Redefining History and Reaching Community
By Jesse Henderson
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is located in the heart of Birmingham, and well-known among the Birmingham community. There is a drive and an evident focus in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church’s worship and Sunday services to bring people to Christ and convert to Christianity. This is evident through the welcoming spirit of the church, their slogan of “Where Jesus is the main attraction.” It is also evident in their sermons, which are followed by altar calls and their worship which has a consistent theme of praise and worship to God. Their worship is not self-focused, but focused on God and giving him praise, all to lead others in this same worship and surrendering of their lives to God. Each of these elements is shaped by the relative informality of the church’s services, the telos of praise of God and conversion of the people, along with the use of time and emphasis within the services.
Founded in 1873, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is historically known for the role it played in the Civil Rights Movement. The church is most well known for the tragedy of September 15, 1963, as a mob of white men bombed the church, killing four young girls (16th Street Baptist Church). Today, the church is still located at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, and exists as one of four black mainline churches in downtown Birmingham.
There is a tension for Sixteenth Street. The church seeks to honor its rich history and its status as a shrine of the Civil Rights Movement, but it also wants to be a living, serving church. This is evident in their slogan that insists that “Jesus Christ is the main attraction” not the building itself or the room where the four girls were killed. It is also reflected in the church’s mission statement to “Have a Bible-centric ministry that will reach, rebuild, and reproduce disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
As the focus of Sixteenth Street Baptist is praise towards God and conversion of his people to him, there is also an aspect of relative informality within the worship at the church. This relative informality is seen specifically through the communication to the audience watching the livestream, the worship sets, and the flow of the gathering.
It is important to note that these services that were evaluated and portrayed relative informality were recorded through the Covid-19 pandemic, in January, February, and March of 2021. They were live streamed as the congregation was operating under restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This, therefore, brought a natural change and informality, as the audience was not there in person. For an individual watching a church recording with an empty sanctuary, the experience is much different than attending in-person with a full sanctuary.
This informality and communication between the leaders and the congregation was evident in several ways. First was the announcement of birthdays and anniversaries. The pastor, Reverend Arthur Price Jr., encouraged those watching to let the church know if they had a birthday or anniversary coming up. The church wanted to celebrate along with them. Second, Price shared specific requests in each service, such as, “Brother Bragg lost his sister this week, please pray for him and his family.” Another example came was when there was a guest pastor, who shared in this time of prayer requests that Price could not be there as he was dealing with personal issues with his father and needed to be a rock for his family. I found these prayer requests to be very fascinating, as they seemed extremely personal to the individual they mentioned from the pulpit. However, though it felt informal and personal, this led the dynamic within the service to feel inviting and family-oriented as I observed these services, even though I was watching through a screen and never having attended in-person.
The next example of this relative informality is the musical worship and flow of the service all together. Once again, Covid-19 greatly affected the informality that played into these services, including a much smaller worship team in order to remain socially-distanced from one another. This smaller group of people leading worship served to naturally bring an element of informality to the service. I also observed informality through several technical issues throughout each of the services, whether it be a mic not turned on or the music not beginning, yet this did not seem to affect or fluster the worship team at all. They remained calm and patient and began when it was time to begin. I enjoyed this informality. It seemed to bring a new sense of authenticity to worship and a reminder that worship is not about getting everything right or perfect, but coming authentically before God to bring him praise. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church did this extremely well, and this was a key focus in each of the services I examined.
One aspect within the worship services I examined of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that is not correlated to relative informality was the time and emphasis of different portions throughout each of the services. This was fascinating to me as each church that meets definitely emphasizes different things according to tradition and leadership within the church. For Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the most time spent in the service was definitely the sermon from Reverend Price, while a good portion of time was also spent in the music portion of the service. The sermon ranged from forty-five to fifty-five minutes each service, where the entire service usually lasted just under one and a half hours. The second key emphasis in these services was the musical worship. Each service consisted of three to four songs, placed throughout the welcome, announcements, and sermon. I found that both of these emphases, the sermon and musical worship, both pointed to the telos of the church, which is conversion. Having the sermon be this length allows for the attendees to really come to know and understand the scripture passages being read and examined that day, and to come to know who God is as Price explains in his sermons. And for the musical worship being the second emphasis throughout the service, it gives time to truly worship God, give him praise, and come to know him in a different way by singing about who God is and what he has done. This also shows the importance and emphasis of hope for the future and love of their community (Lim and Ruth 2017, Jones 2006).
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a church with storied history, a clear mission, and a desire to praise the Lord through all that they do. Though Covid-19 has brought some adjustments to their Sunday worship gatherings, they continue to show up for their community and provide a space for worship, even through the Internet.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Location: 1530 6th Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
Services Observed: Sunday Worship, January 17, February 7, March 28, 2021
Video Archives: 16th Street Baptist Website. https://www.16thstreetbaptist.org/messages/.
16th Street Baptist Church. Videos. Facebook.
Alabama Newscenter. 2018. “Sixteenth Street Baptist Church wins $150K grant to support preservation efforts.” Alabama News Center, October 30, 2018. https://alabamanewscenter.com/2018/10/30/16th-street-baptist-church-wins-150k-grant-to-support-preservation-efforts/.
Jones, J. 2006. Why We Do What We Do : Christian Worship in the African-American Tradition. R.H. Boyd Publishing Corporation.
Lim, Swee-Hong, and Lester Ruth. 2017. Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “Our History.” https://www.16thstreetbaptist.org/our-history/
Smith, Wallace C. 2000. “Progressive National Baptist Convention: The Roots of the Black Church.” American Baptist Quarterly 19(3): 245-59.
Jesse Henderson ‘21 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 21, 2021.