Aggressive Grace: Central Church of Christ in Action (Aug 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Harold Shank
August, 1992

In the late 1920s, the Cumberland River flooded the tenement housing in the lower part of downtown Nashville. Before any other agency in the city acted, the Central Church of Christ went on radio and told people that two trucks were parked in front of their building; one contained mattresses and the other dry clothes. The announcement urged people hurt by the flood to take what they needed.

A few years later, an automobile accident claimed the life of a young boy. When the police learned that his parents were moving from Texas to Tennessee seeking work and had no money, they called the Central Church of Christ. People from the congregation soon arrived, made arrangements for the family’s housing and later conducted the funeral, burying the boy in one of the church-owned lots at Spring Hill Cemetery.

The aggressive service to the poor reflected in these incidents stands in stark contrast to the defensive benevolence practiced by many modern churches of Christ, who maintain small, locked rooms of musty-smelling, cast-off clothing and unwanted canned goods that they thrust into the arms of any unfortunate people who approach the church building with their needs. To seek out the poor actively not only fulfills biblical demands, but also results in astounding success, as the Central experience illustrates.

Distressed by attitudes toward the poor within post-World War I churches, a group of Nashville Christians led by A.M. Burton and E.H. Ijams set out to start a church that would be different. Tired of church leaders who were “too money-minded,” Ijams reports, “an increasing number of Christians … were becoming clearly aware of the inconsistency of niggardly attitudes and glaring deficiencies in New Testament ‘good works.’ ”

In the mid-1920s, the group dreamed about a “congregation of genuinely converted Christians, prayerfully avoiding every wrong, humbly and lovingly active in every good work … feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick ….” According to their charter, they began “seeking first the Kingdom of God … worshipping God and serving man.” They excelled at both.

Their efforts to “serve man” went far beyond emergency situations like floods and automobile accidents. The church invited the homeless and poor to a daily meal in a large parlor off their building’s main lobby. They served over 45,000 hot meals from 1925-29. Another 6,046 people received lunch in 1930.

They operated dental and medical clinics in their building, where health care professionals saw patients unable to afford treatment. A public library, a day-care center, and a full-time job counselor became part of their outreach.

The purchase of a five-story hotel and an addition to the church building in 1928 allowed Central to house men and women who needed help. The refurbished hotel’s 67 rooms kept an average of 110 women. As many as 60 men and boys lived in the three-story addition.

A daily noon service not only attracted people to Central’s auditorium, but people throughout Tennessee listened in on radio. The extent of the audience is reflected in the 2,478 letters received in 1929-30 from 33 states, Canada, Cuba, and the Bahamas.

Central mastered the biblical ideal of “preaching Good News to the poor.” In the first five years, Central gave away more than 5,000 New Testaments and 10,000 portions of the Bible. From 1925-28, they distributed over 275,000 pieces of religious literature.

As a result, people flocked to Central. From an initial nucleus of about 50 people in October 1925, the congregation grew to 150 within the month. Continued growth saw 550 members by 1931, before reaching a high of about 1,200 in 1941. From 1925-45, Central baptized over 8,000 people, a average of a little over one person a day. Baptisms were typical at the daily noon service and nearly certain at the Sunday morning assembly.

People in Nashville knew Central cared. A man who was only a child when he attended Central recalls that after a particularly disastrous flood in Louisville, many refugees poured into Nashville. Central threw open its doors (which were never locked), and people entered the building. He remembers walking through the auditorium seeing people asleep in the aisles, and crossing the lobby filled wall-to-wall with refugees.

Do people in our community know we care? Would downcast people find refuge in our facilities? Do hungry people think of us when they need food? How many of our members count it a blessing to be allowed to help a homeless child?

Not only did others know that Central cared, they also understood that the church stood for Christ. Central’s initial contacts focused on the fundamentals of love, grace and mercy, not the more specific doctrines of the church. Central tried not to leave an impression about the Central Church of Christ, but they tried to instill an image of the Father and Son.

When E. H. Ijams moved his family into the apartment on Fifth Avenue where Central Church would soon begin meeting, the sign across the street from his living room window advertised a dance hall and the associated establishments that surrounded such places in the 1920s.

During those early years, Central never campaigned before City Hall about any person, place or business in the area. But each day at noon, six days a week, twice on Sunday, and every day on radio, they talked about the love of God. Women from Central talked to the prostitutes on the next corner about God’s love. College students delivered food and coal in the church’s pick-up trucks. Ijams reported that soon the undesirable businesses in the area moved.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce issued this report about the Central Church: There is nothing pretentious and grand about this wonderful church. It is simple and appealing, just the kind of place that both the fortunate and the unfortunate like to go for spiritual comfort, and within is found those with their hearts in the work, and who grasp the hand of him in rags and tatters and make him feel as much at home as the man in finer dress; where the woman of the underworld and the primrose path is as welcome as the woman in finery and splendor. The new institution has become a wonderful power in the civic life of the city of Nashville through its simplicity and whole-heartedness … In reality, the church is a civic center, and any and all are welcome.

The unofficial transition of downtown Nashville neighborhood and this official record by civic leaders both illustrate the reaction to the work of the Central Church, which stood as a symbol of God and good in the Nashville community.

When our church name is mentioned, do people think of the love and mercy of God? Does the evil in our neighborhood wilt under the glow of our work for good? Do our secular friends understand that our church belongs to Christ?

Because of Central’s concern for others and stand for God, people in Nashville wanted to know more. No study was required to get help. No baptisms had to be in place before purse strings were opened.

Unemployed and unable to control his drinking problem, a 23-year-old man sought aid from Central. They helped him face his difficulty, gave him housing, and even offered him part-time employment. Within a year, he had become a Christian, married a young woman in the congregation, and went on to become a successful businessman in Nashville.

Evangelism at Central never emerged as a separate ministry. Helping the poor was evangelism because it communicated the grace of Christ. There were not “benevolent people” and “evangelistic people” at Central. There were just Christians.

The blending of ministries stands in contrast to our segmented ministry systems. Have we become “worshipping Christians” at one place and “evangelistic Christians” at another place in our own crude form of sectarianism?

Depression-era poverty bears little resemblance to generations of welfare families currently living in American ghettos. The novelty of radio and the use of the printed page provided the means for evangelism then that might be difficult to duplicate today.

But the heart Central Church had for the lost and poor sends a clear challenge to those of us at the other end of our shared century: a call to be and to do as Christians should. Wineskins do need changing.


Hall L. Calhoun, Preacher to Thousands

Hall Calhoun was not only a Harvard Ph.D. who taught Bible at David Lipscomb College during the 1930s, he was also the pulpit and radio preacher for the Central Church of Christ in downtown Nashville. In this capacity, he reached thousands each day with the gospel of Christ. The Central church was among the first to use the radio in preaching the Good News, initially on WDAD and then on WLAC. Each day at noon most radio receivers were tuned to 1510 to hear Hall Calhoun. many still remember that a person could walk the streets of Nashville and never miss a word of Calhoun’s sermon. He truly had an impact on Nashville until his death in 1935.

A.M. Burton, Man of Vision

He was neither an elder nor a preacher for the Central church, but he was the driving force behind one of the most unique churches to be found anywhere. As a successful businessman, Burton invested his wealth in good works. He stated his understanding of Christianity and the mission of the Central church in these words: “True religion and practical Christianity is a matter of faith and works, of profession and performance, of theory and practice. It ministers to the body, mind, and spirit. True religion is a religion of faith, hope, and love; the religion of holiness and righteousness; the religion that prays for and works for the doing of the will of God on earth, here and now, as it is done in Heaven.” Concerning Burton and the work in Nashville, J.D. Tant exclaimed: “I am glad that Brother A.M. Burton is not a preacher, else I fear he wold be dropped from the preacher ring for suggesting such a change in our practice.”

E.H. Ijams – An Answer to His Dream

E.H. Ijams moved to Nashville to teach at David Lipscomb College during the 1920s. In 1934 he would become president of the college. One of the highlights of his life, however, was his participation in the founding of the Central Church of Christ. Along with A.M. Burton, Ijams had a dream of a church in the central city that practiced “real religion.” It became a church that combined daily teaching with daily benevolence. Announcing the plans for the church, Ijams stated: “The Central Church of Christ proposed to emphasize doing the word as well as hearing it, and to make the doing humble, godly, and in every respect consistent with all the teachings of the New Testament. The congregation hopes to show its faith by its works.” Remembering the first service, Ijams recalled in 1968 that the scenes, the meaning, the desires, and the thrills of that day “come back to me vivid, comforting and precious!”

These biographical sketches were supplied by Dr. Robert Hooper, Chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Lipscomb University.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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