Let me tell you the story of a church with one of the ugliest steeples you would ever want to see. Its story is one where that steeple becomes a symbol of a corroded history that Jesus wanted to cleanse and heal.
Who would visit a church with a steeple like this? That was my first thought as I pulled up the church driveway to lead a retreat at Birmingham International Church. I’ve seen lots of churches in need of physical improvements but never one that was so obvious and visible. The story behind this steeple would come out during the retreat, to the shock of everyone.
The church had invited Blessing Point to guide them through the Healing the Heart of Your Church process because they sensed something was holding their ministry back. As we walked through the church’s spiritual journey together, as a part of the healing process, Jesus’ issues with them became as obvious as their corroding steeple.
In the earliest years of the church’s eighty-five year history, they were a flagship church in their denomination and a major presence in Birmingham, Alabama, and called Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. Their first pastor started the church and grew it to nearly 1500 people. He proved a fearless leader for the cause of justice, attacking corruption in city government, which led to a new administration getting voted in at the next election.
Perhaps his fight for justice insulated the church from scrutiny by authorities. He integrated worship with Blacks and Whites when such integration was against the Law. Long before the walls of segregation came down in the culture, the races worshiped together in this downtown congregation. All this in the city Martin Luther King Jr. called, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” (Letters from a Birmingham City Jail, April 16th 1963).
During these “glory days,” the church planted twelve other congregations in Alabama, started a Bible school that became Southeastern Bible College, supported a thriving homeless ministry, started three Christian schools, and helped found the National Religious Broadcasters organization. The pastor himself could be heard on the radio throughout the South.
In the 1950’s, this first pastor moved to a church in New York. His departure on the eve of the Civil Rights movement left the church without the guidance his leadership provided. As it turns out, the church would find itself in the center of the civil rights fray. The church sat across the street from the bus station where protester’s and “Freedom Riders” arrived, and two blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed in a bombing. It was also not far from the motel where Dr. King often stayed (which was also bombed).
It would be impossible for this church not to be touched by the Civil Rights movement. On a fateful Sunday in 1963, Dr. King and 30-40 of his fellow protesters attempted to join in the worship at Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. A decade before they would have been welcomed, but now, to the grief of those who heard the story at the retreat, Dr. King was met at the door and refused entry by church leaders. To make their point, they blocked the way with their hands on their guns, half drawn from their holsters.
The children in attendance that Sunday, now older adults, reported the palpable fear in the atmosphere. The church gave into that spirit of fear, the same spirit that marked the entire culture of Birmingham, manifesting itself in violence, belligerence and resentment.
The week following the attempted “Kneel In” by Dr. King, the congregation lost half its Sunday morning attendance. The church never recovered. They eventually moved to the suburbs of Vestavia Hills. Pastors came and went. Some of them made progress, others saw the tides of progress recede. More crises followed, most from within the congregation. As they shared their history, their troubles were regularly marked by the same spirit of fear and belligerent behavior which arose from it. That brings us back to the rusty steeple.
The church’s current pastor, Ron Higey, couldn’t figure out why the steeple had rusted. When he came upon the original plans from the steeple company, he contacted them. He wanted to know if they warrantied their steeples from rust. The company representative informed the pastor that “aluminum doesn’t rust.” Pastor Higey pressed the matter and explained that he had their plans in front of him and it was obviously their design. At that point the steeple representative asked the name of the church. When he heard which church the pastor was from, the man replied: “Oh . . . that church!”
It’s never good when an outsider refers to a congregation as “that church!” It turns out that somewhere along the line, the steeple company’s plans were obtained by the church, but the steeple itself was manufactured locally out of sheet metal. The company that supplied the plans felt ripped off, and after many years, the bad memory lingered. Oddly, board minutes for the six months around the decision to add a steeple went missing! They don’t know exactly what happened, but it became painfully clear that the church’s reputation was as tarnished as their oxidized spire! Jesus often communicates His displeasure and discipline through such symbolic things.
When a church comes to grips with its painful history, Jesus has one word for them: Repent! The current congregation, though removed from the church’s historical sins, carried their legacy with them into the present. We may overlook, ignore, or even choose to live with the unconfessed sins of the past, but the rusty steeple is still visible to everyone. Should we really expect God to bless our ministry with that kind of unconfessed corporate history?
Stains abound on the Bride of Christ as she gets expressed in local churches. They may not be as obvious as the steeple in Birmingham, but churches frequently wane and struggle and split because they overlook things which the Lord of the Church refuses to overlook. Most churches want to just “move past” and bury their ugliness when Jesus wants them to own up to it corporately and repent.
If you were to honestly assess your church’s history, what would you find? Certainly there would be things Jesus would commend, but the likelihood He would call you to repentance is high. Local churches in America suffer malaise for much the same reasons as those at Birmingham International Church. They may not all suffer the ugly racial prejudice of the early ‘60s, but they likely carry some manifestation of cultural compromise. The Lord is calling churches across the land to repent before He sends another revival or restores moral sanity to our nation.
Worthy of Praise
The believers at Birmingham International are a rare breed. The church reflects its name, currently made up of a remnant of people from various nations, mirroring the beautiful multicultural Bride of Christ and the vision of their first pastor. They thoroughly repented in a public service in September of 2015. On October 1st they dedicate a new, spotless steeple (made of fiberglass this time!). The church has committed to offer restitution to the steeple company that supplied the original plans, hoping to compensate them for the financial harm they caused the company years ago. Additional acts of reconciliation with the African-American community and the city of Vestavia Hills are in the works.
What does the future hold for this church? Time will tell, but they move forward with a clean conscience, free from the spiritual block that their old sins imposed on their ministry. This is our hope for every church, that they would hear the Lord’s assessment of their ministry and respond to Him – whatever it may require.
No greater responsibility exists for church leaders than to prepare the Bride for her Groom, as Paul writes, “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless (Eph. 5:27).
Is your church ready?
Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries. Blessing Point works to heal local churches that have been negatively impacted by painful crises. Barnard is the author of the recently released book, Diagnosing the Heart of Your Church – How Church Leaders Can Assess Systemic Corporate Dysfunction.