Monday, December 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting St. John Baptist Church

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas, March 2, 2014 -- Located in a working class neighborhood in Grand Prairie, the church has only small parking lots, and many of those arriving for the service are forced to park on small neighborhood streets.  The church holds multiple services in order to accommodate its crowds, and it was of interest to realize when arriving for the 9:00 a.m. service that the earlier service, which began at 7:00 a.m., was relatively full.

Entering the front of the building, one finds himself in a small, crowded lobby. As the 7:00 a.m. service was still ongoing, those arriving were asked to line up along the right side so that those in the earlier service would be able to file out. Other attendees waiting were friendly. A woman standing near me struck up a conversation, asking if it were my first time attending and telling me how much she liked coming to church here. Several ministers wore clerical collars. When, after entering the sanctuary, I asked one for help finding a restroom, he started to give directions, realized it was getting difficult to follow, and took the time to walk me in the required direction.

The sanctuary was by far the smallest of the churches attended for this study, and at first I wondered if the attendance figures reported by the Hartford Institute were inflated. However, the church has two campuses, multiple services, and children meeting elsewhere for separate services, making the claimed attendance possible. The pulpit area was also relatively small, with a band and choir squeezed in behind a traditional pulpit area that included a white marble podium. For some reason there were NFL football pennants attached around the pulpit.

The facility is aging, but well-kept. Banners, which appeared to be home (or church) made, hanging along the side walls contained titles for Christ such as Lamb of God, King of Kings, and Lion of Judah.

The choir entered around ten minutes after the stated starting time wearing white and navy choir robes. The service began with two energetic songs, led by a song leader and praise team and an instrumental band of guitarists, drummer, and keyboardist. The songs were repetitive, but contained gospel content. One entitled “I Just Want to Bless your Name” included a verse discussing being ransomed by the blood of Jesus. The song leader led in prayer.

After those songs, several announcements were delivered via video. The St. John Bible Institute has the purpose of providing more detailed Bible study for laymen. Other announcements concerned an upcoming mission trip, a class for those planning on getting married, an upcoming emphasis on fasting, discipleship groups, and a holy week revival featuring a speaker from out of town. A short video highlighting the church’s singles ministry talked about focusing less on who to marry than on why.

Another video featured the work of a scientist named George Caruthers, who is a black Baptist and a renowned scientist. A prayer of Thanksgiving was offered.

After one of the ministers made some additional announcements not on video, visitors were asked to stand. Only a few did so. This was followed by a fellowship time in which members milled about shaking hands while music played.

At this point, the choir performed an animated anthem, with much rhythmic clapping and swaying involved. Some in the congregation stood and clapped along with the choir during the performance. After that, Pastor Denny Davis came to the pulpit and asked for those having March birthdays to stand. After leading the congregation in singing Happy Birthday, he made some additional announcements about upcoming meetings. A soloist, along with the choir, then sang a song entitled “God Is Real,” which claimed that “God is real because I can feel Him in my soul.”

By the time Pastor Davis stood to preach, the service was nearly an hour long. Wearing a Geneva gown, he announced after a prayer that the title of his sermon was “Whatever it Takes,” taking for his text Luke 9:57-62, which reads as follows (ESV):

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus[a] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Davis pointed out that in the text Jesus was exposing shallow commitments by some would be followers. After humorously referencing some secular love songs that make verbal commitments to one’s love that go well beyond what most men will actually follow through on, he pointedly stated that many Christians will sing, “I surrender all,” when they mean: “I surrender some.”

From this text, the pastor first talked about “the cost of followship.” He contrasted Jesus’ promise of the possibility of homelessness with the claims of modern prosperity preaching. He contended that Christians should not expect prosperity, but hardship, but added that rather than complain about our plight, Christians should remember the things that Jesus endured for us.

Second, the pastor spoke about “the urgency of followship.” Acknowledging that verses 59-60 appeared to be harsh, the pastor told the congregation that he had relied on a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus (F.F. Bruce) to help explain the passage. Ultimately, he urged upon the congregation that we must move beyond past pain and be ready to move forward to the future in order to follow Jesus.

Finally, he spoke about the “commitment of followship,” which is to the King. One cannot follow Jesus and follow self at the same time. The pastor contended that no one can follow him and follow self at the same time. He argued that Jesus is saying here, “I have developed the rules. If you want to follow me, you have to live by the rules.”

From this point through the end of the sermon, the pastor began to use a melodic delivery that was punctuated by chords played by the organist. He closed by relating children’s games such as Simon Says to the necessity of following the words of Jesus and praying for the congregation.

An invitation for people to come forward was then made as the choir sang. The service concluded with an offering and communion taking place simultaneously while the choir and a soloist sang “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.” Prayers were made both prior to and following the offering/communion ceremony.

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