I’ve found an odd paradox in my Congregational Journey — often the friendliest congregations, the ones that have treated me with the most friendliness and gone the farthest to include me in their “family activities” are the ones that have the least amount of organized outreach. I’m not sure why that would be the case — you’d think that the ones where evangelism was emphasized would be the ones that would welcome outsiders the most. But it hasn’t been my experience.
Why not, I wonder? Maybe it’s that in a congregation that does less evangelism, a person wandering in “cold” is more of a novelty and therefore gets people more excited (I doubt it). Perhaps the congregations that put greater emphasis on reaching the lost slip into a mindset where the focus is more on “winning souls” than loving people (seems possible, but it’s not the sort of thing you say about your friends …). Maybe I’m just trying to draw conclusions from too few samples (definitely possible). Or maybe — and this strikes me as at least a workable hypothesis — maybe these seemingly “less-open” congregations have just put more work into loving each other, so when a stranger drops by, it’s just natural to love him or her too.
That fits my experience when I first visited God’s Throne Baptist Church back in January (details here). And it fits my more recent follow-up visit last Wednesday night.
The calendar for April that I picked up at God’s Throne Baptist a few weeks ago indicated that they hosted a prayer meeting every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., with a Bible study to follow at 7:30. So I arrived around 6:50, Bible and notepad in hand. I was greeted by most of the people there (around a dozen at the time; it would eventually grow to about 30, including some teens and younger kids), many of whom remembered me from over three months before! All of them were willing to converse with me (“Church-friendly”? Not here, bro!) and were clearly enthused for the evening’s activities. I was worried, though, in one area — I had taken my family out for pizza earlier in the evening, and ate one more slice than I probably should’ve. Between that and not enough sleep the previous night, I was a bit logy. These were nice, welcoming people; I didn’t want to be rude by falling asleep on them.
Had I thought about it, I would have been less concerned. The folks at God’s Throne Baptist, by and large, are people who really get into a church service. They pray with force, they sing loud (and well), they give constant encouragement to whoever’s preaching. And tonight was no different — once things got going, I was never in danger of dozing.
But what got going was not what was on the calendar I’d been given. Turns out that the half-hour of prayer followed by the Bible study is now every other Wednesday night. This Wednesday, the meeting began with a couple of worship choruses — spirituals, really — led by people in the congregation rather than a single worship leader. Then Robert Lewis, the head deacon and Sunday School superintendent, spoke for a few minutes on John 3:1-7 and led us in a prayer for the congregation (specifically a few members that were ill).
This set the tone for the evening — there would be a song or two, followed by someone teaching from the Bible for about ten minutes, then another song, and so on. And the preaching was uniformly good. After Robert Lewis, another elder who was a retired parole officer (and a tough one, I bet — the guy had arms like a weightlifter) taught on John 4:31-34. He emphasized Jesus’ dedication to His Father’s will, even to being crucified, and how we are to show the same dedication to being God’s representative at all times. He was followed by Timothy Dunham, the youth pastor, who brought us to Exodus 14:13-16 and taught on how we need to stand firm and focus on God when our backs are against the wall. Finally, Pastor Zacchaeus Dunham, the founding pastor, talked for a few minutes on trusting God, gave a low-pressure invitation to respond to the teachings, oversaw an offering and made a few announcements (helped by the other elders on the last two). Throughout, the congregation was not only attentive but vocally supportive.
There was a lot to like about this meeting, especially the general involvement of the folks there. It wasn’t just one person speaking and everyone else sitting with blank expressions on their faces, a situation not uncommon in the American church. I’d guess that about a quarter of the people there either did some preaching, led a song or otherwise contributed — and most of the other three-quarters shouted encouragement to that quarter. Nobody was left out. I’ve found that congregations that involve as many members as possible in ministry directly to people tend to be happier and more interested in the things of God.
But that kind of decentralized ministry has another practical benefit, specifically for this congregation. As I mentioned in the rundown of my first visit, Pastor Dunham is close to (or over) eighty years old, and may have had a stroke at some point, as his speech is fairly slurred. Some congregations might toss him aside for someone younger and less impaired; others might treat him as if nothing had changed and still expect him to do all that he did as a young man. God’s Throne Baptist has taken a wise middle path: keeping the man who founded their congregation, continuing to show him respect and letting him preach as he will (and despite any impediments, he is quite a preacher) … but at the same time surrounding him with other ministers to help with the work of the congregation and fill in where and when he can’t. This has the wonderful side effect of training those other ministers in the leading of the congregation and the preaching of the Word (a drum I’ve banged a time or two). So not only do you have not one, but several Zacchaeus Dunhams to help people in their Christian walks right now, but it means that should Pastor Dunham be unable to continue at some point, there will be someone — actually many someones — equipped to continue the work of ministry. Good thing.
I definitely want to continue visiting God’s Throne Baptist Church when I can, because of the friendliness of the people and the solidity of the ministry. I don’t know if there’s much I would be able to contribute to what they’re doing … but at the same time, it strikes me that they don’t necessarily need more help at this point. They seem to be right where God wants them, following where He’s leading — and showing His wisdom in how they handle their business. You can’t ask for much more than that.