Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lessons from a DC Pastor

For the past couple weeks I’ve been suffering from an irritating and unsightly bacterial infection of the eyelids called blepharitis, but I’m nearly over it. (Prayers appreciated.) I also didn't have phone or Internet service for a week until Verizon fixed the problem today. It’s good to be back online.

Yesterday I received in the mail and read Dr. Edward Hughes Pruden’s memoir, A Window on Washington (Vantage Press, 1976). Pruden was pastor of FBC Washington, DC (FBC DC) for 32 years, from 1936 to 1969. President Truman attended this church while Pruden was pastor, and it’s the same church where Jimmy Carter later taught Sunday School while he was in the White House.

Here are some interesting lessons I learned from Pruden’s book:

1. Church growth is driven primarily by demographics.

“The city soon became crowded, and it was estimated that between the years 1940 and 1950 the increase in the population of the metropolitan area was the same as though the entire population of Atlanta and Richmond had moved into Washington and its suburbs. With such a rapid influx of new people, acquiring new members for the church was no problem. One of my fellow ministers said that all one had to do on Sunday mornings was to open the front door of the church and jump back so as not to be run over. It was at this period that several of the downtown churches, including our own, went to two morning services” (20).

2. Contemporary worship and other-than-Sunday services were already tried in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Some churches conducted two types of services—a traditional service at eleven in the morning and a contemporary type service on Sunday afternoon. Other churches tried week-night worship services for the convenience of people who were out of the city for the weekend” (21).

I’m not sure exactly whether the above comment referred to the 1930s or 1940s, but it’s in the chapter on “The Roosevelt Era” before the chapter on “The War Years,” so it’s likely pre-1941. Also, what did they consider “contemporary” worship—Fanny Crosby instead of Isaac Watts? It would be interesting to find a contemporary worship bulletin from this period.

3. Outreach to apartment dwellers flopped.

“The churches in the general area of the one I served got together and organized what was called the Massachusetts Mile project. We selected that portion of Massachusetts Avenue nearest the churches involved, and sought by various means to reach the people who lived in the apartment houses in this area. Mailing lists were secured from apartment house managers, and letters and literature were sent. Efforts were made to have church member in these apartments to invite their neighbors to tea or have them in for dessert, and have one of the pastors present so that he could get acquainted with some who were not attending church. A retired minister was employed to go from door to door as a representative of all the churches involved and extend an invitation to services, and leave printed materials containing pertinent information regarding the various congregations. Some churches conducted two types of services—a traditional service at eleven in the morning and a contemporary type service on Sunday afternoon. Other churches tried week-night worship services for the convenience of people who were out of the city for the weekend. Few of these efforts were really successful. Either the apartment houses attract a type of individual who does not feel the need for fellowship with other Christians in corporate worship, or else the very nature of apartment houses themselves does something to the person who has formerly felt the need” (emphasis added, 21-22).

4. Pulpit robes are deeply rooted in Southern Baptist tradition.

“Within our [FBC DC] membership at that time were two aristocratic ladies, Misses Fannie and Lucy Boyce, the daughters of Dr. James P. Boyce, founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Boyce belonged to a wealthy and influential South Carolina family, and, during the early years of the seminary, had assured its continued existence by his own financial support. The commodious apartment in which the Boyce ladies lived seemed almost like a museum with its family portraits, furniture, and silver. Miss Fannie Boyce indicated on one occasion that she would like for me to wear a pulpit robe, saying that her father and other Baptist ministers in the early history of South Carolina were accustomed to wearing robes in Baptist pulpits. This was all the encouragement I needed since I had been wanting to wear a robe for some time” (emphasis added, 26).

According to Pruden, he was the first FBC DC pastor of to preach in a robe, more than 130 years after the church was founded in 1802. A few members left the church in protest. I’d surmise that J.P. Boyce and the SC churches referred to above were part of the Charleston tradition, which is both older and more liturgical than the Sandy Creek tradition. Both of these Baptist traditions have their modern-day heirs, but an overwhelming number of SBC churches follow the more informal Sandy Creek tradition.

5. Pastors should avoid politicking.

President Truman stopped attending FBC DC after Pruden publicly opposed his decision to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. There were plenty of clergy speaking out on the issue but only one pastor ministering to the sitting president. While Pruden had the right to speak out, it cost him his unique ministry to America’s Chief Executive as Truman apparently no longer felt comfortable attending FBC DC after that (102-103). (Truman also got hopping mad at a young preacher named Billy Graham when he used a visit to the White House for his own self promotion.)

6. Racial integration took a long time, even in the nation’s capital.

Pruden highlighted his belief in “inter-racial . . . goodwill and understanding” in his first sermon at FBC DC in 1936, but he makes clear that the church did not welcome its first non-slave black member until about a century after the Civil War. Although he does not pinpoint the year, it was “after the Supreme Court decision of 1954” Brown v. Board of Education (134). Sadly, there are still many Baptist (and other) churches that do not welcome African Americans.

Related to the topic of racial reconciliation is an excellent article in today’s Washington Post by Rev. David R. Stokes: “Pro-Life and Civil Rights Camp Should Band Together to Right Wrongs.” I made a similar argument in my recent blog post Less Racism, Fewer Abortions.

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