Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on November 15, 2009.
2 Corinthians 8: 1-7
The Chosen Few (Jesus’ disciples) are not chosen to act as censors over the
rest of mankind, but for a career of service whose distinguishing marks shall
be a deep and sincere humility and a boundless generosity.
—T. W. Manson in The Servant Messiah
In May of this year, we began a year-long emphasis related to the 175th anniversary of FirstBaptistChurch as a congregation. We have taken one Sunday each month and looked at some particular characteristic or emphasis of the church.
In June, we looked at relationships and how some of us became members at First Baptist and how wonderful it is to be part of a church family. In August, we looked at the way the Bible has been critical to our lives as Baptist Christians and as FirstBaptistChurch. In September, we celebrated the wonderful music ministry. In October, we looked at the way that FirstBaptistChurch has been involved in missions around the world and used the expression that we have heard before that the sun never sets on the mission enterprises that the First Baptist Church of Rome is directly involved in.
Today, we think about the heritage of generosity that this church has enjoyed for 175 years. If you have not read the three volumes of Robert Gardner’s history of the church, let me just tell you a few things that you can glean from those pages.
First Baptist was started in 1835, and for the first 15 years, there are essentially no financial records for the church. We really don’t know much, and even from 1850 through the Civil War period, there was so much upheaval and turmoil that those records are sporadic. But here are a few things that we do know.
In the 1850’s, the church was trying to locate somewhere in the downtown area. They purchased a piece of property that today would be about where the Todd Auction Company is. They decided that was not where they wanted to be, and in a couple of months sold the property and made a $600 profit. In those days, that was a lot of money, but I want to point that out for a very particular reason. That is the last time that I know of that the church did something where it made a profit. This will be important in just a minute.
Also in the 1850’s, the church was beginning to try to find out how to take care of ministries locally—what do we do, how do we take care of the poor, how do we attend to members that need our help, etc. They developed what was called a contingency fund. In the 1850’s, the lowest balance on the contingency fund at the end of the year was 45 cents. The highest balance on the contingency fund at the end of the year was $11.00. Typically, the church was behind in the things it was trying to do to help people.
The church struggled with ways in how to fund this. Remember, the last time the church turned a profit was on the sale of that piece of real estate. They came up with the idea of dues. They assigned a committee that said, “You owe this much, I owe this much,” and it failed the first year. Very few people were faithful in their dues.
We can assume that the church used raffles because in 1857, there is a very strongly worded resolution in a business meeting saying, “We will no longer use anything that involves drawing straws, rolling dice or selling raffle tickets.” The two things that were particularly forbidden were selling raffles for paintings or any items of value. They did not think that was consistent with the Gospel. What would they do to raise money?
For about two decades, the church vacillated on pew rentals. If you can remember your American history, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, a lot of churches funded their ministry by renting pews. Baptists would probably be the only group of Christians where the good pews would be in the back. Those would be the expensive pews, and if you were not willing to pay much, then you got one of the front pews. I am making that up.
There were pews that were desirable, but that was not well received either. Right after the Civil War, there was such disharmony about it that the church went to alternating pews. It was paid pew, free pew, paid pew, free pew. By the 1880’s, when the church took out an advertisement in the local newspaper it said, “All seats free.” You don’t charge people to come to church. That was not a very good way to try to receive money to do the work of the kingdom.
By the 1900’s, there were no more real estate deals, no more raffles, and no pew rentals. By this time, the church realized the only way to do God’s work God’s way was by the generous contributions of the people who worshipped together.
If you look around you today, everything you see that is a part of the church structure, we have because you, and past generations, have given. The sanctuary was built in the late 1950’s. What a beautiful work was undertaken.! If you go to our website, in the bottom right corner of the home page, click on the anniversary logo and you can watch digital video of the steeple being placed. You can see the former sanctuary that this sanctuary replaced.
Look at the gorgeous marble behind me, and the marble dove and cross. How many churches have marble that looks like that? We have all of these things because people gave.
If you look up, you will see the TV cameras. I think one of the ways we are known in the community is by people who don’t attend church at First Baptist but watch us on television. Many times, someone who was ill or had to stay home for some other reason told me, “I don’t know what I would do without the TV ministry.” We have these cameras because of the contributions that were given.
If you pick up one of the hymnals or one of the pew Bibles, every one of them has a plaque in the front. It is one of the few places in the church where you can actually find someone’s name listed as having given something. I think there are only two or three places in the church, other than the hymnals and the Bibles, where you can see that somebody gave something.
Do you realize that when we come to worship the great things that we hear we have because somebody gave? The piano. The organ. The bell in the steeple. In the 1850’s, the women of the church gave that bell. That bell has been in three steeples that represent FirstBaptistChurch because somebody gave.
Dr. R. B. Headden came to be pastor in 1883, and I think it is under his leadership that the clear and different path for how the people of God do the work of God became clear. A church that had been a struggling church financially for its first 50 years all of a sudden, under the leadership of Dr. Headden, became an incredibly generous congregation.
If you look at the video of the steeple being placed, you can see the old sanctuary that was replaced. That sanctuary was paid for during the pastorate of Dr. Headden. At the same time, it has always been a measure in church life about how much of what you give is spent beyond the church in mission. When Dr. Headden got started, about nine pennies out of every dollar that was given were used in mission outside the church. In one year under his leadership, 79 percent of what was given—79 cents out of every dollar—was given to missions. Over his 30-year ministry, roughly 50 percent of everything that everybody gave was given to missions.
Not only that, but in the early 1900’s, which was about the middle part of his ministry, First Baptist Church of Rome for years gave more money to missions through the Southern Baptist Convention than any other church that was Southern Baptist. A few years ago, we withdrew ourselves from the Southern Baptist Convention and maybe you can see a part of the sorrow in that to know that once we played such an important part in that organization.
In 1908, this church gave more to Foreign Missions than any church. In 1909, this church gave more to what was then called Home Missions than any other church. Mr. Grant, a First Baptist member around the turn of the century, gave the largest gift to missions that Southern Baptists, at that time, had ever received.
Dr. Headden knew something. Dr. Headden knew that he lived among the Macedonians. I know you are thinking, “This is Georgia and this is Rome. What about the Macedonians?”
Think for a moment about the Apostle Paul. We know a few things about Paul. He took all those missionary journeys. If we look in the back of our Bibles, we see the maps of all the places where Paul goes around the Mediterranean. We know that Paul wrote a lot of letters that are included in the New Testament, but one other thing that Paul did was he took up a collection for poor Christians in the region around Jerusalem. They were impoverished. So Paul wrote people in other parts of the Roman Empire and other Christians in these small towns, many of which we have letters to in the New Testament, and said, “I am sending [so and so] to you. When he comes, be sure and give an offering because we are trying to take care of these people.”
The Corinthians were rather wealthy. Those of you who are old enough, do you remember those old Chrysler Cordoba commercials with Ricardo Montalban where he talked about “soft Corinthian leather.” Corinthian was a sign of luxury. The Corinthians were very wealthy. Paul was writing to the Church at Corinth and said, “Listen here. The Macedonians are poor, but the Macedonians have their hearts right. We were not going to ask them to give because they really did not have that much, but they begged for the opportunity to give. So they gave. Listen. You do everything so well, so why don’t you do this well, too? Why don’t you give well?”
This is a bit of regional competitiveness. We want our town to be better than the town nearby and our county to be better than the other county. I will make a passing reference to football here. I am an Auburn graduate. This morning, I heard a lot of Georgia fans say, “We beat you.” There is a lot of pride. We always want to excel. We believe in the group of which we are a part. So Paul is saying, “Hey Corinthians, you think you are No. 1. The people who excel in giving are the Macedonians.”
What Dr. Headden came to understand was that the people he pastored had Macedonian hearts. He was living among the Macedonians. He wanted to make sure that everybody who could give did so and participated in the work of the kingdom.
We have come upon a very difficult time in giving in American culture, and it is not strictly related to the economic crisis. If you listen to the news and hear someone like Ted Turner, Warren Buffett or Bill Gates talk about their foundations and say they are going to give it all away before they die, you are left with the belief that you need billions in order to give. That’s crazy. I will tell you that churches such as this are effective based on the Macedonian hearts of people from all economic levels. If it is only the people who have lots of money that can really give, the work of Jesus Christ is in a lot of trouble. But what we would pray for is that people of all abilities would have that same heart. Dr. Headden, I think, recognized that we should not bother with raffles, renting pews, and these other things that were essentially fund raising. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Let’s get to generosity. It is generous people who have given us everything you see and have made it financially possible for all the things that we do.
Think about a few of these. When the tsunami hit in Asia few years ago in December, the week after Christmas, that was one of our strongest financial years. We ended the year with a $50,000 surplus. That’s a lot of money, isn’t it? In my mind, I was thinking, “Oh good, we can pay down some of our debt.” Then the tsunami hit, and I thought, “How can we do that? How can we take money and pay down debt when we have this great gift that people have given us? Thousands of people have lost their lives and homes, and we really need to do something.” So we said, “We are going to take up money. We are going to use this as the seed and we are going to take up more.” Before we were done, we tripled that money, and I don’t know any church anywhere that singly gave as much money to help the tsunami victims as we did. We used the money for a very specific thing. Today, there are water purification systems and storage tanks in roughly 15 different places around the Pacific realm where refugees settled because of the generosity of the people in this room and others like you. We live among Macedonians.
There are children and adults in places like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and even today in Peru because we have a team there this week, who receive medical care because people like you have given offerings that have enabled people to be our representatives to go and do that work.
There have been churches built. This is probably something you may not know. Everybody is always talking about how many Baptist churches there are in Rome. Part of that is our fault because First Baptist Church of Rome, throughout its history, has started many of the Baptist churches in this county. We have started more churches in this community than any other single church. We have also started churches in Hawaii and in New England. Right before I came as pastor, First Baptist started a church in the TownCenter area.
There are children today in places like Kenya and Peru who have the ministry that they have because of the hearts of Macedonians like you. We are able to do what we do in Christ’s name because we live among Macedonians, people who have given their hearts to God first and then have given as if they believe that.
We mentioned the Fabric of Faith. Cards were mailed at the beginning of last week. There are two cards to turn in. One card is a card that is a commitment card to demonstrate a Macedonian heart for next year. If you did not bring your card this morning, there should be one in the pew rack. That card will go in the offering plate. If you did not bring it today, you can turn it in over the next few weeks.
The other card is a blank card for you to write the story of a piece of fabric that represents something important in your life. What we want is a piece of fabric that somehow symbolizes you or your family so that when we put it in the quilt, it will be a snapshot of all the lives of the church family as it exists today in all these Macedonian hearts. By putting my fabric in the quilt and my commitment in the plate, this is a symbol of what we all do together in God’s name.
This is confusing so I will try to say it as simply as I can. The commitment card goes in the offering plate. Make it an act of worship. The Stewardship Committee will be at the doors as you leave with baskets. Put your fabric envelope in the basket as you leave. If you did not bring it, you have until December 15 to turn in the fabric in order to get it in the anniversary quilt.
It is amazing that 150 years ago, women thought that this church should have a bell to call people to worship so they gave. Today, we still have that bell. Over 100 years ago, First Baptist was one of the leading churches in the South in giving to God’s cause of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Just four or five years ago, First Baptist was one of the leading churches in giving to people whose lives had been washed away by a wave. We had a network of missionary friends around the world that we were able to plug into right away. In the name of Christ, we were able to get water to people whose lives had been destroyed by water.
Today, in Lima, Peru, one of the poorest sections of Peru, six people are there. They were the ones who could go, but all of us together provide the means so that they can be there to tell people about Christ. They can inoculate children. I wish you could see the video of the place. It is so tragic, but in the name of Christ, on your behalf and because of your generosity, they are there.
This is what it is like to live among the Macedonians. There is no better place to be.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.