Eight and a half years ago I moved to Louisville KY as a bright eyed college student ready to find the church of my own choosing. I hadn’t thought about the specifics, but I knew I wanted something fresh. I was leery of what I thought “traditional” meant: stale and cold and rote. To put it plainly and honestly, I set out to find a really “cool” church. But as God would have it, I walked in the doors of Third Avenue Baptist Church.
At the time the carpet was red and the baptistery had matching curtains. There were pews and suits and lots of ESV Bibles. There was standing up and sitting down. There were hymns. There was somberness. There were 4 singers lined up off to the side of the stage and hidden behind them was instruments and their players. Everyone, including those singers up front, were looking down at the words of their bulletins as they sang. The pastor wore a suit and a tie. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly the rockin’ church I expected. I wasn’t blown away. I wasn’t immediately wowed. It wasn’t love at first sight. But for some reason, I kept going back. And at the time I couldn’t even tell you why; especially when my 3am Saturday night paper writing self kept nodding off during the longest sermons I had ever sat through in my life.
But now I see it more clearly. It wasn’t about stylistic preferences or aesthetics or the fuzzy feelings I left with. I think ever so slowly and subtly it was the people. They are what kept bringing me back. The people who saw the invisible line I was drawing between me and the exit door and who stood in the middle of it. The people who held out a hand and introduced themselves. The people who invited me to Sunday lunch down the road. The people whose lives were so clearly intertwined with one another already, yet still welcomed me, a mere stranger. They were like a family. But not the closed off kind. So as cliche as it sounds, their love won me over. And I wanted in on it. So I kept going back.
And now, hundreds of introductions and invites and (wakeful) sermons later, I am saying goodbye as my family and I move out of state. And in the bittersweet process of leaving I’m reflecting on what this place, no really these people, have forever impressed upon my understanding of what a healthy church is.
Intentionality doesn’t have to mean originality
While the family like feel of this church slowly started to warm my heart, the evident intentionality behind why they did what they did quickly eased my mind. It also corrected it. It exposed the equation my mind had made that repetition and liturgy meant disingenuous. I quickly saw that nothing at Third Avenue was done a certain way just because “it’s the way it’s always been.” Everything, from the singers on the side of the stage to the timing of each pause between transitions, was done with a purpose. Actions that were born out of purposes and purposes that were born out core values and commitments and covenants. Overall, it was all done in order to lift up feeble and weary and longing eyes to the reigning King of Kings.
The body is broken and beautiful
It didn’t take long for me to become proud to call this church my own. The intentionality, the solid teaching, the intellectual depth, the out-working of love for each other and for neighbors and for the nations. But it took many years for me to see that I was still referring to this church in terms of “they” and not so much in terms of “we.” I felt a little more like an admirer from afar and not a family member from within. But then. It was then that I decided to dig in deep. To be close enough to really find out and really be found out. To know and be known. Turns out, this really extraordinary place was made up of pretty ordinary people. Flawed and quirky and struggling and sinful human beings all fumbling to the cross, together. But it was more beautiful than I ever could have seen from staying on the outside. The exterior was polished and pretty but the interior was full of a kind of beauty and wonder that was other-worldly. It was rich and messy and hard, and so very glorious.
Worship isn’t only personal
Something seemingly very strange that stood out to me from the beginning was that if people were not looking down at their bulletins while singing, they were looking around at one another. I came to find out that these people weren’t looking around because they were distracted or because they were trying to find the person who they were saving a seat for or because they were just plain strange. They were looking around as if to say “come on church, sing it with me.” As if to declare that we are in the waiting and working and worshipping, together. As if to scan the room and catch a glorious glimpse and tiny taste of the kind of diversity that will all be gathered around the throne some day with unhindered voices. I’ve grown in understanding that while the Christian life is intimately personal it is also intensely corporate. Whether on a Sunday morning gathered or a weekday evening scattered, we sing songs loudly and we fight sin seriously and we pursue spiritual disciplines gladly, both with one another and for one another. Because one single ligament affects the whole body.
The Word speaks for itself
Matt Smethurst says “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride.” While so many of pastor Greg’s abrupt motions and rich realities and simple sub points will not be easily forgotten, this statement by Matt expresses so well what I believe has happened inside of me as I’ve sat under the preached Word of God. What may have been momentarily forgettable in my mind has made an eternal impact in my soul. In my most unbiased opinion, Greg Gilbert is an exceptionally gifted preacher. But my time at Third hasn’t left me more reliant on him. It’s left me more reliant on Gods Word. Because that’s all he’s done time and time and time again: open up ancient and active Words and let them do their job. The job of convicting and comforting and saving and sustaining. I’ve witnessed how the gospel being preached from the pulpit brings a dead heart to life. My pastors haven’t done anything fancy but they’ve done something that is faithful. And by the grace of God, I have once again been a recipient of this powerful and precious thing called faithful preaching. And I will never be the same because of it.
Unity is a gift that is graciously given and fiercely fought for
I will not quickly forget the picture my pastor once laid out about the enemy planting grumbling and gossiping bombs all around us and among us. All it takes is a slanderous whisper, a biting comeback, an unchecked assumption, or an intentionally exclusive invite for little explosions to lie in wait. Slowly cracking and corroding and corrupting Jesus’ blood bought unity. So we pray for God to grant it and we work hard to protect it. I’ve witnessed firsthand how unity doesn’t mean we check all the same political or theological or life station boxes but it means that we all set aside our preferences and differences to bow down before the cross of Christ. And it is there, at the foot of the cross, that our unity is created and found and kept.
Serving is not for me
My once needed-and-noticed pastors daughter self sat in a Third Avenue members interview being asked if I, along with all other men and women in the church, would volunteer in the nursery and join a home group. Uhh. That’s it? That’s your serving opportunities? Yet it was through this process I learned the valuable distinction between being important and being indispensable. I learned that I could freely love those in my circle while also knowing that the whole of my church would carry on without a slight hinge when I left it. I became painfully aware that far too often I wanted to give with the subtle desire to gain. Be it public recognition or personal satisfaction. This drove me to see the beauty in serving quietly and averagely and ordinarily in a church that didn’t really “need” me. At least not in all the ways I wanted to be needed. Because the reality is that where there are people, there are needs. There are kids to be watched and meals to be delivered and houses to practice hospitality in and sufferers to sit with. It was so very good for me to learn how to serve in the shadows by simply showing up.
Love welcomes in and sends out
When I joined Third Avenue eight years ago I had no intention of sticking around for so long. Yet many years later when we settled in and started raising a family I had no idea we would leave so quickly. So much has happened in these eight years yet it feels like we’ve just barely gotten started. We never thought we’d stay, but once we stayed, we never really thought we’d leave. And now here we are. Along with so many others in this uniquely transient church. In a church where people are stayers longer than planned and goers more quickly than expected. Along with missionaries and pastors and planters being flung out all around the globe. Along with those moving back to be closer to family. Along with those joining up with other churches. It can be hard to love by letting people in. It can be even harder to love by letting them leave. This church, my church, has taught me how to embrace the coming and the going. How to latch on and how to let go.
And now, the hands that brought us in gently are the same hands that send us out gladly. So we go. With this piece of Third Avenue DNA that we will always carry with us. That we will always seek to insert and implant where we can.
Not because she is a flawless bride but because she clings to a faithful Christ.