Archive: Dr. Jesus Moves in at Atlanta’s Ben Hill Church

By James S. Robb
March/April 1984
Good News

If your soul is sick, maybe you’d better go see Dr. Jesus. That’s the advice they’re offering these days at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

With the sanctuary jammed to capacity on a Sunday morning, the pastor, Dr. Cornelius Henderson, drives home the idea of Christ as the Great Physician.

“There is One who never makes an error,” asserts the preacher, “never has made an error, never will make an error – Dr. Jesus! I’m glad we’ve got a doctor like Jesus in the building right now.

“When it comes to sin and sickness, you just can’t heal yourself. Right now you can be healed in spirit, and soul, and body.”

Henderson thunders down his point, “Jesus is here right now.”

The membership at Ben Hill is expanding so fast the congregation recently doubled the size of its sanctuary.

Last May, the church brought in its 3,000th member, an enrollment 10 times the 1975 figure. That was the year Henderson came to Ben Hill as pastor. Previously he had been a staff expert on urban ministries for the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville.

For several years he had traveled around the country offering this simple formula for effective urban ministry: (1) “Keep Jesus Christ in the center of one’s ministry.” (2) “Love and serve the people and take advantage of a dedicated and committed laity.” (3) “Develop dynamic worship services that speak to a broad range of constituents in multiple services.”

Henderson came to Atlanta in 1975 intending to put these principles into practice.

One thing he learned at the board was to let his church be itself instead of trying to imitate the “majority culture.” He explains his idea on the subject. “We are committed to the United Methodist Church without apology. But a black tradition is also a part of our legacy that we do not ever intend to abandon.”

Sunday services at Ben Hill confirm the pastor’s words. The week Good News was there the 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services together stretched out to four-and-a-half hours. There’s always something happening. The music and preaching dominate services. Numerous choirs (Ben Hill has 10 good ones) and instruments set the stage for worship. Nothing seems to be done in a hurry. And the people obviously love it.

Henderson has put his multiple services principle into use at Ben Hill. The early service is mainstream Wesleyan in its emphasis, the later service more freewheeling.

‘‘On any street corner in America, in any gathering of black people,” asserted Henderson, “94-99 percent of those people already [ consider themselves] Christians. If you ask them, they are not un-churched and they are not un-Christian.”

But Henderson notes that many of those people have no real Christian commitment. “I explain to them that going to a baseball stadium does not make you a baseball player any more than going to church makes you a Christian. One has to accept the Lordship of Christ and commit his or her life totally to him every day.”

The figure of Jesus

More than anything else Ben Hill is a Christ-centered church. From the music to the sermon and everything in between, the figure of Jesus dominates the worship. When Henderson read the vows of membership to the nine new persons joining the church the Sunday Good News was there, he left no doubt about where their loyalty should lie. After warmly embracing each one, he asked, “Will you be loyal to Jesus Christ? He’s first.”

Henderson says, “The black church as a whole is committed to the absolute sovereignty of the Lordship of Christ. As an ethnic group we particularly identify with the sufferings of Christ.” As a result, the monthly communion service is one of the best attended. “We identify with the suffering, with the blood, the atoning blood of Jesus Christ,” he explained.

Ben Hill Church is worth looking at for more than one reason. Obviously any congregation that can go from 300 to 3,000 members in eight years is doing a lot of things right. More amazing yet, the church experienced that growth after recovering from a near-complete “exodus of white Methodist Christians,” as Pastor Henderson describes the congregation’s changing ethnic makeup.

Perhaps most interesting is the speed with which Henderson has been able to attract the leaders of Atlanta into Ben Hill membership.

“We have in the congregation a number of persons I sometimes refer to as ‘magnetic evangelists,’” Henderson said. ‘‘These are persons that because of personality, because of the position they occupy in the city, because of the leadership role they play in Atlanta, they can attract and do attract other people.”

Among the prominent members at Ben Hill are Dr. Elias Blake, Jr., president of UM-related Clark College; James Q. Davis, vice-president of Georgia Power Company; Crawford Russell, retired Colonel, U.S. Army; Tom Cordy, president of the Atlanta Mechanical Contractors; and Carl Ware, the first black vice-president of the Coca-Cola Company.

“These are spirit-filled Christian men and women who have that kind of glow that Christ always gives,” Henderson said. “They in turn touch other persons.”

Leaders attract leaders. And Ben Hill, as a result, has become prime ground for bringing such people to Christ.

Traditionally, leaders of the black church have played leadership roles in their communities. Henderson continues this tradition. He is active in the Atlanta Urban League, the NAACP, the John Holland Boys’ Club, and other organizations.

He is also chairman of a group known as Concerned Black Clergy. “The name is extremely misleading,” he said, since both lay and clergy, blacks and whites are involved. The group’s aim is to provide food and shelter to those in need. They also have a program of career counseling.

From the pulpit Henderson sets the record straight about his beliefs on social action. “Pie in the sky is all right; but we need a chicken in the kitchen, and a ham where I am.” His involvement in Concerned Black Clergy and other civic groups is an expression of that conviction.

But he has another reason for his involvement. “The involvement of the black minister in the organizations of a given community is an indispensable tool for effective evangelism,” he said.

Even though his congregation is obviously prosperous, Henderson is the only full-time minister assigned to the church. However, he does have the assistance of nine part-time ministers, some of whom attend seminary in town.

For eight years, the United Methodist Church has given special attention to ethnic minority churches through the church-wide missional priority. Henderson thinks some new approaches must be tried if the denomination is to make real progress reaching the black community.

Henderson believes the key is to use methods tailored specifically for each group. “When you’re fishing,” he said, “you don’t fish for all fish with the same bait and in the same depths of water. I don’t think we’ve been intelligent, well, scientific enough in seeking to address the particular needs and likings and aspirations” of black men and women who need the Gospel.

“We need indigenous worship and indigenous leadership” he said. “We can’t expect folks to travel all across the city. If there are people in the ghetto who need the Lord Jesus Christ – and they do – then we have to provide ample opportunity.”

Henderson noted that poor people don’t always have “reliable transportation of their own” to get to church. Once they arrive, “they have to have something that is very accessible and it has to be on their level so they can understand, appreciate, and enjoy.”

He also believes minority clergy must be moved less frequently. “It is sometimes a bit difficult to maintain an image in the community and a position of stability if you’re only there a couple of years,” Henderson stated.

The large majority of pastors serving black UM congregations are still lay preachers. Henderson thinks these people need a great deal more affirmation and attention. “We cannot expect the [ordained] preacher to be the sole proclaimer of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The more people involved, the more quickly the message will be spread.”

No such trouble

“At the same time,” he cautioned, “I don’t want to get away from the support that is needed for the [ordained] pastors of churches that we already have. Because if these men and women are unhappy and underpaid, if the parsonages that exist for ethnic pastors aren’t drastically upgraded, then you are going to continue to reap a whirlwind of negativism.”

Fortunately there’s no such trouble at Ben Hill these days. Last year they burned the mortgage on the original sanctuary. They also built on the $500,000 addition and started adding their next 1,000 members.

And they heard a lot of great preaching.

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Henderson paraphrased the old spiritual to his crowded congregation.

“If not in the church, where? God sent his Word as healing balm. The Lord’s drugstore is always open.”

He raises his voice. “Healing in the blood. Liberated by the blood of Jesus. But you have to come to the fountain to get it. Is there a physician there? – Dr. Jesus!”

When this article was published in 1984, James S. Robb was associate editor of Good News.

Endnote: Dr. Cornelius Henderson served the congregation at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta twice: (1976-1986, 1992-1993). Under his leadership, the membership increased during his first tenure from 400 to over 4,500 members. During his second tenure as pastor the church membership later rose up to 16,700, making it at that time the largest predominantly African-American United Methodist congregation in the world. From 1993-1996, he was President/Dean of Gammon Theological Seminary before becoming the Resident Bishop of the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Henderson died in 2000 at the age of 66. He had been diagnosed with myeloma, the most common form of bone marrow cancer.



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