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ChurchSurfer @ Signal Mountain Presbyterian: Old Church, New Family

Church Experience #14 – April 10, 2011

Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church

Making the Denominational Rounds

One of my goals for the ChurchSurfer journey that I’m currently on, is to visit as many different Christian denominations as I can in the process of attending fifty different churches in 2011.  I’m now 14 weeks in and there are a few major denominations that I still haven’t visited, so this week I wanted to make sure to check one of those “majors” off the list.  I had been introduced by a mutual friend to Chris Ackerson recently because of his involvement in the Men’s Ministry Network.  I remembered Chris mentioning that he attended Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian was one of the “must visit” denominations that I hadn’t been to yet, so I decided I would drop in on him.  I looked up the Signal Mountain Presbyterian website and while browsing through Sunday School classes, I noticed that he was the leader of one of the classes.  I figured that going to Sunday School as well as the regular worship service would add an extra element to this week’s article.  We’ll see.

Signs of Spring

Signal Mtn Presbyterian spring garden
Signal Mtn Presbyterian spring garden

Laura and I showed up a little bit early for Sunday School so that we could snap a few pictures and explore a little bit.  The Signal Mountain Presbyterian building was a beautiful sight on this Spring Sunday morning, with meticulous landscaping and all the bushes, flowers, vines, and trees in full bloom.  We entered the building into the youth area, and asked someone for directions to Chris Ackerson’s class, which was called “The Experiment”…interestingly enough.  We were led around the building by the Youth Pastor, who was also named Chris, and looped all the way across the lower floor, up the stairs and across the second floor, and then back down the stairs and around again.  It turns out The Experiment didn’t meet in a classroom, but instead in a little lounge area in one of the breezeways.  So after a great guided tour around the entire building, we landed in the right spot and were ready to catch our breath (youth pastor Chris moves pretty quickly).

A Book Other Than the Bible

We filled up a coffee cup and then made our way through introductions with the group, as Chris and all the others in attendance welcomed us very warmly.  Someone came in with donuts, and as we indulged in a sugary treat, everyone settled in a circle of seats consisting of various sofas and chairs to begin the class.  Laura and I had no clue what topic of study The Experiment was focused on, and it turned out that they were currently going through the book “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, which I am embarrassed to say I have never read.  Each week they read a chapter of the book out loud and then discuss it.  This week’s chapter was “marriage”.  We were given a leading question to ponder while the chapter was being read, which was something like “Is it OK for non-Christians to be married inside a Christian church?”  The chapter was read by one of the men in the class and then an excellent discussion ensued.  I quickly learned that this group had a sense of humor, but also posed excellent questions and offered up some serious insights.  One of the main points that we touched on was the difference of “being in love” and “loving”.  Lewis rationalizes that the reason marriages fail is because they are entered into on the basis of the feeling of being in love with no concept of what it takes to actually love someone throughout the entirety of a Christian marriage.  When the initial excitement and thrills have gone away, one or both of the spouses are left to believe that they have fallen out of love and that the marriage has failed.  Sad but true.  I’ll definitely be reading “Mere Christianity” soon…I love the way C. S. Lewis basically talks through his points of focus in what seems like an intellectual conversation that he’s having in his own mind.

Traditional Magnificence

Signal Mountain Presbyterian rear of sanctuary
Signal Mountain Presbyterian rear of sanctuary

After Sunday School, Laura and I parted ways with the class members and spent a little time meandering our way to the main sanctuary.  It seemed like everyone we passed in the hallway had a warm smile and most offered a warm “hello” or “good morning” in passing.  We definitely felt welcome, and upon entering the sanctuary, a nostalgic feeling swept over me as I took in the massive room that was masterfully constructed from a combination of brick, custom woodwork, and stained glass.  There were fresh cut flowers at the altar and a large open Bible centered in the pulpit area, which was decorated with purple tapestries.  Rising majestically behind the pulpit were the enormous pipes from the pipe organ, which came alive with sound as the service began.  The pastor, Dr. Bill Dudley, opened the service with a Scripture reading from Hebrews, and then proceeded in a very structured procession through the announcement and recognition of new members to the instruction to pass around the “friendship pads” for a record of those in attendance.  I noticed the couple sitting beside us, Don and Jane, whom we had become acquainted with before the service, scanning the filled-out pad on its way back across the row, and smiling to each other as they pointed to a couple of visitor entries.  It was nice to see that they were sincerely interested in knowing who was in attendance and that they displayed excitement over the presence of visitors…I can think of way too many churches that I have attended where everyone seemed to be oblivious to anyone but their own circle of friends, and in total disregard to how visitors may feel by being ignored.

A Family Affair

Signal Mountain Presbyterian front entrance

Signal Mountain Presbyterian front entrance

Leading up to the sermon, the church leaders conducted the service through an efficient series of ceremonial practices, including a time where the pastor asked the members to greet and speak to visitors around them, an impressive celebratory procession of the choir led by a crucifer down the center aisle and up into the tiered seating behind the pulpit, announcements for the church, a personal testimony, and the tithe and offering collection accompanied by a choral performance of “Old Rugged Cross”.  One other act that I found particularly intriguing was the water baptism by sprinkling of new members to the church, during which they were asked to either commit their lives to Christ or reaffirm their faith if they were already believers.  The Church congregation was asked to respond with affirmation of their acceptance of the new members, which is what I really found to be a powerful sentiment.  It was like the church was operating  as a family, and as new members were being “married in”, the head of the family was asking for their blessing.  There is definitely something to be said for these traditional practices that are all too often being cut out of newer non-denominational churches, and also from contemporary services within many denominations.  I’m still not sure why churches wouldn’t want to account for who the members of their family are, and conduct their services and church functions as an inclusive family rather than as a group of spectators.

Left With A Good Feeling

Dr. Dudley delivered a challenging sermon, in which he discussed the problem of being a “crowd pleaser”, drawing from the actions of Pilate regarding the sentencing of Jesus and relating it to our lives and how we find it difficult to speak out against the majority when our stance is unpopular.  He also made a hard-nosed observation that our nation is no longer a Christian nation, which will create situations where our opinions and beliefs as Christians will be contrary to the majority, who are not believers.  Be prepared, my brothers and sisters, because it is almost certain that you will experience circumstances in your life where you will have to make the decision of whether to be a crowd pleaser or to speak out for what is right.  It’s not always easy to make the right choice…just ask Peter.  After service, Chris invited us back to their small group meeting that evening, and we decided to take them up on their offer.  The small group welcomed us in and fed us dinner and treated us like we were old friends.  They asked us to share our story about the ChurchSurfer journey, and listened with interest as we discussed what ChurchSurfer is about and why we are doing it.  They included us in their prayer requests, which can be a very intimate time, as people talk about very personal issues.  This group was very candid and open, which is what it takes to build real relationships and grow together in the faith.  It’s refreshing to see people letting down their guard with friends without fear of being judged.  Laura and I were blessed to have been invited to share in this personal time at Signal Mountain Presbyterian, considering that out of 14 different church visits this year, this is only the second time we’ve actually been invited to a specific gathering or group.  Most churches just expect that if you are interested in a group you will actively seek it out.  I personally think that it is much better for someone to take the initiative and invite you in to their personal space instead of making assumptions.  Thank you “small group” at Signal Mountain Presbyterian (you know who you are)…Laura and I truly appreciate your kindness and were definitely left with a good feeling after being treated so warmly.  Peace be with you.

Signal Mtn Presbyterian Josh & Laura weekly self-portrait

Signal Mtn Presbyterian Josh & Laura weekly self-portrait

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis


ChurchSurfer @ New Philadelphia M. B. Church: Outside The Bubble

Church Experience #11 – March 13, 2011

New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, Chattanooga, TN

The Bubble

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 Churchand 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.

Final Thoughts

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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