Valley Community Baptist Church
Valley Community Baptist Church, Avon, Connecticut
At the suggestion of a Presbyterian minister I added this church to my list of visits for a critical review. It is an independent Baptist Church with a new building on a campus still expanding, with a groundbreaking for a Discipleship Center next Sunday (March 9th, 2003).
I shy away from those congregations that present themselves, as this one does, as "Christian" (as over against those Christian denominations with various names, like Methodist, Congregationalist, Roman Catholic, etc.). I've been there, experienced that. For eighteen years in Brooklyn I pastored a congregation that survived and enjoyed some small success as an alternative to fundamentalist, born-again, Bible-believing, soul-saving, Christ-centered, whole Gospel-preaching churches. In that corner of the Borough of Churches we had them all, the pietists, the revivalists, the Pentecostals, and even a number of rigidly orthodox Lutherans. Most of these congregations viewed me with suspicion, never invited me to preach to them or pray with them, and generally remained aloof from any hint of ecumenism. I competed with their sons on the basketball court and the softball diamonds of Dyker Beach. I met their members in my travels along the avenues, in the stores, and in the homes of my own congregants.
So take what I say with a sprinkle of angel dust. If you are a fundamentalist (and I use this word in its historical sense, not in its present pejorative sense only), then you will want to get thee to VCBC some Sunday morning and see for yourself what a nice thing they've got going in this rural suburban corner of Greater Hartford.
It was a nice morning, a nice service, in a nice building, with nice people, nice music, and nice preaching.
In the newsletter handed out with the bulletin, an invitation was extended, to a literary evening. Then, advice was given to those presenting original compositions: "While material does not have to be blatantly Christian, it should be relatively brief and inoffensive to a balanced Christian." This apparently unbalanced Christian understands the advice to prohibit profanity, however mild, and sexual content. Maybe allusions to violence too. I suspect Luther's diatribes and Augustine's confessions would not be welcome, and certainly not Dante's "Inferno." Or Garrison Keillor's skewering of the "sanctified brethren." These authors just wouldn't pass muster as "Christian."
My main issue with the service isn't so much what took place, but what wasn't there: (1) hymns with a message woven from the fabric of this mortal life; (2) a hint, even just a hint, that our nation is on the verge of war; (3) prayers evidencing prior thought, composed with carefully chosen words; (4) a message that touched me with its knowledge of my deep hunger and search for meaning; and (5) music, any music, that suggested the vast and storied traditions of previous generations of Christians.
In a word, what I missed was texture, the texture of real life as I live it and the Christian faith I love in all its breadth and wonder.
Otherwise, it was a very nice morning.
Building: thoroughly modern and obviously designed to be functional in the age of Power Point. As we entered, a computer- automated projector posted announcements of coming events on the walls on either side of the worship dais. The sides of the squares of wall used for this purpose were twenty feet, and the print easily visible throughout the auditorium. The auditorium was shaped like a very squat U, capable of seating in the orchestra and balcony about 500 people per service, and there are three services on Sunday morning. One stained glass window, and one only, stood high above the worship center, a round frame of bright red, gold, and blue for a large cross. The baptistry was hidden this morning behind portraits, mounted on large blocks, illustrating missions; but I could detect that it was tiled in gray and was oval in shape. The communion table was removed from the dais and placed in a side aisle, almost hidden by the aforesaid blocks. No missing the center and focus of worship: a small pedestal podium was spotlighted in the center of the dais. What an interesting contrast, I thought to myself, from the massive and elevated pulpits I've lately seen in this corner of Christendom. This little podium distinguished itself precisely by its modesty, like a general without ribbons in a room full of colleagues weighed down with them. The audio system was excellent, the use of lavaliere mikes extensive. Hearing assists were available upon request. The auditorium boasted cushioned pews and theatre seats. In so modern a structure, AC is a given. All in all, it's an excellent room for the auditory experience of worship... and that was, the auditory experience, clearly what these Baptists thought Sunday morning should be about.
Welcome: we arrived very near the appointed hour of 9:30. A smiling usher greeted us and handed us a welcome bulletin I never did get to read. Inside the auditorium another usher handed us the morning's order of worship and the week's newsletter, Highlights. The only other handshake was with the church's pastor, who, when I fixed him with my eyes and said "hello," looked back at me with puzzlement. Why, I can only begin to guess. But I shall not fault the church for a lack of hospitality. I really wanted to leave quickly and was far from warm and welcoming myself. We did not pick up on the invitation to Coffee Hour or to survey the displays posted in Fellowship Hall or the Solid Rock Cafe.
Children: lots of them. Sunday School was closed this morning to facilitate the several missions seminars and workshops in full swing during, before, and after the services of worship. A children's choir combined with the adults for the opening anthem. Those children that remained for the service and the lengthy sermon behaved the way most children do when preachers go beyond the five minute limit: they become restless and poke siblings. The congregation, suburban, white, mostly forty-fiftyish, and dressed casually, were the child rearing age.
Sermon: the guest preacher (again!), a retired (I think) pastor, Stan Allaby, who spent forty-one years in a Baptist Church in the Black Rock district of Fairfield County, a noted missions speaker, developed the Apostle Paul's four rhetorical questions in Romans 10. He was well-spoken and easy to follow. His emphasis in missions was getting the the message to the 10,000 communities in this world that haven't heard of Jesus Christ. It's the imperative, unaltered, from the late 19th Century, to save souls, to bring the world to Christ and Christ to the world. Yes, that's the one hymn we sang from the hymn book, "Christ for the World We Sing." Dr. Allaby was concerned to explain the "they" to whom the Christian must go and preach and save. There were visual reminders of "they" carefully arranged on those blocks on the dais. The faces, the colors, the hairdos, and the clothes of those portrayed didn't look much like Avon. Mission, those "they" faces seemed to indicate, is about going to distant places with strange sounding names, to the forlorn and lost of other continents. I'll save my response to this line of thought for an essay sometime soon on "What It Means to Be Christian." But I do understand the appeal of this truncated theology; and, yes, sometimes Christians get too educated for their own good... but... oh, look for my essay!
Music: it was minimal and what there was was very simple. The Prelude featured guitar and pan pipe playing an Andean melody. The combined children and adult choir anthem featured an interesting contrapuntal rhythm, but no SATB singing that I could pick out. Three praise songs near the beginning of the hour had me standing several minutes beyond my knees' endurance. Since there was no music to read, I floundered trying to follow the song leader. Apparently the songs are sung often: many in the congregation seemed to know the melodies. I concluded that the music had been reduced to the lowest common denominator to facilitate congregational singing. An electronic organ, a grand piano, and a full set of drums stand on one side of the dais, suggesting that on other Sundays there might be a longer musical contribution to the worship. Obviously, my heart strings were not set to singing this Sunday by sympathetic resonance.
Computer: check out the church's website (http://www.valleywebs.org). It shows the most sophisticated use of the web of any church I've visited, including Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC. The newsletter comes up in the same format in which it is distributed at the door, provided your computer is equipped with Adobe Reader. And, if it isn't, you can download that program free from the church's website. Like many fundamentalist churches which seem to be stuck theologically in the 19th Century, Valley Community Baptist Church, nonetheless, spares no cost to make maximum use of the technology of the 21st Century.
Rating: two haloes. But if I were looking and longing for a born-again, Bible-believing, etc. church, I would add two more haloes.