Exuberant Hospitality at First Baptist Church
South Street church is a safe haven for special needs worshipers
Exuberant hospitality. That's how I'd describe Sunday morning worship at First Baptist Church of Manasquan.
The worship band was playing before the service began July 17 and soon after I sat down Rev. Joseph Gratzel came over and gave me a tote bag that held a travel mug, a Bible, and information about the church.
"Have you been mugged?" he asked with a smile.
The service began seamlessly with modern worship and two "Pandamania" songs led by Vacation Bible School students. Associate Pastor Martha Bevacqua asked for prayer requests and the congregation called out a host of personal concerns before saying the Lord's prayer together.
A sign language interpreter translated the service for hearing impaired worshipers and Senior Pastor Joseph Gratzel's son Gavin called out questions from the back of the room until his dad gently instructed him to be quiet.
Gratzel preached an animated sermon on prayer, not from behind a lectern, but roaming the sanctuary like a nomad.
His sermon about prayer was part five of a series called Pathways to Christian Maturity. He summarized 11 kinds of prayer and declared the list in-exhaustive. Among the ones he named were "foxhole prayer," "parking lot prayer," "ritual prayer," and "persistent prayer."
When he got to number 6, "breath prayers," he invited the congregation to sing a short verse of scripture with him and advised us to do likewise at home. I thought number 10, "murmuring prayer," would be about bringing my complaints to God, but instead Gratzel instructed us to think of five things for which we were thankful and then to told us to give simultaneous verbal thanks for these things.
"It's God's people coming together with no pretense, calling out prayers," he said.
Gratzel described prayer as an "amazing privilege" and concluded by saying, "What God has for you is immeasurably better than what the world has to give."
He invited us to join him in the church basement for coffee hour and declared the service over.
Hospitality Is the Hallmark
"If I were to pick, what for us is probably our hallmark, it is hospitality," Gratzel said after the service.
"The building is handicapped accessible. We're always incrementally improving, which is challenging with a building that was built in 1869. We have lifts. We have adaptive listen system. We have an interpreter. In every way that we can include people, we include them. When someone comes along that we haven't figured out a way to include, we'll adapt and we'll include them," he said.
Gratzel has been senior pastor of the church since 1996. He and his wife Denise live in Manasquan and have seven adopted children, ages 13 to 27. He said the profound challenges his son Gavin faces have made him sensitive to special needs families.
First Baptist's denominational identity may be a barrier to some special needs families, he said.
"People identify themselves with particular denominational affiliations and can't imagine themselves crossing that line even though they're not currently active in their own church. ...If we could just get those folks to see that church can be a place where they'd be welcome and included," said Gratzel.
Aside from hospitality, First Baptist's primary mission is to "connect people to Christ and each other and to make disciples to serve the world," he said.
"Come give us a try. We'd love it."
Deep Local Roots
Don Okerson of Wall greeted me at the church door with a bulletin when I arrived and showed me the names of his ancestors on a wall plaque before I left. He has been attending First Baptist for 65 years, he said, and both sets of grandparents were members of the church.
"It actually goes back a couple more generations on both sides of my family. ... I was brought here as a baby and I've been here pretty much since," said Okerson.
Although he's visited other churches, Okerson, who is single, said none of them felt like "family."
"As long as I'm living here, I probably will be a member of this church," he said.
Bevacqua lives in Brick with her family and is a lifelong resident of the area. She has been associate pastor at the church since 2008 and teaches a New Beginnings class Sunday mornings.
Her class and Gratzel's sermon series are part of the church's follow up for those who made faith professions at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration, said Bevacqua.
New Beginnings is in the fifth week of a seven week series, but is open to anyone, she said.
Suicide Prevention and Survivor Ministry
Like First Presbyterian Church, which Patch featured two weeks ago, First Baptist is involved in ministry to those in the community who have been impacted by a string of youth suicides in the past few years.
"In the midst of a horrible tragedy, what has been wonderful is the way that all of the stakeholders in the community have come together and accorded one another a great deal of respect and seen that each different stakeholder brings something very needed to the table," said Gratzel.
He and two other pastors were invited into Manasquan High School after one of the suicides to provide support to staff and students.
"When they call us, we say, 'What do you need us to do?' We're working to write our own crisis plan among the churches so that we know what we'll do and we're trying to partner with the school so that we can be ready," he said.
Abolitionist Heritage; Diversity of Beliefs
First Baptist Church is part of the American Baptist denomination, which descended from the Northern Baptists after they split with Southern Baptists in the 1860s over Southern Baptists' commitment to slavery, said Gratzel.
"As a church and a denomination, we do not require adherence to a doctrinal statement, and you will find a diversity of beliefs among our members," a flyer in the welcome packet said.
Service Times and Special Events
Tonight at 8 p.m., the church is hosting a family movie night featuring the film Evan Almighty.
The New Beginnings class is held at 9 a.m. Sunday mornings and worship begins at 10 a.m.
Bible studies are held throughout the week.
First Baptist Church is located at 47 South Street, Manasquan.
For more information, call 732-223-4649.