Snowy, steepled church inspires Christmas blessings

churBy Joe LaGuardia

Just mention the word “church”, and people do not think of auditoriums with coffee shops, but the classic one-room, steepled church set in a snowy, foothills environment.  A red door stands ready to greet visitors and large windows provide light even on the darkest of days.  Perhaps there is a bell tower, chiming people to worship on the Sabbath.

Although I grew up in a congregation that met in a renovated library, this was always my picture of the stereotypical church.  There is something beautiful about it, something naïve. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, an escapist perspective that makes us feel that all is well in the world.

I enjoy seeing churches like this on our family trips across the South.  We even purchased Christmas cards this year with a picture of one on the front.  “Christmas blessings,” it reads, anticipating a snowy Christmas in an otherwise mild-weathered year.

These churches also remind me of a song my children used to sing with clasped hands in front of them: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open it up, and here are the people.”

Their fingers, waving in the air, represented the people of course.  It is not the building, but the people who make the church what it is.

The only problem is that the people who make up the church are imperfect, flawed individuals.  Get into the life of the congregation and remove the building, and issues arise in our perception for what it means to be Christian.

No wonder there are those who call Christians hypocrites.  Ask any churchgoer why he attends church, however, and he will be the first to tell you that he attends precisely because of his sins.

Like St. Paul, we Christians want to do what the Spirit tells us, but we mess things up instead:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul wrote to churches in Rome (Romans 7:15).

You can keep your perfect people; I’ll take the misfits, thank you very much, because the very meaning of being a church is of being the people of God gathered together to bear witness to salvation that comes with grace and grace alone.

Several weeks ago, our church ordained our associate pastor, Karen Woods, to the gospel ministry.  Somewhere along the way, we read passages from Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3.  Both scripture lessons affirmed the gifts that God gives us, the gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts that empower us to do the work of the church and be the church in the world.

The passages also encourage us to give God the gift of our very life:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Christmas is a time of gift-giving and receiving, and though our perspectives of church become a little more serene and nostalgic during this time of year (how many people return to church after being absent all year long?), we are reminded of the great gifts we exchange with God in time for Jesus’ birthday.

We give God the gift of our life as a response to the great gift that God has given us in spite of our weaknesses and sin.  We acknowledge God’s grace although we are undeserving.  We celebrate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to live for us, lead the way, die for us, and rise from the dead in order to give us eternal life.

What better time to come back to church than during Christmas?  Our churches may not look the same, but the feelings of entering the sacred space of what is historically called “God’s womb” remains constant.  It is there that we receive the singular mandate to repent, believe, and then share the good news of the Gospel with others.

Nurturing a Future-Looking Faith

futureBy Joe LaGuardia

In his address to the U.S. Congress several weeks ago, Pope Francis noted that young people do not have a positive outlook for the future.

“We live in a culture,” he said, “which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future.”

Although it sounds like His Holiness is exaggerating, research affirms this observation.  Young people have very little hope for the future: They marry later, bear less children, and feel that they work longer hours for less wages.

For the first time in recent history, adults no longer feel their children will be better off in years to come, according to a Pew Research survey.  That middle class income has remained stagnate or in decline the last three decades has not helped anyone’s outlook.

Movers and shakers in our culture have not provided any solutions to turn the tide, and our faith in politicians in shaping a better future has collapsed in congressional malaise.

Some only offer the common lament, “If only we can do things like we did when I was young…”; while others provide avenues for nostalgia in order to combat our woes.  Just think of how many movies reboot previous films and genres.

Yet, nostalgia and longing for the impossible will not provide hope for the future.  Optimism will continue to allude those who are searching for answers from yesteryear.

The church, the very people of God, walk to the beat of a different drum.  We Christians need not fear the future or face it in despair, for we know the future that stands before us.

God asks that we be a community of hope and boundless aspiration, a people who tell what God’s future entails and embody the values that adhere to a future utterly bound up in God’s plan for all history.

We Christians maintain the belief that we are saved in Christ.  In turn, we are only residing in the waiting room of life, but it is a waiting room that we are to tend and keep beautiful, to make safe and welcoming for others who need hope for the future.

Christians stand in the shadow of a transformative past and a Holy Spirit that empowers us in the present, but our faith always looks ahead to a future in which Christ is pulling all things closer to that day when the Kingdom of God is fully realized.  Ours is a future-looking faith.

Our worldview does not share in the pessimism of others.  We do not fear the future as others do, for we know God is in charge and that the arc of history (as Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated) bends toward justice and grace.

Without fear entangling us, we can turn our attention to a meaningful life that is freed from paranoia and anxiety.  We can focus on justice by paying attention to the poor, caring for our environment, and being agents of reconciliation by combating violence in all its forms.

We also need to affirm that we are people with aspirations for all creation–and we must encourage our young people to aspire just the same.  This means working hard no matter the salary because we work with the joy of the Lord as our strength and the strength of the Lord as our refuge of peace.

Trust, gratitude, and compassion result from a life lived in the anticipation that God will someday make all things right, that our temporary state of dysfunction and brokenness is but a small bump in the road of God’s grand scheme of eternal life.

I think its about time that we Christians boldly step out in front of the rest of the world and declare, “Follow us, we know the way because we follow Jesus into the future; we follow a Savior who is the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

 

Scott Boulevard Baptist: A Church Without Walls

scott boulevard

Scott Boulevard Baptist Church June 2015

By Joe LaGuardia

A pile of rubble and a towering, broken steeple are all that is left of the historic Scott Boulevard Baptist Church building on the corner of Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road in Decatur, Georgia. To many passersby, it is an eyesore. To those who are entrenched in Baptist history and the life of Scott Boulevard in particular, it is a foreboding reminder of the many churches that have closed over the last few decades.

But one must look past the pile of tile, wood, and steel.  One must look deeper, beyond plywood frames where stained glass once stood, and find that the wrangled structure does not mark an end to a sixty-year old church, but a new beginning.

Just as the building’s demise communicates the fragility of all our churches, it also communicates the need for many churches to redefine what it means to be a holy people, set apart for the work of the Gospel.

As the Bible says, perishable items, church buildings notwithstanding, perish, but the Word of God will last forever.

That very Word promises that God’s Body—Christ as represented by the church—also lasts, but in many different forms.

Unbeknownst to those who see a ghost of a great church of yesteryear on a busy downtown corner, Scott Boulevard Baptist Church is actually thriving in a new location, that of the prayer chapel at First Baptist Church of Decatur.  Sure, Scott Boulevard does not have the same assets it once did when a building was readily available, but it has found new life in ministry that has reached—literally—beyond brick and mortar.

Scott Boulevard Baptist garners about 35 people in worship, but much of the congregation’s worship and ministry take place in the homes and apartments of seniors who are homebound or shut-in.  Two ministries, developed over the last two years and funded by the sale of the building, drive the church’s new vision and focus into the future.

The first ministry, called Care Partners, is an expanded deacon ministry of sorts, a group made up of caregivers and other care providers for as many as 30 members of the church who are no longer able to attend.  Care Partners pray for loved ones and keep in touch in a variety of ways.

The second ministry, Church at Home, consists of several lay members and clergy gathering in the home of seniors to provide prayer, worship, fellowship, and Bible study.  Taking Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20 that “where two or more are gathered in my name, I will be among them” seriously, the pastor of Scott Boulevard Baptist, Rev. Greg Smith, feels that this is a unique and vibrant aspect of the church’s ministry.

Church at Home provides spiritual community and support for individuals who would otherwise be isolated.  “In selling our aging building,” Pastor Smith wrote by email, “We have chosen to sustain people instead of property.”

The church is ready to launch a third major ministry called Spiritual Friends, which seeks to reach underprivileged senior citizens in the local community.  This will move Scott Boulevard Baptist beyond its own membership and have an ecumenical, if not interfaith component.

According to Pastor Smith, this focus on missional engagement and intentional outreach to a population other churches would render beyond their scope of ministry is what keeps the legacy of Scott Boulevard Baptist alive: “There is more face-to-face ministry happening now than in any other time since I started to pastor the church in 2007.”

Although there are many who grieve the dismantling of old Scott Boulevard Baptist, we should not grieve the loss of a congregation because the church is fulfilling a unique niche in the downtown Decatur district.

If anything, other churches should celebrate and mimic this church, which survived a cultural chrysalis of change against all odds.

Scott Boulevard Baptist teaches us that no church should be defined by its building, but by the magnitude of its ministry.  Only when a church defines that unique asset does it become the presence of Christ in the immediate neighborhood.