The Downtown Church
January 3rd, 1954
THE DOWNTOWN CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-3-54 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas; and this is the pastor bringing the morning message. For the last several years I have made a habit, fallen into the habit, I choose to do it, of preaching a sermon on the downtown church the first Sunday of each New Year. And this morning, gladly, happily, for it’s in my soul, I follow that pattern. The message is on our church, located in the heart of the city of Dallas.
In our preaching through the Bible we have come to the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. There is a text in this chapter that shall be a background for the message this morning, and then tonight the message will be an exposition of the passage in which the text is found. This is the word in the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, the ninth and the tenth verses:
Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace:
For I am with thee, and no man shall see on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.
Acts 18:10: "For I have much people in this city."
Could I say first a pastoral word to our people? On the twenty-fourth day of this month, twenty-fourth of January, that would be the fourth Sunday of this month, it is our hope to have an open house all day long, and to dedicate this vast plan to the glory of Christ and to the preaching of the gospel and to the ministry of our Lord among His people. We have spent something like three and a half million dollars in preparing for this day. That glorious building there, our new activities building, that glorious building there, our parking and recreational building, and the remaking of this vast seven story Truett Building to this side of the auditorium, all of it together has amounted to about three and a half million dollars. It will soon be complete, in and out, up and down. And on the twenty-fourth day of January, this month, we hope to have a glorious opening, a dedication, a giving of it to God, to the city, and to the Lord’s people.
Now, two appeals from the heart of the pastor. First to our young people, the youth of our church: because of this vast program, we now have a debt on our church; and the reason we have that debt is for you, our young people and the youth of our church. When we first began our preparation of the plans for that building across the street, it was two stories above ground; going to be made for seven stories ultimately, but we began with two stories above the ground. Then as we began to think about the needs of our intermediates, and of our young people, and of all of our youth, we made a recommendation that was accepted by our men that we place a third story on that building, and just rough it in, not finish it at all. So it was agreed to add the third story, but not complete it, rough it in; the outside walls, put a roof on it. Then as time continued, long, the war, the steel strikes, many other things stopped us in the work, our young people’s work, our intermediate work, our children’s work, the whole church began to grow so tremendously until we came again before the men, our deacons, and said it will cost thousands of dollars to place the third floor, put a roof on it, when we need so desperately the fourth floor. It will have to be built. Rather than waste the thousands of dollars of finishing the building at the third floor, then starting over again, tearing off the roof, tearing off the steeple, and putting the fourth floor on it, it would be the part of wisdom in behalf of the youth of our church to go ahead, to go in debt, to build that fourth floor, and just rough it in.
So our men agree to go into debt that much more in order to place the fourth floor on that building and just rough it in. As the time went by, our people began to say, "What? Leave that unfinished? When we so desperately need the room?" There were two departments meeting in this auditorium; there were other places desperately crying for a place to grow, meet, any place. So we went again before our men and said, "Do we have enough faith in God to believe that if we finished it all, that the Lord would see us through?" The men, our deacons, brought that to you in a Sunday morning service; and you voted formally to go ahead and to complete that building upside, inside, outside, every side, up and down. That is the reason we have this debt. Young people, we did that for you, for you. And we believe that it will bear a gracious recompense in your love and your response. We believe you will form and fashion and mold here the greatest young people’s program to be found anywhere in the earth.
I have one other pastoral word. May I make a plea on bended knee to our Sunday school? Today is the third of January, the first Sunday in January; next Lord’s Day is the tenth; the next Lord’s Day is the seventeenth; the next Lord’s Day is that great high day, the twenty-fourth. On bended knee, let me make appeal to our Sunday school that by the seventeenth of this month, the third Sunday of January, that you settle down in your work. Right now, there are parts of our Sunday school that are up in the air. You don’t have a place, you don’t have a teacher, you haven’t quite found how in this new organization and in this expanded program quite how you are to fit and to work. We can go on like that indefinitely; a year from now, two years from now, we can still be that way. On bended knee, let me plead that by the seventeenth day of this month, by the third Sunday in January, we have settled those problems. Praying to God for divine wisdom, find your place, get that classroom, seek out that teacher, and all of us together by the third Sunday of this month, Sunday week, by the seventeenth of January, Sunday School settle down, settle down, get to work. Instead of spending energy and time wondering, and hesitating, and staggering, you come down here with our educational leader, with the pastor, with your superintendent, with anybody, get the whole board of deacons together if you want to, but settle that thing. Where are you going to meet? And who’s going to be your teacher? And how shall we carry on this path? Do it; your pastor begs, importunes, and pleads. You do that. If you have to quit work for a day and come down here and take half a day off or a day or a week, take it off, come down here, pray through, settle through all of those problems. Then the seventeenth day of this month, let’s all be here. Then the twenty-fourth will be our great high day, we’re settled, we’re pulling, we’re ready to go; and the Lord will give us His benedictory, rich, heavenly, rewards. I count on you doing that; I know you will. Then as we progress toward the Easter season, and our revival meeting, we shall give our time, our energies, our souls to the great work for which God hath brought us, and made us, and framed us, and fashioned us, and given us this holy and heavenly hour, all for the church of the Lord Jesus, its downtown ministry and its work.
Go to Richmond, Virginia; walk along the streets of the city of Richmond, Virginia. "Where is the First Baptist Church? I want to go to the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. I am a visitor here in the city. Where is the church?" And the policeman or the hotel man will reply, "Well, Sir, the First Baptist Church used to be right there, but now you will find it so many miles this way, and so many miles that way, and so many miles that way." Now you must go this, that and the other, and finally you’ll see it way out there miles away from the downtown heart of the city.
"Thank you, Sir."
I go to the city of Kansas City, Missouri and I stop a policeman and I say, "Sir, where is the First Baptist Church? Today is the Lord’s Day and I want to go to church today."
"Well," said the policeman, "Sir, the First Baptist Church used to be right there, but now you will find it so many miles this way, and so many miles that way, and so many miles that way. And you’ll find it way out there somewhere miles from the downtown heart of the city." I go to the city of Memphis, Tennessee, "Sir, I’d like to go to the First Baptist Church. Where is the First Baptist Church?" And the man at the hotel, he says, "Well Sir, it used to be located right down there. But you will find it now so many miles that way, and so many miles that way, and so many miles that way."
The oldest Baptist Church in western Canada was the First Baptist Church of Winnipeg. I read a news item; the news item said, "The oldest church in western Canada, the downtown First Baptist Church of Winnipeg, has voted to disband; and they have sold their properties to the Pentecostal Holiness people." A little while later, a few months later, I read another news article; and this news item said, "The First Baptist Church, the oldest church in Winnipeg, Canada, in western Canada, it disbanded and sold its properties to the Pentecostal Holiness people. But," said this news item, "the church is no longer empty, but it is filled and it overflows every Sunday morning and every Sunday night." God bless our Pentecostal brethren. I may not believe in the second blessing only, I may believe in the third and the fourth and the fifth; and I might not be persuaded that it is wise to speak with tongues unknown in the church, I may be persuaded like Paul that it’d be better to say five words with an understanding than ten thousand words with an unknown tongue; I may not be a Pentecostal holiness; but I thank God sincerely and in my soul, I thank God that there was a people in the city of Winnipeg, Canada who had religion enough and faith enough and devotion enough to buy an abandoned downtown city property, forsaken by the First Baptist Church, and there build again a lighthouse for Jesus Christ.
We are committed, we have settled this thing, we decided: our life is here. These buildings are a vast eloquent "Amen" to that decision that was made in the days of the great pastor, Dr. Truett, and carried on in this present ministry. Our commitment is to the downtown heart of the city of Dallas; a ministry for all of the peoples of this vast metropolitan area. Now why? These things, as I shall have opportunity this morning, these things are just a few of the reaffirmations that live in our souls, we who belong to this downtown church.
We are here for an ideological reason. If I were a politician I’d say we are here for a democratic reason. If I were a sociologist I would say we’re here for a social reason. If I were speaking culturally I’d say we are here for a humanitarian reason. But I like to use right now that word "ideological." You see there has been precipitated in our modern life a war that goes far beyond any battle with guns or bombs or bullets or jet planes; fundamentally, actually, really, back of this world confrontation lies a war for the hearts and the minds and the souls of men. It’s a war of talk, it’s a war of ideas, it is an ideological war.
Communism is not a new thing in this earth; it’s about as old as humanity. It was Carl Marx and Fredrick Ingles that gave it dynamic. And in order to oppose the idea of Communism, the idea of fascism was conceived, and you had those two tremendous forces that brought our world to its holocaust in the 1940’s. And we are in that same conflict today. The fundamental drive that Communism seeks to make is always an ideological drive: they try to propagate the idea, the feelings, the emotional response, the intellectual acceptance of class distinctions, class hatreds. Communism always begins in trying to set capital against labor, the employer against the employee, the illiterate against the literate, the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, the rich against the poor. They find their foothold in any place, in any country, by driving through those bitter, hateful class distinctions. There is a tendency in society that they exploit. There is ever a tendency among humanity to fall into class groups. In a city, the rich will live somewhere; they don’t live where the poor live. The poor live somewhere, they don’t live where the rich live. The middle class will live somewhere, the laborer will live somewhere, the capitalist will live somewhere, and there is a tendency in all human society to pull apart. That thing is carried through in religious life and in church life. There’s a rich man’s church; there’s a poor man’s church; and there’s a middle class church. And the communists have a field day in the breeding, and in the encouraging, and in the propagating of bitter class hatreds among the people. I say, there is an ideological reason for the downtown church: it has in its fold, in its fellowship, and in its membership it has the great cross section of all of the peoples of the city.
The bourgeoisie is here, that’s right. The capitalist is here, that’s right. The investor is here, that’s right. The rich man is here; that’s right. The professional man is here, that’s right. The well-to-do are here, that’s right. The literate and the educated are here, that’s right; your PhD’s and your LLD’s, and your MD’s, they are here, that’s right. But they are not here alone. Seated by your side may be the janitor of the Baptist building across the street, or one of the kitchen help in the YMCA across that street, or one of the workmen in the building across that street. By your side may be some poor woman who works with a needle, who’s a seamstress, whose hands stand between her and utter starvation; or the nurses of the community chest, we’re all down here together, all of us are down here together. Our children come to the same Sunday School, we worship in the same house, we call on the name of the same Lord, we share the hymnbook, we listen to the reading of the Word, and we follow what our pastor has to say. I like it, I like it. I would not be pastor unless God sent me, made me go unto the same way that Jonah went to Ninevah; I would not be pastor of a class church. Time and time and time again was I called to be pastor of suburban churches when I was in my sixth year beyond the seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. My first six years in and Muskogee, Oklahoma, I was called, I could not tell you how many times, to the city to preach. I felt in my soul and in my heart, if I ever were anywhere I want to go to a downtown church. The problems are hard; we fight with our back to the wall by day and night. But in that church is the hub of the center of the life of our denomination. And if we lose it, someday we’ll lose the entire city. I like it, I like it; the great cross section of the people of the city, everybody’s church, a people’s church; no snobbery, no better-than-thou, no where’d you come from, no anything but a welcome in the name of the God who loves us and the Christ who died for us all; an ideological reason why we’re down here in the heart of the city.
A strategic reason, a strategical reason why we’re down here in the heart of the city. To me, it would be unthinkable, it’d be spiritually impossible to plan a strategy for the Kingdom of Christ in the hearts of men and leave Satan’s throne alone in the heart of the city of Dallas. The empire is here, and a growing one; banking, finance, insurance, marketing, merchandising. How many great vast outreachings are there in the heart of this city of Dallas? Those vast office buildings are filled with men who by day and by night are shaping the course of our empire. And down here in the heart of this city is our white way, the bright light, clubs of every kind and description, there’s a dice game, and there’s a joint, and there’s a den, and there’s a dive, all in the heart of the great city of Dallas. So we shall leave it, we shall move out where it’s easy, where we can just sit down and the people come to us, while the lazy fathers and mothers just dump their children in our laps while they go off to go back to bed or to recline supinely at home. No Sir, no Sir; we’ll be down here where Satan has his throne; where anybody who comes to us chooses to come. They have to get up, they have to dress, they have to get their children prepared, they have to drive miles to get down here. But we’re here, we’re here where the joint is, and the dive is, and the clubs are, and the great office buildings are, and the empire of the world has its throbbing heart, we’re here, we’re here; and we’re here to stay. We’re here to stay.
We’re here for the stranger and the sojourner and the traveler who comes to the city of Dallas. When he goes down stairs to the desk at the Baker Hotel, or at the Adolphus Hotel, or when he drives through town and asks a policeman, "Sir, we want to go to church today. Where’s the First Baptist Church?"
"Well, it’s so many miles out that way, so many miles out that way, and so many miles out that way. But right here is the theatre, and right there is the nightclub, and right here is the gambling joint." No Sir, we’re there where the masses of the people are; our church, our ministry, this pulpit and the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. "Sir, the First Baptist Church is right down there. Do you see that tall Republic Bank building forty stories up in the air? Just beyond the post office, and just beyond that is the glorious church. You can find it easily, easily." For the stranger and the sojourner, it’s here every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night, faithfully trying to preach the unsearchable riches of the gospel of the Son of God. We are here for them, for them. For what Texas means, and what America means, and what Dallas can mean to our state and to the world.
We are here for the young people who come into this city. Reason I’m doubly sensitive about that, I grew up in a little town. The little town now has three hundred population; when I left, two hundred and ninety-nine others left with me; used to have six hundred when I lived there. Little bitty town, grew up in a little bitty town. Don’t you laugh at me as though I were a hayseed; you grew up in a little town too, or out in the country, one or the other. There are not many of you who grew up in the big city. Most of us grew up in the little country, the little town. Don’t you look supercilious either brother, I know where you came from. Most of us grew up in little places.
What was the dream that I had in my heart as I grew up as a boy? When it was good, when it was bad, whether I ought to have had it, or whether I should not have had it, the dream that I had in my heart when I grew up as a boy was, "Some day, I’ll get to leave this little place; I’ll go away to college, I’ll get educated. Then I’ll go to the big city." And I wasn’t any different from practically all of the young people who grow up now as then in our little places. They’re not planning to stay on the farm, not many of them. Nor are they planning to stay in the little town, not many of them; practically all of our young people in their hearts are dreaming of the day when they get a job and go to the city. And they come, they come by the hundreds, they come by the thousands. They leave those little places and they come to the city; they come to Dallas. Then what? Then what?
Oh, in the heart of the city is a lighthouse; in the heart of the city is the best, finest, happiest, most golden of all the ministries that the world could ever find or see. Right over there, there’s a gymnasium as big as Baylor University’s; it’s as big as Southern Methodist University’s. We don’t have as much bleacher space, we don’t need it, but the gymnasium is as large. And right next to it are bowling lanes, and there’s shuffle boards, and bad mitten courts, and volleyball courts, and right underneath that is a skating rink, the best one I’ve ever seen in my life; all of it over there. And over yonder is a craft room and an activities room; young people, for the young people that pour into this city. Somebody said to me, "Pastor, what are you going to do when you open that building over there with those bowling lanes, and that skating rink, and that gymnasium, and these craft rooms? You’re going to find yourself deluged, fronted by a thousand young people. What are you going to do with them?"
I said, "Hallelujah! Let them come, I’d like to be fronted and deluged. We’ll win some of them. We’ll get a hold of some of them. We’ll make preachers out of some of them, and deacons out of some of them, and Christians out of some of them."
Let them come, let them come. We built it for them, for them. And what about us old folks? Well, I’m not going to skate, I’m not going to do some other things up there. I’m going to bowl; I had them put the bowling alley for all of us who are old. And also, we’re buying some checkers. We’re all going to have a good time, all of us are. Grandad is going to have a good time. Grandma’s going to have a good time. Pa and Ma, they’re going to have a good time. And the children are going to have a good time. We’re all going to have a good time in God’s house, down here, in this beloved First Baptist Church.
And I close. We’re here in behalf of the vast, uncounted, submerged, unnamed, nameless, thousands and thousands who always press into the heart of a great city. You don’t know their name, you just see them passing by. I don’t know their names, I just watch them and wonder who they are, how do they fare, how is it with them. Oh, the thousands and the thousands that crowd into any great city, and who crowd into ours. A ministry to them, to them, to them.
John Wesley, the friends of John Wesley, he’s not buried there, they put a beautiful plaque in Westminster Abbey. And on that plaque are five of the famous sayings of John Wesley. I can’t remember the middle three, but I remember the first one and the last one. The last one is this: "God buries the workman, but the work goes on." I remember that one. I remember the first one. The first one was this: "The world is my parish." He said that when the church pushed him out, didn’t have any place to preach, and there wasn’t a church in all England that would open its doors to John Wesley that he might preach. So John Wesley turned his back away from his church and said that sentence, "Then the world is my parish." We’d say, "The world is my field." I’m that way about the city of Dallas. The whole city is my parish. Anybody to whom we can minister, anybody whom we can help, anybody to whom we can mediate the love and the grace and the mercy of Christ Jesus our Lord in the heart of the city of Dallas, for the heart of the city of Dallas.
God bless the church on the downtown street,
That hears the city’s cry
The church that throws the seed of the Word
To the masses of men that go by
The church that makes ‘mid the city’s roar
A place for an altar of prayer
With a heart for the rich, with a heart for the poor,
And rejoices their burden to share
The church that’s moved by the call of Christ
Who wept o’er the city’s need
Who sent His disciples to work for Him
Where the forces of evil breed
The church that gives and the church that lives
As seen by the Master’s eye
God bless the church on the downtown street,
That answers the city’s cry
[Adapted from “The City Church”; Ralph Walker]
The world is my parish, the city of Dallas is my pastorate; the Lord sanctify and hallow our efforts here for Him, for Him.
All right Billy, let’s sing our song. And while we sing it, side to side, anywhere, everywhere, somebody you, this day give your heart to the Lord, give your life to Him, or come into the fellowship of this church. One somebody you, or a family you, however God shall say the word and make the appeal. While we sing our song today, would you come? Go down that stairwell, down here by me, anywhere. Find your way down here to the front, give me your hand, "Pastor, my heart I’ve given to God, my hand I give to you. Put my life with you in this ministry, here I come, here I am. I make it now;" while we stand and while we sing.
THE DOWNTOWN CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. A pastoral word
A. January 24, 1954 – dedication of our new buildings
B. An appeal to our youth
C. An appeal to the Sunday school
D. Our downtown church
1. Major cities that have lost their downtown church
2. We have committed ourselves here
II. An ideological reason
A. War of ideas
B. Communism – the provocation of class hatred
C. The pragmatic, empirical answer of the downtown church
1. Everybody’s church
2. Worshipping together
III. A strategic reason
A. Leave the heart of the city without a witness?
1. An empire of finance, business, merchandising
2. In the heart of it the hotels, clubs, crowds
B. For the traveler, sojourner
C. For the young people who come to the city
D. For the vast, sub-marginal population that inevitably abounds in any city
1. John Wesley – "The world is my parish"