As Chattanooga offers more opportunities, it draws more people into it. The nation is talking about our city as a great place to live and to raise families, but Dr. J. Render Caines remembers when it wasn’t so great.
“The Chattanooga I knew in the 1960s was not a pretty place,” said the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian on East Brainerd Road. It was “a place where you were afraid to breathe too deeply.” Through many years of imaginative renovation, the city has become the beautiful place it is today. “It’s amazing, and I’m proud of what the city has done to improve itself through private investment and public funds.”
What’s better than a beautiful environment? Strong community. Coming from South Florida 14 years ago, Covenant Presbyterian’s senior associate pastor, Eric Mullinax, suggested people who have lived here all their lives may not clearly see their natural connectivity. “There is a sense of belonging, of heritage and longevity that certainly wasn’t true of the community we came from.”
“This is a generous place,” he said. “I’m not talking just in money. There’s a generous spirit in people willing to help and share their lives to make other people feel comfortable. I think that’s a salt-and-light effect of a strong Christian community.”
Dr. Caines agreed. “I think Chattanooga is one of the most remarkable mid-sized cities in America as far as the number of Gospel-preaching churches that are found in this community. Not just PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) churches. I’m talking about a lot of strong, godly congregations in which the Word of God is taken seriously.”
As the American Bible Society has concluded in their report on Bible-minded cities in the U.S., Chattanooga is the most Bible-minded. More people in our town read the Bible regularly and understand what it teaches, according to the study.
“I hope we’re guilty of being the buckle of the Bible belt,” Rev. Mullinax said, but he recognized that such a benefit could be a liability as well. “I tend to think people have a confidence that is not in Christ, but in their decision. It’s in the prayer card or that walk down the aisle. They say, ‘Don’t need to talk to me, man. Just because I’m living like the devil doesn’t mean I haven’t signed up at some point.’”
Dr. Caines has served in Chattanooga churches since 1983, when he and his family moved here from Simpsonville, S.C. He helped begin Covenant in 1988. Though PCA congregations work together in a variety of ways, Christians overall, he said, are “too divided.”
“I don’t believe God is pleased at how we have divided ourselves into so many denominations,” he said. “I regret that over 30 years I have not made the effort to build more bridges. We do our thing; they do their thing.”
The reason for this division may be a holdover from the Protestant Reformation, a mindset of “reaction to hierarchy.” Dr. Caines suggested, “I think it has come about because each of us is free to read the Scripture for ourselves and come up with our own interpretations and understanding without recognition that there has been a witness to the truth of the gospel for 1,500 years before the Protestant Reformation.”
When he meets with other leaders in the PCA for regional or national meetings, Dr. Caines said he wants to learn from the experienced, godly men present. “I want the men with experience and knowledge throughout the years speaking to us. I want them to give us direction.”
“I find that those of us who have been through the wars are speaking more to the need to be unified, to trust one another, that we will not always be in perfect agreement. The battle we have to fight is against the forces of evil, not continuously battling one another.”
Rev. Mullinax recommended an idea from the book The Good War, by Studs Terkel, which is an oral history of World War II. He said, “It is about the comradery fostered in a common cause. There’s a special connection when we are serving together.” He said the churches in Chattanooga would benefit from collaborating on serving our neighbors. He gave evangelism as one example.
“I wish we had more of a mindset that believes God is pleased to draw to himself a people through the active and intentional witness of his saints,” he said. “Our feet follow our faith. It doesn’t have to be going through the Romans Road every time I meet somebody. We can use mercy ministry opportunities for real gospel ministry.”
Worshipping God, he said, results in service. “That’s a critical element of discipleship. ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Ephesian 2:10 ESV).”
Phil Wade is a local writer and editor. Find him on Twitter: @Brandywinebooks or LinkedIn. He blogs regularly at Brandywinebooks.net