After my less-than-inspiring visit to Living Word Christian Center last Sunday, I was not so eager about continuing my Congregational Journey. A service that was a cookie-cutter version of so many other ineffective Pentecostal services, complete with all of the same rhetoric, performed before a clearly disinterested audience … let’s just say that I was worried I’d be going through that another eleven times. The idea, candidly, did nothing for me.
But then, I reasoned, the second congregation on the list was different from the first. God’s Throne Missionary Baptist Church wasn’t a new start-up – it had been around since 1964. It is a predominately African-American congregation, thus not necessarily influenced by the preferences of “white” Pentecostalism. And it seemed to have a good reputation in the community (at least, I hadn’t heard anything bad about it). On the flip side, it could end up being a Xerox of other “black” churches I’ve attended over the years. But where God led, I was committed to follow. So this morning, I packed up my Bible, notebook, pencil, offering, cough drops, earplugs and courage and headed over to see what was up.
The God’s Throne Baptist building is a familiar sight for me, sitting in downtown Stockton about a mile from my house, and near the central library, the local Federal Building and the bank that held my car loan before I paid it off. It’s a beautiful, old-fashioned brick building with an octagonal tower over the foyer and a balcony inside that wraps around three sides of the sanctuary. (I wanted to be an architect as a kid, so this appeals to me.) The marble plaque on the outside says that the congregation dedicated the building in 1987, but it was clearly older than that; I later found out that it was built in 1920 for another congregation.
When I went inside around 9:20 for the Sunday School that would start ten minutes later, I was greeted warmly by several of the fifteen or so people in the fellowship hall, who were preparing to pray for the day’s events. Several invited me to join them in prayer and praise, volunteered their names and asked me mine, and showed me where the adult Sunday School class would be held. I remember thinking, wow, this sure is a change from last week — no semi-conscious “how’re you doings”, no ignoring the stranger in the fourth row.
It turned out that the head pastor, Dr. Zacchaeus Dunham, also taught the adult Sunday School. He’s an older man – he mentioned at one point that he had recently celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary, which would make him probably over 80 – and talks in a soft mumble that sounds like he’s suffered a mild stroke. I had a little trouble sometimes telling what he was saying, but he managed to get most of it across. His teaching was from the story of Rahab in the book of Joshua, with the gist being that God, being Lord of all, could use whoever He wanted, however He wanted, to accomplish His goals: “It’s not like the way you think it ought to be, but it’s the way it should be – God is working in your life.” The emphasis on God’s supremacy was refreshing to me after so many messages on what God can do for us and how we can move Him and what we have to do to achieve this or that. The only downside was that there were only nine people (counting Pastor Dunham) in the class.
The class dismissed at 10:20 for refreshments in the fellowship hall. At 10:35 people came back into the sanctuary, and reports (of attendance and offerings) were received from all of the Sunday School classes. It turns out that ALL of the classes, including those for children, were studying the story of Rahab, an interesting example of a church being (literally) all on the same page. Representatives from the younger classes even tooka moment to share what they got out of the lesson. The Sunday School superintendent then gave banners to the classes that had the most people and largest offering, and the secretary gave a summary of the reports from the classes. It was even seconded like a business meeting – kind of odd.
By this time, there were about 45 people in attendance, including grade-schoolers (they have a nursery for the little tots). Attendance eventually got up to 80-85, still surprisingly low considering the sanctuary could comfortably seat 240 even without the balcony or the choir loft. The male-female split was about 40-60, pretty standard for an American congregation and better than most African-American ones I’ve experienced. Most of the people were dressed formally, but some were “business casual” like I was, and I even saw a few sweatshirts and jeans among the younger attendees. Most surprising of all was that there were no other “white” faces besides mine and one Hispanic woman who, as it turns out, was also a first-time visitor. Previously, all of the African-American services I’ve attended had a couple of stray Caucasians mixed in somewhere.
The service, scheduled for 10:45, began at 11:02 with an a cappella song by some of the church elders, who sang it while descending the stairs from the balcony. Then one of the elders read a Scripture passage and led a prayer before the choir began – also starting in the balcony and forming a procession to the choir loft. The choir was accompanied by a piano and a drum set tucked away in a front corner of the sanctuary. The music was just loud enough that if I put in my earplugs, I started to miss some of the nuances; I ended up with one plug in and one out for balance.
I won’t go through the entire order of service, as it largely alternated between Scripture readings from the elders (all out of the King James Version), songs by the choir, a few songs and an antiphonal reading for Psalm 111 by the congregation. The whole planned liturgy was printed in the bulletin, but they didn’t follow it legalistically – occasionally items were skipped or added in as the elders felt led to operate. The bulletin also included a calendar of the congregation’s scheduled events for the moth, which was substantial – something like 25 different meetings or ministry opportunities in the next seven days alone.
Pastor Dunham’s sermon started with Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” – and his message was entitled “It All Belongs to Him.” Again, the basic theme was on God’s Lordship, although it was less focused than most sermons I’ve heard. It was more of an exhortation to recognize God’s sovereignty than an in-depth teaching on the subject, though he did quote several other Scriptures, seemingly from memory. The only interruption was when the Hispanic woman asked if she could read a Bible passage and came to the front of the sanctuary, ignoring Pastor Dunham’s request that she “be seated.” (A couple of ushers quietly escorted her out; she came back in ten minutes later, presumably having had things explained to her, and didn’t try it again.) Interestingly, that was the point at which Pastor Dunham seemed to really get rolling with his message.
Throughout the service, the congregation was involved but, except for that one instance, orderly – a few people danced, but they didn’t make a spectacle of themselves, and any shouting was confined to agreeing with and encouraging the ministers. That, and the antiphonal reading, gave it a slight feel of the Episcopalian parishes of my youth – almost as if it were an evangelical church adding on influences from “black churches”, only it was an African-American congregation gleaning ideas from Caucasian mainline tradition.
The service ended with an invitation to come to the front for prayer, but it was not the traditional salvation altar call. One person made some kind of commitment, and her name was announced to the congregation, but Pastor Dunham’s voice had become even harder to understand, so I had no idea what the commitment involved. Also, there was no praying for people individually, only a blanket prayer by one elder to which everyone assented. After a reminder about a choir concert that afternoon and one final song by the choir, an elder gave a benediction and dismissed the service. Several people afterward thanked me for visiting and asked me to come again, which I said I would. And I expect I will.
One thing I can clearly say about God’s Throne Baptist Church: it is one of the friendliest congregations I’ve ever visited. I can’t remember the last time so many people took the initiative to welcome me and offer assistance or answer my questions. Even when I went to the fellowship hall during the refreshments and asked for a glass of water, one of the men went and hunted up some bottled water for me. It’s also a very busy congregation – the bulletin listed about thirty different ministries, from nursery to visiting convalescent hospitals and everything in between – and while there were no female elders, there were female ushers and teachers, plus the choir director. And the emphasis on God’s supremacy was very uplifting; too many churches focus on man and how God can benefit us instead of focusing on God and how we can follow Him. For this alone, I’d say God’s Throne is aptly named.
On the other hand, the printed service order, the lack of ethnic diversity and the few visitors (just me and the Hispanic girl) indicated a congregation that was pretty set in its ways and didn’t have a dynamic outreach. None of those thirty or so ministries I mentioned has “evangelism” or “outreach” in their titles – they seem to be all about internal activities. The only real nod to evangelism was recognizing people who had brought visitors, and almost no one had. It’s a friendly, active congregation, but there’s some tendency toward insularity and settledness that would not bode well for the future. Perhaps that is the result of having an older pastor who’s led the church for decades, possibly since it was founded 45 years ago, and no one wants to rock the boat while he’s still holding the wheel. The only indication I felt from God on how to pray for Pastor Dunham was for a smooth transition for both him and his successor (whoever that may be).
But either way, this is a congregation with a lot going for it. They just need to let the world around them know about what they have. I don’t know if I can be of any help to their ministry, but my experience was too enjoyable not to visit there again if I can.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: B-, because while there wasn’t much outright teaching, there was plenty of Scripture and it was clearly applied.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: B-, though with so much going on and the written service order besides, it seemed pretty restrained.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: A, without a doubt – happy, generous and willing to build relationships.