As part of the centennial celebration at Central Baptist Church of Port Arthur, John Storey, a member of the church for more than 40 years and distinguished regents professor emeritus of history at Lamar University, has published a new book, “Go Tell the Good News.”
Storey was a professor at Lamar for 41 years and was head of the history department at the university as well. The Central Baptist centennial committee asked him to prepare the history of the church for the centennial anniversary. Central Baptist celebrated its 100-year anniversary on Oct. 14, 2012.
“I wrote the book mainly in 2011 and 2012,” Storey said. “We released the book a couple of weeks before the centennial. I thought the origins (of the church) would be interesting for a lot of people.”
Storey said Central Baptist rose in October 1912 from the midst of conflict among members of First Baptist in Port Arthur. A split was led by then pastor J. Warren Bates.
“Like so many congregations, Central Baptist was the product of internal discord,” Storey said. “Church association records say that there was a controversy but do not spell it out. The nature of the split is not altogether clear. Fifteen members pulled out of First Baptist Church, moved just two blocks down Procter Street and established Central Baptist. One of those 15 was the pastor of First Baptist Church. It’s kind of interesting that the pastor himself led the split.”
Bates was a New York man educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he learned some of the theological currents of the time regarding dispensational pre-millennialism, Storey said.
“Dispensational simply means that those who subscribed to that view divided history into periods or dispensations,” he said. “Each period began with a particular event — the crucifixion and the second coming would be periods. And pre-millennialism is simply the view that the second coming of Jesus will occur prior to 1,000 years of progress.”
The split from First Baptist likely had something to do with theological differences over these beliefs, Storey said.
“Bates was fascinated with biblical prophecies, Armageddon, the second coming and other ‘end-time’ scenarios,” he said. “The split was the result of Bates’ interest, fascination, even obsession with dispensational pre-millennialism.”
Staunch in his beliefs, Bates was most likely a tough man to get along with, according to Storey.
“I met his grandson, who happened to come for the centennial back in October 2012,” Storey said. “And by talking to him, he confirmed that his grandfather was difficult to get along with. He had three other pastorates before Central, and they were all very brief — a year or less. That was obviously a factor.”
“The congregation doubled from 1946 to 1954,” he said. “There was a particular pastor here who was very dynamic and very successful — James Olan Morman. The congregation expanded from roughly 700 to almost 1400.”
Children’s author and member of Central Baptist for more than 55 years Georgie Anne Ballard, 83, said she remembers first attending the church at the age of 25, shortly after Morman’s pastorate.
“I was a member of First Baptist Church, Port Arthur, and they moved way across town so I couldn’t walk there anymore,” Ballard said. “From where I lived I could walk to Central, which was on DeQueen then.”
The church moved from DeQueen Boulevard to its current location on Highway 73, during the “White Flight” of the 1970s, a large-scale migration of whites of various European ancestries from racially mixed urban regions to more racially homogeneous suburban regions.
“Central Baptist, like churches everywhere, was a product of its culture, and that culture was segregated,” Storey said. “I think the first black to join this congregation was probably sometime during the late ’70s.”
Diversity and the church’s future
Storey said that there are only a few African-Americans who are currently members of the church, and moving forward into the future, he believes Central should try to attract more diverse populations to the church.
“The pastor — and I agree with him on this — is of the opinion that what the church needs to do if it is to remain viable is to bring in and appeal to more diverse groups,” Storey said. “Central is in a rather diverse area, demographically speaking, and what it really needs to do is to more aggressively evangelize with African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians in the area. That’s one of those things that is easily said and difficult to do.”
The Rev. Dr. Phillip J. Sigman, who moved to Port Arthur on Valentine’s Day in 1998 and has been the pastor at Central for more than 14 years, said the church will continue to try to attract these demographics. Sigman said he has always been involved in inner-city ministry, and the congregation is following his lead.
“We are not just a white congregation,” Sigman said. “We have different races. We have interracial marriage couples. Our heart and passion is to reach our community. We are actively involved and have been since 2000 with outreach to the Vietnamese and with ministry to the Hispanic population. Building relationships just takes time. Churches that left the inner cities during the ’70s have to rebuild credibility with the people that they ran from. That requires integrity and for people to demonstrate that what happened then isn’t who we are now. We’re a different group of people.”
Chris Sams is one of a handful of African-American members at Central. Sams is an adjunct professor who teaches statistics at Lamar University. Sigman said that Sams is an active member of the church who serves many roles.
“Chris doesn’t just attend our church – he is in leadership,” Sigman said. “He is the budget chairman and probably the smartest one we’ve got on finances. He is also our youth pastor. I think that not just getting people to come, but allowing them to be involved in the ministry of the church (is important).”
Sams, who has been working at Central for more than a year, said that Sigman has been encouraging the congregation to worship with a lot more intensity.
“Coming from traditionally black churches, I know there’s a lot more going on (there),” Sams said. “The music is louder and more upbeat. There is a change in coming. You may have not felt like being there, but you were excited when you left. Our pastor (Sigman) has a real longing for us to be on fire about God. He reaches for us to shout, ‘Amen!’ and to get excited to let him know we understand what he is saying, and I’m onboard with that. We’re all conformed in these little shells, sitting there quietly — not saying anything. I’d like to see us shouting.”
Sams said that worship isn’t a show meant for the congregation to watch and observe.
“We’re supposed to be part of the praise and worship of God,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s about Jesus.”
A mime ministry, which Sams said is known in traditionally African-American churches as praise dance, is a possibility he would like the church to consider.
“I’ve always wanted be a part of a mime ministry,” he said. “It’s more emotional — moving the hands and body to music. I’m trying to start something like that.”
While many ethnically diverse populations may choose to worship together and not in a mixed congregation, Sams said that for him the ministry of the church is what is important not skin color.
“It really depends on the heart of the person,” he said. “When I first started coming to this church, I was really taken by the ministries. They were active. They went to Mexico and built houses with Casas por Christus. I never did anything like that in the traditional black churches.”
Future services in foreign languages is a possibility that Central is hoping may draw in members from the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities.
“This congregation has supported people within the Vietnamese community as it has the Hispanic communities as well,” Storey said. “I think it would be an overstatement to say that it has a program as such, but there are efforts and initiatives”
Sigman said, “Language more than ethnicity is the thing that divides. Because if you have a service that people can’t understand, they’re not going to come. My vision is to offer language services, where people can hear the gospel so that the church doesn’t become something they are isolated from.”
Central’s future, its youth and its worship style
The ability to draw young people to the church is also important, according to Storey.
“Many churches have found it very difficult to attract what are called the Millennials, young people who were born sometime in the 1980s,” he said. “Central is an elderly congregation. They’re aren’t too many young people.”
Storey said that he has talked to young people within the church about the issue.
“They are in general agreement that if this church and others like it are to survive, they are going to have to attract young people,” he said.
Sams said he would like to see the youth become more involved in the worship.
“I’ve also been trying to plan and figure out if we can do youth-led church services maybe every fifth Sunday to get the youth more involved and get them more excited about coming to church,” he said. “Because the youth say the right things — ‘I come because I want to learn about God’ — but I don’t know if they really get it.”
Sams said that traditional hymns have a great message but might not appeal to the younger population of the church who like more upbeat music.
“The music is a really big part of it,” he said. “We do mix in some (contemporary tunes) every now and then, but we just haven’t had the musical talent to get that going yet. For Easter, we are going to be working on new music — more upbeat, more contemp.”
Sigman said he enjoys the upbeat style that the newer, contemporary Christian music brings.
“I’m 57 years old,” Sigman said. “I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll. If you were to ask me what I like to listen to, it’s going to be Newsboys or Switchfoot. But again, the guys and ladies who are 80 years old still want to listen to Bill Gaither-style music.”
Sigman said he believes that the future of music at Central will most likely involve guitars and electronic music rather than piano and organ, but that regardless of worship style and music, the message is what’s most important.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what kind of music there is; it’s the message the music brings,” he said. “You’ve got to speak to the heart because just having the upbeat, fast rock-style music — if the message is shallow and empty, it’s a waste of time.”
Storey said that a new member could expect great support from Central.
“In good times and bad, they will be supported by the congregation materially as well as spiritually,” he said. “They will know that here is a place they can come for spiritual nourishment, physical assistance and solace. It’s a friendly and open congregation and there is no one in this congregation who would be the least bit reluctant to provide help to anyone in need.”
Sams echoes Storey’s opinion when it comes to the benevolence of the church.
“We are a very giving church,” he said. “We’re really small in number, but we give a lot. We donate a portion of money to Outreach Port Arthur (a mission group) and anytime something is going on or someone makes an announcement that somebody needs help, we’re not reluctant to reach into our pockets.”
While it is unclear what the future will hold for Central Baptist Church, Port Arthur, Storey, Sams and Sigman said they would continue to discuss the issues that might hold them back from growing or catapult them into the next century.
“I would expect that in 20 years from now, the congregation will indeed be more diverse in its composition,” Storey said. “I hope Central will continue to tell the good news and be financially and numerically solid. Whether it attains that or not will depend on its ability to meet the needs of the community.”