An essay by Michael Baumann
College Park Baptist Church is located on the corner of Aycock and Walker, just across the street from UNCG’s baseball field. The church has been part of the college campus backdrop since 1905(1), but is usually unnoticed by many students. I passed this church almost every day for several years before learning the name of the church. It was not until I stepped inside that I began to take notice of what this place was. It is a strange phenomenon that happens when a person, place or thing that you’ve never paid attention to becomes instantly embedded into your mind such that you can’t remember life before said person, place or thing(2).
I arrive at the church early on a Sunday morning. After finding a parking place near the back of the parking lot, I decide to look at the building from the outside to get a better feel of where I am. I walk around to the front of the church and look at it from the front. The church has brick exterior, tall steps to the front entrance, beautiful white columns and a tall white steeple. To the left of the steps appears to be an extension added on to the main entrance. It is brick as well, but appears to be different than the main section. I will have to find out why it was designed this way(3). A church sign on the grass between the main section and the extension lets me know who the pastors are.
To the right of the main entrance there is another sign in the grass that informs of the name of the church and their website address. I continue to walk around the perimeter of the church building
(1) This fact will be found out later by my investigation, but is relevant to know from the very beginning.
(2) I noticed this phenomenon for the first time when I was seven years old and my parents announced we were moving to a house around the block. When they took us to show the house, I had never seen it before even though I rode past it every day on the school bus and rode past it every weekend on my bicycle. But now I can’t remember what life was like before knowing about that house.
(3) In my research, I find out the current sanctuary was finished in 1952, while the extension was the original sanctuary.
and notice there are a lot of doors to get inside. I am in a quandary as to which door I should use to enter and still be in the right place. I decide to stay outside and observe until other people arrive and go in the same entrance they use(4). I only waited for a few minutes before somebody else arrived and entered though a side entrance of the extension. I waited a minute before I did the exact same thing. I am now inside of the church.
I have been inside many churches in my life. I have been inside Catholic, Episcopal, Church of God, Methodist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Lutheran and many non-denominational churches in my lifetime, but this would be the first Baptist church I would be attending(5). When I lived in New York, I never heard of the Baptist denomination. However when I moved to South Carolina at the age of twelve, I could hardly go anywhere without seeing a Baptist church. My first introduction to a Baptist was Jerry Falwell,(6) and he would shape my perceptions on who the Baptists were. My stereotype of a Baptist was also greatly influenced by the Southern Baptist Convention(7), which is the overseeing body of the Southern Baptist denomination. With these two influences I was led to believe that all Baptists were prudes who never had any fun. I imagined all Baptists to be white, dry, rhythmless, homophobic, no-fun, Bambi-haters who feel entitled to condemn everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do. This belief was enough to keep me out of the Baptist church for the first fifteen years I knew of their existence.
(4) In my waiting, I thought how funny it would be if everyone that showed up was also visiting and nobody knew which door to go in. There would be all these people waiting in the cars for someone to make the first move.
(5) A denomination is like a family tree. The tree is the Christian faith, but there are branches that symbolize all the different denominations based on their interpretation of the Bible. In doing a search for different denominations, I found that there are over 150 denominations in America alone. However, one of those denominations was the Branch Davidian and because David Koresh believed himself to be Jesus and then killed all his followers, most Christians would argue if that was really a Christian denomination.
(6) Jerry Falwell is a Southern Baptist minister who has been outspoken in an attempt to mix religion and politics. Often his outspokenness has outraged many, both within and outside Christian circles, or made him look like an idiot. A quote that demonstrates his outspokenness: “ AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” A quote that demonstrates his stupidity: “Grown men should not be having sex with prostitutes unless they are married to them.”
(7) The Southern Baptist Convention is most recently famous for their boycott of all things Disney because Disney has extended benefits to same-sex partners.
I am staring down a long hallway and decide to walk down it until I find something to help me find my way. I only have to walk about ten feet before I see, off to my right, a sitting area with a pamphlet rack on the wall. I stop in front of the rack and thumb through some of the brochures. One of the brochures is for Habitat for Humanity, one is for a Baptist organization, one is for Llama treks(8) and there are several other nonprofit organization brochures that I am not familiar with. I also see programs of previous Sunday services and grab a copy of each week available(9). There is a brochure for the church itself that I remove from the rack and decide to read in one of the comfortable chairs next to the rack. On the front of this full-color brochure I see a picture of the church, the church name and what appears to be their slogan: “Progressive… Diverse…Ecumenical.” I understand the first two words, but I am confused by “ecumenical” and would have to find out what this means(10). I have some time to kill, so I will read the brochure and bulletins to get a better idea of the church.
The area I have chosen to sit in is in plain view of every person who enters the same way I did. I am very into my reading and am smiled at and nodded at over the course of the next thirty minutes. In this time I learn that College Park Baptist is not part of the Southern Baptist Convention but belongs to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which I have never heard of. I also learn the general format of their Sunday service and make mental notes of when I am supposed to sit, stand(11), meet fellow congregants and about how many hymns I will have to sing.
It is about fifteen minutes before service and I am now heading towards the sanctuary. This is an easy task because all I have to do is follow the people. As I enter the church sanctuary I am given a bulletin for this week’s service. I am now on a mission to find a seat and look out among the sanctuary. I am currently standing at the front left of the sanctuary, very close to the stage(12).
(8) You read that right, Llama treks.
(9) It should be noted that in a church their program or agenda is called a bulletin and will thus be referred to as a bulletin from now on.
(10) The internet informs me that it means belonging to the worldwide Christian church.
(11) There is an asterisk (*) next to all the different parts of the service that indicate when congregants are supposed to stand. Very helpful indeed!
(12) A.K.A. The altar.
There are three sections of pews and I head towards the middle section and sit halfway back(13). I look around me and take note of where the hymnals are located. There are no more than a hundred people in the sanctuary currently so most of the people are pretty spread out.
There are four people on the pew in front of me (three together and one sitting alone) and the pew behind me appears to be where all the teenagers sit. I can’t observe any of the people behind me so I try and observe the people on pews in front of me. The three people in front of me appear to be grandparents with their seven-year-old grandson. The other person on the row is a woman in her late thirties. I notice a few other families ahead of me in my section and some older people in the section to my right and more families in the section to my right. I decide to take a peek over my shoulder to get a feel for the rest of the congregation. Over my left shoulder, I see some more families with teenage children and over my right shoulder there are mostly men and women in their late thirties and early forties with no children, so I assume they are either single or childless. Directly behind the youth are a hodgepodge of families and young adults.
The grandparents in front of me turn around and the man stands up and introduces himself to me. His name is Frank and he says he doesn’t believe he has met me before. I introduce myself and tell him I am here for the first time. We engage in conversation for a few minutes about what brought me here and about UNCG and he introduces me to his wife, Patsy and also to the boy, Zack, who happens to be the pastor’s son(14). Frank kindly offers to introduce me to some other students after the service if I was at all interested in that. I said that would be fine.
The choir has now begun to enter the sanctuary and sit behind the altar(15) signifying that service was now underway. The pastor enters through the entrance I used and takes a seat in a chair
(13) A popular stereotype of a Baptist is that the longer you are a Baptist the further from the front of the church you sit.
(14) Frank and Patsy look after Zack for the pastor each week. However, they are not strict with him, which I appreciate. They let him sit and read (Harry Potter) or draw on a notepad (I believe I saw the words “Smelly Fart”) or pull his shirt over his head to make him look like the headless-pastor’s son.
(15) This area behind the altar is known as the choir loft which also is the location of the organ which is an impressive organ from what I have read in one of the information packets, but it sounds like any other organ to me. I wonder how the chicken dance would sound in this sanctuary.
behind a podium(16). According to the bulletin, service officially begins with the chiming of the hour which happens as soon as the choir finishes sitting down. At this church the chiming of the hour happens by a lady in the balcony with a hand bell, rung eleven times. The pastor rises from his chair and approaches the pulpit and welcomes everyone to the church. He states that if this is your first time at College Park to feel free to fill out an information slip located in the pew rack(17). Before I have time to pick up one of those slips, the pastor instructs everyone to stand and greet one another. My new friend Frank approaches me again and introduces me to all the people who would normally come up and chat with him. This meet-and-greet only lasts for two minutes at the most before the pastor continues with some announcements and concerns(18). After this we move onto the formal part of the service.
They begin with an opening instrumental song played by the organist(19). After the organist is finished another person(20) stands up from behind the pulpit and asks us to stand for the responsive reading. This man is wearing a purple shirt and that makes me notice that there are a lot of purple accents(21) in this church. I wonder about this and notice that the congregation is now reading out loud in unison and I am confused as to how they know what to say. I look at my bulletin and notice that under the heading of “Responsive Reading” there are words printed in bold and they match up to what the people just read out loud. So this reading back and forth will
(16) A.K.A. The pulpit.
(17) This actually comes as a relief because there are many churches that I have been to where they ask first time visitors to raise their hand or stand. Some churches go so far as to have the pastor come up to you with a microphone and give a brief biographical speech and all the decisions in your life that led you into their church that morning. I find that practice to be embarrassing and should be eliminated in all churches.
(18) Another one of my stereotypes of Baptists is their prayer requests. Prayer requests have many euphemisms such as “concerns”, “needs”, “issues” and “problems”, but no matter how they describe it they all end up in the same place, The Prayer Chain. This is where one person learns of the request and phones a designated person who calls the next designated person and so on until everyone knows of this “concern.” It has been commented that the only way to get off of the Baptist Prayer Chain is to die. Even if you had a cold when you were ten-years-old they would continue to pray for your health until your untimely death at ninety-eight.
(19) A church that plans well will have a theme throughout the whole service that every song played or sung and every verse from the Bible read centers upon. With a central theme, I almost imagine the service to be almost like a movie. This opening piece is our overture. Today’s theme: The Lord’s Prayer.
(20) The Liturgist, whose job is to do congregational readings, scripture reading and prayers.
(21) This includes a purple banner hanging to the left of the choir loft, the choir have purple stoles over their robes, the pastor has a purple stole over his robe, and a table in front of the altar has a bible with a purple book marker.
happen a couple of more times before moving on to the hymn. Now, back to the question of the moment: Why is there so much purple? I wonder if this is done on purpose(22).
The next few orders of service(23) are all done standing up. This includes a hymn,(24) a prayer thanking God for the week, another hymn,(25) a prayer for the world that ends with the Lord’s Prayer (26). We are able to sit down again and I notice this will be until near the end of the service. The Liturgist stands up again this time to read the scripture text for the morning(27). After he is done reading, he sits down and a simple song begins to play to signal to the children to come to the front of the church for the “Children’s Sermon.” A group of seven children sit down on the ground in front of the altar and a woman begins to tell them a Bible story(28). After the woman finishes the story, the children are escorted out of the sanctuary for Sunday School.
The pastor approaches the pulpit and begins his sermon(29). This turns out to be my favorite part of the service. I won’t go into the details of the sermon(30), but I thoroughly enjoy it. The tone of the pastor’s voice is refreshing. It is void of all the evil qualities I have seen on the religious channels on
(22) Yes. I find out later that the church has a formal calendar year and during the year there are specific colors designated for special times. During the season of Lent (the 40 days before Easter, not including Sundays) the church color is purple, except Ash Wednesday (black), Maundy Thursday(Red) and Good Friday (Black).
(23) All centered on the central theme and building towards the climax.
(24) #247 out of the Baptist Hymnal, the official hymnbook of all Baptist peoples.
(25) This one is printed in the bulletin.
(26) If you don’t know the Lord’s Prayer by heart you can turn to Hymn 462, which has it written out.
(27) We’re getting close to the climax.
(28) This is also centered on the theme. The children’s sermon serves two purposes. 1) To let the children know what the grown-ups are going to learn from the sermon. 2) To let the slower adults know what they are supposed to learn from the sermon.
(29) The climax.
(30) I lied, but you are not obligated to read this part of the footnotes if you don’t want to hear about the sermon. The sermon was about the first two words of The Lord’s Prayer: Our Father. This sermon stood out to me because of how absent my own father was in my life. I will share two quotes that will sum up what I took from the sermon:
(31) “ After conception, the father’s relationship becomes primarily psychological, more than physical. Maybe that’s why the emotional blessing of the father is so important. A child who doesn’t receive that blessing, or thinks that she or he hasn’t received it, hungers for it. This is why it’s so critical that men in the church take seriously the role of working with the children in the church and nurturing the children of the church, especially a child who may be without a father figure. We have something to give, a blessing to give, that’s different than—not better than, maybe not even as good as—what women can give, but it’s a crucial blessing to give.”
(32) “One of the favorite tricks of writers through the ages has been to write a story and weave a plot in such a way that some penniless boy or girl who was cut adrift in the world without a friend or a family or a status of any kind—an orphan in the world—would, in the end, discover that he or she was the long-lost heir of a fabulously wealthy father who has been searching everywhere for this child over numerous years. You know that story; it’s repeated itself over and over. It is the basic appeal of the Harry Potter books: an orphan is really a famous and talented wizard. And the reason is that it’s the story of all humanity. It is the story taught by Jesus himself, that we are not just people of God, we are also long-lost children of a Heavenly Father. And that all we have to do, Jesus says, to change our lives completely (as simple and profound as it is) is to say, from our depths, ‘Our Father’—my father, your father. In praying this prayer, the Father’s arms are wide open, the gifts are ours to claim.”
TV. His sermon is thoughtful and insightful(31) and I wonder why there are not more people in the congregation(32). At the end of the sermon, there is a song sung by the choir(33). As they are singing I notice stars over the choir’s heads. Why are there stars hanging from the ceiling of the choir loft? It will have to remain a mystery(34). There is a moment of silence which leads into the last few minutes of the service(35).
The end of the service consists of an offertory(36), singing of the Doxology(37) and a benediction(38) given by the pastor. Music begins to play, but people are now free to stand up and talk with one another. My new best friend Frank asks me if I would like to meet Daniel Ingram the minister to those in College. I agree and am escorted to the back of the church where I meet Daniel. I find out that Daniel and I are the same age and have similar interests such as X-Box and a love for movies. Daniel invites me to come out to lunch with him and his wife and a few of their friends. I agree to this, but would like first to meet the pastor.
The pastor, Michael Usey, stands in the back of the church and greets everyone as they leave(39). Because of talking with Daniel for so long, the line has died down completely. I walk over to
(31) In talking with people after the service and on subsequent visits, Michael Usey is the reason they are still in church. One person I spoke with whom I would never have suspected as being a member of any church told me that he was to the point of giving up on churches, but visited this church and was impressed with Michael Usey and his use of Pulp Fiction references during the service and new im mediately this was the church for him.
(32) A main reason for this is that many other churches consider College Park to be a bad church because they left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 on the grounds of that they overstepped their boundaries. This caused a negative impression within the community. I, however, am glad to have found this out.
(33) This is known as the anthem and would be used during the trailer of the movie.
(34) Actually, I finally asked Marnie Fisher-Ingram about this and she informed me that they were from Advent (Christmas) and nobody has bothered to take them down.
(35) A nice transition from climax to resolution.
(36) Churches collect offerings in different ways. Some churches have you stand and bring your offering to the front, some have a box that you drop it off as you come in or leave. This church opts to pass the plates up and down the pews, which is considered the typical Baptist way.
(37) A common hymn sung every week at the end of the service at many liturgical churches. Lyrics are printed in the bulletin, but can be easily memorized within a few services.
(38) A parting blessing that officially dismisses the congregation. It is usually the same thing said every week. Sometimes the benediction is a verse from the Bible or an ancient proverb. This benediction is an adaptation of an old farmer’s prayer. It goes as follows: Depart now in the fellowship of God the Father, and as you go, remember in the goodness of God you were born into this world, by the grace of God you have been kept all day long…even unto this very hour; and by the love of God, fully revealed in the face of Jesus, you are being redeemed.”
(39) This is a new practice to me and I am a little nervous about this. I however liked the service so I wouldn’t mind speaking with the pastor. I could not imagine doing this if I thought the service was terrible. How could you lie to a pastor? In a church? On a Sunday? In front of God?
Michael Usey and introduce myself. He seems genuinely glad to have me visiting the church. He asked me about myself and wondered if I had met Daniel yet. After a few minutes of small talk, I thanked him for the sermon and informed him that I would be coming back(40). I met back up with Daniel and Marnie and they asked if Panera was o.k. with me to eat. I was fine with that and they introduced me to some of the other people going, all of them close to my age. I headed out to my car, with a smile on my face, and headed to Panera(41).
(40) Whenever trying out a new church, I have a rule that I will visit a church at least three times before deciding if I want to start attending. Unless of course the church service is completely horrible, like the time I visited a church and the pastor resigned during the service and the whole congregation began crying because it was a complete shock. I just sat there in an awkward silence until it was time to go and I bolted out the door never to return. Rules be damned!
(41) Panera was fun. I was a little nervous with how lunch would go; however, the people were very friendly. We talked about what I do for a living and for fun and they reciprocated. They found out that I enjoyed watching Survivor and invited me to a get-together they have every week to watch it over pizza and dessert. I wasn’t able to go the first few weeks to the Survivor get-together, but eventually started going which led to these people becoming really good friends.