Dock Hollingsworth: How Big Is the Church?


My wife, Melissa, and I met at the First Baptist Church of Doraville, Georgia -- a northern suburb of Atlanta. She had lived in the same house all of her life and had attended the same Baptist church. My family became involved there when I was a teenager. First Baptist is the church that taught me about Christian community. It was where I preached my first sermon and years later went forward to tell the church that I felt called to full-time Christian service. First Baptist was where I was ordained and where Melissa and I were married. I thought our church was exceptional and unique and that no other place would have what they have, no other place would love me and accept me like the people of Doraville.

I simply did not trust how big the church was. I did not understand the family tree that connected First Baptist back to a little band of Middle Eastern Christ followers who called themselves, "The Way". Imagine that, a blue-collar church in suburban Atlanta can trace its roots to a first century tribe that gathered for mostly the same purpose -- preaching and teaching and telling.

One day, things changed for that little Palestinian church -- one day, Peter got up to preach and there were people there from every region, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia -- and Peter preached the resurrection story and 3,000 people were added to the rolls of the church. In one day, the church went from the size of a Sunday School class to a 3,000 member mega-church. My home church in Doraville traces her lineage back to that day.

It was a risky design for a church start. Jesus left the faithful without a building, without a constitution and by-laws, without committees or even a pastor. Jesus left them no staff or structure, no budget or mission project. Tough start -- but Jesus did leave them with each other. To start with, they had the presence of the Holy Spirit and each other and that's it.

Acts tells the story of how they structured themselves and formed the soul of the early church: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers." And they began a tradition of sharing their possessions with those who were less fortunate.

Their core activities: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, and giving.

Does this seem a little internally focused to you? There is no mention of mission -- there is no mention of a ministry to a hurting world. They were giving, sharing their possessions, but it was all distributed within the community. The church's mission forms later but first they gathered themselves into Christian community. Until they learned to care for each other, they were not going to be much help to the larger world.

Teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, and giving.

This early church covenant sounds so simplistic, yet every church around the globe that is getting it right has rooted itself back into these simple disciplines. Our little church in Doraville did. We gathered for Bible teaching and heard the stories of Jesus and the Church. We did lots of fellowship -- hanging out -- deacons spending Saturdays fixing each other's broken down cars. Like the early church we did lots of breaking of bread -- sometimes at the table of Holy Communion but also at Lum's Restaurant or Shoney's or across a plate of casseroles at the church picnic. The church at Doraville redistributed their possessions. When Melissa and I arrived at our little apartment in seminary, a washing machine was delivered about a month later -- sent anonymously by a church member at Doraville. The church that nurtured me gave themselves to the basics and I left Doraville wondering if we were the only ones who did church our way.

I have come to learn that there are congregations all over the planet that have taken a sprig from this early Palestinian church and used it to replant -- and the same thing grew again. All over, there are faith communities that tie their history back to this same beginning -- rooted in this same story and they gather every week and do the same things and it makes them -- as we say here in the south, our kinfolk -- they are our brothers and sisters and first cousins because we share a family tree.

When I was growing up in Doraville, I did not understand that I had these relatives who were tied to the same story and beginnings and commission. I have come to learn how big the church is -- and now if I enter a church in Boston or Bursa or Bucksnort, I am greeted with the same hugs that we share at the Hollingsworth family reunion. The older I get the more impressed I become with the size of this common church.

Jim Manley was a retired pastor and pastoral counselor who came to the seminary where I was teaching to audit classes. He became so beloved by the students that they appealed to the Dean that he become Pastor to the seminary community. When he and his wife Lillian were traveling out of state, Lillian was hospitalized in Winston-Salem and would be there for a while. The church network buzzed with her hospitalization and within the first few hours of being hospitalized, Phil was there. Phil is one of our graduates who was a Minister to the University at Elon College -- he drove over. While he was still there, Melissa showed up. Melissa was Children's Minister at nearby Ardmore Baptist Church and she handed Jim Manley a key. She said, "Lillian will be in the hospital for several days, this is the key to our missionary house, just a couple of miles away -- it's your home for as long as Lillian is here." They were caring for kin --- people who share DNA because we trace our heritage back to the church of Acts 2.

My dad called me one day, "Dock, I know this is a long-shot but I have a friend in my Sunday School class whose wife has been diagnosed with Multiple Myloma. They will be spending long stretches of time in Little Rock, Arkansas at a clinic there. I was just wondering if you knew a church in Little Rock that might check in on them." I called my friend Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. Randy took down the names and said, "Ask him to come by the church when he gets to town; we keep a house for families coming to the hospital with Multiple Myloma stays. The clinic is three blocks from the church." My dad's friends became connected. They worshipped there, ate Wednesday night meals with Pulaski Height's church. They became a part of them. They connected with a church that, like theirs, gives away their possessions, teaches, fellowships, breaks bread, and prays.

My friend Tripp Martin, who is on the board for Day 1, is pastor of First Baptist Church, Auburn, Alabama. Each August he sends me and several other pastor friends an email asking if we have students at Auburn University. When we did have a student headed to Auburn, I sent Tripp her email address and she had a place to welcome her when she went off to college -- folks to hug her, miles from home, and tell her how they are related kin.

Will Willimon has observed: "Contemporary religious life is plagued by momentary enthusiasm, periodic outburst and superficiality ... a short-term high that does not take root in long-term commitment... It takes just a few months to grow a squash. It takes 100 years to grow an oak tree." (William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation Commentary, p. 39)

He's right -- but, while contemporary religious life may be plagued by outburst and superficiality, there are parts of the Christian church that are rooted back to our first-century ancestors. There are churches focused on core habits: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, and giving.

Since the day of Peter's sermon, the Church has grown to the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and dwellers of Mesopotamia -- which means we have kinfolk everywhere. Listening to Day 1 is a reminder of that larger family. I hear preachers from Chicago and St. Paul and they preach about fellowship and communion and prayer and giving and I know we share the same great-grandparents.

There is a chance that you are listening to Day 1 today but not part of a local congregation. Like me, you might think the next one could never be as good as the last one. Or, you might have been hurt by a church that got off mission. Try again. All across the globe there are families of faith that are getting it right. But I will warn you, if they are getting it right, they will ask you to give away your money and eat together and share the Lord's Table together and study and pray together. And thanks be to God. Thanks be to God for the churches that are getting it right.


Let us pray together.
God of all eternity and all places, we give thanks for the Church. We praise you for your faithfulness to the body of gathered Jesus followers across the centuries. We give thanks for the women and men who have continued to tell the story of Christ's love in local gatherings across the globe. Bless your Church and make us into better agents of your love, we pray in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.