National Magazine Article About A Non-Traditional Church In Nashville

From:  Priority Magazine of The Salvation Army
What God Is Doing in … Nashville

The Berry Street ‘Testimony Church’

by Robert Mitchell


The year was 1970 and the Jesus Movement was at its height. Steve Simms, a freshman at the University of Tennessee, stumbled on a group of students strumming praise songs on guitar and sharing testimonies.

‘My life was changed that night,’ Steve says through tears. ‘It’s really powerful just remembering it. I encountered Christ through these people.’

Steve kept going back every Thursday night over the next four years and enjoyed the spontaneous praise and sharing. After college, he tried to find a church with that same style but was disappointed.

‘There was no opportunity to share,’ he says. ‘You just sat and listened. I moved all over the country and searched for an open, free church where you could participate and I never could find it.’

Two years ago, Steve and his wife, Ernie, were asked to reopen a struggling Salvation Army corps in a rough neighborhood in East Nashville, Tenn. They were told to try something new because traditional approaches hadn’t worked.

That was all the couple needed to hear.

Keeping it real

Steve wanted to recreate “that kind of free sharing where the body of Christ can participate.”

The first thing you notice entering the Nashville Berry Street Corps is the absence of pews or a pulpit; folding chairs are arranged in an intimate circle. People don’t share testimonies from a pew but from a simple microphone placed among them.

“What was on our hearts was just to keep it very real,” Ernie says. “The people who come in are very real people. That’s who is attracted to this place. It’s just those who want to be real, and they want to be in a safe place where they can share things.”

Ernie says the church has been drawing 30–40 adults each Sunday and about 50 children from a nearby community center.

‘Froot Loops’ music

The service starts at 10:45 a.m. with praise and worship. The praise leaders rotate each week.

“We have a very eclectic group,” Ernie says. “One guy came once and said it looks like a bowl of Froot Loops.® We decided it would set a precedent if we went with one style of worship.”

Being in Nashville, the Berry Street church can have a musical style that varies from week to week; a rap artist performed recently. The Simmses say professional musicians sometimes call and ask if they can attend.

“It’s amazing how God provides the worship leaders,” Steve says.

After a half hour or so of worship each week, Steve and Ernie open up the floor.

“I will say, ‘Who’s got something to share? Does anyone have something God’s showing you or a testimony?’ We just let it happen spontaneously,” Steve says.

What? No sermon?

“We share our experiences and our hardships and what God has been doing in our lives,” says Ida Joyner, who has attended the church since it reopened two years ago. “I actually like it better than someone getting up there and preaching to me.

“We share Scriptures and share what is going on and we pray for each other and encourage each other. It’s different, but it is absolutely wonderful.”

Although there is no sermon, Steve and Ernie say that a selected, 10–minute testimony each week serves that purpose. A person is asked ahead of time to speak; about 70 people have done so.

“Almost all of the people who attend here regularly have had a chance to give a 10–minute testimony,” Steve says. “Many people come just for that.”

But with no sermon, how do people grow spiritually? Ernie says many come to Sunday school at 9:30 a.m. and that even during the testimony period, God’s Word is central.

“It’s amazing how many people actually use Scripture while they’re sharing, even when they’re giving testimonies,” Ernie says. “One woman who came told us she wondered if it would be Bible–based enough. She later said, ‘What I’m realizing is that the whole thing is Bible–based.’ It’s just woven in.”

Eva Hines says listening to testimonies is her favorite part of the Berry Street experience.

“That’s inspiring to you when you hear about other people and their trials and tribulations and where they are,” she says.

Permeated with prayer

Hines says she was sitting on her porch one morning when Steve and Ernie came by her home, prayed with her, and invited her to church. The couple often carry The Salvation Army flag through the neighborhood and pray for homes.

“It’s like miracles began to happen when I met Steve and Ernie,” says Hines, mentioning that she found a job and her daughter was accepted to graduate school.

“You can feel the spirit of God among the congregation,” she says. “You can feel God’s presence when you come into the church. They make you feel comfortable. You can talk to them about anything.

“You come as you are. They accept you. They don’t ask anything from you—just to come and give your testimony and listen to other people. It’s good for this community.”

Ernie says, “One–on–one discipling and prayer and relationships are really how we teach people. We do a lot of praying with people. People come by lots of times and say, ‘I just needed prayer and I was wondering if you all would take time to pray with me?’ I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.”

One week, Steve asked if anyone needed a job; about 10 people raised their hands. Many found employment that very week.

Prayer has been critical recently with floods hitting Nashville. Another local Salvation Army ministry, an Adult Rehabilitation Center, was flooded out and men who had been coming to Berry Street were evacuated to Memphis.

On a recent week, the church overflowed with about 70 people, and they decided to break into groups for prayer.

“It’s amazing how they jump in and start to pray with each other and talk to each other,” he says. “And because of that, there’s a real sense of community.”

The service ends each week with the congregation forming a circle to pray.

“We’re really just trying to encourage people and show them that God really does work,” Ernie says. “You can pray and really get answers, and that’s really what our focus is.”

A God–baked cake

After the service, Steve says, he and Ernie are available for one–on–one time, another rarity in most churches.

“These are people who aren’t used to that,” Steve says. “They’re used to the spectator type of church.

“I had this vision to do things differently, and to be given the opportunity is just a great blessing. That’s one reason I love being part of The Salvation Army—just the fire of the early Salvationists and the zeal and love of Jesus.”

Steve posts devotions on the church’s Facebook page. One recent entry read: “It is amazing how God works when people are allowed to share as the Holy Spirit moves them. Someone said: ‘It’s kind of like watching God bake a cake; each week He bakes a different one.’ ”

That kind of spontaneity has attracted young people like 15–year–old Moniquea Otey.

“It’s very open,” she says. “People get to talk and share their testimonies. It’s free. I feel comfortable. It’s like home to me. I feel the love in the room.”

Not everyone else’s church

Love is a rare commodity in a neighborhood where gangs and drugs are part of life.

“It brightens my day when I come through these doors,” says Robert Osborne. “This church is not like everyone else’s church. There’s something
different. There’s something for everybody, not just certain people. You come as you are. It means a whole lot to me.”

Shasalargay Williams agreed the church is “not like other churches.”

“I like coming here because you learn stuff that you really don’t learn in the street,” she says.

Joyner, a former Salvation Army officer, said she attended Berry Street years ago when it was a traditional corps and was overjoyed when it reopened.

“We have an absolutely wonderful church,” she says. “God is really working in His people there. There’s just a loving environment. As soon as you walk through the door, you can feel the love there. Somebody is going to hug you or shake your hand, say hello.

“It’s family. It’s community. It’s unity. It’s what the church is supposed to be.”

If you live in or near Nashville, come and experience Berry Street for yourself:

Sundays at 10:45, The Salvation Army Berry Street Worship Center, 225 Berry Street, Nashville, TN   37207

About Steve Simms

I like to look and think outside the box. In college I encountered Jesus Christ and I have been passionate about trying to get to know Him better ever since. My wife and I co-lead a non-traditional expression of the body of Christ in Nashville based on open participation and Spirit-led sharing. We long to see the power and passion of the first Christ-followers come to life in our time. I have written a book about our experiences called, "Beyond Church: An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible--Ekklesia" that is available in Kindle & paperback @
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