Church Experience #28 – July 17, 2011
Church of the First Born – Chattanooga, TN
To Gain a Better Perspective
At the beginning of the summer, I visited Union Chapel (also known as “The Little Brown Church“) and was exposed to an inner city pastor named Alfred “No Middle Name” Johnson for the first time. The article I wrote about that church experience dealt in part with observing the contrast of a black inner city pastor preaching at a white Signal Mountain church. For the purposes of ChurchSurfer this provided great content because, in my mind, talking about how the love of Christ allows His people to rise above things that do not make sense to the world (all they see is the paradox of an inner city black man teaching wealthy white people), is a great way to glorify our Lord. I felt like that article, although limited to just one speaker in a church that hosts a different speaker every week, did a good job capturing the essence of what the Little Brown Church is all about. What the article did not do, however, was capture a clear picture of what Alfred Johnson was all about. I was greatly impressed and intrigued with his sermon at the Little Brown Church in the way that it basically called to attention the current generation of youth that we, as Christians, are failing to reach in so many ways. A sharp sermon delivered by a fiery preacher definitely gives insight into the man and his ministry, but it does not give a complete picture of either. In order to get a more complete picture I knew I would actually have to see him in his ministry. I needed to visit Church of the First Born, where Alfred Johnson serves as Pastor and see him in action in his own environment. I always look forward to visiting churches where I am an ethnic minority anyway, because I feel like if I really want to gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and grow in my ability to truly love and connect to all people, I need to be exposed to people who are different than me. If you really want to discover your own capacity for love, you cannot build walls and limit your contact to what you know…you have to explore the unknown. So here is how my experience at Church of the First Born went…
A Hand-clapping Good Time
Laura and I parked on a crowded St. Elmo Avenue that was bustling with activity in between the 10:00 and 11:00 AM services at Church of the First Born in the Southside District of Chattanooga. We exchanged smiles and some “good morning’s” with several people as we swerved through the crowd in front of the building, then through the small foyer and into the sanctuary. The room was mostly white with a crimson carpet runner down the center aisle leading up to the stage area, which had two rows of choir seats behind three larger wooden chairs and a wood podium and altar table with a flower arrangement. Beside the stage area was a multi-level electric keyboard setup and a drum kit enclosed by plexi-glass sound walls. I looked around the room as the time for the service to begin was quickly approaching and noticed that attendance was much lower than what I had expected. Laura and I sat and observed the scene with smiles on our faces, occasionally greeting the people who sat down closest to us. There was never an intentional call to worship, but instead the music just started up and people slowly joined in as they ended conversations and got settled in to their seats. Everyone was initially sitting down as the gospel-style worship music continued, and after a few minutes the music stopped for a responsive reading of Psalm 139 by Pastor Johnson, who was clothed in a white robe similar to what I was used to seeing in the United Methodist churches I grew up in. By this time the room had almost filled to capacity, and I did see two or three other white people out of well over one hundred who were in attendance (just to point out that we were not the only ones). The worship music was made up of joyful, up-tempo, hand-clapping gospel numbers that typically repeated lyrical sections as the music increased in volume and complexity and built to a climax. Two of Pastor Johnson’s sons provided skillful mastery of their instruments (and looked much more at home on the electric keyboard than the old upright piano they had played at the Little Brown Church) as they flashed facial expressions and nods to the choir singers to signal the changes in the songs. In the middle of the singing and clapping I drifted off on a quick mind journey about the differences between traditional hymn music and gospel music. I reasoned that gospel music is more about making a beautiful sound than having deep lyrical substance, like the old-time hymn writers seemed to be focused on. Don’t get me wrong here…I do not think one style is more worshipful than the other, but rather that hymns are like singing Scripture and gospel is like singing prayer…they are just different. Either way, I love both styles and I can get to that place of totally connected worship through each of them.
A Question of Meaning
After the worship music ended, Pastor Johnson led the congregation in a heartfelt prayer, which embodied sincerity and conviction and sounded nothing like some of the written and rehearsed prayers I have heard at many other churches. Before beginning his sermon, Pastor Johnson acknowledged all of the visitors that were in attendance for “family and friends day”, acknowledged any other visitors who were not invited by a friend or family member (Laura and I were the only ones), then directed the congregation to enjoy a fellowship time with the people around them (and included an order not to leave your seat and walk around aisles, which I took to mean that this congregation tended to get carried away with fellowship sometimes). We then sang two more worship songs, one of which was a call-and-response style song led by Pastor Johnson and his raspy, soulful, made-for-gospel singing voice. At the end of the song, he began his sermon (finally…I was really looking forward to it) which was centered on finding meaning in life. He pointed out that suicide is now the number two killer of teenagers in our country, and raised questions about why self-image has become such a problem. He noted that understanding your existence, your significance, and the intention of your life as it relates to God and our creation by Him, is the path to finding meaning in life. Pastor Johnson’s message was obviously tailored to the issues that dominate the lives of his inner-city audience, but anyone can find relevance in this type of message, and it is my opinion (although I don’t have any research to back it up) that self-inflicted violence is probably a bigger problem in high income society than it is in low income society. In fact, Pastor Johnson even closed with a statement that backs up that opinion when he said that disappointment comes from expectations. I would argue that expectations are higher for wealthier teenagers than for anyone else, which can easily lead to depression and suicide if their performance or self-image does not fall in line with those expectations. Pastor Johnson actually touched on the different income levels of society by saying that people go through life either at the “survival” level (low income) in which they are controlled by their circumstances, the “successful” level (high income) in which they live comfortably but struggle to find true fulfillment, or the “significant” level (any income level) in which they understand that God is the only way to find purpose and meaning.
Closing Thoughts and Prayer
As service closed, I left feeling both uplifted by the worship and message, but also slightly disappointed that I did not have more opportunities to engage with other members of the church. I felt like there were so many other visitors there for “family and friends day” that it would have been difficult for regular members to get through all the various introductions and conversations and actually reach out to visitors who did not have someone there introducing them to everyone. On the other hand, it should have been very obvious that we were visitors, being two out of about five white people in attendance that morning, so we should have been pretty easy to spot for anyone looking to welcome in outsiders. This was quite a contrast to some of the other black churches I have visited in the area, where I had received a very intentional open and warm welcome. But at the end of the day, this was still an opportunity for me to grow, to strive to love like Christ loves, and to contemplate how I may be able to present myself as more approachable to people of a different ethnicity or culture. If I am unable to connect with believers who are different than me, how will I ever be able to connect with non-believers who are different? So I close this week with a prayer, that through the discernment of the Spirit in me, I will be able to see through all physical and worldly distinctions between myself and anyone else and instead connect to all people by the perfect love of Christ. Amen.
I apologize for not having photos to include this week, I was immediately absorbed into the hubbub of the day and never had the chance to step aside and take pictures (in other words, I just forgot).