"Let's Do Church" by Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
On Palm Sunday—March 19, 1989—
eighty-eight people signed the charter to establish Northminster Church. Honestly, most, if not all, of that rather small group of people, who united themselves that morning, had been in churches most of their lives though sadly and frequently had experienced disappointment, anger, and hurt because of what their respective churches had done or not done. On the morning the charter was signed, numerous people were saying to each other, “Let’s do church right this time. Let’s do church and be church with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and let’s love each other as God loves.”
It was an exciting time. These charter members of Northminster captivated and catapulted by a dream had begun to feel spiritually more alive as a family than individually. They sensed God moving in their midst.
So, they dedicated large blocks of their precious time and together carefully chiseled out a covenant of agreements on freedom and responsibility, independence, and commitment, as well as the necessity of a scholarly study of the Bible, the morality of inclusion, and persistent service within the community and the nation. Not a single person who signed that charter had any thought of failure. All were committed to a success defined more by quality than quantity, by faithfulness rather than triumph, and building a fellowship of grace rather than condemnation. That covenant defined and guided the church’s mission, worship, work, and ministries together.
During the twenty-five years that I was pastor of this congregation, every year we revisited memories of the day the church was formed and renewed our fidelity to the covenant that still guides our mission. Not all was easy; though not anyone really expected that it would be easy. Wisely and repeatedly, we have sought to learn from the past as we continue to prepare for the present and the future.
I am sure you will not be shocked if I observe that where we live a lot of people love rumors. Daily, gossip wakes people up in a good humor and helps them go to sleep in a bad one. The young church quickly became a topic of conversations in the community that made it easy for people to misunderstand what was going on in Northminster and why—especially lemon-juice-like individuals who never really wanted to understand the church.
Among rampant rumors were comments like these: the new church holds Christian worship in a Jewish Temple and, later for goodness sakes, they built an unorthodox building, hung secular art on its walls, painted its floors, and even wallpapered their bathrooms. These people, in God’s name, allow women to do anything men can do in the life of the church, they ask no questions about who individuals’ love, accept all kinds of people who have not been in church for a long time, refuse to elect deacons by claiming—get this—that every member of the church should be a minister. It is imperative that happily I tell you those were not rumors; they were truths.
I hope Northminster Church is always known and talked about in this community; known and talked about for living as Jesus lived and loving as Jesus loved and treating as welcome friends visitors attending the church who have no friends. The future of Northminster Church needs always to be shaped best by our intent to follow Jesus.
As years have gone by, visitors worshiped in Northminster; some left, some stayed. From time to time came questions. Can this church make it? All of us who were members had dreamed of a new church. Would that dream vanish in the face of heat, fade under the press of criticism, or diminish as its dreamers did the boring work of institutional organization? The church was resolved to gather every Sunday and to maintain an excellence in worship that would make a statement to God and to other people. Would that resolve successfully resist erosion or disappear amid a reduction of enthusiasm? What will happen to those promises when the teachings of a biblical text come in conflict with popular opinion and advocacy for causes that are controversial? How will the congregation live out its commitment to religious education? What forms of ministry will convey the congregation’s commitment to service in the community? What will happen when some thoughtful people want to place limits on inclusion? Will the wedded priorities of love for God and love for each other prevail in the face of disagreements and potential divisions?
Ah! Now, at this moment on this Covenant Sunday, the sermon becomes all about us. Not only are all of us hearing the questions I just mentioned that emerged over time, now, we are the ones who need to answer those questions.
Two words have been crucial in the maturation and ministry of this church.
The first word is fidelity or better stated faithfulness. In the earliest days of the congregation there was a direct correlation between faithfulness to the church and enthusiasm for touching the lives of others. Honestly, no member of the church wanted to miss anything the church was doing. Faithfulness was not an imperative, it was a free, joyful choice.
For the church to stay true to its covenant and to realize its potential members engaged in hard work, worthy worship, outreach to other people, a commitment to Christian education, generous and maybe even sacrificial giving. Now, as in the past, of greatest importance is people’s faithfulness in following the leadership of God and the responsibilities each of us have to support the church. Talking about church is no substitute for doing church.
Northminster Church will always be measured not by the beliefs that we confess to the world (regardless of the volume or enthusiasm with which we speak) or by the taunts or praises that the world shouts in our ears (regardless of their intensity and focus). Ultimately, only our faithfulness to the voice of God really matters if we are the people of God. Remember it was the voice of God that called us together in the beginning and it is without the voice of God that we will find ourselves moving toward a speedy ending.
I know no better way into tomorrow for this church than that which comes by viewing God intimately, placing people above laws morally, reaching out to others inclusively, and making compassion the cornerstone of social policy. Faithfulness!
The second word is creativity. From the beginning, Northminster addressed every component in the makeup of the church with imaginative creativity. Of course, creativity requires faith buttressed with courage, walking into uncertainty with hope, adventure without fear, inclusion without denunciation, and love in action as well as in verbal expression. Creativity involves changing the direction of the wind, altering a landscape, achieving what some deem as impossible, and finding peace in threatening risks. Creativity gives shape to a new reality only with the church’s investment of energy, imagination, thoughts, and hard work. As Jesus observed as well as demonstrated, we find life by risking losing life.
Northminster, like any authentic church, must pray and hope that the crosses on which we suffer will not be needless or trivial but the result of its stubborn devotion to compassion and mercy.
Creativity and faithfulness were (and still are) essential for Northminster to be the church it pledged to be.
With wise deliberation the church moved away from a cultural religion that in so many places have virtually desensitized the radical nature of Christianity. One by one, two by two, people have come into this church wanting to believe and finally believing that faith does not dictate a closed mind, that thinking is not a sin, and that love does not have to be stifled by barriers erected by people’s economics, sexuality, culture, politics, or race. Relentlessly, our dreams continue to struggle to secure new realities in the church.
You know, unfortunately, some things seem to never change. Self-appointed counselors for Northminster were always showing up with endless offerings of advice to the people who sought fulfillment for their dreams of a new way of doing church. “Don’t move too fast,” paternalists said. “Remember where you are,” others cautioned, “Go on with this dream if you must, but ease up on your demands for women to enjoy a status in the church equal to that of men.” “Don’t take a stand contradictory to other Baptists around you; it’s not a matter of integrity, you need the affirmation and respect of others. You are just being reactionary!” “You are going to ruin your reputation and never be a big church.” “I don’t want to meddle in your business, but you ought to bring an American flag into your sanctuary. It already looks odd—a pulpit on one side and that big golden bird thing on the other side. People will think you don’t support our government or that you consider your spiritual commitment more important than your national devotion.” Ah, let me repeat one more of the repetitive criticisms, “Northminster Church is taking the matter of inclusion too far. You need some standards on who can be a member of that church. If you are not careful, you will end up with church members that look just like the people most in need in this community!”
Some members of the church listened. Some worried. Some argued. Some smiled quietly. Together, though, the congregation worshiped and sought the next steps on our uphill journey, inviting all others who wanted to join us on that journey.
Celebrating Covenant Sunday today is not an effort to recapture the past. Rather it is--at least for me--a moment filled with a pulsating passion to see more clearly the needs and opportunities around us now and to clearly refocus our eyes so that we do not miss the joy of seeing a new vision.
This church is probably not as great as some of us think, but we are not as bad as others judge. Our instincts are sound though our follow-through often leaves something to be desired. We are trying, and, with God’s help often we are getting it right, and as for the other, we will try again. Together we speak about matters that, in other places, often die in a context of vacuous silence. We believe Christianity is more about welcome than exclusion. We strive for peace but never settle for “anything less than justice.” We have heard God tell us to love the world and live in it as salt, not to hate the world and remove ourselves from it. We think that people who have failed miserably are to be most loved. We believe that the message of Jesus really is good news filled with mercy.
Friends this church has so much to offer where we live. Who needs us? Let me be specific.
People with whom we interact daily live with the ache of their churches telling them they are no good because of their sexual orientation, their marital situation, their affiliation with certain groups, or their propensity to ask questions. Young people are hearing that thinking is a sin, faith is a substitute for science, and sex is nasty. Across a span of ages, exploration is discouraged and conformity to indoctrination is encouraged. Not here. People are hurting and churches are leaving them unequipped to deal with their hurts and fearful of asking for help lest someone think that they are not good Christians.
Our community has serious problems though holds on to too much pride to admit the thick layer of racism that exists just beneath the surface of our social interactions. Public education for everybody is in trouble though we know a healthy democracy and a stable society are impossible apart from a strong system of public education. Women remain second class citizens in many institutions and are forced to deal with powerful men who claim as their rightful place establishing the legality of females’ work, income, and even the health of their bodies. Our economy is not secure, and our income streams are devoid of enough people capable of escalating their productivity. A host of young people are leaving home from here and not coming back. Adherents to political isolationism and religious fundamentalism are growing at a frightening, problematic rate.
As a corporate body, Northminster Church, seeking to extend the ministry of Jesus, we cannot afford only to take care of ourselves and make no corporate efforts to help others—financially, educationally, legally, relationally, and spiritually. In my admittedly biased opinion, our church is uniquely equipped to make a positive difference among hurting people both in our immediate habitat and elsewhere.
We must not forget why this church is here. The founders of the church wanted to create and grow a fellowship of grace not just a new building. If we lose that memory, we will lose both our direction and our power.
“We would honor both God and the church best by closing Northminster Church if the moment ever comes when survival or success is deemed worth losing the church’s uniqueness—turning its worship of God into entertainment for the community, blunting the cutting edge of its prophetic ministry to be more palatable to conventional wisdom, and seeking to reconcile the morality of the Bible with the mores of culture. There are a lot of congregations in this community that have a far greater ability than members in this fellowship to populate and lead a traditional church. If just another church is all we can offer, we probably should close.”
As pastor of this church, I never had any interest—and hope no pastor or pastors in the future have any interest—in maintaining a church just to preserve the institution. Survival alone is not a worthy goal for any church. We are a part of a faithful tradition in which complaints were greeted by creativity and nay-servers were proven wrong by new creations. And that tradition must continue.
Do we have the faithfulness? Where now is the passion for creating?
Let me borrow lines from Curtis Burrell’s spiritual and apply his words of incarnate love to Northminster Church: “We’ve come too far from where we started from. Nobody told us that the road would be easy. But, God didn’t bring us this far to leave us.”
As a congregation, we reaffirm our covenant as a church today, fully aware that our integrity as the body of Christ is as vulnerable as our weakest member and the credibility of our ministry is as threatened as an unintended failure of compassion.
I still believe that Northminster Church has a vision, a gospel, and a ministry critically needed in Northeast Louisiana. As you take communion today, if you want to reaffirm your pledge to Northminster’s covenant, I encourage you to sign your name on the paper provided for that purpose. As I think of Northminster, I think also of an observation of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: "It is not the church of God that has a mission, it is the God of mission that has a church."
On November 15, 1992, I delivered a sermon from this pulpit for the first time. From that time forward, nowhere was I as comfortable and happy as when I was in this pulpit. Six years later, with tears in my eyes and great sadness in my heart, I resigned as pastor to become the president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization that called me to work on unity among all religions and to defend religious liberty, the cornerstone of our nation. A few months later, to my surprise and great joy, Northminster invited me to come back to this congregation and continue my pastorate and ministry at Northminster along with my national and international leadership work related to religion which the church also valued.
Why? Why am I telling you this? The church will have to provide its own explanation as an answer to that question, but answering the question of “Why?” for me is easy. I have found in Northminster Church more honesty and grace in a congregation pulsating with a passion to be church than I have ever experienced anywhere else.
There were 88 people who founded and launched this church. Today a fewer number of people will sign their names in support for the church’s covenant. That makes our pledge to the covenant of the church today equally, if not even more important, than what happened in 1992. This church needs for each of us to vow to contribute to Northminster’s journey the gifts that each of us has to offer.
My desire this morning is to engage contemporary reality in this community with the dreams of Jesus born of God and to strengthen and encourage this fellowship called Northminster Church so that, with God’s help and following the example of Jesus, we can live on the front edge of the advent of a new reality here.
As corny as it may sound, with great love and gratitude, I want to sign on to this church again. I want to pledge to God loyalty to the covenant of Northminster Church, and I want to say to you, “Count me in. I write my name down. I hope you can do the same.”