“The hour and forty minute service passed as though I had been there only a few moments.” Both my companions and I had the same reaction after discovering that the people of Friendship Baptist Church in The Colony actually lived up to their name, offering friendly greetings, hugs, handshakes and an experience of deep worship on Oct. 19, 2014.
I had picked that church for this week’s visit primarily by time and location, needing an early service in eastern Denton county in order to deal with other calendar obligations. An 8 am worship service fit the bill, and the location, on Main Street in The Colony, was perfect. That was all I knew beforehand.
So it was with eyes agog that we drove onto the campus of Friendship Baptist at 7:45 am, seeing a parking lot already filling with as numerous well-dressed members of this primarily African-American church spilled from their cars and headed into a large, red-brick building.
We found a space and entered the doors leading to the spacious and immaculate sanctuary. Before we did, two women at the outside door offered us hugs and gracious greetings. An usher proffered a worship bulletin filled with announcements of the many services this congregation offers as well as a simple order of worship and basic information.
Taped music softly surrounded us as people entered. The blue-carpeted, blue-cushioned space, seating at perhaps 500 at full capacity, offered a serene setting as we settled into the comfortable pews and made initial observations. Two large but unobtrusive screens flanked a choir loft seating approximately 40 people, placed just under a simple stained glass rose window. Seasonally colored masses of carnations nestled the pulpit and altar. Off to one side, and nearly invisible to the congregation, sat an electronic piano, and drums.
Announcements flashed by on the screens, but when the countdown clock appeared, announcements were replaced by multiple Scripture references with a suggestion to read them and prepare for worship.
At 7:59, the blue-robed choir came in, and a worship leader came to the pulpit with words of welcome, a reading from Scripture, and a gentle prayer calling for the blessing of God upon this time. A one-minute meet and greet followed. A devotional moment and the reading of Psalm 23 was led by two of the Deacons. Latecomers still lining up at the doors were invited to be seated.
I had this sense of being both bathed in prayer and prepared to enter into worship as the choir and choir leader brought us into a time of call and response music.
At 8:23, we took our seats as a series of well-prepared and articulately delivered announcements were made, amazing me at the width and depth of the various ministries and outreach opportunities springing from this congregation.
The choir stood again. I was enveloped and engulfed by the music, led by this exquisite set of voices, highlighted by two different soloists. I was near tears by the time they finished, steeped in a sense of the Holy Presence of God, touched by the expressions of response by various members of the congregation during this time.
More information about key ministries of the church followed, followed by the reception of the tithes (that which we owe God) and offerings (seed money offered to God), supported by yet another piece of choir music.
We then stood for the reading of Holy Scripture. No pew Bibles were available, but most people had brought their own. The words were also on the screens as the first four verses of Psalm 34, King James Version, were read. Then, at 8:57, The Rev. Gregory C. Trotter, Senior Pastor, began his message, “Overcoming Worry.”
A memorable message, springing straight from the Scripture passage just read, came from the eloquent tongue of Rev. Trotter. For the next 35 minutes, he wove an elegant web between the richness of Scripture and the reality of his congregants lives. He started out so softly I held my breath for fear of missing a word, and ending with such power that I wondered how I could ever waste a moment again for the rest of my life in such a fruitless activity as worry.
Rev. Trotter then moved seamlessly into an invitation to Christian Discipleship as male and female leaders came forward to welcome any who might wish to become a part of this congregation. Those who came forward did so to the applause of the congregation, and, after a time of prayer and conversation, were introduced by a Deacon and welcomed by Rev. Trotter. A benediction by Rev. Trotter, and a joining of hands by all members of the congregation for the sung “Amen,” ended a moving time of worship.
As we were walking out, my companions both said, “I’d like to come here every Sunday–it was as perfect a church service as I’ve ever experienced.” My response, “I’m afraid I’m about to lose my partners on this journalistic peripatetic worship adventure!”
[Note: the above article is slated to run in the Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]
In the analysis time after the service, we sought to pick apart what we found so compelling about the morning worship. Certainly, I’m no Baptist, and their doctrinal statement, clearly printed in the bulletin, is not one to which I could adhere. So actually joining such a congregation would be impossible for me.
But they drew me, not for doctrinal reasons, but for the compelling, well-integrated experience.. Technology was used, but did not dominate. Music was spectacular, but was participatory, not performance in nature. The highly sexual elements that I have seen in all the contemporary worship services I’ve attended the last few months was conspicuously absent. The robed choir made it impossible to gawk at nubile female bodies writhing in front of the audience–and I use “audience” deliberately. This group of people were a congregation in worship together, not an audience to a performance.
Two other factors hit us: here, people did dress for worship. Men in suits and ties, the women in tailored street clothes, the children as carefully appareled. This added to the sense that something special was preparing to take place, an audience, so to speak, with the King.
Second was the age and skill of the Senior Pastor, Rev. Trotter. He exuded wisdom, profound Biblical knowledge, and intimate awareness of the lives of his congregants. He spoke well, with a cadence set for the ear and without some of the verbal tics that accompany less accomplished preachers. No, “ummmm’s” or “you know’s” or “It was awesome’s” peppered his words. He was prepared, articulate, and eloquent.
Yet I know that such an experience of worship hardly “meets the needs” of the younger generation, who ask above all for convenience. Dressing up is not convenient. Neither is a nearly two hour worship time, nor bringing one’s own Bible or taking one of the many volunteer service slots obviously necessary for such a complete worship time.
And then there is the cry for “relevance.”
So, can an older pastor be relevant? I think the question itself is relevant. Has the age/experience gap so widened between youth and age, has the respect formally shown for wisdom so disappeared that an older pastor has little impact and even less respect?
I’m a baby boomer–and came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s when our watchword was, “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Then, of course, we radical ones who were sure that “making love, not war” encapsulated all of the world’s possible wisdom grew older and discovered how very complex life was and still is. We discovered that our easy answers weren’t dealing with the real questions. We created our own institutions to replace the ones we so cavalierly tossed aside.
Those coming of age now have the right and the responsibility to create institutions and forms of religious expressions that speak to them. Perhaps I’m being a bit naive when I suggest,, “You still have much to learn–and those with some age in them have a great deal to offer.” However true that statement is, it does appear that the appreciation of wisdom, hard-gained by many stumblings, marked by scars from mistakes, and formed by the dark nights of the soul and the practice of the spiritual disciplines has diminishing respect these days.
Such respect, however, must go both ways. I have a lot of admiration for those who know early that they have a call to enter the punishing world of the pastorate, and who can couple that call with talent, charisma, and entrepreneurial passions, all of which are necessary to build a sustainable church. I just say: such ones need the groundedness of those who have gone before. Too many end up crashing and burning as has Mark Driscoll recently. That kind of clerical tragedy takes too many down with him.