The Downtown Church
January 2nd, 1955
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-2-55 10:50 a.m.
You’re listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the first message of the new year. Every first Lord’s Day morning of the new year, the pastor preaches a sermon on the downtown church and we have the memorial of the Lord’s Supper. And in keeping with that tradition – I have been doing it now, this will be the eleventh year – in keeping with that custom and habit, I am preaching today on The Downtown Church.
In the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts and the twenty-eighth verse is the admonition of Paul the apostle to the pastors of the church at Ephesus. They had gone down to the seashore, a little place called Miletus, and there Paul spoke to the pastors of the church at Ephesus [Acts 20:17-38]. It is one of the great appeals to be found in the Word of God. And in that appeal, Paul says in the twenty-eighth verse of the twentieth chapter of the Book of Acts:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers to feed, to care for, to shepherd the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood
These men who look upon the Lord Jesus as just another man find great difficulty with that text: "The church of God which He, God, hath purchased with His own blood" [Acts 20:28]. But we believe it just like that, just like that. "The church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood" – the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, but I have not opportunity to speak of that. We are to speak of the church. "Take heed therefore to yourselves and to the flock, to care for it, to shepherd it," the church, the flock of God, the household of faith, "which God hath purchased with His own blood" [Acts 20:28].
Now, I am to speak this morning of a church; then I am to speak of a downtown church; and then I am to speak of this church. Now to begin.
A church: the conception of a church. In the New Testament, the word "church" is used in three different ways. Once in a while, very rarely, the word "church" is used in an institutional sense like you see the state, the home, the government, the school, the family, the church. You don’t mean any particular state, or government, or home, or family, or church; you refer to the institution as such, the idea of the church. For example, Jesus said, "Upon this rock," not a stone; "Upon this petra," this great foundation – the deity of Christ, the deity of Christ – "upon this rock I will build My church," [Matthew 16:18] the institution of the church.
Now sometimes, and rarely again, the word "church" in the Bible is used with reference to the children of the Lord who belong to Christ of all days and of all generations; the church universal, the church invisible, the church the summation of all of those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus, the bride of Christ. For example, in the book Dr. White will teach, there is a reference to "the church of the firstborn" [Hebrews 12:23], the great inclusive flock that belongs to the Great Shepherd the Lord Jesus.
Now the third sense in which the word "church" is used in the Bible is the sense in which almost always you find it. Practically every reference in the Bible where the word "church" is used refers to a local congregation – this church, that church, the churches of Galatia [Galatians 1:1-2], the churches of Achaea, the churches of Judea [1 Thessalonians 2:14], the church at Rome [Romans 1:7], the church at Philippi [Philippians 1:1], the church at Corinth [1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1]. And in my text this morning, Paul was referring to the church at Ephesus [Acts 20:16-38]; the local church, this church. And about all that we ever have to do with is the local church. The church in the abstract, in the invisible, in the universal, we never touch as such nor work with as such. The only church we ever know to which now mundane terrestrially we belong is a church, a local church, this church.
Now, in that church you have an opportunity to choose a fellowship and a companionship; and the churches that choose to be together in the fellowship, in a comradeship, in a common endeavor, we call a denomination. Dr. Truett said, "I am not a sectarian, but I am a denominationalist." Now by that he meant this church over which he was undershepherd for forty-seven years, this church could have been an independent church. It could have gone its own way, made its own program, supported its own individual self-chosen causes; but Dr. Truett said, "I am a denominationalist." That is, he was much of the persuasion and the conviction that our best work could be done by joining hands with other churches of like faith and like practice and like order, and in this world there are many churches like this church.
We believe that men ought to be saved [John 3:3, 14-16], that they ought to be regenerated [Titus 3:5], and that upon a public open confession of their faith they ought to be baptized [Acts 8:30-38] – buried with the Lord in the likeness of His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection [Romans 6:3-5]; that they ought to gather, having been baptized, they ought to gather to break bread and to share the memorial cup [Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and that they ought to dedicate themselves to the great missionary enterprises of the earth [Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8]: the building of our schools, of our hospitals, of our institutions, the common pooling of our missionary funds that we might send out thousands of missionaries and carry on the work of the Lord in the earth.
Now, a church could do a little of that; but no church, even this one which is our greatest by far – our biggest and most financially capable – even this church could not do all that. We could not build a university, build a hospital, build a seminary, send out thousands of missionaries. We must pool our efforts if ever we achieve anything comparable to the vast need of the world or the wonderful call of Christ in the Great Commission [Matthew 28:18-20]. So that fellowship – that pooling of our efforts and our energies and our common resources – we call a denomination, and we belong to a denomination. Now, that is the key and the touchstone to an attitude in the heart of your pastor and of his staff and of this local congregation.
There are many things in our denomination that break my heart. There are thirty thousand independent Baptist churches in it, and there are among its ministry men whose theological position I abhor. There are many things in our institutions that I wish we could change, but I have a choice. I could go independent and this church could pull out to itself; or I can stay in the framework with my brethren, the great mass of whom are just as we are – sound and founded in the faith and grounded in the truth and given to the worldwide ministry of Christ.
And it is better for me and for us and for our people to stay in the framework of that fellowship. We need their prayers; we need their help; we need what they can contribute to us, and they need what we are able to do to further and to help them. And together, these things that break our hearts and disappoint us – and there’s no man among us that looking over that vast concourse of churches is not hurt by some of the things we hear taught and some of the things that we hear preached – but the great host and the great mass, almost without exception, of those men are true men of God and servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. So I say, in that commitment and in that persuasion you’ll find a touchstone in the attitude of the pastor and the staff and the deacons and the fellowship of this church.
There are many, many, many other wonderful mission groups who are doing marvelous work in Asia, in the Sudan, in Africa, in South America. There are many, many other fine youth movements who are doing a glorious work in other areas, but I cannot support everything. I can pray for them and love them, but there is a limit to the ability of our church to further all of that work. So, in order for us to achieve anything like a great dynamic ministry, I must support our foreign mission enterprise. I must do it. I must support our youth organizations. We have our youth camps. We have our foreign missionaries. We have our youth programs. We have all of our schools, and our seminaries, and our colleges; and if I am to achieve anything like any contribution worthwhile, I cannot scatter it out like a swamp with a dime here, and a dollar there, and a nickel there; but we must channel it into a great stream.
Consequently, this church supports its Foreign Mission Board, and we’re trying to send out our missionaries. This church supports its youth organizations, and we’re trying to get our young people into those church organizations. This church supports its great denominational retreats and enterprises, and we’re trying to get our people into those into those denominational enterprises. It is not that we don’t love and believe in the great spiritual commitments of people outside of this fold and this church. They love God, and we love them; and insofar as any man anywhere will earnestly preach the Word of God, may heaven’s blessings rest upon him whatever his color or whatever his denomination or no denomination at all. But in order for us to do our best work, we have to do it in the framework of this denomination. Now that is our church as such.
Now may I speak of our church downtown? Where is it located? In the heart of a vast and growing city, this is a downtown Baptist church. Edgar A. Guest wrote:
I like to see the downtown churches holding their places. It seems good to me that here and there amid the rush of traffic there should remain a building that has no bargains to offer and no shop windows displayed. This is a hospital for sick and weary souls. It is making a battle not for our own sakes but for the sake of others. A church in any neighborhood is an asset, but none so much so as a downtown church.
And this is the poem:
God bless the church on the downtown street
That hears the city’s cry,
The church that sows the seed of the Word
Where the masses of men go by;
The church that makes, midst the city’s roar,
A place for an altar of prayer,
With a heart for the rich and a heart for the poor,
And rejoices their burdens 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," by Ralph Walker]
And that is the downtown First Baptist Church in Dallas.
We have chosen volitionally, votedly, wantedly – we have chosen to stay downtown by the great skyscraper surrounded by these tremendous businesses of finance and insurance and banking and merchandising. We are here by choice and by commitment. There was a time, still is of course – but when the choice was made, there was a time when we could have sold this property for millions and moved out to a neighborhood where it would be easy and convenient. But we have never been persuaded, not we, that religion is a matter of convenience.
There are those who will not come, so for them we try to further these suburban churches. But to us, religion is not a matter of convenience, and we have built in our building this downtown lighthouse for Christ because of our commitment to the need of a great downtown ministry. Our city says, "We’re going to build a Great White Way: going to tear out all of those old lights – those old incandescent lamps. We’re going to tear them out and scrap them," says the City Council, "and downtown on Main Street and these main streets, we’re going to build a Great White Way."
The City Council says, "Tomorrow, Monday, the third day in the month of January – tomorrow we’re going to gather together, and we’re going to vote to put a new light in the skyline of the city of Dallas and let it shine." Be about ninety-five feet one way by eight and going to save the Conrad Hilton Hotel. "We’re just adding," they say, "to the great lights that shine over the heart of the city of Dallas."
And I think when I read those papers and see those announcements, "What? A Great White Way in the heart of the city, great lights for business and enterprise in the heart of our city; but what, but what? Is there to be no light in the heart of our city of the power of the appeal of the gospel of the Son of God? Where’s the church? Where is the church?"
"Oh, sir, where is the church?"
"Well, if you will go miles this way, and miles that way, and miles that way, you’ll find the church. You’ll go this way and that way, you’ll find the church."
"But, sir, right here is the theater. Right there is the grand ballroom. Just there is the auditorium. Right here is the city club."
"But the church, they gave up. Their light went out, and they went out to the neighborhood where it was easy and convenient."
Oh, no. Where the lights are bright and the people are there and these big skyscrapers rise to the monument to the financial genius of an enterprising people. In their heart, we praise and plant the cross of the Son of God.
Let me have my church on a downtown street,
Where the race of men go by–
The men who are good, the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban–
Let me have my church on Ervay Street,
And be a friend to man.
[Adapted from "The House by the Side of the Road," by Sam Walter Foss, c. 1890]
The downtown First Baptist Church in Dallas: not only planted in the heart of our city but a church that stands for a great democratic ideal, the worth of every man, and is committed to that democracy of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I read here a quotation from a recent president of the public school teachers’ organization, the National Education Association. Here’s what he said:
In my teaching, formal and otherwise, I will advise against the building of more and more powerful horizontal pressure groups interested in the security of their members alone. My experience has convinced me that we need more vertical organizations which embrace all strata of our society. We need more cross sections of our city, including the butcher and the baker as well as the lawyer and the banker.
Now he was talking a million miles from a church, but that’s good Christian theology. We don’t need the emphasis. "Now we out here are in this bracket, and you there are in that bracket, and over there they’re in still another; and we have this social group for this church, and that social group for that one, and another one for that." You can’t escape it, and you have it. But somewhere, somewhere, there ought to be one church that makes an appeal to the great masses of all the cross sections of our city. We need it.
There ought to be a church in the city that’s everybody’s church. It’s the poor man’s church, it’s the rich man’s church, it’s the professional man’s church, it’s the illiterate man’s church, it’s the poor man’s church, the rich man’s church – it’s everybody’s church. It’s a church for the babies, it’s a church for the children, it’s a church for the young people, it’s a church for the old and the aged and the infirmed: it’s everybody’s church. It’s my church. It ministers to all of the city.
I get amused at my fellow pastors. If the pastor of the Gold Coast Church visits over here in the territory of the pastor of the Silk Stocking Church, why the pastor of the Silk Stocking Church says to the pastor of the Gold Coast Church, "What you doing over here in my neighborhood? What you doing over here? You stay over there on the other side of that street." If the pastor of the Bowery church goes over there in the neighborhood of the pastor of the Skid Row church, the pastor of the Skid Row church says to the pastor of the Bowery church, "What you doing over here in my neighborhood? You stay over there on the Bowery side."
Isn’t it wonderful to be pastor of a church that looks over Dallas, all of Dallas, as one great community of people? And on Skid Row, and on the Bowery, and out there in the Gold Coast, and over there in Silk Stocking Row: knock at the door and invite them to the common house of the Lord. That’s the First Baptist Church in Dallas. It’s our downtown church for all of the city – everybody, everybody.
Now, my third: this church, this downtown church, our church. This church has an unparalleled ministry. I think of its recreational program – to start at the less to go up to the greater – I think of its recreational program. Over there is a tremendous building, cost lots and lots of money, but every nickel of it, every dime of it, is wonderfully invested. You go over there six days out of every week, in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night, and you’ll find a little bee’s hive of youngsters and young people and children who are over there in that recreational program.
It was brought to me this morning: "We are having a hard time," they said, "with these kids downtown – mostly from our Good Shepherd department – that come over there not when they’re supposed to come, but they come every day over there. And they bother and upset, and we don’t know what to do with them." I thought in my heart, "Thank God for the problem." And the way to settle it is not to put a policeman at the door and say, "Here you little ragamuffin, get out, and you go down to the tavern or the slum or the back alley and play there!" No, sir. We won’t hire a man with a billy club to send him out! If we have to, we’ll get another man and hire him to help Bob Myers, our recreational director, and say, "Come here, you little fellow, you. Come here, you little ragged girl, you. Come on in! We’ve got a program going on just for you – just for you." I like it, and the problem it is closed.
If I could be personal because the girl that’s over there in that youth service, our teenage daughter, didn’t know where or what – reaching that age where you just worry yourself to death. Don’t anymore. She lives over there at that recreational building with all the rest of the kids down here in this church. It has an unparalleled ministry. It has an unparalleled ministry: the Word of God.
Next Sunday morning, I start back again preaching through the Bible: Sunday morning, Sunday night, Sunday morning, Sunday night; and all through this church is magnified and honored the Word of the unchanging God, the immutable Word of the Lord God [Hebrews 6:17].
Let me share with you a thing that happened Sunday before last. After the evening hour was done, I was standing at that door at the back shaking hands with the people, and after everybody had gone, a big, big fellow came up. He wasn’t dressed to go to church. Big fellow came up and shook my hand. He said, "I suppose you’re the pastor. I’ve been watching you stand here shake hands with the people."
I said, "Yes."
Well he said, "My wife and I live in Norfolk, Virginia, and we’re driving through to California." And he said, "Today we have driven seven hundred miles." He said, "Driving down Ervay Street through Dallas," he said, "my wife punched me and said, ‘Husband, look, look. Look at those masses of people pouring out of that church at night and all of them with Bibles in their hands.’" The big fellow said, "I stopped the car and came inside just to see what kind of a church it was." And he said, "I got here just as the benediction was being pronounced." He said, "All my life I have wanted to see the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and to think, this is it." Those masses of people pouring out of the church at night and all of them with Bibles in their hands. It has a great ministry. And I haven’t time to speak of its sense of mission. I want to go to its history.
This church has a tremendous history; and it ought not to be forgot, and it ought not to be lost upon the hearts of the people who come into the congregation either from other places or growing up as little children. They ought to be taught and they ought to be reminded of the tradition – the great incomparable past – of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas.
This week, out of his heart, I received a letter from one of the deacons in our church, Deacon [Archie] A. B. Tanco. "Dear Pastor, I just felt that I wanted to write a few lines to my pastor and express my love and appreciation. Pastor, you’re ever in my heart." Then he continues, then he says:
I love that great church of ours. I joined it in 1931 – that’d be about twenty-four years ago – and after these years, my roots go down deep there.
What a blessing it was to sit at the feet of Dr. Truett those years. I have seen many mountain top occasions there all of which draw me closer to that church and make it hallowed to me for God has been and is in that place. These are some of the occasions I remember.
I was present on that Sunday morning when Dr. Truett returned to his pulpit after an absence of about three months during which he had undergone the operation from which he never recovered.
On his previous appearance, he appeared to be in the fullness of health. That morning he walked in slowly with the aid of a cane. There seemed to be a noticeable hush which went over the vast congregation. It seemed stunned and shocked. It seemed for the first time they realized they were seeing the beginning of the end of the career of the great pastor. George Truett was the greatest preacher we’ve ever produced. Everyone seemed to want to express his feelings and appreciation in some way. Finally, someone timidly started to applaud, and the entire congregation followed until there was a mighty applause. The great pastor never approved of applause at a worship service, but there was a difference here, and he felt it as he responded with a glorious smile which came over his weary face.
The invitation hymn that morning was "He Leadeth Me." I remember that after singing a stanza or two the pastor said, "Sing that last stanza," and then he went on and quoted the entire verse. You’re familiar with it. It begins, "And when my task on earth is done."
It was all so significant. He and everyone else realized that his task on earth was done.
Again I was present that Sunday morning when Bob Coleman, in tears, read to the church the pastor’s resignation; and, of course, it was unanimously rejected. The world would have been ashamed of you had you accepted it.
On another Sunday morning I heard the last words which the great pastor delivered to the church. They were transmitted from his bedside over the public address system. His final prayer closed with those words so familiar to the congregation, and this ended his ministry: "And now, may the blessings of God, bright like the light when the morning’s gone, and gracious as the dew when the even tide cometh, abide with each of us, today, tomorrow, and forever."
And then he continues the occasions in this church.
I know what he’s talking about. I’ve never felt, not in my life, as I have upon some of the occasions in this church. When the Lord came down our souls to grieve and glory filled the mercy seat – when the Lord was here [Leviticus 16:2, 13-15; Numbers 7:89].
And I haven’t time to speak of its destiny. This is the first Sunday of the new year – our greatest year, our finest year, our biggest year. As marvelous, as hallowed, as its memories of the past, our great victories are yet to come. It’s on and it’s out and it’s up. O God bless it, First Baptist Church, my fellow workers in the downtown church in the heart of Dallas.
Now, before our breaking of bread, we always give an invitation – always. Somebody you, anybody you: into the aisle, down to the front, "Pastor, today I take the Lord as my Savior. This first Sunday of the new year, I give my life to Him." You come; you come. Somebody you, into the fellowship of the church – by letter, by consecration of life, by baptism – however God should say the word, you come: a family of you, or just one. Anywhere in that top most balcony, anywhere, while we sing this appeal, you come, you come. Come down here and stand by me while all of us stand and sing.