Baptist

Grace Baptist Church
353 River Road
Hudson, MA 01749

May 27, 2012

I just finished reading James Ault, Jr.’s Spirit and Flesh:  Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church which features a church near my home town of Worcester, MA.  The sociologist author participated in the life of this church for a couple of years in the 80’s and then created a documentary film to help explain to the bewildered nation what the “Religious Right” and “Moral Majority” were eating for breakfast, metaphorically speaking.  The documentary was called “Born Again” and aired on PBS in 1987.

I heard that there was a Baptist church near Worcester which had a reputation both as a rapid-growth church (25 to 1,200 members over 20 years) and as the childhood home of author John Acuff, whose observations of this evangelical subculture can now be read in his book “Stuff Christians Like.”   His father Mark founded Grace Baptist in the 80’s.  I want to visit this big church and see what parallels emerge between “Spirit and Flesh” and “Stuff Christians Like.”  Along the way I hope my observations as a visitor help this church and others sharpen their outreach skills.

My son and I attend Grace Baptist Church to see if they’ve still got the stuff Christians like.

10:45 CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP 

WINDOWS:  Where something of God came through for me.

They Were Looking for Me.  This church expects visitors.  Regular members and participants apparently parked in the larger left-side parking lot but a row of orange comes and these two huge “Visitor” signs led us to park in a small lot very close to the entrance.  A group of teenagers and a couple of adults were gathered outside watching cars pass.  The welcome committee?  As we approached it was quite obvious we were visitors.  Newcomers are not greeted personally in some churches not because the church lacks designated greeters but because greeters, particularly from larger membership churches, do not know whether a person is visiting or not.  They avoid the embarrassment of treating a long-time, casually participant like a first-time greeter by treating every participant the same.  That kind of welcome is a good start because at least it feels personal.  But there is value  identifying newcomers right away because gathered crowds of talkative regular participants instantly remind visitors that they are outside looking in.  Folks decide within minutes of entering whether or not they will return for deeper engagement.  One greeter, aware of a first time guest, can ease alienation by simply saying their name back to them or even better, by walking the guest to a welcome center (you do have a welcome center, right?) or to facilities they may want to see (like restrooms, nursery or Sunday School classes).

Welcoming Ambiance in Worship and Education Buildings.  The building has a cruciform shape with education at the feet, sanctuary at the head and welcoming doors to the right (visitors and handicapped) and left (everybody else).  We entered from the right and immediately found a welcome center.  Passing that friendly staff member we mingled with cheerful participants entering from the left and found ourselves near a small, 20×20′ Cafe serving unfrosted spice cake squares and regular coffee.    Access to the sanctuary was obvious, though there were no ushers handing out programs at 10:42.    The sanctuary looked like it could seat around 400 to 500 in very comfortable, wide, upholstered chairs.   We counted 95 participants at 10:45.  30 more participants arrived through the following fifteen minutes of music.  The air conditioning was ice-cold on an 80 degree day in May which seemed a little extreme.  My son sat with his arms turtled into his short-sleeve shirt the way he does when we walk through the grocery store dairy section.   However the lighting was good, especially on stage, and the seats were slightly angled making me feel like part of a fellowship.  The modern, stained glass representation of a cross was a fabulous vocal point and the two massive projection screens on either side of the glass were easy to read.

After worship we toured the education wing with its endless parade of animals adorning the walls in a well-crafted mural.  I didn’t really understand the purpose as there was no “Adam and Eve” nor an “Ark.”  I decided it was simply means for teaching young people that they are part of God’s good, diverse Creation.  It was inviting.  As a parent I was most pleased with the large welcome centers for each grade level.  I also appreciated seeing a male teacher (they seem rare in the religious education of children) wearing a flaming hat for “Pentecost Sunday.”

Based on my experience of parking, seeing the lobby and cafe, the modern, well-appointed sanctuary and the artful, well-organized and staffed education wing, I would choose this church over 95% of the churches I have visited.

Carefully Blended Worship Band.  The band featured excellent instrumentalists, mature, four part harmony, a dynamic lead singer and tight sound engineering.  Some contemporary services I have attended rely on young, inexperienced musicians and engineers leading to some harsh peak levels and yet boring redundancy from chorus to chorus.  This band was skilled enough to modulate songs through each verse.  My only complaint is the feeling that the sound was too controlled.  Guitarists wore thick headphones that separated them from us, musically.  And the four contemporary songs leaned stylistically toward muzak.   It was calming, and there is a place for peacefulness, but this music did not make me want to stand in praise but rather sit in contemplation.  It lacked the energy of Hillsong.

WALLS:  What interfered with something of God coming through for me?

A Five Minute Finance Update.  The church is short $126,000.  Giving has been “flat to down” for the past four years.  Before I learned a word about anything new God is doing in the world, I learned from a Fiance team representative that the church’s expenses are $1.4 million but giving is only $1.27 million.  “We can’t grow our staff or program with that reality.”  That may be true, but I wonder how well the church will grow if this is the first “truth” the congregation hears in worship.  This wasn’t presented at offering time, and for that I am grateful, but it came before any other real word of grace was shared.  It reminded me of my own financial condition…I had to bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with me to eat after worship because I can no longer afford a quick burger out.  Is that where Grace Baptist Church wants me to go, mentally?

“98% of New England is Not Christian.”  The guest speaker offered a sermon primarily related to First Corinthians 12:7 and the “Gift from Heaven,” or the “Holy Spirit.”  My son enjoyed his Brazilian accent and the Pastor’s occasional humor and, in spite of enduring 45 minutes worth of shotgun-scripture buck-shot (John 10:10; John 14:16; Mark 9:14; Joel 2:28; Matthew 16:18; Luke 5:3; Matthew 22:29 and Second Timothy 1:7), he managed to leave with this understanding (from my son’s journal): “We need Jesus/Holy Spirit in our churches and lives.”   I can forgive the preacher for taking 45 minutes to share such a straightforward truth.  But I have less forgiveness for the pastor’s suggestion that 98 % of New England is unchristian.  He believes  that only  2% of New England churches are “Evangelical,” so the mission field for Grace Baptist Church and the other 1.9999% is enormous!

In Worcester County there are 132 Roman Catholic parishes , 74 UCC , 30 Episcopal, 35 United Methodist, 15 Lutheran and 5 Greek Orthodox churches each faithfully offering fellowship for 360,336 self identified “Christians.”  This figure represent roughly half of the overall population of Worcester County.  There are also 6,646 Baptists in Worcester County.  Does the preacher really believe that these 6,646 Baptists are the only Christians around?  Hasn’t he ever heard the joke about Saint Peter escorting a Lutheran (or insert any denomination here) through heaven when he says “Shhh, those people over there are the Baptists, they think they’re the only ones here?”

The “Half and Half” Hand Raise.
In his book (and blog) “Stuff Christians Like,”   John Acuff offers ten examples of evangelical hand raising techniques from the “Ninja” (a barely visible hand near the pocket with palm turned up toward God) to the “YMCA” (two arms straight in the air “leaving little doubt” that one is a passionate believer).  http://www.jonacuff.com/stuffchristianslike/2008/07/345-hand-raising-worship-the-10-styles/

# 2 on the list is the “Half and Half Hand Raise” with one hand in the air and the other in the pocket.  This is a partial commitment.  My son first noticed that only three or four people raised hands in the air during praise music and I noticed that they only raised one hand–the half and half.  I have seen the same tepid  response in most other contemporary services that I’ve observed this year.  People just don’t seem very engaged in what is happening in these fifteen to twenty-minute praise-sessions at the start of worship.  The only thing we are doing with our hands is using them to grasp the chair in front of us.  We grasp it like we hold the rail on a cruise ship looking out over the unchanging sea.  When the preacher suggested to the audience that many of us do not yet have the “spirit,” I had to agree.  The energy in the lobby before service and especially in the education wing after service was ten times more intense than what we experienced in the sanctuary.  What might help to change the energy and sense that the Spirit is actually in the place?  A faster music pace?  Taking the drummer out of his sound-proof box?  For me, the conversation and family connections which seemed to give great joy before and after offer a clue for how the Spirit may work during worship, but I wonder if coffee, authentic conversation and kids will be welcome in that sanctuary any time soon.


First Baptist Church of Worcester     111 Park Avenue

From the church website:

“Some people are confused with strange ideas about who we are as a church.”  Can Baptists blame us?  Consider a few jokes:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?”

I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.”    I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”    He said,”Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?” He said, “Baptist!” I said,”Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?” He said, “Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?” He said,”Reformed Baptist church of god!” I said, “Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!”

I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

Where I grew-up around Southern Baptists, this was a favorite Baptist joke:

If you must take a Baptist fishing, take two.  If you take only one he will drink all of your beer.

Many of us assume Baptists and Christian Fundamentalists are one-in-the-same.  The people of First Baptist Church of Worcester are trying to clear up that confusion.  “We take risks on the side of freedom of conscience and local church autonomy rather than taking cover in inflexible creeds and denominational rules.”

I took my own risk on September 4, 2011 and entered the almost 200-year-old First Baptist Church of Worcester.

Worship 10a.m.

Windows

CLASSY.  The Custodian has his own office here and it makes sense.  This is an impeccably maintained and appointed building.  Although worship was not held in the sanctuary, I was never-the-less drawn into this clean, austere white hall with rich red accessories.  However the auditorium where worship was held today was equally attractive and tastefully furnished.  Chandeliers and wall sconces matched and looked brand-new.  If Yahweh is indeed seeking a sanctuary “That I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:5), I imagine God could reasonably expect to find 500 thread-count sheets here.   The hall was air-conditioned allowing men to wear suits even in the summertime.   The place felt classy without being luxurious.  The later leaves me feeling money has been lavished selfishly and wastefully, but the former suggests reverence.

BOLD.  I was surprised to see that First Baptist Church is a “Welcoming and Affirming” congregation:

First Baptist Church, believing that God’s unbounded love and grace are offered to all and is meant to be shared and celebrated by all, embraces persons of every age, race, sexual orientation, denomination, cultural background and economic means as vital and integral members of God’s family.

Does everybody at FBC Worcester agree with this stance?  I spoke with a member who does not.  So I can’t celebrate that the church is truly open to all orientations, cultural backgrounds and economic means.  It’s good theory, however, and that is what I celebrate–bold leadership.   On this Sunday the pastor had intended to preach “Conjectures of a Summer Observer,” however he changed his message in order to address anticipated congregational conflict.   Using Matthew 18:15-20, Pastor Thomas McKibbens made the following three points:

1.  Our identity is not our great church sign or prominent history [FBC Worcester claims the first Sunday School in Massachusetts] or individual achievement but by the Christ within us.

2.  This is the place where hard issues can be dealt with gracefully [and not by “unfriending”, hate-mailing or otherwise humiliating opponents].

3.  We will not pretend there are quick or easy solutions to complex issues.

I was impressed at the candor of the pastor.  Maybe he is the one driving the church’s inclusive mission.

COMMUNION.  Well, I was confused about those Baptists!  I didn’t think Baptists served communion.  Certainly the “Anabaptists” of the sixteenth century did not celebrate such a ritual, but then it is not clear to what extent modern-day Baptists emerged from Anabaptists, in spite of the shared name.  [See the joke above to appreciate the differences.]  Apparently the church offers this ritual meal once a month.  At first I smirked at the way the meal was served.  The bread had been diced into soft crouton-sized morsels on plates which were distributed to the seated congregants.  “How lazy,” I thought.  I immediately popped the bread in my mouth before looking left to see a woman, bowed in prayer, holding her little snack aloft, waiting.  A minute or two later the pastor invites us all to eat.   Whoops.  Duh.  When they brought the juice around I took time to reflect on what we were doing and I remembered something Paul had shared with an early church at their ritual dinner:  “When you eat the meal, do it at the same time.”  Paul seemed to believe the meal itself was a sign of their equality in Christ.  I liked how all of us lifted the cup together.  Unlike so many places where this meal seems so individualistic, here it felt communal.

Walls

HYMNS.   A congregational hymn-sing (hymn choice) started with “Fairest Lord Jesus” and then moved on to “Breathe on Me Breath of God,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and ended with “When Morning Guilds the Skies”.    There’s a scene in the movie “Top Gun” where all of the male pilots join together singing “You’ve lost that loving feeling” to a female instructor.  It is meant to be an effective come-on for Tom Cruise.  But every time I see the song I just feel sorry for that woman.  First of all is this really the sentiment to share with a love interest?  But more to the point, the guys all seem to have more fun singing to each other than to this woman.  Sentimental church songs like “Breathe on Me” seem like “insider” songs that thrill a select few while leaving the rest of us numb with boredom.

WHERE’S WALDO.  The way to worship was never obvious, and provided schematic maps only made matters worse.  I entered the rear of the big building, following an aged man and his wife.  There was a table there in the entrance and a man at the head of the table greeted the couple.  I figured out that the man was not an official greeter but rather the custodian, just hanging-out.  I’m glad he wasn’t official, because he never greeted me.  Just kept talking to the familiar couple.  I see that there is a kiosk on the left but the lady there doesn’t see me and I am too shy to ask her how to get to worship.  She never says hello, maybe she doesn’t even see me.  I pick up a map of the facility which is actually a schematic drawing  offering  numerous useless details.  I find an elevator which I presume I need to take up, but I want stairs.  Where are stairs?  I wander through a door into an unlit hallway where I do find stairs.  At the top of the stairs I emerge into a hall.  I stand there lost, a stranger with an arm full of schematic drawings, and a few people walk by and just say “Hi”.  I decide to go back to where I started and check in with the custodian, but he is now gone and the welcome table is empty.  It’s ten minutes before service time.  When you know your church is a maze, why not offer numerous guides including members ready to escort newcomers to the sanctuary?

THE QUESTIONS. After each local church visit I find nearby worship participants to ask them four questions.

What message came through to you today?

Our church is about to undergo big changes as a result of membership attrition and deficit spending.  Some people will expect to cut benevolences and other will protect them.  The pastor is trying to prepare us for those conversations.

Why do you need Jesus?

Wife:  To be saved from hell.  To receive eternal life.

Husband: (Surprised at wife’s response) Culture needs a guide, an alternate ethic for living, and [looking at wife] salvation, of course.

Why do you need the Church?

Fellowship.   Growth.  This church didn’t have any adult Bible study for a long time and we just recently started a group.  You need collective engagement in order to grow as a Christian.

Why do you need this church?

Husband:  I chose this church because it was similar to what I experienced in the Midwest.  Now I’ve become friends with people here.  You make a commitment and you keep it, even when things get difficult.

Wife: I come because this is what my husband wants.  My spirituality is very different.  I watch Dr. Michael Youssef in Atlanta [The Church of the Apostle:  http://www.apostle.org].  I agree with Dr. Youssef  more than I do with the kind of universalism I find here.

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3 Responses “Baptist” →
  1. Now I know why I never was quite comfortable with Methodist communion rituals. Your description of communion in this, my home church, was just as it was when I communed with this congregation 50+ years ago – to me it was simultaneously personal and congregational communion.

    Reply

  2. fellow sojourner

    June 1, 2012

    Thank you for your honest appraisal of Grace. Right on. May the Holy Spirit move us as we so badly need moving.

    Reply
    • You are welcome! Thank you for you for your hospitality. A record number of people from Grace (compared to the other 28 which I have surveyed) read the review. That tells me the church is serious about listening for the Spirit and perhaps even open to change and renewal where it is needed. Grace and Peace to you!

      Reply

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