First Baptist, Atlanta, Georgia, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Baptist
Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 June 2020, 10:30am

The building

Watchers of the weekly Sunday TV broadcast In Touch with Dr Charles Stanley are familiar with First Baptist’s interior: an arc-shaped auditorium with a stage backed by a classical colonnade and wall-sized map of the world, with elegant mahogany furnishings scattered about, and a large platform, fronted by an orchestra pit, on which choirs sing. Formed in 1848, the First Baptist congregation met in a one-room schoolhouse and later in their own building that would be heavily damaged during the Civil War. They have outgrown five buildings since then and have occupied their current sprawling megacampus since 1997.

The church

Ultra-conservative and evangelical, First Baptist engages in dozens of ministries all described on their website. They are best known for their television outreach, In Touch Ministries, which broadcasts every Sunday on multiple TV channels throughout the United States. Dr Charles Stanley, who founded In Touch Ministries, has been senior pastor of First Baptist since 1971. Now close to 90 years of age, Dr Stanley has vowed to remain active, in his words, ‘as long as God gives me health and strength.’ He has, however, chosen an associate pastor to succeed him ‘whenever God ordains that to occur.’ In-person services are suspended for now (their website states: ‘We believe God will make it clear when the time is right’ to reopen), but Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services are live-streamed each week via Facebook, Vimeo, or YouTube. Television re-runs of past In Touch broadcasts can also be seen every Sunday.

The neighborhood

First Baptist is located in the Dunwoody suburb of Atlanta. Although Dunwoody was not incorporated until 2008, locals have known the area by that name ever since Atlanta was little more than a whistle stop along the railroad. Today Dunwoody is renowned for its upscale shops, restaurants and entertainment venues as well as carefully preserved historic buildings, and is considered one of the best places to live in all of Georgia. The church is located just off the I-285 freeway in an area dominated by upscale apartment and condominium communities.

The cast

The senior associate pastor led the service.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Morning Live Stream.

How full was the building?

The on-line counter eventually registered 2078, at which point I stopped paying attention to it. And that was just on YouTube – I have no idea how many may have been watching on the other streaming services.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. People were posting various greetings in the chat window, and to their credit someone at First Baptist was answering many of them! I typed a greeting in Latin: Salvete omnes et pax vobiscum (Hello all and peace be with you) but did not receive an answer.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self. It was a relatively cool morning here in Phoenix, and I had the patio door open and was enjoying the refreshing breeze that wafted in.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I elected to watch via YouTube. I’ll admit that I was somewhat naughty, as I switched my Google account from my real name to Amanda B. Reckondwyth so that it would appear, along with my avatar, in the chat window. (Dr Stanley would not approve of my avatar – as all Shippies know, it depicts a rather frumpy old lady holding a glass of whiskey. Dr Stanley has ranted vehemently on his TV broadcasts against the evils of the devil’s own beverage.) Tuning in early, I was met with endlessly repetitive announcements, along with a countdown clock, while an endlessly repetitive music track played on some sort of digital instrument.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Hey, welcome, First Baptist On-Line Worship. We’re really glad you’re here.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Most of the biblical quotes the preacher referred to were taken from the New Living translation, although a few were from others.

What musical instruments were played?

Various, ranging from a small backup band to a full orchestra.

Did anything distract you?

The constant stream of messages in the chat window was a distraction.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A very professionally assembled hymn sandwich. It opened with a virtual orchestral montage playing an old chestnut: ‘Brethren, we have met to worship,’ with words displayed on screen. This was followed by a medley of upbeat easy-listening numbers by a quartet of guest singers backed by a small band, again with words projected on screen. The associate senior pastor made several announcements and led us in prayer. Then some more music by the guest quartet. The sermon followed. Then there was a virtual altar call of sorts – we were asked to text the word ‘JESUS’ to a number that was given if we wanted to learn more about the Lord, and we were assured that someone would be in touch with us. Finally, we were thanked for sending in our offerings, and the service concluded with a series of video tributes to fathers.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

35 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The associate senior pastor preached clearly and his thoughts were well organized and appropriate for the day, Fathers Day. However, I thought that if he had really wanted to, he could have condensed his message a bit.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Many voices attempt to influence our lives, some subtle, some deafening. But God has ordained that the most influential voice in the life of a child is that of his or her father. Many passages of scripture testify to this, especially in Proverbs. A father’s influence on his children is an assignment from God. There is a movement in society to diminish the father’s role – look at how many ‘single mothers’ there are today. But nothing can take the place of a father – that is God’s will. But God’s will has been flawed through human sinfulness. The father’s God-given authority is not a license to be chauvinistic, abusive or misogynistic. Fathers, fulfill your God-given role under God. Your influence on your children will exist as long as you live, and will also extend beyond your lifetime. As your heavenly Father teaches you, so should you teach your children. Your advice is practical. You shape the direction of your children, even when it seems that they might not be listening. You don’t need a degree in theology to be a good father, but what you believe, and the sources of those beliefs, is very important. And you will change over time – fathers learn and grow as they mature, just as we all do. You can be the grandfather that God wants you to be, as well as the father that God wants you to be. Build your legacy. The most wonderful words a father could ever hear his children say are: ‘Dad, I’m proud of you!’ Fathers, may God continue to bless you.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I have always enjoyed watching the In Touch broadcast on TV, and I’ve often felt that if I were to visit Atlanta I would love to check out a live service. Today’s on-line service was the closest I think I’m going to get to fulfilling that wish.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

One of the songs consisted of lyrics to the effect that ‘I’ve studied theology, I’ve studied philosophy, I’ve heard preachers preach – but the only thing that matters to me is that every word in the Bible is absolutely true.’ That is certainly evangelical, but there are many devout Christians (myself included) who don’t believe that the Bible was dictated verbatim by God and that therefore it is unerringly true, including its historical timelines.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I clicked out of the service during the video tributes to fathers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had already had breakfast, and it was too early for lunch. This time of year, Phoenix is three hours behind Atlanta.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

4 — Even though the service was very well put together, to me it was more of a concert and a lecture rather than a church service. There were no readings from scripture other than what the preacher quoted in his sermon. There were no prayers – not even the Lord’s Prayer – other than the one the pastor made after his announcements. No profession of faith. No intercessions. And certainly no Lord’s Supper. I’m accustomed to the TV In Touch broadcasts being abbreviated – they generally consist only of a musical opening followed by the sermon – but I was expecting the live stream broadcast to be more fully developed as a church service.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, but I was hoping to hear Dr Stanley preach. I always enjoy his TV sermons. He is scholarly without being pedantic, and sprinkles just the right amount of humor into his talk. And his Southern drawl is music to the ears.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Letting them know via the chat window that Amanda B. Reckondwyth was in attendance.

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