Who Is the Church?
As recent transplants to Atlanta, my husband and I were pretty wide-eyed about big city living. Life in Rhode Island functioned on a smaller scale, and I don’t mean just shorter commutes and fewer highway lanes. Even churches fell into that category—not only in quantity but also in physical size.
I remember telling a friend that churches in the south were as plentiful as Italian restaurants up north (but sadly, I was having trouble locating good pizza down here). What’s more, I’d never seen a sanctuary like First Baptist’s, with thousands of seats. Even the music was “bigger”: huge choir, full orchestra, lively congregational singing. But as wonderful as all this was, it added to my concern that I’d remain anonymous for quite some time.
Then we met Hubert.
Mr. Cotton (as we later discovered most people addressed him) was well past retirement age yet still operated a successful trucking business. Also a tireless participant at church, he oversaw the invitational counseling ministry, ushered, and even played a very convincing Nicodemus in the Passion Play one year. But his role as greeter probably had the greatest impact.
While some might consider that an easy position, Hubert took it most seriously. Recognizing the value of a first impression, he trained the team to be “not just friendly but enthusiastic in being friendly.” More than simply thanking guests for visiting, this meant doing whatever would help newcomers feel welcome and oriented in that large building.
Let me tell you, it made a difference, I’d assumed trying a new church inevitably meant a period of awkwardness, at least till we learned the ropes and settled into a Sunday school class. Instead, we felt at home early on as Hubert, in his quiet yet warm way, regularly sought us out with a big smile and engaged us in conversation.
Then he began drawing us into the life of the church. Our family still laughs about the first time my husband helped collect the offering. With regard to serving, we were still in “spectator mode”—a situation Hubert apparently decided it was time to correct. On learning an usher was absent, he made a beeline for our row and asked if Elliot might, for that service, fill the vacancy. And Elliot wouldn’t have objected, except that his summery clothing didn’t match the ushers’ attire. Well, before you could say “blue blazer,” Hubert had vanished, spoken to someone else about an unexpected need, and reappeared with a coat the right size. Minutes later, there was Elliot, passing baskets down the aisle, dressed like the other ushers (that is, except for his sandals).
Somehow a vacancy seemed to occur every Sunday from then until Elliot officially joined the ushering team. And before long—thanks to Hubert’s gentle prodding—we found ourselves active in Sunday school and invitational counseling. In fact, our niches of involvement were so linked to him that “Cotton” seemed woven into the entire church experience.
Though we’d known Hubert only two years when he died a decade ago, his face still comes to mind with every mention of First Baptist. I think that’s because he did what we’re all supposed to be doing: he kept an eye open for needs and used God-given abilities (in his case, hospitality and encouragement) to meet them in intentional and at times inventive ways.
And that’s why other faces come to mind as I recall various fellowships we’ve attended. I see Ruth, for example, who was known for her remarkable storytelling ability. Whether presenting children’s sermons or entertaining senior adults, she delighted audiences, who listened (and learned) with rapt attention.
Then there was Mabel, who presided over every food-related event. A deli owner who knew all the tricks of the trade, she could quickly plan any menu from soup to Chicken Cordon Bleu and effortlessly oversee its setup, prep, and cleanup. In fact, Mabel made kitchen work look so easy (she never even wore an apron), that her expertise translated into increased confidence for the rest of us.
I also picture Cindy and Bob. We were new to their church when my husband needed surgery, so they brought a meal and used the brief visit as a way to get acquainted. The couple listened well—both to us and, evidently, to the Holy Spirit: a simple question Bob asked about the operation helped us realize we’d never forgiven the person who had caused the initial injury nearly 50 years earlier. The spiritual healing was as sweet as the physical.
These folks all had different gifts that they enjoyed using “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). To them, ministry was fulfilling rather than simply a “program,” chore, or check-off list. As Carol Cotton said of her husband, “Hubert just really loved the Lord and wanted to serve Him—that’s all.”
So when you think about church, whose face comes to mind? Or perhaps more to the point, when others think about church, do they see yours?
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.
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