If the Baptist churches had Cardinals, Dr. Ches Smith would have been one. He might have gotten a few votes for Pope, if Baptists had one of those, but that’s one of the great differences between us and our Catholic friends. We don’t need a Pope but we still need people that help connect us to God. Ches helped connect people to God, but it wasn’t in a high and lifted up way. It was in an earthy way. It was in a “let me come along the road and walk with you” way.
How can I say it?
Have you ever shaken the hand of a farmer or a construction worker and his hand was so calloused and worn that you could feel the years of his labor as soon as your hand met his? Well, as soon as you sat down and began talking to Ches, you could feel his compassion and interest in you, gained from all those years that he had listened to others.
When Ches decided to speak, which was usually after a considerable amount of listening, you felt that every word he said carried wisdom. As soon as he began to preach, took off his watch and laid it aside, and without the use of a single note, you felt all those years that he had commanded the attention of his audiences.
Of all the things Ches did well, one of the most beloved parts of his ministry was “Happy Club.” Ches loved children and children loved him. One of his favorite texts must have been Matthew 19:14: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these'”.
Every Sunday the children came. Every week, at least one child came with the “Happy Sack.” Ches gave the Happy Sack to a different child every Sunday to bring back to church the next Sunday. The child was allowed to bring anything in the Happy Sack as long as it wasn’t alive. I think that rule started after a kid brought a live garter snake! Then Ches would work his magic. He took the child’s object as if it were a piece of malleable clay, and shaped it into a teachable lesson for the children and adults, often making it fit into the theme for that particular Sunday. He made it simple enough for the children to grasp, yet profound enough that the adults would sometimes remember the Happy Club message long after they had forgotten the sermon. He did this without ever knowing what was in the Happy Sack.
After nearly 30 years in the pulpit at FBC Tifton, Ches Smith retired from the pastorate, but he never really retired from ministry. Through the years he was the interim pastor for no less than nine churches. The first one was at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Georgia. Ches set the table there for my 13-year ministry. He’s the kind of interim you want to follow because he’s prepared the people to receive their new pastor by helping them grieve the loss of their former pastor and then look with joy and expectation for their new one.
We shared the pulpit my first Sunday and I watched him as he spun his last story in Happy Club and then he gave the Happy Sack to a child and I knew that child would be back the next week expecting to spin a story.
For a while I sweated more about doing Happy Club than about preaching my sermon. I was wondering all morning, “What’s the kid got in that Happy Sack?” After a year or so of doing them I would think, “I hope it’s not another doll. Please, not another trophy.” What can you say after the fifth doll and the sixth trophy in a year? I admit, I started cheating and looking in the Happy Sack before the kids came down front. I’d see the parents or call them during the week. What’s your child bringing in the Happy Sack? But that didn’t always work. Children are prone to change their minds.
As Ches filled pulpits around the state, he became the Johnny Appleseed of Happy Clubs. He planted them everywhere he went. Some germinated and are still going today. I transplanted mine from Trinity Baptist to Jefferson First Baptist. It’s looks different. It’s still called “Happy Club.” We film it and put it on You-Tube. I no longer send home the Happy Sack, but the time with the children is creative, fun, interactive, and fits with the theme of the sermon. If you were to poll the congregation, many of them will tell you they remember the Happy Club messages from week to week quicker than the sermon. What does that say about us?
Well it’s not a slight on my congregation, nor is it a dig at my sermons. I think we really are more like children than we think we are, at least we should hope to be, “if the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”