By Timothy George
May 2, 2016
On a late November evening in 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, Celestia Ferris, chief washer-woman at the Bureau of Engraving, organized a prayer meeting not far from the U. S. Capitol. She was joined by a circle of earnest Christians, mostly of the Baptist persuasion, who prayed that a new church would be gathered in their community. At the time, there was no church of any denomination in the northwest quarter of Washington, D. C. In 1878, their prayer was answered when thirty-one members joined to form the Metropolitan Baptist Church, so called from Spurgeon’s famous Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, which at the time was one of the most famous Protestant churches in the world.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the church grew steadily and reached a membership high in the thousands during the 1950s. Then, plagued by erratic leadership, the church began a spiraling decline not unlike many other urban congregations at the time. By the early 1990s, attendance hovered around one hundred people, one of whom was the famous evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Henry suggested that the church consider as its next pastor Mark Edward Dever, a somewhat brash but brilliant American student just then completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University. (Full disclosure: Mark Dever was once my student, and I preached at his pastoral installation in 1994).
To reverse the fortunes of a flagging downtown congregation required skill, pluck, and some sanctified grit. Dever had all of these, but he also put in place a strategy that most church growth gurus would have deplored. For example, he began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past. Instead of driving people away, however, over time this approach to church life—to the surprise of many—attracted droves of new believers, many of them millennials and young professionals. Today, the average age of members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (as Metropolitan is now known) is thirty-one, and the place is bursting at the seams, with standing room only on Sunday mornings. Read the rest at First Things.