This morning we visited the First Baptist Church of Tupelo. The church is at least 150 years old, making it Tupelo’s oldest church. The original building was used as a hospital during the Civil War. As befits an established church, it occupies a prominent location in central Tupelo at the corner of Church and Jefferson. The First Presbyterian Church is across the street, Calvary Baptist is one block away, as is the First Methodist Church. And there is an Episcopal church down the street. All of which explains the mini-traffic jam at 12 noon as hundreds of churchgoers were exiting the various parking lots at the same time.
I had been invited by Alan Brown to teach a young couples Sunday School class this morning. This quarter the class is studying the Lifeway Masterwork version of one of my books, He’s God and We’re Not. When we arrived at the church, we were warmly greeted by several people who immediately recognized me because I look like my brother. I met one man who said he knew a “Richard Pritchard” from Booneville, Mississippi. I said we were probably related because all the Pritchards come from England and Wales. The classroom had about 30 folding chairs, a markerboard with announcements (This is Chocolate Kiss day at Awana, which meets from 5-7 PM.), prayer requests (pastor search, several who were ill, and a missionary), and a small table with various breakfast treats, coffee, orange juice and ice water. When Alan warned me that most of the class came late, I laughed and told him after 26 years as a pastor, I was used to people coming late. But this week the room was full by the time we started at 9:45 AM. After a brief introduction and prayer, he turned the class over to me. I spent most of my time explaining the Seven Laws of the Spiritual Life and why they are so important. The class seemed to listen intently. Afterwards I met a doctor who had gone on a missions trip with my brother to Ecuador. Marlene sat next to a woman who has a niece serving in China with ELIC. Small world.
After Sunday School we made our way to the second-floor sanctuary. This is what you would call a “power church” in that the architecture makes a strong statement about the place the church plays in community life. I would estimate that it seats 700-800, including the balcony. I was immediately struck by the dignity and by the friendliness of the surroundings, two attributes that don’t often go together. A choir of 30-40 in red robes added color to the front of the sanctuary. Last year the congregation added two large screens on either side of the platform. The service began with several announcements by Associate Pastor Rick Ball, including the news that a baby had been born weighing 10 pounds, 14 ounces. “He’s going to be walking next week.” He introduced me as a curriculum writer for Lifeway and said I had taught one of the Sunday School classes. We stood and greeted each other. The music minister led a responsive reading from the large screens. Then a hymn followed by two choruses. Then a prayer, another song, followed by a men’s quartet doing a spirited version of “When We All Get to Heaven.” Then the offering prayer with a lovely flute solo by a young lady who appeared to be a high school student. Then the choir sang “The Wonder of It All.»
The church is without a pastor at present so the message today was delivered by a guest minister. He might have been the interim pastor, I suppose, because he seemed to know the people very well. He preached on John 3:16. I pause here to say that in 40+ years of going to church, this was only the second message on the most famous verse in the Bible that I can remember hearing. The other was by evangelist Angel Martinez back in the 60s–"The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven, In the Key of Be Saved.” He showed us what the verse means and how it ought to be model for our involvement in the world. In a digression about tithing, he commented that if you didn’t like the Old Testament teaching, you really won’t like the New Testament standard, which drew several knowing chuckles from the congregation. We finished with two verses of “Just As I AM.” The Associate Pastor wrapped up the service with the good news that a young girl had accepted Christ in the 8:30 AM service. Then the benediction and we were done. Another doctor who knows my brother came by to say hello. Others thanked us for coming.
Marlene and I both enjoyed First Baptist Church. It’s hard to judge the “feel” of a church on just one visit, but you can come to some conclusions quickly. The people are friendly and truly love their church. There is a sense of history that I find appealing. And the service was well-done without being overdone. In a day when many “First Churches” struggle to find their place, when all the action seems to have shifted to the suburbs, the good folks at First Baptist Church of Tupelo have decided not simply to keep a “museum of memories” from the past. That temptation is always present in older churches, but this one has found a better way.