A Homecoming with a Surprise
When New Life Assembly of God was destroyed by fire on March 20, it was soon discovered that the church, which ministered in the poverty-stricken east side of Florence, South Carolina, had been unintentionally underinsured. For Pastor Burton Ross Jr. it was a difficult and dark day — more than most people knew. But the good that God has brought from this has left people amazed!
It had been more than three decades since Pastor Richard “Ron” Denham of First Assembly of God in Florence and his congregation invited Burton Ross Sr. and wife, Bernice, to travel more than 2,400 miles from Guyana, South America, to pastor a new work in the challenging neighborhoods of East Florence.
Ross Sr., the former assistant general superintendent of the Guyanese Assemblies of God, accepted the challenge, and First Assembly’s daughter church, New Life Assembly of God, was born.
Denham, then in his late 30s, had reached out to Ross Sr. due to the lack of success his mostly white First Assembly of God congregation was having in reaching the heavily black East Florence community. The decision proved to be divine. Although New Life would never become a mega-church, Burton Ross Jr. says that the church impacted countless lives through its prayer ministry and they’ve been able to confirm at least 1,000 decisions for Christ over the years — decisions that have lasted.
But on Good Friday, March 29, 2013, Burton Ross Sr. — fondly known as “Bishop” — passed away without warning. Ross Jr., who was the assistant pastor, found the mantle of leadership placed on his shoulders. Now 50, leading wasn’t a problem; however, the loss of the father he so loved and admired was a wound that was slow to heal.
So, it’s not hard to imagine why, when his father’s life work in the U.S. was destroyed by fire just three years after his death, Ross Jr. struggled. “It’s almost like we’ve lost Bishop all over again,” he expressed back in March. “There are so many emotions . . . it’s like a fresh wave of grief.”
The loss of the church building started Ross Jr. and the New Life congregation on a journey no one could have anticipated.
Having very close ties to First Assembly of God and the Denhams, it would have seemed logical for New Life to meet with First Assembly following the fire. But before that opportunity could be arranged, something odd happened. The First Presbyterian church offered New Life a space they could use until New Life could build or relocate. “When I shook the associate pastor’s hand I suddenly knew that God was in the middle of doing something,” Ross says.
New Life would meet at the Presbyterian facilities from the end of March through June. While they met there, regrouping and waiting on God for direction, they also enjoyed fellowship with First Assembly . . . , no, make that, “they really enjoyed it.”
“Every time we worshipped with First Assembly, there was unbelievable synergy — worship was off the chart,” Ross says. “Both sides started to feel like, ‘Hmm, this was really good; we need to do more of this…’”
The idea that the “black” daughter and mostly “white” mother church should merge soon seemed the right thing to do. But both Denham and Ross refused to be swayed by “what seemed right.” Instead, they turned to God to learn His desire.
At first the Denhams and Rosses met several times as couples, praying together and seeking confirmation on uniting the churches. Believing God had given them an initial green light to proceed, the men brought their churches’ board members and spouses together for fellowship and prayer several times.
“Each time we came together there was a synergy, a connectedness, that I can’t fully explain,” Ross says.
Denham says that both he and Ross believed that God was in the two churches coming together, but they wanted to be absolutely sure that decision was in His will. “That’s why we had such a great deal of prayer in the process of making our decision,” Denham says.
With Denham having decades of experience, it was taken for granted that he would lead the new combined church and Ross would be the assistant pastor.
But God isn’t about easy; He’s about obedience.
“As we moved along in process, following the leading of the Lord,” Denham says, “I could see in my own heart that the Lord wanted me to step back and have him [Ross] to step up. No one on either side, New Life or First Assembly, had any thought that I would want him to take the lead.”
But when it came time for the church bodies to ratify the decision of their pastors and church boards, there was nearly unanimous approval.
Denham admits that at first when he told people outside of the church (even close friends) about the pastoral positioning, they expressed doubt only to come back later to apologize and affirm the decision.
“I believe this is of God, not just a ‘good idea,’” Denham says. “I have complete confidence in him Pastor Ross and I believe he’s doing and will continue to do a fantastic job.”
But to fully understand the arrangement God has created, where Denham freely shares his wisdom with Ross and Ross freely shares his vision with Denham, Ross offers this insight to their relationship: “He calls me pastor,” Ross says of Denham, “and I call him father.”
Keeping in mind how Denham has taken the support role, and the deep meaning the word “father” has to Ross, it’s clear that God is at the center of it all.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, the two churches came together for their first official service as one church, and to announce the renaming of their now unified congregations as “The Assembly.” Ross and Denham are not shy about letting people know what God is doing — they have three large digital billboards posted in the city regarding the merger.
The billboards have already generated a great deal of interest. Evidently, people want to check out a church that is intentionally multiracial and multigenerational, and where the presence of the Spirit of the Lord is enabling a mutual love.