Traditional Worship in an Untraditional Building
By Katie Allen
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church is a fairly young church that cherishes traditional values. It was established in 1957 when a group of Birmingham Baptist pastors decided to plant a Baptist church in the new community of Vestavia Hills. Seeking a permanent home, the young church purchased the city’s namesake, a home designed in imitation of the Temple of Vesta built by one-time Birmingham mayor, George Ward (1867-1940). After many renovations and the growth of the congregation, in the early 1970s, the church created a building that has become their own. My observations of their worship were completed in March 2021 through the webcast of their services during when in-person worship was curtained due to Covid-19.
The church has transformed the site from a place of sculptures and paintings featuring pagan gods into a place that glorifies God through traditional forms. The congregation’s Sunday morning worship devotes the largest amount of time to the sermon, with worship in song being not far behind. The way in which they use the traditional hymns to connect the community of church together is beautiful.
From Ancient Pagan Gods to Christianity
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church has a very unique building history as architectural historian Margaret Grubiak explains in a forthcoming article. As mentioned above, the church bought a house built by George Ward to resemble the ancient Roman Temple of Vesta. This one-time mayor of Birmingham had a taste for Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and French architecture. He included these different cultures throughout his estate and in the temple-house. After Ward’s death in 1940, developer Charles Byrd bought the estate in 1947. The temple later became a place of entertainment that included a restaurant and garden and hosted many parties. The temple and gardens included many sculptures and paintings. As the years passed, the popularity of the temple as an entertainment venue waned and the site was purchased by Vestavia Hills Baptist Church (Grubiak 2021, 2-10).
The church originally wanted to buy their own land and build a Gothic-style church, but that did not work out. When the church leaders saw the Vestavia Temple, it was clear to them that there was potential and space for the church to turn this estate into a place that could become their own (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church History, n.d.). Of course, as one could imagine there was some concern from the community, and even from those outside of the community, for using a place for Christian worship that was filled with Roman gods, Greek structures, paintings, and other forms of arts all representing ancient cultures. The leaders of the church defended their purchase by pointing out places in history where pagan temples were turned into churches. The pastor, John Wiley, made a statement to the church proclaiming that the church will forever be a place where only God will be praised and where the biblical truths will be taught (Grubiak 2021, 10-15). As they began to settle into their new church home, they started to transform the space into one that was their own.
After purchasing the building, they immediately began to renovate and add on to it. They began to remove some of the different sculptures and paintings while also adding two other buildings on their campus (Vestavia Hills Baptist Church History, n.d.). Eventually Ward’s temple was removed. In 1973 it was replaced with a piece-of-pie-shaped modernist sanctuary. These were common in the seventies. The sanctuary features wooden pews and wooden ceilings. Something that is unique about the church is how they have hidden south-facing colored windows; that cannot be seen from the sanctuary, but which bathe the front wall and organ pipes of the church with majestic color. Another great aesthetic aspect of the church is the many windows that is along both sides of the sanctuary. Needless to say, the space helps provoke an emotion that sees God in his finest glory.
Connecting the Church Through Worship in Song
The church’s song selection comes from the Celebrating Grace Hymnal. This book features a multitude of old hymns like “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” which was written in 1674 and even newer ones such as “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” which was written in 1989. Music can be a powerful tool in a church service. Donald P. Hustad mentioned in his book, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal, how that a church’s song selection both reveals a congregation’s identity and provides meaning to the worship service. When a church selects the more traditional or higher-art songs, all generations, every type of person can appreciate the songs. The music does not create an age gap such as can be made by using more contemporary songs (Hustad 1993, 44). Another aspect of singing more traditional songs such as hymns is how they are often more theologically based than contemporary songs (Hustad 1993, 59-60). This is evident in the services at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.
They chose older hymns and sung them in a traditional way. One thing I noticed is that the church community orchestrates their services around things happening within the church community or what they feel led to discuss as a church. In a service I observed, one could tell how their song selection was based around either the message or what the church was going through at the time. This is an important aspect to making worship special. There is power in a church community coming together, regardless of age, singing as one about the promises of God.
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church is such a unique church with rich history. They have taken a site that reflected pagan history and its gods, and it is now a place where God is rightfully glorified. It has left a lasting impression within the community due to their activities outside of the church and the dedication within the church. Their worship service brings everyone a part of the congregation together as they sing of the truths and promises about God. As Covid-19 restrictions subside, this church is a place worth visiting.
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church
Location: 2600 Vestavia Drive, Vestavia Hills, Alabama, 35216
Services Observed: March 14, 21, and 28, 2021
Video Archives: Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/c/VestaviaHillsBaptistChurch/videos
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. Live Stream. Church Website. http://www.vhbc.com/video-streaming
Celebrating Grace Hymnal. 2010. Macon, GA: Celebrating Grace, Inc.
Grubiak, Margaret M. 2021. “From Roman Temple to Baptist Church: Sin and Transformation in Southern Baptist Culture,” Building and Landscapes 28, no. 2 (forthcoming fall 2021).
Hustad, Donald P. Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal. Carol Stream: Hope, 1993.
“Vestavia Hills Baptist Church History.” Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. Accessed April 21, 2021. http://www.vhbc.com/history.
Katie Allen ‘21 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 18, 2021.