My husband Jack and I recently visited the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church. I had read his impressive bio on the church website and expected that a man with such a long list of accomplishments must be well into his senior years. However, when I met him, beneath the wise and aged appearance of his gray beard, I found a very humble, gracious man close to my own age.
Dr. Nick Willborn began our time together by giving us a tour of their new church facility. It’s the church that sits on the pinnacle of Commerce Park overlooking the Solway entrance to Oak Ridge. One of the first things mentioned is that they are already beginning to discuss Phase 2. I think they’ve only been in this facility for one year!
After enjoying the beautiful view and observing the cars racing by below, we entered the sanctuary from the narthex. Immediately, I noticed the calming soft green they chose for their carpet and chair coverings. “It’s warm in here”, I said, referring to the ambience rather than the temperature.
Dr. Willborn wasted no time explaining that everything about the design of this new sanctuary was intended to point each worshipper to ponder the attributes of God and of the Christian life. First, he pointed out the rays of sunlight beaming in through high windows intended to bring reflection on the “light” given to the Christian pilgrim from the “Light of the world.” He continued by explaining that the vaulted ceiling is designed to speak of the vastness of all that God is.
Then he drew our attention to the elevated podium sitting alone at the front of the sanctuary. There, without a stage, without musical instruments, without a choir loft or any seating, stood an eight- to 10-foot tall solitary podium shaped somewhat like a huge communion cup. Five or six inconspicuous steps led to it from the side. Dr. Willborn explained that this elevated design was intended to indicate that the ministry of the Word of God is preeminent. As students of it, we do not sit on equal terms with it, or dictate its effect on our lives. Instead, we are to sit under the Word of God in complete submission as it is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.
I marveled that there was no opportunity for anyone to use a stage in any impure way—no one could use it to entertain; no one could use it as an opportunity for pride; no one could use it to fleece the flock of God. As we slowly moved forward, Dr. Willborn pointed out that there indeed IS music, but it is situated in the balcony. I looked up to see the balcony, also observing hymnals scattered throughout the seating. I imagined how majestic God must be in the experience of worship at this church. To hear the music coming from behind, filling the room from the floor to the high vaulted ceiling must convey the sense that the unseen heavens are worshipping with the congregation, or vice versa.
He also pointed out an almost unnoticeable staircase at the rear of the sanctuary. “We intentionally put the staircase for the balcony inside the sanctuary. We know that some people are prone to slip in and sit in a balcony so that they will be able to avoid the connection we are commanded to share with fellow Christians. With the stairs inside the sanctuary every worshipper is greeted and welcomed and shares the worship experience as a body of believers, just as Christ intended.” I found myself in awe at the brilliance of the design and intrigued by this church, which has broken the mold of traditional Christian worship.
As we moved on around the building, Dr. Willborn shared with us his personal journey of coming to pastor in Oak Ridge. He has spent many years as a pastor and as a seminary professor. When this church needed a pastor five years ago, they made every accommodation needed to bring the Willborn family here.
Rev. Tom Craig is pastor of Oak Ridge Baptist Church, the other new church that sits just past Oak Ridge Memorial Gardens. When the two pastors occasionally have a phone conversation, Rev. Craig will joke, “You aren’t looking down on us Baptists, are you?” They have discussed their shared sense of camaraderie as being the new guards at the gates of the city.
Wilborn then shared with us pictures of the church’s history, which began in 1957. By 1961, they were building their original facility consisting of a small chapel next door to Woodland Elementary School. In 1967 they added an educational wing, and in 1972 they built a larger sanctuary with a fellowship hall in the basement to accommodate the continuing growth. When I was growing up in the Woodland community, many times my sister, best friend, and I crossed that church yard as we walked from the Woodland playground to the Woodland Drug Store, Greene’s Supermarket, or the Herron’s gas station across the street. In 1993 Covenant Presbyterian added offices, more classrooms, and completely reshaped the front of that older facility.
Next, Dr. Willborn led us to his office where he introduced us to his heroes. Pictures of great men of God decorate his office amidst some 1,000 books. I stepped back from the conversation at this point as my husband and Dr. Willborn began to share common appreciation for certain Christian heroes and their writings. They even discovered a common friend from Virginia, Rev. Lloyd Sprinkle, who was Jack’s childhood pastor. Jack was so engrossed in their conversation that he didn’t notice the clock on the wall behind Dr. Willborn indicating that we were late for another appointment. As we headed toward the exit Jack said, “Small world.” Feeling very blessed by the privilege of having met Dr. Willborn, I promised myself that I will attend at least one service in this fascinating church.
Interestingly, the following week I was reading the Bible and came upon a very thought-provoking story. In I Chronicles 22, King David provoked the Lord’s anger when he decided to conduct a census. “Why would counting the people make God angry?” I wondered.
As I pondered God’s response in this story, my mind went back to the new sanctuary of Covenant Presbyterian Church. I recalled how intentional they were not to build a stage around the podium, not to have musicians set in front of the people, and instead to accentuate the greatness of God in so many ways. Then I thought about the way most churches today count the attendance, or “conduct a census,” every Sunday, and many churches set the pastor’s salary based on the number of members they have on their role books.
I wondered if pride was the issue between King David and the Lord, and if David’s intentions were to accentuate his own strength. What if American churches are provoking the anger of the Lord when they take actions that flatter people or accentuate the strength of mankind? I found myself afraid to know the answer. So, let us all be reminded that the worship of God is not about us; it should ALWAYS be about the greatness of Who God Is.
Myra Mansfield is a law enforcement chaplain with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, a volunteer for several community organizations, and serves as an officer with the Oak Ridge Ministerial Association.