The first thing we must make clear, a fact no one will dispute: "Darby Junior High School Cheer Squad Rules!" We know this for a fact because, at a dinner honoring their achievement, we saw not only their trophies honoring their Arkansas State Championships in multiple areas but also a video of their award winning performance. First Presbyterian Fort Smith, an unofficial sponsor of the cheer squad, hosted a dinner for the girls, their families, and their coaches as part of the church's work to serve their community.
The church faces the same challenge many downtown churches face in this country. The congregation was organized back in 1848, and their impressive building was built in 1898. (Downtown Fort Smith has a number of quite impressive church buildings*.) Back in the day, most people in the congregation lived near the church, but things have changed. Most people in the church live in the suburbs, and the congregation is aging. When husband and wife Phil and Tasha Blackburn came to Fort Smith three and a half years ago to serve as co-pastors, they recognized these challenges. With the church leadership they decided to look for ways to serve the immediate community.
Last year the church hired Keley Simpson as Missions Facilitator to minister to the community. Since Darby Junior High is within blocks of the church, it was decided that this was a clear opportunity for ministry. Keley asked the school principal what she could do. The principal suggested Keley attend practices and games and look for opportunities. One of the needs Darby Cheer had was financial; they needed mats for practice.
So the church offered funds for the mats in exchange for the girls doing community service at the church and for the... um... community. They helped with the church's Vacation Bible School and a community mini-marathon. As mentioned before, the girls ended up going to state, and Keley and Tasha and Phil (along with many others from the church) were there to see them off and congratulate them on their return. And Mindy and I were able to help serve at the dinner that honored them.
Keley has found other ways the church can serve the community. As a master gardener, she has helped a local elementary school and senior citizens make gardens. The church hopes to help with the transportation needs of people in the community by means of low cost loans for motorized bikes. The church isn't expecting a direct connection between Keley's service and raising membership rolls. They're just wanting to use God's resources to serve people around them.
While in town, Mindy and I stayed in the church's guest house. Initially, the house was to provide low-cost housing for people staying in the area to be near hospitalized family members. More recently the home has also been used to provide for women seeking refuge from abusive situations.
FPFS is also, of course, looking for ways to equip their own congregation. Mindy and I were able to attend Capstone, an ongoing series of adult education classes focusing on Scripture and theology. The night we attended, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles from Southern Methodist University taught about passages from the book of John, bringing an interesting perspective on the miracles in John 5 and 9 from the perspective of Disability Theory. The church has also offered Alpha programs that can provide a thoughtful introduction to Christianity.
In our short stay, we experienced love and warmth within the congregation along with a desire to reach out to others. We chatted with Kara, a young woman in her twenties who attends the church when she can. She said that working in retail often prevents her from attending Sunday mornings, "But even when I've been away for months, people always seem glad to see me and don't judge me for not for not being there."
On Sunday mornings, the church has two worship services, at 9:00 am and 11:00 am, with Sunday School in between. The first service is called DayOne, which meets around coffee tables to provide for a more casual setting. The later service takes place in the sanctuary, with a robed choir and organ music, obviously a more traditional setting.
In spite of the differences in style, the teaching for both services is pretty much the same. Through the Lenten season Phil and Tasha are looking at "Discovering Jesus" using different images and metaphors. In other weeks they've looked at Jesus as laughter, fire, and scent. The morning we were there, Tasha preached on Jesus as clothing (with the texts of Genesis 3:20 - 24 and Galatians 3:24 -29).
As an illustration, Tasha told about a woman in need who came to the church for help. When she came in, Tasha shook her hand. As she was leaving, the woman thanked Tasha for taking her hand earlier. This baffled Tasha, and she asked why the woman said that.
"My clothes are so dirty; I didn't think anyone would touch me."
Tasha went on to say that Jesus can clothe us and take away our guilt and shame.
First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith is surrounded by people in need who haven't yet come through the church doors. And now the church is figuring out ways for their staff and congregation to go out of those doors and meet those needs.
Service Length: first service 45 minutes, second service 52 minutes
Sermon Length: first service 18 minutes, second service 15 minutes
Visitor Treatment: we were greeted every time we came in the door; the church has visitor cards at the tables during first service and in the pews during second service, as well as an attendance register at each service. During the passing of the peace, we were all encouraged to greet those around us, which everyone seemed to do.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (although we did have lunch with the pastors after church)
Our Rough Count: first service 65, second service 75
Probable Ushers' Count: first service 70, second service 100
Snacks: coffee before first service, coffee, cinnamon rolls, and donuts before Sunday School, coffee after second service
Musicians: first service 4 women (vocals), 2 men (vocals), 1 woman (keyboard, 2 men (acoustic guitars), 1 man (percussion)
second service 1 woman (organ and piano), 1 man (trumpet), 1 man (choir director), 6 men (choir), 8 women (choir)
Songs: first service
"Change my heart"
"Great is Thy faithfulness"
"My Worth" (worship team)
"Praise the Father"
"How great is our God"
"As we go"
"In Christ there is no east or west"
"Change my heart"
"One faith, one hope, one Lord" (choir with trumpet solo)
"Great is Thy Faithfulness"
"Liebestraume" (trumpet and piano)
"Standing on the Promises"
Miles to church: zero (we walked across the street)
Miles from start: 6,329
Total 2016 Miles: 6,284
Church website: 1pres.org
*Here are a few of the other (very impressive) church buildings in Fort Smith.