So it is with the church. Some debate ecclesiasticism as a concept, others see it as a movement writ large, yet others come up with tortured interpretations about what people long ago really meant about the relationship between religion and culture. But the faithful—those in the trenches of spiritual warfare and routine—understand that the concept of the local community church, a real flesh and blood coming-together of people with myriad needs and in various stages of spiritual awakening and development is really where the rubber meets the road in this country with regard to things that matter most.
So a case can be made, without laboring the point, that what happened in Fairfax, Virginia fifty years ago this month, seeds planted that have grown into a bountiful harvest of spiritual fruit, has made every bit as much of an enduring difference as any simultaneous pronouncements, policies, or politics, no matter how well intended, eloquently delivered, or ultimately executed.
It is important to remember that as the 1950s flowed into the 1960s there was a religious restlessness in America, one that would soon burst into full-blown rebellion. To many, church had ceased to be relevant, something that seemed to typify the gray-flannel conformity the new decade promised to replace. The vulgar comedian, Lenny Bruce—forerunner to all foul-mouthed performers to come—was fond of saying, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” He was actually on to something, his cynicism notwithstanding. Some people were beginning to rethink “church.” However, this was not always part of a deeper quest for meaning. Sometimes people just wanted to cast off personal restraint and this is what eventually defined the 1960s.
Of course, the relevance of church to real life actually depended on what a particular church stood for, proclaimed, and authentically modeled.
The fledgling congregation meeting on West Ox Road in Fairfax grew from the start. Then came properties and buildings. Ministry expressions followed, ebbing and flowing to match the dynamic, often turbulent times. And though specific methods of doing things changed by necessity as the congregation grew along with the community, the essential message—the DNA that was present at the beginning—never changed. The church prospered, eventually with physical assets worth multiplied millions of dollars, but it never went to Floyd’s head. He remained a faithful, humble, man of God, through his 50s, 60s, and 70s.
These days he and Mary are in their 69th year of marriage and sit near the front during one of the services at Fair Oaks Church every Sunday. They were parents of three boys in 1961, now they are great-grandparents. And what’s more, their spiritual progeny includes thousands of people who have come to faith and clarity about the claims of Jesus Christ and the true meaning of life during the past five decades. Fair Oaks Church is celebrating its fiftieth birthday this weekend.
Their story is, of course, far from isolated and unique. Similar stories can be told in cities across America and throughout our long national experience. In fact, small groups of passionate visionaries are this weekend meeting in makeshift facilities bound together with a vision to make a difference. They may not have to deal with primitive heating systems or use bed sheets as dividers—and hopefully wherever they meet there is indoor plumbing. But the idea is the same, to birth institutions and movements that will help their neighbors find their way during difficult times.
I am a pastor and I freely admit that the story of church in America (and it has been like this everywhere throughout church history) is all too often told wrapped around the personalities of pastors. And I do, of course, believe very much in the high calling and sobering responsibilities related to such a vocation.
But the fact is that great churches are not about the pastor. They are first and foremost, of course, about God. Yet also, no church rises up anywhere to make a real difference for the Kingdom of God without people like Floyd White, a humble hero.
And a real American hero.
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