A Tale of Two Churches

Recently my wife and I spent a week-end in a large city on our West Coast. To attend the nearest church of our own denomination would have required considerable traveling by bus or taxi, so we decided to worship in churches within walking distance of our hotel. There were two such churches, and in this account I shall call them “First” and “Second” respectively. First Church had two identical morning services—one at 9:30 o’clock and the other at 11:00 o’clock. Second Church had the one morning gathering at 11:00. We attended the 9:30 service at First and were dismissed in time to reach the 11:00 o’clock service at Second. The walk did us good. Several times on the way we reflected on how much better it would be if more people walked to church on Sunday. The traffic snarls one so often sees in the vicinities of places of worship on the Lord’s Day are not always necessary. Lungs that have been ventilated by ten or fifteen minutes of fresh air, and muscles that have been flexed by a good walk, are fine predispositions to good singing in God’s House. Try it next Sunday!

This tale of two churches has three “chapters.”

1. Similarities between First and Second 2. Dissimilarities 3. Evaluation




1. Both churches give prominence to Gospel symbols and inscriptions. First has a large illuminated cross on the roof. Second has a cross and a sign with the words, “Jesus Saves.” Above the entrance of one of the buildings we saw these words: “Forever Thy Word is Settled in Heaven.” On the comer stone this inscription: “Dedicated to the service of Him who loved us and washed us from our sins by His blood.”

2. In both places we were given a friendly welcome. Some of the worshippers appeared to be people of considerable wealth, yet they mixed freely with people of less than average dress. The ushers were courteous.

3. The congregations worship in large edifices. First has a seating capacity of 3000. Second about the same. Both were filled.

4. Both feature an elaborate “ministry of music.” Fine organs. Excellent organists. Well-trained choirs. At both we had a J. S. Bach prelude beautifully and competently interpreted.

5. The pastor at First reviewed the calendar of the week from thc pulpit, interspersing his announcements with assurances of welcome for the visitors present. At Second the assistant pastor took care of this matter. Both pastors had a supply of humorous quips that provoked some laughter. At both services an appeal was made for a liberal offering.

6. In both places the speaker “preached” without a text. One of them flourished a Bible while delivering his message. Since this was Sunday, February 12 (Abraham Lincoln’s birthday), the two speakers took the opportunity to make what they apparently regarded as appropriate political references. It occurred to us that the Appalachian carol, ‘I Wonder as I Wander” could have been applied here with slight modification—We wondered as they wandered!

7. At both services there was merchandising! At First the speaker’s books -he was a guest speaker, a long-time friend of the pastor—were noted. Two hundred autographed copies of his latest publication were on sale after the service! Anyone interested in the Power of Positive Thinking was urged to read this book. Second Church also had something for sale—banquet tickets! The pastor himself urged those planning to attend “to take care of this matter today.”

Books for sale! Banquet tickets for sale!

8. Both churches have a “ministerial staff.” Four at First, seven at Second. The bulletin listed their names conspicuously. For the first time in my ministerial experience I came across the title, “Minister of Visitation.” Second has three of them.

9. First, like Second, used familiar hymns. First, the more stately kind—All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name. Faith of Our Fathers. Second, the more “tabernacle” type: There’s Power in the Blood, I Surrender All.


1. First makes much of social gatherings. The bulletin announced three luncheon meetings and two dinners within the next five days. Second gives more emphasis to religious week-day activities. The bulletin listed four prayer groups, a missionary meeting, a lecture on Prophecy, and a public Bible Class studying the Book of Revelation all within the next five days.

2. Biblical expository preaching is not the regular pulpit diet at First. The bulletin for February 12 carried the pastor’s sermon topics. for the approaching season of Lent. Here arc some of them: “Sure Way to Achieve Your Personal Best,” “Make It Easy for People to Like You,” “Practice the Art of Friendly Living.” The subject for the Easter Morning Service was to be, “Put a Rainbow in Your Heart.” The pastor’s sermons are printed each week and are available in the foyer. I sampled three of them. One was an exposition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s line, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.”

One found a springboard in Wordworth’s Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.

The third sermon I sampled began with Matthew 22:39, quickly moved away from it, and never returned.

Second Church has a “Bible-centered ministry,” that is, there is Scripture reading, Scriptural references in the pastor’s prayer, sermons in which the Bible frequently is quoted, and sermon topics directly-related to the Bible and to cardinal Gospel themes. The morning we attended, the pastor gave the third in a series on the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the bulletin informed us that a two-week Bible Conference was soon to commence. In Second Church we had the unmistakable feeling that we were worshipping with people who heartily believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.


Both were disappointing for several reasons, but I shall mention and discuss only one. In both places the pulpit gave us an optimistic view of sinful human nature. First Church, as I said before, had a guest minister that morning. He is a pastor in a denomination that is Reformed, but was introduced as “a life-long Methodist.” His message had to do with “self-adjustment.” He urged us “to cuddle close to Jesus”…“to lay hold on the Divine power that is within every man’s reach.” Between a couple of humorous anecdotes he told us “to get on the ball for Christ.” Three times he said that we have what it takes if we will only trust He even quoted a former President of the United States who is remembered for having said, “The only thing to fear is fear.”

The speaker at Second Church also had an optimistic view of human nature, but he stated it differently and more inconsistently. After telling us how foul and helpless we are by nature—he paused to announce that in four weeks he would preach a sermon the moral chaos in America— he proceeded to the invitation part of his message in which he said, “Think of it, O sinner! God promises that if you will open the door of your heart to his patient, pleading Son, he will by his Holy Spirit come into your heart and make you alive, and will bless you with regeneration!” Sic! A sinner dead through trespasses and sins is given to understand that if with his lifeless hand he will open the door that seals him in his depravity, the Holy Spirit will come in to make him alive. To a wonder performed by a dead man will be added a wonder performed by God! Death must move first. Then God takes over. Only after death has wrought its wonder can life work the second marvel. First the sinner, then God! Who will deny that such a presentation of the matter is pretty complimentary to human nature?

Which of these two pastors is doing the greater harm? That is a good question for discussion. Sometimes, while reflecting on this, I find myself prepared to say that the second is the greater offender. Certainly, he is more inconsistent. Modernism is bad. Let’s not minimize its menace. Neither let us minimize the confusion, to say nothing of the effrontery, created in a pulpit that professes to honor God’s Word in a sermon that puts Christ outside Lazarus’ tomb waiting for Lazarus to move before commanding him to come forth. The command of King Jesus is contingent on the love of Lord sinner.

Fortunate for us the day ended on a better theme. In the evening we took a much longer walk and worshipped in another church where we heard an unforgettable sermon on Ephesians 5:22–33. It was an expository sermon with no misconceptions about the capacity of sinful human nature, and with no theological confusion. Walking back to the hotel under a beautiful star-lit sky, we gave thanks to God for preachers who still believe that God is God, and who say so!