Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Casablanca, Washington, Providence, and Bringing Life to Dying Churches

Fourteen years ago, almost to the day, I discovered my favorite movie. It was the summer before my junior year of college, and I was interning for a family values lobbying organization in DC with Shawn, a college friend.

April, another college friend, had arrived in DC a few weeks before us to intern with a Senator, and she had found a run-down, small, aging, traditional, Bible-preaching church on Capitol Hill. So a couple days after I arrived, Shawn, April, and I visited Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church. As best I can remember, I went there every Sunday during my stay, and as I've been able to reconstruct the timeline, that would mean that my second Sunday at the church was the first visit by the future pastor, who had recently finished his PhD at Cambridge and was then serving as an associate pastor in England. This man was entertaining several teaching offers in both the U.S. and Britain, and was also visiting CHMBC as a favor to Carl Henry, an acquaintance and prominent CHMBC member.

After church on Sunday evenings we hung out with the small group of 20-something interns and Hill staffers. With the exception of one evening, when we watched Casablanca on a tiny TV in some church-owned housing, that meant going to the putt-putt course on Hains Point.

A bit over nine years later I had just started a terrific job and my first semester of seminary. A work trip took me to DC on a Sunday evening in November, and out of nowhere the week before the trip the thought struck me that perhaps I ought to check out CHMBC, if for nothing more than to see if it still existed. With the help of Google I quickly learned that it did, and in fact had a pretty professional website.

My immediate conclusion was that the data pointed to some sort of seeker strategy that had managed to attract a crowd and managed to keep the church afloat. Nevertheless, my curiosity led me to drive up to DC that afternoon. To my shock, a crowd filled the hall on a Sunday evening that was twice as large and half as old as the congregation I had seen on Sunday mornings years before. My expectations of the atmosphere were shattered when the music was sung in a shockingly simple style with hymns reaching back several centuries. As the service progressed, people were talking about Puritan writers and Reformed soteriology. I think I knew deep down that at some point this would be my home. I needed to know what had transformed this church.

Now I think I know.

This is already too long, and Matt Schmucker tells the story better than I possibly could. Now I hear him tell the story 2 or 3 times a year. Every time I hear him say the words, "We're here for the people who will come," my heart is full. Sometimes my eyes are too. He spoke those words no more than a few months before my visits in the summer of 1993. You may not have the emotional attachment that I do, but perhaps the story Matt tells, and perhaps the brief history here, might encourage you in some way nevertheless.

To tie this up, last night a big group of us walked down from the Hill to the Mall to watch this week's "Screen on the Green." A record crowd turned out for Casablanca. And in some silly way, it felt particularly satisfying to me—as though everything had come full circle.


PinkAngel said...

It was emotional for me just to read the story and I don't have any attachment to the church (other than you!). It's encouraging to see a complete turnaround in a church - in a good way, for once! I do have to say, though, that your "full circle" comment sounded like Oprah. :)

Ben said...

Oprah? OPRAH??? Sis, you really know how to hurt a guy.

TaNeesha said...

I didn't know that your history with the church went back so far. Thanks for sharing this story.

Sarah said...

It always chokes me up when Ben gets emotional. :-) I don't see it very often.
Cool story--I didn't know the history behind your church.
How in the world are you anyway? I haven't been on your blog in ages...sorry.