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I hadn’t realized I was a few minutes late for the 8:30am service (the first of two ), but it became evident to me immediately upon exiting my car that worship had already begun. I could feel it reverberating in my chest and beneath my feet in the parking lot well before I could clearly hear or see it. While most of the surrounding neighborhood of inner city Chattanooga was still sleeping on this mild spring morning, it was evident that the 400 or so gathered at New City Fellowship had come ready and eager to praise the Lord.
Sunday morning at New City is probably unlike any Presbyterian worship service that most Perspectives readers will have ever experienced. If one understandably expects staid, white, middle class formality in worship at a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), New City delivers a refreshing jolt of otherness. My experience that morning was authentically multicultural, filled with faces of every shade of black, brown, and white. And with James Ward standing at the keyboard, backed by a highly skilled, five piece rhythm section, an energetic twelve member choir, and a congregation not shy about raising hands and moving feet, New City truly rocked the house.
The unique worship experience of this Presbyterian congregation is deeply rooted in its almost four decade history and its persistent, unchanging sense of its own mission: cross-cultural ministry, racial reconciliation, and care for the urban poor. The germ of this mission was born in a small Presbyterian Sunday school class atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia, in the late 1960s when a group of white, primarily Northern and Midwestern Presbyterians, met to talk about race, poverty, and Christian responsibility. Most in the group had recently moved to the Chattanooga suburb as faculty, staff, and students at Covenant College, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod’s liberal arts college that had relocated from its original St. Louis campus in 1965. The small group wrestled with the oddities of living in the still strange, unofficially segregated South and its biblical calling to pursue reconciliation and ministry among the urban poor. They determined to do something about it.
The result was the Third Street Sunday School, an effort launched in 1968 to reach impoverished inner city African American children with the gospel. In 1973 they began meeting as an informal church at a YMCA on south Chattanooga’s Mitchell Street, another poor black neighborhood, and formalized as a particular congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod in 1976. It joined the PCA with the rest of the RPCES in 1982.
Today New City is housed in an imposing Georgian building, complete with red brick, white trim, and a tall steeple, located in the Glenwood neighborhood, an area more than 80% African American, with a majority of families from lower and lower-middle incomes. The relatively austere sanctuary with plain white New England styled pews probably seats bet ween 500-600 people. The only hints of the church’s dynamic multicultural congregation or its robust contemporary worship are the vibrant banners with messages of unity, restoration, celebration, and hope that adorn the otherwise plain white walls.
The fellowship relocated to its present location in the mid 1980s, the site of another PCA congregation, an all-white, If you are capable of experiencing New City’s worship time without the inclination to move your feet, shake your hips, and clap your hands, you may want to check to make sure you still have a pulse. once sizeable church that had lost most of its members as its Glenwood neighborhood became increasingly black and poor. Through an amazing series of events, a remnant of the Westminster congregation voted to cede its property to New City, giving the congregation a large facility in a neighborhood in great need of outreach. The church has been serving Glenwood and the broader Chattanooga community through a multitude of mercy ministries and inner-partnerships. New City holds two services each week, at 8:30 and 11:00, and comes close to filling its 500-seat sanctuary at each service. Although the church remains perhaps 60% white, there is an authentic feeling of multicultural fellowship and worship in the church’s leadership and many ministries.
One of the keys to the church’s incredible sense of focus and continuity are the two personalities most identified with the church who have been with the ministry since the very beginning when both were in their early 20s as Covenant students. Randy Nabors is synonymous with racial reconciliation and urban ministry within the denomination and beyond. His ministry vision has been instrumental in founding “New City Fellowships” in St. Louis, Missouri; Fredricksburg, Virginia; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Nairobi, Kenya. He has also been instrumental in shepherding many young African Americans into positions of ministry throughout the denomination.
Nationally acclaimed Christian recording artist James Ward gives New City its distinctive sound and energy. He has written and arranged much of the church’s worship music, some of it now a standard part of the PCA’s Trinity Hymnal. To reach a truly intercultural audience, church leaders decided long ago to eschew all traditionally “white” music styles and conventions in favor of gospel melodies, heart pounding rhythms, jazz fusion, and a variety of Latino and traditional African songs. If you are capable of experiencing New City’s worship time without the inclination to move your feet, shake your hips, and clap your hands, you may want to check to make sure you still have a pulse.
After about twenty minutes of worship, a thrilling, hair-raising version of “You Brought the Sunshine” by a female ensemble nearly brought down the house during the offering. A lengthy series of announcements gave a small window into the church’s mind-boggling number of mercy ministries to the surrounding neighborhood. Then Pastor Nabors invited anyone with ailments of any kind to come for ward for the church’s monthly “Prayers of Healing.” This was followed by the stock in trade of all Reformed worship: the sermon.
For the past thirty-three years, Pastor Nabors has taken on the almost impossible task of what I’ve come to think of as a double translation. First, he has to translate the biblical necessity of urban ministry and racial reconciliation to an overwhelmingly white, suburban, middle class, and all-too ingrown denomination. Secondly, he has had to translate the importance and relevance of Calvinism and the Reformed confessions to his target audience of Chattanooga’s urban poor who might be forgiven for otherwise failing to see its relevance to daily life. I thank God for Pastor Nabors who is equally committed and equally skilled at both parts of this task. He preaches in a comfortable yet prophetic Glenwood vernacular that never wavers in committing its listeners to the truth of the Bible, the complete sovereignty of God, and the Reformed message of personal and social transformation.
Nabors preached for about thirty minutes from Matthew 19:16-30, the Rich Young Ruler. The bottom l ine: 1) It’s impossible for rich people to go to heaven, 2) God can do the impossible, and 3) You can’t outgive God. The rich young man left his conversation with Jesus grieving because he didn’t “have a good grasp of the grip of his goods.” Pastor Nabors wondered how much we are possessed by our possessions, and how much our aspirations to middle class comfort have caused us to lose track of our cal l to fol low Christ.
If Sunday morning worship is intended, at least in part, to give God’s people a foretaste of Heaven, then my experience at New City Fellowship succeeded in two important ways. First, the spirit of unabashed celebration that permeated the service gave me a foretaste of what I imagine it will be like to gather around the throne in eternal of worship of our God. And second, rarely do I have the pleasure of worshiping alongside so many diverse faces or to sing, as I did this day, in three different languages; another glorious foretaste of worshiping alongside all the saints in the presence of God in the New Heaven and the New Earth. I left the service that morning with a greater enthusiasm for God’s mission in the world and its power to transform lives.