I recently found normal about an hour and 15 minutes south of Nashville. The weather was nearly perfect for an early morning drive with my bride Jeanne as we wound our way along country roads through the beautiful rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.
Howell is a small community located between Lewisburg and Fayetteville. We pulled into the parking lot of First Baptist Church Howell and the thought came to mind: First Baptist Church and the town of Howell are, well, normal.
According to the last census, if you draw a ring around Howell about eight miles from the center of town, the population of Howell is about 8,800. That’s not many folks, but it’s normal. And the church — First Baptist Howell — has between 75 to 100 people of all ages in worship, but that’s normal.
And Brian Gass, pastor of FBC, is bivocational. And that’s normal.
You see, scattered across our country are thousands of communities just like Howell, and thousands of churches just like First Baptist, and thousands of pastors just like Brian. Tennessee, for example, is comprised of small towns where Tennessee Baptist Convention churches average about 120 members and where more than 60 percent of all our TBC pastors are bivocational. We call these bivocational brothers the “Iron Men” of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Preaching at First Baptist Church of Howell was a special experience. The choir sang a call to worship and special music preceded the message. There was a warm welcome that included hand-shaking and extending genuine hospitality. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries were recognized with participants placing dollars for benevolence in a little church on the Lord’s Supper Table and singing “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Anniversary” songs. Announcements were made. Hymns were sung from a hymn book. A good children’s Bible story, complete with flannel graph illustration, was presented. Children (and adults) listened intently. An offering was received. The invitation was given. A man in his 50s came to Christ for whom many in the church had been praying.
Afterwards, we gathered in the fellowship hall for a “dinner on the grounds” covered dish lunch. The church does this once a month. I suspect if you live in a town like Howell and go to a church like FBC, you’d probably say, “Well, that’s normal.”
But just because a church is normal doesn’t mean it can’t also be exceptional because exceptional is how I’d describe FBC Howell.
People are being saved and the church is financially generous. The congregation has increased its Cooperative Program giving to 10 percent. It gives through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions as well as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. The church is actively involved in the local association.
And for nine faithful years, Pastor Brian and his wife Lisa have loved serving this church. The affection of the people for their pastor is obvious. There is a healthy spirit in the church and the environment is full of joy, unity and peace. These are godly people simply loving the Lord, loving each other and loving their community.
I believe FBC Howell is the picture the apostle Paul had in mind when he painted “normal” for the church in Ephesians 4:2-3: “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.”
Personally, I can’t wait to return, and I am so thankful for the countless “normal” churches across our state and nation that are having an eternal impact like FBC Howell led by pastors like Brian.
They’re all pretty exceptional in my book.
— Randy C. Davis is executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. This article first appeared in the Baptist & Reflector (baptistandreflector.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.