Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Your Friendly Neighborhood Baptist Church

It’s a dying breed, you know: those little churches you see tucked away in neighborhoods on side streets that few travel unless they live close by. These churches are often named for the neighborhood or the street: White Ridge Baptist, Ruskin Heights Presbyterian, Summer Street Methodist. Most were planted in these neighborhoods somewhere between the 40s and the early 70s. Their heydays were the 50s and 60s. And except for rare exceptions most of them have dwindled down to little more than a few of the stubborn old-timers who have gone there for decades and refuse to let their church die. There’s always a smattering of young families who have yet to move to the bigger churches that have bigger kids’ ministries. And most of those who stay were either raised in the church or have family in the church and just can’t quite pull the trigger on moving. Some of those young families will have kids, and you will also usually find a handful of kids from the neighborhood in such churches who are sent there by parents glad to get a couple of more hours freedom from their kids on a Sunday morning. I’m not criticizing these churches. I respect them greatly. Many have a fine history, if an uncertain future. And many still do what they can to serve one another, the neighborhood, and the community. But honestly and statistically, the future is bleak for almost every one of them.

So, on the fourth Sunday of my Sabbatical, I visited one of those churches—a friendly neighborhood Baptist church in my own community. I don’t know why I chose this one. Maybe it’s because I feel some sense of kinship with them. When I first moved to town fifteen years ago, their pastor (long since moved on to greener pastures) was the first Baptist pastor to come meet me and welcome me to Hot Springs. I’ve also preached there a time or two when a young pastor I know served there. And their previous pastor spent some time with me trying to help me be a better guitar player. I like these folks. I know some of them. Maybe that’s why I chose to visit there.

When Dayna and I arrived we met their new pastor and his wife at the back door. Others greeted us. Several recognized us and made an effort to find us and welcome us. What a friendly greeting! There is warmth there, Christian hospitality. We took our customary place at the back (for which their music leader good-naturedly teased me during the service). After several announcements and some joking around with one another on the podium, the pastor said a prayer and worship began. The church has a praise band to lead the worship. We opened the service by singing God of the City by Chris Tomlin. This is a contemporary Christian song that speaks to the fact that God is God of the city, Lord of the people, and King of the nation. It says that “greater things are yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city.” It’s a great song. It was new to them, and they sang it as best they could. Then, in a kind of formal ceremony, a church leader recognized the Pastor Search Committee for their efforts in bringing their new pastor on board. He called them to the altar and presented them with certificates of appreciation. The people applauded the committee. Next, there were a couple of traditional hymns that everybody knew. And there was lots of prayer. At one point the music leader even asked me to pray. I think I counted six times somebody prayed during the service. I liked it. After the offering and a nice gospel solo called The Anchor Holds, the new pastor preached a sermon on Jonah 1. He used Jonah as an example to call us to obedience. He offered some good insights into the text and helped us apply it to our lives. He mixed in a personal story or two and some humor here and there. He doesn’t want his church to be like Jonah, running from God, being disobedient to the heavenly vision, skirting their responsibilities, or waiting for someone else to do the work and fulfill their mission. He expects, God expects, them to do it. At the invitation, while we were singing I Surrender All, someone responded to seek prayer with the pastor. Perhaps she wanted to surrender all to Jesus. Perhaps it was something more confessional or personal; the pastor didn’t say. After a verse of the hymn, we prayed again, and then we were done.

Of all the things we experienced on Sunday, there was one thing that caught my attention and has left the most lasting impression. Early in the service, the pastor announced a new tutoring program for students in the Hot Springs School District, and he was challenging the church to join this program and reach out to these kids. It was mentioned as well that their fairly new gymnasium had been cleaned up and was ready to be put back into full use. Then, as the music leader was announcing the song God of the City, he said these stunning words: “The pastor wants us to be THE church in Hot Springs.” Three things struck me about that statement. First, of the 60 or so people present, nobody laughed. Second, they are taking some actions to make it happen. And third, I got the feeling that they believe it can happen. A part of me felt like David’s detractors who could only laugh and jeer when he said he’d take on Goliath. But David didn't think it was funny. David had bigger faith in a bigger God than did his detractors. “Let me at that giant,” he said, “because it’s not about me and my size and my power; it’s about God and His size and His power. I may be a Yorkie in your eyes, but I’m a Rottweiler in the hands of God. The battle is not mine; the battle is the Lord's.” Don't you just love that spirit? I love it because if a big church like ours says, “We want to be THE church in Hot Springs,” people expect it. We’ve got size, resources, location, and influence. When we say that, it sounds like good business. But when a little neighborhood church says it, it sounds like big faith. So you know what I say? I say, "More Holy Spirit power to them as they seek to become THE church in Hot Springs!" And even more, may all the churches in our city that love and worship Christ become together THE church in Hot Springs—the church (plural) with one passion, one hope, one message: Jesus Christ is Lord and only He can save and transform every life, every family, and every institution in our city. Bill Hybels describes the local church as the hope of the world. I think this neighborhood Baptist church believes that too and wants to do something about it.

Some years ago the wonderful writer Annie Dillard wrote these words: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' … hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” If this friendly neighborhood Baptist church continues to be “sensible of conditions” and to worship a big God with big faith, God may well do big, big things through them they could never do on their own. If that happens, they will break the mold of the dying, struggling neighborhood church because their best days won’t be in the past; they will be in the future. And if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against them. God has done more with less before.


  1. Size is relative. Here's a timely story about another "small" Baptist church making a big difference: http://levantium.com/2010/08/28/the-greatest-danger/

  2. Спасибо. Ваши слова касаются меня так же.