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On Higher Ground

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By Bill Horner

Bricks and clocks are not so important there

 

Sometimes I have to step back, take a deep breath, and look at the bigger picture.  Otherwise I can’t see the forest for the trees.  For this and other reasons, I participated in a short ministry trip to New York City about a week ago.  It helped me regain perspective.

Vacation Bible School is a major outreach effort in our denomination.  Each year brings an exciting new theme.  Recent years have seen every subject from Outrigger Island to Outback Boomerang Express to Saddle Ridge Ranch.  So this year’s theme seemed a little puzzling to me—Big Apple Adventure, a New York City experience.  New York City?  How can a child, or any southerner for that matter, relate to the Big Apple?

But some of our ministers in that thriving metropolis invited Baptists from all over to come see for themselves what God is doing in New York City.  A team of us from Campbell County accepted that challenge.  They didn’t tell us how profoundly the people and churches there would affect us.

Metropolitan New York Baptist Association has about 240 churches.  They need about 20,000 more to effectively reach the city for Christ.  Many of these congregations do not have, and never will have, their own building.  With property values astronomically high and church memberships so low, they could never afford it.  But these Christians rightly see themselves—not bricks and mortar—as being the church. 

On Sunday the Association leaders gave us a sampling of Christian worship in the City.  We began with a small inner city church in the Bronx.  A spray-painted sign on the door of a small rented building with a drab exterior and bars in the windows is the only sign that a church meets there.  Inside, the forty or so worshippers were packed in tightly, with some of our group seated around the drum and keyboard.  A young African American named Jay met us at the door.  “Welcome,” he greeted us.  “I’ve got a high school diploma!” he told us proudly.  Andy, the pastor, informed us that a couple of years earlier, Jay was flunking out.  Through the ministry of the church, he had learned to study and had passed all his courses.  We worshipped that morning with a mixed congregation of blacks, Latinos, and whites.

Upon exiting that delightful service, we quickly hopped aboard the subway and traveled to the borough of Queens and House of Worship, an Indian congregation.  The service began at 12:30 p.m. and lasted two and half hours.  (And I’ve been criticized for preaching ten minutes past noon!).  With worshippers coming in from all over the city, the afternoon is an ideal meeting time.  Many of the songs of praise and worship were in Hindi. Boto, the assistant pastor, radiated the love and joy of Christ.  The people made us feel so welcome.  Their meeting house is rented also.

Finally at 6 p.m. we attended a service at Gallery Church in Manhattan on the third floor of an old office building.  The thirty worshippers were primarily young adults, many of them artists living in Harlem.  The music was traditional hymns they had set to new and creative melodies and arrangements.  From the rest room in their leased meeting space, you can view the Empire State Building in the distance.  We shared the Lord’s Supper with them before we left.

The common thread in all of these congregations is their identity.  They see their church not as a building, nor as an organization with traditional meeting times.  They are not concerned so much with bricks and clocks but with the souls of people and the glory of God.  They are the Body of Christ.

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

More next week.