Last night we participated in the future. Last night we all joined together in the fulfillment of prophesy. We actually became an answer to our Lord’s prayers in Scripture last night. The four downtown churches — First Baptist, First Presbyterian, Polk Street Methodist, and Central Church of Christ — gathered at our building last night as an undeniable witness to God’s power and grace and as his partners in the great work of reconciliation. All of that wonder and promise took place within the very comfortable confines of our worship center here at Central last night where the walls between our denominations are coming down and the things that divide us are being erased for the sake of the Kingdom.
People began arriving a full hour and a half before the joint worship service began to hear the 130-member combined choir rehearse in our balcony. There were warm welcomes in the concourse, friendships renewed in the pews, and a strong sense of anticipation that you just don’t get before most worship services. By the time Howie jumped up to welcome everyone and lead our invocation, the house was just about full — nearly a thousand of us lifting our voices and our hearts to God together as one people.
Before I led us in a responsive reading of Jesus’ great prayer for unity in John 17, I reminded all of us that we can’t ever let this grow old; we can’t ever take this for granted. Not every church — and you know this, too — gets to experience the tangible breaking down of barriers between Christian denominations and the sweet fellowship that results from a gracious understanding that our Lord is bigger than our differences. We can’t let this partnership with the downtown churches ever become old hat. We need to continue to embrace this coalition of congregations in the hope and prayer that our coming together to do anything — especially to worship! — provides a powerful testimony to our city that Christ Jesus really is the Prince of Peace.
Kevin led the congregational singing of mostly older and familiar hymns: “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “It Is Well With My Soul.” He even got us all to sing “Love, Love, Love, Love,” in around, a very Church of Christ thing to do. Dan Baker and Norman Goad directed the choir in special selections “We Believe” and “We Are the Body of Christ.” And it was just good. Rich. Robust. Inspirational. One voice. One body. All disciples of our Lord Jesus. And the music just filled our massive worship center. I believe even our “vortex of death,” where all our songs go to die, was powerless against the enthusiastic praise of our God. Four or five people told me afterward, “You don’t need an organ in here; the singing is so beautiful.”
Then Burt preached. After taking a panoramic picture of the packed worship center with his phone. After making a joke about our super thin steel pulpit. After disparaging the good name of Howie Batson. Burt preached from Mark 2 where the story of the four friends lowering their paralytic friend down through the roof to Jesus is recorded. Burt said our four churches are the four friends. We have each grabbed a corner of the mat and we are together bringing people to the only One who can heal, Christ Jesus our Lord. And just as the roof proved to be no obstacle to the determined friends, we four churches will not be deterred by our denominational differences in working together for the sake of the Kingdom in Amarillo.
In the middle of the sermon, Burt did actually try to call a public vote on putting a clock in our worship center. Ours is the only sanctuary of the four churches without a big clock on the back wall. And Burt’s always been jealous of that. It didn’t help that he declared all Central votes counted as three or that Kevin stood up when Burt made the call for a vote and shouted a long and loud “AAAAAAA-MEN!!!” I protested, but my voice was drowned out by the will of the people. I’m not sure if the motion carried or not. But it was fun.
Howard Griffin challenged us with an inspirational and very Presbyterian benediction, calling us to remember that as we leave this place God is the One sending us. And that we are to be his witnesses, his instruments, his willing partners in the redemption work he wants to do.
Whew! After all that, you would think “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” would be anti-climactic. But it wasn’t. As Kevin led us in this beautiful closing song, everyone in the worship center began to spontaneously hold hands and put their arms around each other. Across the aisles and up and down the room, by the time the song was over, we were all holding hands in a physical demonstration of our unity in Christ.
What a night! What an honor to host it here in our place. A blessed honor.
I still believe it is good for different denominations to come together in service projects to build houses and feed the poor and clean up the parks. I think God is praised and the Kingdom is advanced when different groups of Christians join forces to provide medical assistance and Snack Pak for kids. But I think the most powerful thing we can do is worship together. I believe our most effective witness comes when we worship together in one another’s buildings on Sundays. We don’t have to set aside any theological differences when we pick up trash together, but we do when we read the Bible and pray. We don’t have to necessarily sacrifice or show grace to anyone when we serve together in a soup line, but we do when we sing and preach. Your particular views on salvation and atonement, your particular practices in worship and church structure don’t impact me at all when we’re standing side by side working on a Habitat for Humanity House. But it matters a great deal when we’re sitting next to one another in your church building.
When we can put those things aside, when we can discount our differences and accentuate our oneness, when we can come together in perfect harmony and unity in the name of Jesus, I believe that sends a powerful message to our world that Jesus really is the Prince of Peace,
Oh, what fun last night! Oh, what a blessed privilege to belong to a church family that is so eager to embrace all who follow Jesus as Lord. What a thrill to live into God’s promised future right now today. Let’s not ever let this get old.