Downtown U.S.A.


Downtown U.S.A.

January 3rd, 1960 @ 10:50 AM

Acts 18:9-10

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 set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 18:9-10

1-3-60    10:50 a.m.



To you who listen on the radio, who watch the service on television, you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled Downtown U.S.A.  Every New Year’s first Lord’s Day, I preach a sermon on the downtown church.  This will be the sixteenth first Sunday of a new year that I have spoken on this subject; and I delight when the day comes and I am blessed in my own soul in preparing the message.

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 . . . For I am with thee . . .  I have much people in this city" [Acts 18:9-10].  That vision that came to Paul was in the great commercial city of Corinth.  It was a most difficult assignment; it was hard, and Paul was discouraged and sought to leave and go elsewhere.  And in those days of his ministry in the great Corinthian city, the Lord spake to him in a vision saying, "Be not afraid, but speak . . . For I am with thee . . . For I have much people in this city."  The cities of the ancient world loom large on the horizon of the sacred story.  The truth of the matter is you could pretty well tell the story of the unfolding revelation of God in the story of the great cities of the world.  Memphis and Thebes in Egypt; Babylon of Chaldea; Nineveh of ancient Assyria; Damascus of Syria; Jericho, Hebron, Samaria, Jerusalem of the Holy Land; just to recount some of those cities is to bring to our hearts the providences, the prophets, the messengers of God to whom the Lord sent them and whose messages are here in the sacred Book.  It was toward Jerusalem that Jesus steadfastly set His face to die [Luke 9:51].  It was over that city that He wept [Luke 19:41].  It was in the city that He was condemned and just beyond its gates that He was raised between the earth and the sky [John 19:20; Hebrews 13:12].

The story of the great religious movements that have waxed and waned through the centuries since, and the great revivals that have accompanied them, is largely the story of the cities of the world.  John Chrysostom of Antioch and Byzantium; Augustine of Hippo; Savonarola of Florence; John Knox of Edinburgh; John Calvin of Geneva; the cities of England that listened to Wesley; the cities of America that listened to Whitefield; Charles Finney of New York and New England; and Moody of Chicago; and Sunday of Philadelphia and the great cities of America; just to think through the religious movements of the centuries since is to follow the story of the great cities of the world.  And now we come to our day and to our time.  Could it be that the same God of the Old Testament and of the New Testament still looks upon the great cities of the world?  Could it be that God still cares for them?  Could it be that our Savior still weeps over them?  Is it a concern to God, the life and the destiny of these great masses of people in the cities of the world?

A hundred years ago, in America, practically all of America was rural; more than ninety percent of our people lived in country areas.  As late as 1859, nine out of every ten people in America were farmers.  Today, there is not one out of ten that is a farmer; and the ratio is decreasing rapidly.  More than half of the population of America is connected with factory work.  More than half of the labor force of America toils in factories.  More than sixty-five percent of all America lives in densely congested city districts; and the ratio is rapidly increasing.  If we have the same God today that is the God of the Old Testament Scriptures and the God of the New Testament Scriptures, and the God of the great religious outpouring since, if we have the same God today as our forefathers worshiped, that God is full of care over our cities, and He looks upon His people who live in these densely congested districts.  And that is my first reason why a downtown church:  it lies in the heart, and the love, and the care, and the tears of God.

More than ninety-two years ago, God founded this church, placed it in the little village of Dallas, cared for it and shepherded it by the mercies and grace of the Holy Spirit.  It struggled; it had great difficulties.  The Ladies Aid Society sewed for it and cooked for it.  And the few men who belonged to it toiled and labored in its behalf.  And it grew, for God planted it in the heart of the little village of Dallas.  Its ordination and its inheritance came from heaven.  If God did that ninety-two years ago and placed the little church in the heart of this city, how much more is there reason to believe that God is pleased to have the church today in the heart of this great city?

There are people in downtown U.S.A.  The government says that within this decade, the one we now enter, of which this is the first Sunday, the United States government says that within this next decade there shall be more than seventeen million people added to the inner hearts of the cities of America. 

In our city of Dallas recently, there appeared the Housing and Redevelopment coordinator of the city of Chicago.  And in a published address here that he made in Dallas, I copied these words:  he said, "Downtown is growing.  After years of decentralization, the movement into the suburbs, we’re beginning to see recentralization.  Apartments in a city’s core have a special appeal for groups like," and he named three:  the aged, "people who don’t want to sit in a pastoral scene and just wait to die."  Second: "dynamic people in their middle years, whose children are grown up."  And third: "young people in search of a future."


 The town of ten thousand and below is dying, because its high school and college graduates are leaving it.  And when they come to the city, they want to lead the life of a city.  Downtowns have been growing terrifically as centers for commerce and finance, professional and governmental activity.  The convenience factor of outlying shops does not offset the far reaching appeal of downtown stores with their great array of merchandise.


He stated further that in his city, "Fifteen thousand apartment units have been built within five miles of Chicago’s main business intersection, State and Madison Street, since World War II."  I could take that same man up and down the streets of the city of Dallas, pressed against the heart of this city, within just a few miles of Akard and Main, and there are great apartment buildings rising and blocks and streets of multiple units appearing; downtown U.S.A. is growing.  Thousands and thousands of people swarm into its heart, and they’re there by choice.  They like the life of a city, and they have come to live in the city.  Practically every young man and young woman that lives in any town or countryside dreams of the day when he finally works in some place in the city.

Not only that, but the downtown church has its great and incomparable ministry to the people who just pass through the city.  The visitor is here, the vacationer is here, the conventioner is here, the merchandiser is here.  These hotels draw into the orbit of their life uncounted thousands in the course of a year.  And by the side of that tall skyscraper, by the side of that hotel, that nightclub, that merchandising mart, by the side of these great neon signs of business, and commerce, and insurance, and banking, there ought also to be the great sign of the cross of the Son of God.  There are people in downtown U.S.A.

My second reason for this church and its God given and illimitable downtown ministry lies in the faith and in the communion to which we belong:  if we have any persuasion that God is called us with a message, and that our message is taken out of the infallible Word of God; if we believe in our communion and in our faith, then in the heart of these cities it ought to be planted, and promulgated, and preached abroad. 

Speaking through the state evangelistic conference in Colorado, in the city of Denver, I was taken by one of their denominational leaders on a ride through the city.  And he said to me, "Our great need in the state of Colorado and in the city of Denver is for a downtown Baptist church in Denver, around which we can build this denomination."  Since that time they have secured the property of a spacious building, and they are building a downtown First Baptist Church in Denver.  I have on my desk now a letter from the Home Mission Board in Atlanta, Georgia.  The letter says, "We are asking some of the leaders of our Southland to go to Manhattan in New York City for a weekend and help us build a downtown Baptist church in the heart of New York City."  Were it not for my reluctance to leave here on a Sunday, I would accept that invitation immediately.  My heart is with the heart of those dedicated men who propose to build a great church in the center of New York City on the island of Manhattan.

Heretofore we have thought of the frontiers of the Christian faith as being in virgin territory, out there somewhere, thousands of miles beyond.  That is no longer true.  The frontier of the religious life of our country is to be found in the heartland of our cities.  Here you will find the battle waged, the forces joined, and the great and ultimate decisions made.  One of the great tragedies of modern Protestant and modern Baptist life has been the surrender of our cities to the great untouched masses of people.  In one great city of America fifty years ago, in the downtown heart there were two hundred seventy-eight Protestant churches.  Today, fifty years later in that same area there are less than ninety of those churches still remaining.  Since I have been pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, my eyes have seen six of my close neighbors fold up and go out.  That has been the pattern of Protestant life, and it has been the pattern of Baptist life, and apparently it is becoming increasingly so.  Close up the church, go out to some suburb, some community, where it’s easy, where the work will take care of itself, where you just sit and wait for the ripe plums to fall, where the people of the community trek to the church whether you have anything or not.  But downtown it is hard; downtown it is difficult; downtown you fight with your back against the wall, and it’s hard.  So let’s move.  Let’s sell out.  Let’s go where it is lush and easy.

Would to God we could take a leaf out of our Catholic brethren and their story:  who wins the cities of America?  Our Catholic people do it.  And they do it by building their greatest churches and their strongest ministries in the hearts of the cities of America!  I never heard of a downtown Catholic church moving out, not in my whole study and reading and observation; I never heard of it.  And if you’re looking for a great Catholic church, go to the heart of the great cities of America, and there you will find them.  I admire them.  They know how to minister to the great masses of people; and we are too soft and too flabby!  And to us religion is a matter of convenience; we spell devotion to Christ "c-o-n-v-e-n-i-e-n-c-e."  To us, that’s our dedication.

I have another reason for the downtown church:  it lies in the challenge of Satan.  Sin is big, Satan is big, pleasure is big, worldliness is big, drinking is big.  Satan challenges the very life of the kingdom of Christ.  He says, he says, "I will turn your light into a flicker, and I’ll turn that flicker into an ember, and I’ll turn that ember into an ash."  You listen to me:  whenever the downtown church ceases to be big, big enough to challenge the right of Satan to own and possess the great city, when the church ceases to be big, it will finally turn into a little rescue mission and that is all.  No downtown church ministers powerfully and survives triumphantly and gloriously unless the people support it magnificently and largely and multitudinously; it will not be done.  There is no exception to that I know of in this earth.  When the downtown church gets small, when it gets small, when it gets small, it will finally turn into a little rescue mission supported by outlying areas.  And you’ll never build it back again, never.

And I often hear people speak of our church:  "It’s too big.  Why go down there?  It’s too big.  There’s no place for you there."  Did you ever look at the Bible?  I never did until I got to thinking about this work.  I want you to look at this Scripture.  Every time through here it will mention something; now look at it as it mentions it: 

·         In Acts 1:15, "In those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (and their number was about one hundred twenty)" one hundred twenty.

·         Acts 1:15, one hundred twenty. 

·         I turn now to Acts 2:41, Acts 2:41: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized:  and the same day there was added unto them three thousand souls. 

·         Now turn to Acts 4:4, "five thousand," a hundred twenty, to three thousand, to five thousand men. 

·         Now turn to Acts 4:32, Acts 4:32: "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul"; now he’s got beyond the place where he can count them, and he says, "the multitude." 

·         Now look at Acts 5:14; Acts 5:14,"And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes," plural now; not only a vast multitude, but "multitudes both of men and women." 

·         Now turn to Acts 6:1, "And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied"; he started to multiply them by the thousands and the thousands. 

·         Now look at Acts 6:7, "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly"; he adds the word "greatly," finally, "the multitudes multiplied greatly." 

·         Now finally turn to Acts 21:20 and you’ll find your last reference to their numbers.  Acts 21:20: "Thou seest, brother Paul, how many," you have it translated "thousands," the actual Greek word there is myriades, myriads, myriads"; "Thou seest, brother, how many myriads," myriad is the Greek word for ten thousand, "Thou seest, brother, how many tens of thousands of Jews there are which believe."


How many members were there in the First Baptist Church in Jerusalem, how many?  B. H. Carroll says that within six months there were easily at least sixty thousand members in that church in Jerusalem.  G. Campbell Morgan says that the number of the members of that church in Jerusalem reached a total of two hundred fifty thousand people.  I had heard from somewhere that John Chrysostom had fifty thousand members in his church in Antioch.  I dug through those musty old volumes to find out if I could learn just exactly how many he had.  And John Chrysostom said, the great golden mouth preacher, John Chrysostom said that he had over one hundred thousand members in the First Baptist Church in Antioch.

We are in the peanut business.  We haven’t even got out of our swaddling bands.  We are little, and tiny, and small compared to the tremendous drive of the great churches of the ancient day.  There is a place for the small college; but we need the great university.  There is a place for the small private hospital – Boone Powell – but we need the great medical center complex out there on the campus of Baylor.  There is a place for the suburban store; but we need the great downtown merchandising emporiums that make Dallas famous, and bring people from the ends of the earth here to shop, spend their money, both local and abroad.  We need the little community church; and if they weren’t there, we’d establish them.  Our church has established little churches all over this city, and they’ve grown; and we need them all.  But we also need the great downtown ministry, the heart and hub around which the gospel message can be propagated and preached and scattered abroad throughout the vast city.  When we lose the hub and the heart, you give it time, and as in every other city, we finally lose the spokes and the rim and the wheel.

What is it?  And I must soon close, and I’ve just started, and I’ve got to wait until another year to finish this sermon.  What is it God would have us to do?  May I briefly mention one or two or three things until that clock goes out?  First, may it please the heavenly Father to put in our souls and in our hearts a sense of mission and destiny.  Here I am, by the grace of God, here I am.  I haven’t joined the church for what the church can do for me, though I need it; but I have joined the church for what maybe a little I can do for Christ, and for the communion and the faith and the people.  Here am I, such as I am, by God’s grace, here I am, not to be ministered unto, but to minister [Mark 10:45].  Here I am, by conviction, not by convenience.  I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the earth.

Judge Ryburn, your old law partner in Amarillo was a friend to me when I was a small boy, visiting this city; and then when I was licensed to preach at seventeen years of age, I preached my first sermon in the First Baptist Church of Amarillo when I was seventeen, when they licensed me to preach.  And when I got through preaching, your law partner, Herman Pipkin came up to me and shook my hand, and said, "Son, some of these days, you’re going to be a pastor of a great downtown church."  I’d rather be pastor of this church without pay than to be pastor of any other church in this earth with a big salary; only I don’t want you to take me up on the proposition.  I love it here.

I held a meeting about a year ago in a downtown church in one of the great cities of our America.  And in the heart of that communion, seated right down there in front of me every service was a marvelous family.  They bought a mansion way out there in the suburbs; but it interfered with their service to Christ in the church.  And the man sold his beautiful home, and his beautiful mansion, in order to come back closer in where he could serve God better in his church.  Oh, just to look at a fellow like that thrills your heart.  As long as there’re folks like that, there’ll be a church like this in the heart of the city.

The second thing:  to dedicate our lives to its up-building – not fifth-amendment Christians, hiding behind excuses, failing to commit ourselves because we think we might get involved, or it might be costly.  O Lord, not building a monument here, but a movement!  A monument is static and dead; but a movement is alive and progressive.  We bought that Burt Building not for people who are already here, but for people who are not here, who by the grace of God we can win to the Lord. 

I must close.  I wanted to read this poem from Edgar A. Guest.  Somehow or the other he can just say a thing, and he’s making an appeal in this poem for the building up, our building up of the churches of Jesus Christ.  And this is what he says:


God builds no churches, by His plan
That labor has been left to man.
No spires miraculously arise;
No little mission from the skies
Falls on bleak and barren place
To be a source of strength and grace.
The humblest church demands its price
In human toil and sacrifice.

Men call the church the house of God,
Toward which they toil, stained pilgrims trod
In search of strength and rest and hope,
As blindly through life’s mist they grope.
And there God dwells, but it is man
Who builds that house and draws its plan;
Pays for mortar and the stone
That none need seek for God alone.

And his last stanza:

The humblest spire in mortal kin
Where God abides was built by men.
And if the church is still to grow,
Is still the light of hope to throw
Across the valley of despair,
Men still must build God’s house of prayer.
God sends no churches from the skies,
Out of our hearts they must arise. 

["God Builds No Churches,"  Edgar A. Guest ] 


And that’s my appeal to you.  God, in His favor and in His mercy and in His benedictions, has blessed us, placed us here, meets with us in these services.  But if we don’t toil and commit ourselves and in labor of love make its growth possible, it will not miraculously arise from the skies.  We must build it.

Well, I’m ready.  This 1960 year which I wanted to preach about and do not have time, this 1960 year is incomparably our greatest open door, our greatest opportunity in prayer, in humble intercession.  O God, remember us and bless our people.

Now while we sing the song, "We’re Marching to Zion," while we sing the song, somebody you give your heart to the Lord; somebody you put your life in the fellowship of the church.  In this balcony round, on this lower floor, how ever the Lord shall say the word and lead the way, if God bids you come, would you make it now?  On the first note of the first stanza, into the aisle and down here to the front, "Here I am, preacher, and here I come."  Would you?  While we stand and while we sing.