First Baptist Church, 218 N. 35th St.
Service, 9 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014
Length of service: 1 hour, 5 minutes. Length of sermon: 31 minutes.
A few minutes into his sermon, Pastor Ross Lieuallen apologized for an equipment malfunction that was preventing him from displaying the next point of his homily on the two big-screen TVs in the front of the sanctuary.
This prompted an elderly gentleman in front of me to shout, “We’ll accept it verbally!” To which I could only add, “Amen, brother.”
The First Baptist Church is not all that large, and there were only about 25 people at the 9 a.m. service. We had hymnals, so we didn’t need the lyrics displayed on the screens, and the sermon would have been just as effective without highlighting its key points.
I point this out because the 9 a.m. service was advertised as the “traditional worship,” with the “contemporary worship” at 10:30. I was looking forward to something distinctly old-fashioned, possibly with thundering denunciations of fornication.
For better or worse, it was not quite that old-fashioned. And of course I don’t know what the “modern” service consists of, though an unused drum set and an electric piano on the altar gave me some clues.
The proceedings were traditional in that almost all the emphasis was on the preaching, which took up nearly half the service. The service began with a few hymns, one sung only by the choir, followed by the collection and the congregants’ greeting of one another, and then the sermon and a closing hymn.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
The choristers were dressed in purple and gold robes and were accompanied only by a pianist playing a baby grand. As always, I tried to sing along, with the usual results. I have trouble singing the old church songs myself and would rather shut up and listen anyway.
The exchange of greetings seemed unusually long, but also warm and sincere. Everyone was so nice. Of course, this may have been another instance of their hoping to snag a relatively young adherent. Until the choir left the altar and joined the congregation, I believe I was the youngest person in the pews.
Before the sermon, there was an interlude of music and prayer that was as satisfying as anything I had yet experienced on these outings. We had just sung “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” and as the pianist continued to tinkle out the melody, Lieuallen exhorted us to reflect on the words in the chorus that ran, “I’d rather have Jesus than anything/This world affords today.”
As he spoke and I stood there with my eyes squeezed shut, listening to him and the pianist, I felt a rush of peacefulness or calm, which I hadn’t felt a moment of in all the past hectic week.
It put me in mind of the more or less secular reason I attended church for a spell as an adult—to set aside one small portion of the week where I was forced to sit and do nothing but think, listen and sing.
Just before the sermon itself began, we were subjected to a three-minute music video, one of those treacly Christian-country songs, an example of one of my least-favorite styles of music. And for what? There was a long sermon coming up and we didn’t need this strange interruption. And again, “traditional service”?
Regardless, at least the sermon was good, and somehow Lieuallen managed to work in references to Milton Berle, Payton Manning, Johnny Cash and Mark Twain—quoted as saying the way to raise children is to put them in a barrel and feed them through a knothole, and when they turn 15, you plug the knothole. The context for this citation escapes me.
He preached from First Corinthians, talking about how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and how we are ambassadors of Christ. That Christ died for our sins, he said, should indicate how much we are worth. Or as he put it, “That ought to raise your dignity up a little bit.”
The point was not merely that rampant consumerism, the unending greed for more things, is pointless in and of itself, but that it amounts to nothing in comparison with the value Christ has already placed on us.
“What’s the value of your soul?” he asked. “What’s the value of you?”
There was more, much more, and the best thing about it was that Lieuallen projected a sincere, seeking attitude. He seemed like a man who struggled mightily with what he was going to say, and then continued to struggle throughout his sermon, wanting to get it just right for our sake.
I salute him for his thoughtfulness and sincerity. My only regret was that the service was not nearly as traditional as I had hoped it would be.
Previously: Chapter 1, St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Chapter 2, Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.
Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Next week: Billings Freedom Church