By John Pawlik
Bethel Baptist Church has stood in the Birmingham neighborhood of Collegeville since its founding in 1917. I observed three of their services in April 2021 while they were meeting online due to Covid-19 restrictions. Even with the entire congregation online, Bethel Baptist continued to preach with dual emphases on both personal salvation through faith in Christ and personal transformation into the image of Christ.
Bethel Baptist played an important role in the civil rights movement. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was pastored by Fred Shuttlesworth, the founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and namesake of Birmingham’s airport. The congregation’s original building is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, and the block on which the current and historic church sits is ringed with signs that tell his story. Shuttlesworth’s vision for justice continues to guide the church today.
The Worship Service
Worship at Bethel is a good example of the revival character type of worship identified by Edward Phillips (Phillips 2020). This character type is common in Baptist churches. It emphasizes the preaching of the Word and personal conversion. An online service at Bethel Baptist begins with a recorded introduction from Reverend Thomas L. Wilder Jr. and his wife Mechelle that welcomes viewers and invites them to enjoy the service. The video of the service itself then begins with a band playing instrumental music that is soft and rhythmic. A long introductory prayer follows during which someone serving at the church prays for the service and the congregation, asking God to warm everyone’s heart to the Word of God that they are about to hear preached. Following this prayer, someone comes up to sing a single worship song with piano accompaniment. Wilder then reads the scripture for the day and preaches the message. The messages last forty minutes on average and are concluded with a time of prolonged extemporaneous prayer by Wilder. After the concluding prayer, another song is performed for the congregation to respond to the message by worshiping God. Typically, Wilder will come back to the pulpit to further reflect on the message and music of the day and provide application for the daily lives of those listening. The service then concludes with the same instrumental band set-up with which it began. Another recorded video of Wilder and his wife Mechelle is played after the end of the service thanking the listeners for coming and to pray that God would bring the full fruitfulness of his Word into their lives.
The message preached during the service by Wilder uses scriptural analogies that are emotionally engaging and point the hearer in one of two directions. If hearers are not believers, they are called to repent and believe the gospel through faith in Jesus Christ. If the hearers are already believers, they are called to apply scriptural principles from the passages to their daily lives in order to grow in their faith and be better equipped to live out the gospel. After the message is given, Wilder prays for the words of the sermon to move the hearers and lead towards the personal confession or conversion that needs to take place.
The messages preached at Bethel are interesting because of their dual telē . Personal conversion is the typical telos of a Baptist message. Listeners are encouraged just about every week at some point in most Baptist messages to consider their relationship with Christ and give their lives over in faith to be saved, if they have not already. I believe Bethel has a second telos that occupies a large portion of each message I listened to from the church. Personal growth seems to be another emphasis that commands an even larger portion of each message.
This might not be a stated telos of most churches that conform to the revival character type, but there are practical reasons for a message having more than one aim. As described above, there are two different types of congregation members. There are the non-believers who the church wishes to convert and the believers who the church wishes to build up. The aim of conversion alone would leave ninety percent of the congregation on any given Sunday outside of the main aim of a message. This concern to reach both groups of hearers is reflected in message layout. The primary purpose of a message at Bethel Baptist is didactic, but a clever twist is used in the Baptist tradition to kill two birds with one stone. Because of the Reformation tradition of sola fide, the argument is made that the didactic purpose of the message is ineffective for the non-believer unless saved by faith. So, if the audience member is convicted by realizing their inability to carry out the exhortation of the message, they are called to consider their heart and ask themselves if they know Jesus as their personal savior. In this way the didactic focus of the message is turned towards the second telos of conversion by painting a picture of a universal need for grace. Because of this I believe it is appropriate to say that Bethel Baptist has two telē, conversion and spiritual growth, but that both are accomplished with the double-edged sword of moral conviction.
Thinking about the purpose of preaching is relevant for understanding worship at Bethel Baptist because of the large emphasis the church places on the message. The songs and prayers of the service are directed to serve the purposes of the message. The primacy of the message can also be seen in the relatively small amount of emphasis placed on the Lord’s supper. Communion services at Bethel are not held every week, but instead only once a month. Outside of the pandemic context, it is possible that the church is a little closer to a mixed character that places heavy emphasis on music as well. But I expect that even prior the pandemic, when in-person worship was weekly and more songs were likely sung, that even then the worship orbited around the message in a way that kept the church primarily in a preaching-oriented character. The primacy of preaching makes understanding the aims of the messages key for understanding worship at Bethel.
Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville moved online during the pandemic, but their body continued to serve faithfully. Studying the purpose of preaching at Bethel opens a window for understanding a small part of worship at their church. Stop by online and hear an encouraging word from Bethel Baptist and see what the Lord is doing in their space.
Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville
Location: 3200 28th Ave North, Birmingham, AL 35207
Services Observed: Sunday Morning Service, March 7, 14, and 21, 2021
Video Archives: Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsD65_YJvUQL40-nYRY32nA
Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/bethelcollegeville/
Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville. “Interview with Pastor Thomas Wilder.” Filmed June 2020 at Mountain Brook Community Church, Mountain Brook, AL, video. https://bethelcollegeville.org/interview-with-pastor-thomas-wilder/.
Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, & Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Ruth, Lester. 2002. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship.” In The Conviction of Things Not Seen, edited by Todd E. Johnson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
John Pawlik ‘21 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 19, 2021.