Transformation in Tradition
By Clara Grace McCallister
A family of Christ marked by their passion, tradition, and community emphasis, Sardis Missionary Baptist Church effectively engages its congregation every Sunday as they worship together in Spirit and in truth. I had the privilege to worship with this church body in spring 2023, and in the process, I gained insight into the west Birmingham community and the history of Sardis’s development. Originally located on “Dynamite Hill,” Sardis was a notable force in the civil rights movement. This African American congregation’s pastor, R.L. Alford, had been president of the NAACP’s Birmingham chapter and after the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama in 1956, it hosted the first meeting of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Since 1987, Sardis has worshiped in its present building, a large colonial revival church originally erected for Hunter Street Baptist Church in 1958 (Schnorrenberg 2000). Today, Sardis proudly blends history, heritage, and culture in their worship, creating a space that is comfortable and personal to the African American community.
Tradition in Sardis’s Worship
Sardis’s members have deep ties to one another and their heritage as one of the oldest Missionary Baptist churches in Birmingham. Its worship services reflect historic African American Baptist practices. They use the African American Heritage Hymnal throughout their time of praise, singing hymns as the classic choir guides the time of worship. The organ is essential to Sardis’s praise, and is played throughout the service. As is common in the Black Baptist tradition, the first song sung each Sunday is a older, well-known, slow hymn. Later, visitors are welcomed, faster more contemporary songs are sung and, after the sermon, newcomers are invited into the church body. Sardis has not strayed from these practices, as they proudly uphold their heritage and culture as a traditional Missionary Baptist church.
Emotion in Sardis’s Worship
While Sardis is a community tied to the practices of their denomination, it is also characterized by the emotional response of worshipers. Rather than allowing their loyalty to tradition to limit their worship, they use it to connect to the Lord and his work in their church body throughout the century. Remembering God’s hand in the church’s past ignites passion and fervor for the gospel, while instilling confidence in his continued faithfulness. As many members of Sardis have engaged in the same structure of worship all through their lives, the worship service is personal to the individual and also unites the body in worship. The church body is brought together because of their weekly shared experience in worship. Sardis’s adherence to tradition does not weakens their emotional response in worship, rather it informs and deepens their devotion to Christ and his work in their church.
African American Baptist churches are commonly characterized by zeal and passion for the gospel that culminates in their praise. Sardis’s practice of worship is more traditional than many Baptist congregations today, but it is also Spirit-filled and emotional. As the service is bookended by praise, the act of worship through song is highly valued in this congregation. The church body is involved and active throughout the time of praise; loud statements thanks to God and clapping are common throughout the time of praise. On its website, Sardis describes their worship saying “It is hard to characterize our unique worship experience because worship is individual, so we’ll let you decide for yourself. What we can say is that every worship service is transforming, spirit-filled, and you will never leave the same!” Throughout the service, songs are emphasized to connect to the Lord, and spontaneous worship is encouraged as worship leaders share personal testimonies and exhort others to celebrate the goodness of God.
Music is enjoyed throughout a typical Sunday morning service, with organ and drums playing between songs and in the background of preaching and reading of the word. The church carefully utilizes melodies to enlist an emotional response to bring about a transformative experience with the Savior. When welcoming new faces, calming music is played; when asking the congregation to turn from their sins, somber music is played, and when ending the service, joyful melodies of praise are played. There is a deep connection between song and emotional engagement in this church body, as music serves to create an atmosphere of excitement and passion at the name of Jesus.
The emotion generated in the praise portion of the service is carried into the preaching of the word as the pastor, Rev. Dr. Kurt S. Clark, addresses the people with fervor and dynamic tones, evoking affections to challenge and teach. Not only does Rev. Dr. Kurt S. Clark speak with passion, but the topics he addresses in the sermons are personal to the experiences of the congregation. The church body is actively engaged in the sermon and responses of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” are spoken from the congregation throughout the message. At the end of the sermon, there is an altar call and the pastor invites the people to place their trust in Jesus. In the altar call the body is asked to examine their lives and receive the transforming work of the Spirit. This is the time when the emotions generated throughout the worship service are used to evoke the church body to desire change.
Passionately Declaring His Work
Sardis’s use of emotions to bring people into their church community and ultimately to Christ ignites interest and excitement within their congregation. Throughout their Sunday worship, Sardis displays its devotion to tradition, one-another, and their savior as they passionately declare the goodness of God and uphold the historical practices of their predecessors. Sardis’s worship is infectious; I found the service engaging and impactful. This is not a church body that shies away from the hardships of life, but they faithfully remind one another of the Lord’s work while empowering each other to stay the course. The deep history of Sardis and injustices faced by the community have served to strengthen the body in their love and service of Jesus. Finally, Sardis Missionary Baptist is overflowing with joy at the name of Jesus as each Sunday is a celebration of their salvation and God’s faithfulness is evident in the zeal of the body.
Sardis Missionary Baptist Church
Address: 1615 4th Court West Birmingham, AL 35208
Services Observed: February 5, 19, (online) March 25 (in-person), 2023
Video Archives: Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hBWYod-WG0
Church established: 1884
Moved to current location: 1987
African American Heritage Hymnal. 2001. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Sardis Missionary Baptist Church.Bhamwiki.(n.d.).RetrievedApril4,2023,from https://www.bhawiki.com/w/SardisMissionary_Baptist_Church
Schnorrenberg, John M. 2000. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society.
Clara Grace McCallister ’24 was a student in Christian Worship: History and Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2023.
Published April 29, 2023.