Written by Scott Taylor
I know a church in another town that just changed their address. It is not the first time this church has changed their address. The church began as a downtown church in a Southern city in the late 1890s. It prospered for a time. In 1965, following either the “will of God” or what historians have labeled “white flight,” the church moved 12 miles west to the corner of Country Club and Peace Haven Roads. That move ushered exponential growth making this church a mega-church. But, for the past 53 years, the church’s address has been listed as 5200 Country Club Rd. Leadership at the church recently succeeded in having the official address changed to read 518 Peace Haven Rd. While the church didn’t move its physical location, it did change its perceived location. You can visit it. It is still on Country Club Rd. no matter what the address says.
I know of another church over in Tennessee. The church is no longer there, but it used to be in the Oak Ridge area. Back in the day, people came in droves to the Oak Ridge community to work at the National Laboratory. Most of these people were rather transient and they erected temporary housing in this rural community. This church had a progressive pastor who saw a ministry opportunity to these new neighbors. He said, “Don’t they need the gospel too?” His leadership team disagreed and they passed a by-law stating that church membership would be available only to people who owned property in the county. The pastor was the only person who voted against the by-law and he was reminded sharply that he didn’t get a vote. As I said, the church is no longer there.
Recently, a friend said to me, “Scott, what the church needs to do is ask itself a very basic question: if the church just up and vanished tomorrow, would anyone miss it?” Then he went deeper and added, “would the community miss it?”
Both of the churches described above are real. The first one is still in ministry and I want to be clear that I am simply interested in what we can learn from these communities of faith – our partners in ministry. I am not interested in church bashing. Both churches were built into communities in the South. As the South changed, they were faced with difficult questions on how to adapt to that change. As I read it, both churches are guilty of subscribing to a gospel of perceptions. “What will become of our well-to-do congregation of local rural farmers if we start ministering to these vagrant outsiders in Oak Ridge? That won’t look very good.” Or, “Millennial Christians won’t like us if it seems that we are a “Country Club Road” church (even though, that is exactly what our current location says we are). That doesn’t look good.”
It seems that churches can get so caught up in the perception of the gospel that they lose touch with what the gospel is. Perhaps a better question for these churches facing the tide of change would be, “if we up and vanished tomorrow, what would our community miss about us? Would they miss our Christ-like ministry to our neighbors, or would they miss our merits of our membership and the niceties of our address?” Well, the story of the first church is yet to be written and I pray with all humility and sincerity that they live their call to ministry with vitality. But, the Oak Ridge church is gone. Maybe their story will help us put an answer to this “up and vanished” question.
The progressive pastor of that second church was none other than Fred Craddock. While Craddock’s sermon illustrations often entertain fantasy, I am told that his stories of the Oak Ridge church are entirely true. Years after he had left that church, he decided to make a return. As he put it, he wanted to “take my wife Nettie to see the scene of my early failures.” It took a while, he recalled, to find his way back to the small church, but he eventually did find it. The parking lot was filled with cars and trucks and the old church sign read
“BBQ Pork, Ribs, Chicken!
All You Can Eat!”
He decided he was hungry and they went inside to eat. A few pitchers of ice tea were sitting on top of the old pump organ and most of the pews had been removed to make room for tables and chairs. Red checkerboard table clothes were the new paraments of this house of worship. Looking around the room at all the filled tables and the diversity of the people gathered to eat together, Craddock said to his wife, “It is certainly good this is not a church now, these people would not be welcomed.”
I know a church. It sits at the corner of Haywood and Academy. If it up and vanished tomorrow…