Atmosphere of acceptance
Upon entering the Berry Street Worship Center near downtown Nashville, Tenn., visitors are greeted by soldier Steven Morton; their kids are taken next door by local volunteers Chris Nelms and Steve Lang for a Bible lesson and games; they might hear encouraging words from women like Avon Moore and Armentria “Donna” Kelly during the service; and on Thursday nights Carol Roberts opens the discussion of a Scripture passage that Bible study participants have read beforehand.
The Berry Street Worship Center is truly a participatory corps. In fact, Sergeants Steve and Ernie Simms came to lead the corps when it re-opened as a corps plant because of the freedom to carry out their vision of a new way to do church.
Steve, who had a background in church leadership through other congregations, had spent the better part of his adult life looking for a church where the church members could participate rather than simply listening to the leaders. He never found one. Ernie had been the director of the Magness-Potter Center, which is next door to the worship center. She always wanted a corps in the neighborhood to which she could refer clients, so the Berry Street Worship Center was an answered prayer in many ways. “We intentionally set it up differently to be real with people’s issues and let God change their lives,” she said. “A lot of the families we saw at the center needed pastoral care.”
Holiness meetings are reminiscent of what happens at a recovery meeting because of the openness with which congregants share their struggles, prayer requests and what they feel the Spirit is communicating during the meeting. There are a variety of worship leaders (mostly from outside the corps) who volunteer their time to lead the music at the start of the service; chairs are set up in a simple hall, and coffee and breakfast are provided for Sunday school.
“A lot of people haven’t eaten anything when they arrive,” said Ernie. “But they’re so excited to be here, they’ll get here an hour early.” Beyond the meetings during the week and on Sundays, monthly pot-lucks are organized by members.
At one pot-luck William Hodge, in his 60s, even walked from 45 minutes away with a homemade wagon carrying a pot of beans and a coffeemaker he gave to the corps. What church members lack in material goods, they more than make up for in spiritual fervor and true life change.
Steve says the transformations they’ve seen in people’s lives are due in part to the fact that members aren’t entirely reliant on him or Ernie. “In traditional church ministry, you rely on the pastor. But one of the great ways to minister to people is to let them minister to you. What people need most is not more information, but they need to feel the Holy Spirit working in them. When we depend on each other, then we don’t have to call the pastor,” he said during a recent Sunday school class.
While Steve and Ernie originally envisioned most of the congregation being adults, their first outdoor service in 2009 had about 20 young people. Through a partnership with Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, Tenn., the youth leaders at Berry Street don’t even attend the corps. Steve Lang gives his time each Sunday morning to teach a Bible lesson and let the kids play sports while adults are in the holiness meeting. He also introduced Sergeants Simms to Front Porch Ministries, a local ministry with which the Berry Street Worship Center partners for outreaches and events.
Lang said he serves there because it helps him see how blessed he is. “We can get caught up in our own struggles, but then you come down here and see kids who don’t have two parents and don’t get a lot of attention at home. It’s humbling. It allows me to focus on God’s blessings rather than my struggles.”
Realizing the joy of being blessed and loved for who you are is the No. 1 reason church members keep coming back.
Ida Joiner became a soldier at the Savannah, Ga., Corps after staying in a local Salvation Army shelter several years ago. After transitioning to Nashville with her family she got a job at the Magness-Potter Center and was happy when the corps re-opened. “You can feel the love of Christ here as soon as you walk through the door. I’ve seen so many lives changed through answered prayer. Jobs needed. Help with children. The Lord is mightily using The Salvation Army in this neighborhood,” she said.
During a recent holiness meeting Sergeants Steve and Ernie Simms were at first concerned when three regulars left the service halfway through – until they realized the trio were outside on the front step, praying over one of the women’s needs.
At the end of the meeting, several people stood to share how the Lord had been working in and through their lives during the past week. One woman shared that even though her car had broken down, it enabled her to pray for people she met while waiting for the bus. Another woman shared that it was her sixth anniversary of sobriety, and the corps prayed with her for continued strength.
“People think that I don’t like to preach, but I love it,” said Steve after the service. “However, people are touched more by the sharing that goes on here than by preaching.”
Southern Spirit is the magazine/newspaper of The Salvation Army in the USA Southern Territory.