August 15, 2007

A Church Observed

2007 1523 page5 capn a private weekend trip to Atlanta last June, my wife and I visited the Berean Adventist Church, arriving just as one of the pastors was about to begin the “examination” of some 12 candidates for baptism that day. Usually a routine event, the exercise turned out to be the first of several attractive worship elements to catch my eyes that morning.
The “examination” is a useful exercise, still practiced in many of our churches; but everyone should understand it for what it is--namely, a formality. By the time these candidates appear, they should already have studied and accepted the fundamental doctrines of the church. This the pastor explained, then proceeded with a drastically abbreviated version of the 13-point question list. Thus shortened, it had a stronger impact. The affirmative vote of the church came by way of a resounding amen. “After these are baptized in our service today,” the pastor then said, “they will become full-fledged members of the Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church.” He said it with a certain emphasis in his voice that made all non-Bereans (including me) jealous.
As two of the church’s three pastors entered the baptismal font with the first candidates, someone on the rostrum simultaneously stood to call for the day’s offering, leading me to worry they’d gotten their wires crossed. But it was all according to plan. “Today,” said the offering announcer (drawing attention to the ceremony about to begin behind him), “we’ll be witnessing one of the tangible results of our giving.” What a powerful incentive to give!
Nor did the offering collection distract people’s attention from the baptistery. A husband and wife appeared together, a mother and her adult daughter, three members of one family. All interspersed with the singing of that old spiritual: “Take Me to the Water.” Solemn, joyful stuff!
2007 1523 page5It was Communion Sabbath, as well, and the multiple entry of the up-front participants following the foot-washing ceremony fascinated me--the ministers and other platform officials via front entrances at rostrum level, elders through doors on both sides of the platform at audience level, and deacons and deaconesses from the rear of the sanctuary. As these last, some 50 strong, walked up two aisles to seats reserved up front for them--deacons in black, deaconesses in all white--I whispered to my wife: “That’s cool!”
Following a grace-filled sermon by senior pastor Carlton P. Byrd came the “uncovering” of the emblems, with style and grace, by two senior deaconesses. (I like ceremony, done well.) Through the entire morning program, Byrd remained in relaxed control, deftly directing the entire operation with strategic hand signals and gestures, pulling off a baptism and Communion service the same morning, and keeping the interest of the congregation throughout. The program never dragged. Without hurry or fluster, every item dovetailed into the other. “They really moved that service along, didn’t they?” my wife commented afterward.
But it was the praise team that took the cake for me. In some places such groups have come to be associated with long-standing, insipid songs with repetitive lyrics; loud, incomprehensible music; and singers showing off themselves and demanding the audience to do things for them—“put your hands together,” “rise to your feet,” or “tell your neighbor” this or that. The Berean praise team did none of the above. Instead, they simply sang--so powerfully that you felt like raising your hands or shouting “hallelujah” without any prompting from them. Indeed, the demeanor of these young adults gave the most powerful message of all. They were radiant, their hand and body movements poised and polished, their attitude serious and focused. Doing nothing to call attention to themselves, they seemed to be inviting us to focus on someone else--on Someone invisible. When you can feel the occasional lump in the throat, a tear wanting to break through, a deep joy bubbling up in the heart, then you know that worship is taking place where you sit.
It was a packed church—I’m guessing between 1,000 and 1,400 present--friendly people, good preaching, a huge parking lot. The kind of place you could feel comfortable inviting your friends to.
I visit many good churches I don’t write about. And someone might say (and they’d be correct) that what I experienced at Berean was just a snapshot--maybe I just caught them at their best. Perhaps. But that’s what I observed the day I visited. And I was moved!

Roy Adams is associate editor of the Adventist Review.