PASTOR David McQueen
ADDRESS 4009 Beltway South (FM 707)
PHONE 325-692-6540
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 8:10, 9:40, and 11:20 A.M.

More than twenty denominations have a presence in Abilene, but a troika of Baptists, Methodists, and Churches of Christ dominates religious life in the city, likely reflecting the presence of matching universities: Hardin-Simmons, McMurry, and Abilene Christian. As usual, Baptists have a safe lead, with more congregations than Churches of Christ and Methodists combined. They are not sitting on that lead, either: Where two or three hundred families gather together, a Baptist church springs up in the midst of them. Beltway Park Baptist Church, founded in 1985 to serve a population expanding southward through Wylie and toward Buffalo Gap, exemplifies this enterprising Baptist spirit.

After a promising start, the church hit an extended rough patch, but things began to stabilize around 1997, and in 1998 the church called David McQueen to become its senior pastor. McQueen was a vigorous thirty-year-old who had grown up in the Church of Christ and had attended Abilene Christian before accepting a call to a nondenominational church in Lubbock. That’s not a standard pedigree for a Baptist preacher, but the fit proved near perfect. A decade later, McQueen and a staff of dozens lead what has become one of Abilene’s most dynamic churches. The original brick facility is now the chapel, dwarfed by a brick-and-metal worship center that seats 1,500. Weekly attendance averages about 3,000, divided among four Sunday morning services. Two of those convene simultaneously at 11:20; one, described in the program as “louder,” is geared toward youth and meets in the chapel.

Though the worship center was no more than half full at the starting time on the day of my visit, it reached near capacity within minutes. The congregation was predominantly Anglo; most were about thirty years old, and dress was extraordinarily casual. (In fact, my jacket was one of three I spotted.) A large video screen touted coming attractions, while onstage a praise band offered a Christian-rock prelude.

At the appointed moment, the stage lights came on and the band launched into its first number, which surprised me. Instead of the increasingly common “7-11” songs (seven words, repeated eleven times), they rocked out on a close paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed, repeating themselves only on a chorus of “I believe.” When they had finished, Pastor McQueen came to the front, dressed in casual trousers and a polo shirt. Now forty, he is trim, with close-cropped hair and a face that is not so much handsome as engaging, as if he would probably be a fun and interesting friend.

He greeted the crowd briefly, then said, “We’ve got two young men who wanted to come tell you that it’s not just a theory, that they know Jesus is alive.” That drew applause, cheers, whistles, and raucous shouts of “yeah!” I expected testimonies, but he was talking about baptisms. The first baptizand was Johnny Manry. As the boy, who had turned nine that very day, entered the baptismal pool, McQueen joked, “The water’s cold. We didn’t pay the heat bill. Sorry about that, bud.” After Johnny confirmed that he believed Jesus is the son of God, his mother, who had entered the pool with him, immersed him in the cold water, from which he arose to wild applause. Next up was a young man named Rhode Labonte, age sixteen, from nearby Albany. All three identifying facts were greeted enthusiastically, and the boy’s emergence from the sacred pool drew a loud “Yo, Rhode!” and multiple flashes from cell phone cameras.

After the baptisms and throughout the following prayer, song, and offering, a small, unconnected trickle of worshippers went to tables set up along both sides of the auditorium and took Communion, without benefit of an officiant. This arrangement, I learned, was to accommodate people from backgrounds in churches that observe weekly Communion, such as Churches of Christ. An associate pastor told me that only about a third of the members are Baptist by upbringing. There are no plans to drop “Baptist” from the church’s name, he said, but the word appears in small print on the sign out front, reflecting a growing tendency among megachurches to downplay denominational affiliation.

McQueen’s sermon, “Train Yourselves to Be Godly,” based on the fourth chapter of 1 Timothy, literally got off to a running start, with a video clip of the classic workout scene from Rocky, featuring miles of roadwork, one-armed push-ups, those beef-slab body punches, and the triumphant run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The basic message of Rocky, McQueen said, was not simply that of an underdog who prevailed but of a man who worked and worked and worked: “He trained!”

McQueen then elaborated on key elements of real training—effort, focus, discipline—and illustrated each one with relevant examples and observations, offering perceptive, often humorous criticisms of modern culture and including himself among those in danger of becoming spiritually flaccid. He walked around the platform as he spoke, full of energy and emphasis but without bombast. Though it sounded almost extemporaneous, his sermon was tightly organized, with Scripture verses and key points flashing onto the screen at the precise moment he spoke them. He is good.

About halfway through, McQueen stressed the importance of spiritual training as a guard against philosophical and religious error. He then invited us to look at what he called the scariest example of such error abroad in the land, calling up a YouTube video that depicted Oprah Winfrey as an evangelist of a false gospel because of her enthusiastic embrace of New Age spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. The clip counterposed Oprah’s assertion that “there are many paths to what you call God” with a troubled woman’s insistence that “there is . . . only one way, and that is through Jesus” and warned that Oprah is leading her admirers over a cliff to eternal damnation. Judging by the hundreds of “Church of Oprah” videos on YouTube, Winfrey’s departure from her Baptist upbringing has apparently made her a target of evangelical anxiety. I wondered if Barack Obama would now have to repudiate her along with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan.

After a few more points, McQueen finished, saying he wanted to “wrap this up for today.” He urged his listeners to bow their heads and “ask the Lord to speak to us from his Word. . . . I think he has more to share with you than I.” With his hands in his pockets, he guided them softly through issues to consider, then wound it down. It was effective and must have been a familiar way to end the service, since as soon as he had ended the prayer, people began standing up and gathering their belongings. He said, “Hey, our prayer partners are down front for those who need them,” then observed with a chuckle, “You’re leaving, so I guess you’re dismissed. See you guys.”

And that was it. It seemed abrupt, but it worked, and I thought it worth emulating. I usually try to conclude these reports with a nicely rounded paragraph, summing up what seems to be the main point or offering a personal observation, but maybe that’s not necessary. We’re at the end of the page, I’ve hit the word limit, and you’re about to stop reading, so I guess you’re dismissed. See you, guys.