We had an incredible weekend hosting the 5 Love Languages conference! Nearly 600 people were able to attend in-person, with a dozen or so joining virtually. We also plan to post (by tomorrow) the video sessions to our website for those who were not able to travel.

The spirit of love was already present before Dr. Chapman spoke a word. I could feel it among our volunteers and staff. It was amazing to see people working well together, welcoming so many guests, and watching for ways to encourage others. It was a good day for First Baptist! In spite of the weather conditions, there was a strong sense of the fruits of the Spirit at work — love, joy, peace, and all the rest. We had a good beginning to our celebratory year of 100 years on Main Street.

Last night, in my small group, we talked about how the church is both an organism and an organization. We are an organic body — living, breathing, always changing, hopefully growing. But we also have many aspects to what we do together that require us to be a healthy organization.

This is true in the human body, too. It’s organic, but every cell carries the blueprint of DNA. There’s order even if it seems chaotic. All of the systems are organized together such that the body can function.

One way that we are trying to work as both an organic body as well as a well-organized operation. On a recent zoom call, a small group of staff and other church leaders met to talk about the number of our homeless neighbors that are staying overnight around the church. Our CareFirst Tuesday evening ministry has continued to grow (with sometimes as many as 130 people showing up for a hot meal and to receive other basic necessities).

While people have been bedding down on our church campus for many years, we are facing a problem in that the number of people doing so is increasing. Some of our church members have felt uncomfortable or even afraid when encountering people staying under our garage or by the columns on Main Street.

I want you to know that I and others take this concern very seriously. We don’t ever want a member or guest to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, no matter how valuable a ministry might be. How are we to balance the needs of our congregation for security with compassion for those who had to face the bitter cold of the last few weeks?

There are three ways that the Thursday evening group discussed to proactively deal with this issue.

First, Aaron Yarnell, our church security guard (and Knox County sheriff officer),will work with Josh Gibson, our Executive Pastor, to create a security plan that involves a greater security guard presence over the coming weeks. It may mean that we have full-security or night security for the months ahead to let people know that they cannot stay on our property at night. We will also prioritize having people leave, if they do stay overnight, during the peak times when our church gathers (Sundays, Wednesdays, Thursday’s Golden Notes gathering, and so on). We believe that enhanced security will help us to “reset” the pattern of people staying on our property and signal with one voice that it is not allowed. Of course, we will continue to invite people to join us for worship and in other ways we gather.

Second, the leaders of CareFirst will be working in the coming weeks to clarify the goals of the ministry, long-term mission objectives, and possibilities regarding if and where the ministry could be conducted in another location away from church property. They will be consulting with local groups like the Compassion Coalition to learn about similar ministries and how our church efforts fit into the overall response of our city to those who don’t have a home.

Third, our Facilities Committee has been tasked with researching ways and formulating plans to minimize the number of people staying on our campus. This could mean enclosing certain areas, clearing the property below our lower parking lots, or other solutions. All of these directions and solutions will be worked through appropriate committees and the Church Council. What we hope to accomplish is that we will continue to show compassion for people in need, including our homeless neighbors, but also keep our church members and guests as secure and safe as possible.

Our homeless neighbors are part of the “organic” aspect of our church’s life — persons near to us who are dearly loved and worthy of dignity and respect. God has placed our church, and kept us rooted in downtown Knoxville, for 100 years. This is no accident. We want to serve our neighbors well and show God’s love in tangible ways We also want to be wise in the way that our “organization” functions so that we are not saying “yes” to some in a way that effectively says “no” to others. Please pray for our church leaders as we continue to discern God’s will together. We look forward to seeing what God does through our church in 2024.