I worshiped with two wonderful but vastly different churches Sunday morning and found myself reflecting on the nature of congregations.
Vaughn Forest Baptist Church in South Montgomery, Alabama, is constructing a new sanctuary to accommodate their exploding congregation. I believe they’re running three morning services each Sunday. The one I attended was the 9:20 am service with the associate pastor preaching. During the final minutes, I excused myself and slipped out to the parking lot and drove downtown to the First Baptist Church of Montgomery. That church is enjoying a huge new sanctuary and they need two morning services to take care of their congregation.
I had never attended either church. I knew no one in either congregation except my cousin Mike Kilgore and his family in Vaughn Forest, and Pastor Jay Wolf and his family at FBC-M.
These are Southern Baptist churches, so obviously they are alike in a hundred ways. But, frankly, they are different in 75 ways.
Both churches were alive and fresh. The people were involved and friendly. The staffs were sharp and prepared. The messages were outstanding and biblical.
At Vaughn Forest, I was probably the oldest person in the building. Young families and teenagers and small children were everywhere. The music was loud and modern. (Not raucous, not chaotic. It was good, even to these ears.) The large orchestra included at least three keyboards and a drummer who was fenced off from the rest of the musicians. The congregation knew the songs and threw themselves into worship. They used drama and a couple of video clips from old movies in the presentation.
At First Baptist Church-Montgomery, the congregation was my image of the ideal church: all age groups were well represented. A youth ensemble of the sharpest kids in town, no doubt, sang a couple of numbers. Jay Wolf baptized three or four people to begin the service and only reconfirmed what I’ve long said about him, that he may be the best pastor anywhere.
A word about what he did. He did not rush through the baptism to get it over with. He knew each person, chatted with them about the biblical significance of what they were doing, and moved seamlessly–while still talking–into the act of baptism. (I’ve got to see what’s in the bottom of that baptistry. They went down and came up so effortlessly, one would think Jay had a scuba diver under there to assist. Ask any pastor. You’re always taking care not to splash, not to have the person’s feet fly up–which makes standing them erect very difficult!–and not to detract from the dignity of the occasion.)
The orchestra at FBC-M had no keyboards other than the piano and pipe organ, as I recall. But they had plenty of other musicians and the sound was equally glorious.
The Vaughn Forest minister preached from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 about how to make this Christmas season successful. Jay Wolf’s message was from Luke’s Gospel and focused on John the Baptist.
During the service at FBC, a number of people around me came over to say hello, they were interested in my being from New Orleans, and nudged me a couple of times throughout the service to say something about the pastor, whom I had identified as a longtime friend. I felt right at home in this church.
Jay Wolf said, “I meet people who visit our church and are surprised to find that our fellowship is not as cold as the stones in the building.”
I knew this church when J. R. White pastored in the 1970s and later when Dale Huff served. Jay Wolf was Dale’s intern, and went off in the early 80s to pastor the FBC of Alexandria, Virginia. When Dale moved to the state denominational building, the church’s search committee never interviewed anyone. They looked at one another and said, “Let’s go get Jay.” If ever a decision was inspired of the Lord, that was one, in my estimation.
At the end of the service at FBC, the congregation voted to construct a $9 million children’s educational building. They did so without a negative vote. Their budget for next year is nearly $6 million.
FBC was having it’s weekly visitation meeting that afternoon at 5pm. Jay said over 100 people were expected to be there.
So many churches are struggling these days. Sometimes it’s because they’re located in transition communities and their congregation has moved away, while they’ve not adjusted to minister to the people now living around them.
Sometimes a church struggles because of poor leadership, ministers and/or laymen who persist in doing things the way they did in the old days or who insist on keeping the reins in their own hands.
Sometimes a church struggles because of sin, sometimes because of lack of vision, sometimes because they’re trying to find their way in a difficult situation or neighborhood or culture, and no doubt for plenty of other reasons.
Every church is different. Not every great pastor fits every excellent church. The Holy Spirit is the “human resources director” who chooses and sends, better than any bishop ever could.
We rejoice in the differences in the churches. We take great joy in seeing congregations prosper in their work for the Lord.
“I have no greater joy than this,” the Apostle John said, “to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
That’s the point.