The Church with the Rusty Steeple


Let me tell you the story of a church with one of the ugliest steeples you would ever want to see. That steeple became a symbol of a corroded history that Jesus wanted to cleanse and heal. His gentle touch in healing this ministry encourages every church not to fear taking a hard look at its history.

Who would visit a church with a steeple like this? That was my first thought as I pulled up the driveway to lead a retreat at Birmingham (Ala.) International Church. I’ve seen lots of churches needing physical improvements but never one that was so obvious and visible. The story behind this steeple would come out during the retreat—to the shock of everyone.

Long before I entered the driveway, the church’s pastor, Ron Higey, had worked hard to bring relational and spiritual health to the congregation. He dealt with the aftermath of a public scandal, addressed entrenched division in the church, and equipped his leaders in conflict resolution and prayer. They were ready to live by faith, trusting God to use them to reach the many different people groups in Birmingham.

Nevertheless, the blessing they sought on their efforts proved sporadic at best, like the occasional sun shower in a time of drought. As we walked together through the church’s spiritual journey toward healing, Jesus’ issues with them became as obvious as their corroding steeple.

Glory Days

The church had once enjoyed a thriving ministry. In the earliest years of the church’s 85year history, they were a flagship church in The Christian and Missionary Alliance, known and respected in the city as Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. Their first pastor, Glen Tingley, started the church and grew it to nearly 1,500 people. He proved a fearless leader for the cause of justice, attacking corruption in city government, which resulted in a new administration being voted in at the next election.

Perhaps Pastor Tingley’s fight for justice insulated the church from scrutiny by authorities. He integrated worship with blacks and whites when such integration was against the law. Long before the walls of segregation came down in the culture, the races worshiped together in this downtown congregation. All this in the city Martin Luther King Jr. called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”

During these “glory days,” the church planted 12 other congregations in Alabama, started a Bible school that became Southeastern Bible College, supported a thriving homeless ministry, started three Christian schools, and helped to found the National Religious Broadcasters organization. The pastor himself could be heard on the radio throughout the South.

Society Frays

In the 1950s, Pastor Tingley began a new pastorate in New York. His departure on the eve of the Civil Rights movement left the church in Birmingham without the guidance his leadership provided.

Glen Tingley started Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle and grew it into nearly 1,500 people.

The church found itself in the center of the civil rights fray. It sat across the street from the bus station where protesters and “Freedom Riders” arrived and around the corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed in a bombing. It was also not far from the motel where Dr. King often stayed (which was also bombed).

On a fateful Sunday in 1963, Dr. King and 30–40 of his fellow protesters attempted to join in the worship at Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. A decade before the church would have welcomed them, but now, to the grief of those who heard the story at the retreat, church leaders met Dr. King at the door and refused the group entry. To make their point, they blocked the way with their hands on their guns, half drawn from their holsters.

The children in attendance that Sunday, now older adults, reported the palpable fear in the atmosphere. The church gave into that spirit of fear, the same spirit that marked the white culture of Birmingham, manifesting itself in violence, belligerence, and resentment.

The week following Dr. King’s attempted visit, the congregation lost half of its Sunday morning attendance. The church never recovered. The congregation eventually moved to the suburbs of Vestavia Hills. Pastors came and went. Some of them made progress; others saw the tides of progress recede. More crises followed, most from within the congregation. As the church members shared their history, their troubles were regularly marked by the same spirit of fear and belligerent behavior it had cultivated. Their painful history brings us back to the rusty steeple.

Reputation Decays

The church’s current pastor, Ron Higey, couldn’t figure out why the steeple had rusted. When he came upon the original plans from the steeple company, he contacted them. He wanted to know if they warrantied their steeples from rust. The company representative informed the pastor that “aluminum doesn’t rust.”

Pastor Higey pressed the matter and explained that he had their plans in front of him, and the design was obviously theirs. At that point the steeple representative asked the name of the church. When he heard which church the pastor was from, the man replied: “Oh . . . that church.”

Somewhere along the line, the church obtained the steeple company’s plans, but the steeple itself was manufactured locally out of sheet metal. The company that supplied the plans felt taken advantage of, and after many years, the bad memory lingered.

Oddly, board minutes for the six months around the decision to add a steeple went missing. Current church leaders don’t know exactly what happened, but it became painfully clear that the church’s reputation was as tarnished as its oxidized spire. Jesus often communicates His displeasure and discipline through such symbolic things, as when He used Laodicea’s lukewarm water to describe the spiritual climate of the church there (Rev. 3:15–19).

Congregational Malaise

When a church comes to grips with its painful history, Jesus has one word for it: repent! The current members, though removed from the church’s historical sins, carried its tainted legacy with them into the present.

The new fiberglass steeple at Birmingham International Church

Church leaders may overlook, ignore, or even choose to live with the unconfessed sins of the past, but the rusty steeple was still visible to everyone. Should they really expect God to bless their ministry with that kind of unconfessed corporate history?

Stains abound on the Bride of Christ as she is expressed in local churches. They may not be as obvious as the steeple in Birmingham, but churches frequently wane and struggle and split because they overlook things which the Lord of the Church refuses to overlook. Most churches want to just “move past” and bury their ugliness when Jesus wants them to own it corporately and repent.

Local churches in America suffer malaise for much the same reasons as those at Birmingham International Church. They may not all suffer the ugly racial prejudice of the early ’60s, but they likely carry some manifestation of cultural compromise. The Lord is calling churches across the land to repent before He sends another revival or restores moral sanity to our nation.

New Ways

Birmingham International thoroughly repented in a public service in September 2015. In October they dedicated a new, spotless steeple (made of fiberglass this time). Many received invitations to the dedication, among them the original steeple company that supplied the plans for the tarnished spire. The church has since paid restitution for the financial harm it caused the company years ago.

As the people of Birmingham International Church repented of their spirit of fear, God unleashed a series of blessings upon them that displayed His renewed favor on their ministry. Here are a few examples:

  • People coming to Christ and being baptized
  • New families joining the church
  • Integration of an additional people group into the congregation
  • Major renovation of the church sanctuary through donated materials and services
  • God moving mightily in worship services
  • More than $100,000 donated to the church solicited only through prayer

In the two years since its repentance, the church has implemented acts of reconciliation with the African-American community. They sought forgiveness through a letter of apology titled “To Our African-American Brothers and Sisters in Birmingham,” published in two of Birmingham’s newspapers. They have sought to build an ongoing supportive relationship with a local black university.

Most importantly, they sponsored a series of public forums titled “Let’s Talk.” Each forum addresses a hot-button topic such as race, immigration, or homosexuality. The goal is to bridge the divide between a biblical perspective on these issues and that of our culture. It’s a model many churches could consider using to diffuse hostility, generate understanding, and help bring healing to their communities.

What does the future hold for Birmingham International Church? Time will tell, but the members have moved forward with a clean conscience, free from the spiritual block that their old sins imposed on their ministry. This is their hope for all churches: that we will hear the Lord’s assessment of our ministry and respond to Him—whatever it may require.

1 response to The Church with the Rusty Steeple

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. God WILL bring beauty out of these “ashes.” Once again – the “Tabernacle” can become (using an old Alliance term) a “glory barn.” Pentecostal fire will fall and believers will sense the presence of Jesus moving mightily in their midst. Glory to His Name!

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