Church Experience #11 – March 13, 2011
New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, Chattanooga, TN
One of my sincere desires out of the ChurchSurfer journey this year is to find and experience what would be considered “fringe” churches that don’t fit into the norm of my middle class, suburban-dwelling, American bubble. It’s not that I don’t expect to have powerful experiences or get interesting content for my blog articles from the “inside the bubble” churches, but I know that in order for me to grow, to gain understanding, to increase in wisdom, compassion, and love, I will need to venture outside the bubble. I’ve probably already done this more than most during my life…I spent a year driving around the country with my friend Michael Cruze, living out of tents and a car, mingling with the homeless, and trying to reach out to anyone God put in our path. I just haven’t experienced these different environments inside the local church. I actually believe my experience as a nomad has equipped me with the ability to go into various “outside the bubble” churches and instantly relate to people in their environment (they probably struggle more to relate with me because I’m out of their norm). So it’s a natural fit for me to explore all these various church environments and allow others to experience them with me through my writing. You’ve probably guessed by now why I’m leading in to this week’s church experience with this intro…this is one of those “outside the bubble” church visits.
Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder
If you live in Chattanooga and you’ve driven down Ringgold Road near the tunnels in the last couple of years, you’ve driven right by New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church and probably never noticed it. New Philadelphia is in an old brick storefront at the corner of Ringgold and Germantown, with the only distinct markers being a banner hanging on the front of the building and some posters in the windows. I pulled in to a parking spot next to a well dressed man sitting on the curb smoking a cigarette, with a look of deep contemplation on his face. I rolled down the window to ask if it would be appropriate for me to attend church in jeans, to which he replied “oh, yes”, so I hopped out and headed in the door. I was rather early and there were only a few people inside, bustling around setting up sound equipment. I glanced around the room, which had painted white concrete block walls, a mixture of fold out chairs and red and white painted wooden church pews, a play area next to the door with some children’s toys, a podium at the front beside some microphone stands and two keyboards, and a bathroom in the rear corner. I approached a counter area of what was probably once the checkout in a retail store, and thought to myself that this was about as far as you could get from the amenities and aesthetic of some of the churches I had attended in recent weeks, like Abba’s House and Calvary Chapel. This single room served as the entire church building. It turns out, that’s all you need. The pastor and members of New Philadelphia couldn’t be happier about their location. They mentioned multiple times how blessed they were to have so much space and such a great location with visibility on a high-traffic street corner. I know there are so-called Christians out there who wouldn’t attend a church if it weren’t for the expensive building with all the fancy amenities…what a shame. Apparently the old saying is true: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I know what Jesus would think. “Where two or more are gathered…”. It’s not the building that glorifies God, it’s the people inside.
Blessed To Be Here
I was immediately greeted by a man who introduced himself as Tommy, with a firm handshake and a warm smile. We engaged in conversation about the U.S. economy, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the unrest in North Africa, to which we both concluded we were extremely blessed to have jobs and live in a place where we could walk out our door without wondering if there was going to be a suicide bomb or military gunfight that could harm us or our family. Probably attempting to put me at ease in case I was uncomfortable by being the racial minority in their church, Tommy made it a point to ensure me that I was welcome at New Philadelphia and that there was no racial discrimination there. After a few more minutes of conversation with Tommy about the ChurchSurfer blog, the pastor, Evangelist Brenda J. Millsaps, came through the door and Tommy excused himself to go greet her. Pastor Millsaps slowly labored across the room, visibly hindered by health problems that have affected her mobility. Her smile and bright voice lit up the room, as everyone who was setting up for the service seemed suddenly uplifted and energized by her presence. As she made her way over to take a seat behind one of the keyboards, she looked my way (I had sat down in one of the pews) and asked if I was Josh. Realizing that Tommy had preemptively introduced me to her, I affirmed that I was, and that I was happy to join them for worship. She welcomed me to their church and added that “…we may start off a little slow, but it’s all about how you finish”.
That Sweet Gospel Sound
The service began with a Scripture reading from Proverbs 16: 1-9, as everyone stood to honor the reading of the Word. Could there have been a more fitting verse to open the service with? The heading for Proverbs 16 is “Wisdom Is Better Than Gold”…wow! Coincidence? I don’t think so. The worship music then began with pastor Millsaps at one of the keyboards, side by side with her daughter, Sister Felicia Millsaps, Minister of Music, at the second keyboard. Beside them was another young lady on the drums and three more praise singers including the Youth Pastor, Kentrell Gladden. The music was straight up gospel praise, and the congregation clapped while singing along with huge smiles. The praise environment was truly joyful, and the small worship team of 6 or 7 filled the room with as much sound as it could contain, sounding more like a choir of twenty if you closed your eyes. My only stereotypical judgement of the day was that the Millsaps women sang exactly how you would expect them to based on their appearance…think Aretha Franklin. My heart was lifted with joy as I clapped along, singing at times and remaining quiet at other times, just soaking it all up. At one point they sang a melodic anthem that was specifically intended to welcome their visitors, with lyrics that included “…welcome to New Philadelphia where the Bible is taught…”. Having a custom written song to perform for their guests was fitting, considering each segment of their two and a half hour long Sunday service was interspersed among more and more music, which was obviously the engine that kept the service moving along.
Giants Do Fall
During one break in the music, pastor Millsaps invited the congregation to come to the front to “bring your petitions before the Lord”. Not fully understanding what the intention was, I came forth (as did most of the rest of the congregation of less than twenty), and we all joined hands. Going around one at a time, each person requested prayer for their various issues or ailments, or for family members or friends, and when it came to my turn I was led by the Spirit to ask for prayer for unity among the churches and believers in Chattanooga. After the prayer, we returned to our seats and pastor Gladden delivered the sermon. His message was that “giants do fall”, and as he read the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel, he related Goliath, the champion of the Philistine army, to false hopes of the flesh (and the Philistine people) and to challenges in our spiritual walk. He focused on the sentiment that David went to battle specifically for the opportunity to glorify God in a seemingly impossible situation, not just for the purpose of “doing battle”. When we, as believers, come against obstacles in life, if we rise against them as an opportunity to glorify God, we will…as was David…be victorious by the strength of the Lord. What a good lesson to keep in mind each day when you feel like you may not have the strength to overcome the difficulties in your life. Disease, disaster, relationship problems, money, no matter what the obstacle, God’s strength can conquer all, and we already have victory in Christ over the ultimate obstacle…death. Praise God.
One constant theme that I picked up at New Philadelphia was that they come together as a church for no other reason but to rejoice in the Lord…how refreshing. It’s evident in their music, it’s evident in the way they stand to honor the reading of the Scripture, it’s evident in the “amen’s” and “praise God’s” that come from the congregation throughout the service, it’s evident in the total disregard for the pre-canned hour long service that most churches abide by, it’s evident in the passion with which they sing and worship, and it’s evident in the welcoming environment they create for someone “outside their bubble”. Here in a makeshift church building that those who would deem in necessary to always have excess would scoff at, the only thing that I could tell New Philadelphia lacked, was the thought that somehow their current situation was anything less than adequate. They see it as a blessing and are using their facility for the greatest purpose…as a gathering place for true worship. My final thought to share with you is a challenge…to venture outside your bubble. If you attend a church in a wealthy area, find one in a less fortunate part of town, or vice versa. If you attend a church that is not racially diverse, find one that is equally skewed toward another race and help them move toward diversity with your presence. There are blessings in life that you will never receive if you are hung up on appearance. Gifts come in all kinds of packages. Don’t make the mistake of missing out because someone is different from you or something is outside your bubble. If I thought that way, I would have missed out on the two angelic voices of Brenda and Felicia Millsaps and a wonderful day of worship at New Philadelphia.
If you would like to experience some of the music and messages from Brenda and Felicia Millsaps, they have audio and video available at the Worship and Ministry Network website.
Sorry for the absence of pictures this week…due to the small size of the building and congregation I didn’t want to be rude or seem intrusive.
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