You never know what you’re gonna’ get when you go to a Baptist church.
I have worshiped in Baptist churches that have women ministers and deacons and are open and affirming to gay members.
I have visited others that believe women should not have a leadership role in the church, that the only valid baptism is what happens down by the riverside and that the only version of the Bible they can use is the King James Version. (A man told me once that if the KJV was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for him.)
In order to understand Baptists, you have to know that they love freedom, that every congregation is autonomous, no bishops or superintendents and no presbyteries, dioceses or synods. Church decisions are made by a vote of the total congregation.
Let me hasten to say, however, that Baptists DO have the Southern Baptist Convention, a gigantic force of more than 15 million members not just in the South but across the country. Although the SBC says it’s not in the business of telling congregations what to believe and how to do business, congregations that stray too far from the party line may get a gentle nudge to shape up or ship out. (Call me if you want some examples.)
But, be that as it may, I digress.
The question is what happened last Sunday when I visited New Hope Baptist, a relatively new SBC congregation, only four years old, at 11480 Hasty Road.
An almost full parking lot was my first impression as I arrived for the 10:15 a.m. service. Hospitality began at the door where a friendly woman told me to double park so I wouldn’t have to walk so far. Good parking is important to churchgoers these days.
The worship center is one of two new buildings, the other is classroom space, both on the site that can’t be missed because it has three flags flying out front and is defined by palm trees. The gigantic area between the two buildings will be the sanctuary, a project still on the drawing board.
Greeters at the door were all men. They recognized me as a visitor and told me I could sit anywhere I wanted to. Not what I would call an especially “gracious greeting,” but adequate. As I surveyed my choices, a nice woman offered me the seat she was saving for her husband. She did not mind finding another, she said.
The two women sitting near me introduced themselves as did a number of others when it came time for the congregation to get up and greet each other.
The Rev. Michael Malpass, pastor, a tall young man with a great voice and a lot to say, called the congregation to attention.
My first impression was “basketball player.” Later, I was told he is bi-vocational with a full time position teaching history and coaching basketball at Scotland High School. He came to the church in January.
Nothing about this service was usual. Instead of songs and prayers and maybe a responsive reading at the beginning, the pastor called for prayer at the altar. He puts a lot of emphasis on praying, a member told me.
A crowd gathered and did what I would call the laying on of hands, with everybody connected by holding hands or touching the head or shoulders of the person in front.
The pastor talked about prayer, about physical needs, spiritual and emotional needs and then led the prayer.
After the offering, the pastor launched into his message. It was about life in the Kingdom of God, a strong reminder that Christians do not live in the kingdom of the world but in God’s Kingdom In other words, Christians are resident aliens in the culture of the 21st century.
This pastor had what looked like a file of notes in a binder on the platform, his sermon, perhaps, but he barely looked at it during the message. He didn’t need to. He was in constant motion, moving from one side of the platform to the other and walking down into the congregation as he spoke. He was virtually bursting with what I call psychic energy, a speaker you could not ignore if you tried.
An altar call came at the end of the message with folks who felt led to make decisions invited to come forward to pray at the kneeling benches in front.
One of the elements usually associated with Baptist worship was missing. Music. Especially, lusty and rousing congregational singing of songs of praise and worship. The first hymn was “Jesus Loves Me,” sweet and nostalgic, but hardly rousing.
I was told the large group of about 40 on the podium was actually the choir that did not sing on this Sunday. A small children’s group sang instead.
There were about 200 in this service and the bulletin reported that 195 people attended worship on June 1 when the tithes and offerings totaled nearly $13,000.
But my lasting memory from New Hope will be a man and his dog.
Worship leader Danny Hardee was leading the singing and Black Jack, a beautiful half Great Dane, half Labrador service dog, was lying at his feet between Danny and the lectern.
Three years ago Danny was in an accident that left him with cognitive impairment, the reason he and Black Jack, a specially trained service dog, hooked up.
Black Jack knows and obeys 60 different commands and when he’s in harness like he was on Sunday, he’s all business. After hours, however, when his work harness comes off, this 2-year-old canine jumps, romps and plays just like any other young dog, Danny said.
Danny’s wife, Jeanne, said Danny’s “comfort zone” is the church and that in spite of his accident and its devastating results, he has not lost his faith or questioned God.
“When he and Black Jack enter the church, something comes over him,” she said.
Black Jack is part of this heroic story about a courageous man and a dog, but in my opinion, this animal speaks volumes about the dignity and importance of all God’s creatures. This dog is no doubt a special messenger from the Almighty with a calling to serve that can be nothing short of miraculous.
Thanks be to God!
Bible School on Tap
New Hope Baptist is inviting area children to come to Bible School next week to meet Weird Animals. Hours are from 7 to 9 p.m.
Each day kids will participate in small groups called Zoo Crews and discover what Jesus’ endless love means in their lives. Not only will they experience wild Bible adventures but they will also watch for God in everyday life through something called God Sightings. Kids will discover that God is active in their lives and that his fingerprints are everywhere.
Activities are planned for ages 2 through 12. No pre-registration required. Just show up and sign up on the spot.
Contact Flo Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org