shirt with a white collar, and a pink tie, an ensemble that went well with his dark hair, so shiny and smooth as to appear almost artificial. After welcoming the television audience and declaring his joy at serving as pastor of the church, he launched into his sermon. Referring to a large, colorful chart depicting the dispensationalist prognosis for the last days, he first reviewed where previous sermons had brought us along the timeline: The church had been raptured at the end of the Church Age, the Great Tribulation had begun, and the Antichrist, a.k.a. the Beast, had established a one-world government (in the Left Behind books, he heads the United Nations).

The text for that day’s lesson was Revelation 11:3—14, which tells of two witnesses who prophesy, presumably against the Antichrist administration, for the first 42 months of the tribulation. Surviving all opposition until their mission is complete, they are slain by the Beast, displayed in Jerusalem for the entire world to see, then resurrected and taken to heaven on a cloud. Like most dispensationalist teachers, Coffey identified the two men as Moses and Elijah, though the passage does not bother to name them. He also took the now conventional view that satellite television has finally made it possible for the nations of the world to see what happens in Jerusalem, another sure sign that we are in the last days.

Coffey’s manner was that of a teacher rather than a preacher. With no rhetorical flourishes or attempts to stir emotions, he moved through the passage rapidly, inviting the congregation to follow him on a detailed 23-point outline available at each seat. Applications of the text to our lives were few. He was simply explaining what the future holds as members of his congregation dutifully took notes, with little doubt that his words were firmly grounded in Scripture. And therein lies the rub.

Although cable TV commentators sometimes describe dispensationalists as “people who interpret the book of Revelation literally,” a few minutes of reading shows that assessment to be wildly off the mark. Though widely—but by no means universally—regarded in evangelical and fundamentalist circles as incontrovertible truth, dispensationalism was not part of Christian theology until the mid-1800’s, when it arose in England among the Plymouth Brethren, a small sect whose members took pride in coming up with new interpretations of the Bible. Its intricate scheme, fashioned from Revelation, Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and a grab bag of brief passages from elsewhere in the Bible, was developed and brought to America by John Nelson Darby. He turned First Thessalonians 4:13—17, a passage that apparently refers only to the Second Coming, into the cornerstone doctrine of the “pretribulation rapture.” Its high view of biblical inspiration and its promise to provide believers with a guide through troubling times helped the doctrine take firm root in fundamentalist circles, where it survives despite the fact that 150 years of confident predictions have had to be continually updated as putative Antichrists have arisen and disappeared, assured identifications of historical events as fulfillment of prophecy have proved to be inaccurate, and Jesus has kept on not coming.

This near-perfect record of failure has done little to diminish the confidence of dispensationalist believers, and I sensed no doubt among the folk at Quail Creek. They clicked their pens and folded their outlines when Coffey ended his lesson by asking if they would be ready if the Rapture occurred today, and it appeared that most believed they would be. Like their myriad counterparts throughout the United States and in the many parts of the world where evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries have carried the torch of dispensationalism, they seemed confident that their pastor was bringing them inside information on the course of history and secure in the belief that, in those days just barely beyond the horizon, they would be, as Scripture says, “more than conquerors.”