A Gracious Work of God in an Old Church

John ArmstrongRenewal

I am afforded the opportunity to preach and teach in churches across many denominational and ethnic lines. I get to serve new church plants, as well as older churches that have considerable history. By this calling I am allowed to see renewal from many different angles.

I have drawn attention to "emergent" churches in recent weeks. Today I write about an old church, Randolph Street Baptist in Charleston, West Virginia. Spiritual life is presently being renewed in and by the Holy Spirit at Randolph Street. I taught in Charleston on mission and evangelism in a lovely Saturday Seminar setting on May 21. I then taught the adults on Matthew 18:21-22 yesterday, May 22. I also preached from Matthew 9:35-38 in the worship celebration that followed. Then last evening we had an open house at the pastor’s home and I spoke to a number of the folks who have loved me and prayed for me here in Charleston for twenty years. It was a delightful weekend in every way.

What thrills me the most about these developments is to see how the Spirit has moved to begin a process of renewal at old Randolph Street Church. As I write, from within a guest aprtament at the church, I note that this building is situated in an old part of west Charleston, the state capitol. A Salvation Army facility is right across the street and some small relocation housing nearby. A postal facility lies to the west and a Goodwill service building is behind me. This is not a neighborhood where the "boomer generation" church growth folks would seek to build a growing witness for Christ. The feel is clearly 1950s.

For nearly four decades this church has been in numerical decline. The experts would have advised this church to close or move two decades ago. But the experts are often wrong when it comes to renewal. Through these years Randolph Street has remained deeply committed to the gospel, despite its decline. And the pulpit has been ably filled week-by-week by one of the finest preachers in America, Thomas N. Smith, who has been here since 1984. The problem has not been the lack of commitment, the need for real sacrifice, or the right kind or effect of solid preaching. The problem has been misisonal clarity, and new blood linked with boldness and fresh vision. And the problem has also been the need for the power of the Holy Spirit poured out upon the gifts that God has already given to this lovely congregation. (None of this means that the church has been dead or unfaithful, just seeking God for a more abundant blessing upon the mission of this church to the city and region.)

In recent months God has given Randolph Street some fresh blood in the form of new people with a vision for this local church. These folk, united in love with others who have been very faithfully serving and praying here for many years, have been given a sense of the future that is all too rare among old churches in a declining state. A major element in these developments, humanly speaking, has been the willingness of Pastor Thomas Smith to stay put and love the people with deep love and pastoral integrity. These recent changes have come about because God heard the pleas of old faithful members as well as those of some younger people who wanted to do more for Christ and his Kingdom in downtown Charleston. It should be observed that this is almost always the case because the Spirit leads "young men to see visions, and old men to dream dreams" (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28).

Randolph Street is also unique in that this new vision includes racial reconciliation. The church is not seeking to put blacks and whites together for the sake of a political agenda. The leaders have come to see that the vision God has given to this particular church must include this kind of mission and they are pursuing it with a measure of fear, but with Holy Spirit given boldness joined with deep Christian love. They hired a minister of music and outreach this month who is an African-American. This man, Dr. Mark Holmes, is multi-talented, filled with love for Christ, and has a number of relational contacts within this city. He has added a new element to the spirit of celebration on Sunday morning that is obviously preparing the folks for an influx of people and spiritual growth that I believe will be nothing short of astounding in the next few years.

What I see here could well become a model for many others. I would urge churches in the cities of America, and in the racially shifting neighborhoods, to not flee to the "better" areas. It will most often take courage and faith to stay. It will take even more to change. Let me illustrate. Several of the older members at Randolph Street commented to me last evening that the changes here are not easy for them to process at all. I said to them, "I am not surprised. You are human and this demands hard work on your part." I then said, "Stay with the church, and do not attack or undermine what God is doing here, so long as Christ is preached and people are coming to know and love him."

This congregation is coming to realize in a new way that the church and its mission does not belong to them but to Christ. They are called by God to be faithful, not just happy and satisfied. They are willing to count others as more important than themselves. This is the key. A leader, and those who serve with him, must embrace this biblical principle amd model it. This is why Randolph Street is making progress and moving toward full blown renewal.

The future of Randolph Street is one that I will watch with much interest and real prayer. It could well become a model church for many similar churches that I am allowed to encourage. I believe many churches like Randolph Street can be renewed if pastors and people will seek God together, welcoming the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit, and seeking to employ the new wineskins that God gives to those who desire his kingdom above their own comfort zones and emotional security.