A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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1 Comment

Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street

One response to “A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

  1. Jack Kooyman

    Thank you for sharing this story about Pastor Williams and Northminister Church. I too have issues with the institutional models of Church and stories like this remind me that God is building his Church in many ways and places, including in and through the institutional church. Thanks be to God!

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