Baptist Church Gets Innovative with Advent

December 2, 2000

Source: Los Angeles Times

On December 2, 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that " with solemnity and joyous expectation, Christians across the Southland and around the world usher in the season of Advent on Sunday. The four-week season preceding Christmas is traditionally a time of introspection, anticipation and preparation for the coming of the child of Bethlehem. This is especially true in churches with a tradition of formal liturgical worship, among them the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But Advent is not typically observed by many other Protestants, particularly those in the evangelical or Pentecostal tradition. So why is a Baptist preacher like the Rev. David L. Wheeler involving his congregation in an observance of Advent? 'I never heard of Advent growing up,' he admits. Reared in Kentucky as a Southern Baptist, he didn't attach any meaning to Advent until he arrived at Yale Divinity School when he was 21. Today he is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, a historic American Baptist congregation in Koreatown. But his multiethnic congregation of a thousand members and visitors will observe Advent--along with all the Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans who were thought by many Baptists not so long ago to be scripturally suspect. Wheeler's choir and congregation will sing the traditional Advent hymn, 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.' But instead of a robed choir led by acolytes bearing a cross and candles toward an altar trimmed in purple, Wheeler plans a blues-strumming guitar player, a prayer by a Nigerian in his native language, liturgical dancers and a drama by a multiethnic youth group. They will play their parts on successive Advent Sundays, beginning this Sunday with Wheeler's 17-year-old guitar-playing son, Micah. Their participation will precede the lighting of candles on the traditional Advent wreath...'Our energy comes from togetherness as a people. On Advent, we look at one another, from the poorest to the richest, from the youngest to the oldest. We realize that together we are expecting Christ.'...Each of the four Sundays will strike a different Advent theme--hope, peace, love or joy...Some Baptist churches may find the goings-on at First Baptist a bit innovative, but they come as no surprise to its members. Established in 1874, First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, located at 760 S. Westmoreland Ave., was a congregation that early on took to a more liturgical worship style. Its members then were predominantly white-collar. The liturgical tradition has held even though today the congregation is divided between whites, who make up about half the membership, and Latinos, Asians, Filipinos and African Americans. Advent is perfect for such diversity, Wheeler said. 'The themes of Advent--hope, peace, love and joy--are themes that are universal in the human experience. Everybody's got hope. Everybody is looking for peace,' he said. 'We focus on the particular story of Christ, but lift up the universal theme. Everybody from the homeless person to the person living in a single-room apartment to those who are well off has those hopes and yearnings for peace--and can experience the joy of Christmas.'"