We were in New York last Sunday morning, I decided to check out Madison Avenue Baptist Church. The pastor is Susan Sparks and I’d read her book, Laughing Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor. Anyone who has been a corporate lawyer and a stand-comic prior to becoming a Baptist preacher seemed worthy to check-out. On top of all that, she’s from North Carolina. We hopped off the subway and took it down to Madison Ave and then walked a few more blocks over to the church, which was built in the 1850s. Over time, buildings have been constructed on both sides and on top of the old church. Stepping though the heavy wooden doors, I was surprised to find the sanctuary so small. If it had been packed, which it wasn’t, there would only have been space for maybe 150 people (maybe 250 if the church was packed like a subway in during rush hour). I didn’t count, but would guess that there were 60-70 folks present. Despite the number in attendance, the worship was excellent (both music and preaching). With their extensive web presence, they certainly have an impact far beyond those in the pews.
The Sunday I attended worship at MABC was “social media Sunday.” When the service opened, an associate pastor suggested that the church shouldn’t be afraid of social media, but should use it in a way to bring about positive change in the world. Up front and in the corner was a screen with a scrolling Twitter feed. Everyone was encouraged to take out their phones and tweet. I have a twitter account, however I never loaded the app on my new phone (my “new” phone is nearly a year old which shows my interest in Twitter). Not to be undone, the ushers also handed out cards for those who are not tech-savvy to write out tweets to be posted online. As the service continued, tweets popped up giving praise for the music (the small choir was incredible) and pointing out key points of the message.
Susan’s sermon was based on Daniel 3 (the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace) and she had an Iranian man read the scripture. He joked that the reason he was asked to read the text was so that we’d get the correct pronunciation of the Persian names. When he finished the reading, he noted Nebuchadnezzar’s belief that Babylon would reign forever and told us how the site of Babylon is now mostly a sand pile, having been destroyed by the Romans. Then he lifted his Bible and noted that the hopes of political leaders will all be washed away, for only God’s word is eternal. It was a very effective testimony. Susan’s message was well crafted and centered around verse 17, in which the Hebrew men say to the Babylonian King, “God may deliver us but even if he doesn’t, we’re going to still believe.” She then put her audience into each of the characters in the story (the three men, the King, and the “angel” seen walking around in the furnace with the three men) and suggested what we can learn from each point of view. From the three men, we learn faithfulness. From the king, we learn we learn how to admit we’re wrong and to change. From the angel within the furnace, we learn to be God’s presence when God’s children are in peril. She ended her homily tying the text to the recent atrocity in Charleston.
In the evening, we attended a jazz worship service at Redeemer Presbyterian Church ministry center on the West Side. Timothy Keller is the pastor of this large church which has services three sites on Manhattan. I have read a number of Keller’s books and was hoping he’d be the preacher. He wasn’t. The preaching was done by an associate pastor. His message, “The Nature of Glory,” was based on Jesus’ prayer (John 17). Although I didn’t time the sermon, it felt long and seemed to be a little rambling. I felt as if he was trying to impress us with the number of quotes he used in the sermon (C. S. Lewis, John Piper, Anne Lamott and Cornelius Plantinga are the ones I recall, and there were couple others). In comparing the messages, my wife remarked that Sparks said twice as much in half the time. The music, however, was incredible.
The jazz group leading worship consisted of a drummer, someone playing a large bass, a man on trumpet, another on a guitar and someone on the piano. The singing was primarily done by a female vocalist who was backed up by another associate pastor. Their sound was crisp and clear. The service began with an instrumental version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Although it’s not a “religious” piece, it set the stage for the service which was on the first day of summer. Most of the congregational singing were traditional hymns, but they were jazzed up. With the exception of the vocalists, the musicians remained seated and didn’t draw attention to themselves, creating a wonderful sense of worship. It wasn’t about them, it was about God. The music made the service very moving and was the highlight of the evening.
Another surprise about Redeemer was the age and number of worshipers. There were several hundred worshipers at the 5 PM worship service and there were several hundred more waiting for us to leave the sanctuary so they could enter for the 6:30 PM service. The congregation was young, including many students, a high percentage of whom were Asian.
On Father’s Day and the first day of summer in New York, I attended two different churches from different traditions and found them both to be glorifying God in new and distinctively different ways.