By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
MICHIE — Like many pastors across Tennessee the past six to eight weeks, Ben Martin has gone to the sanctuary at his church and preached a sermon that was livestreamed to his congregation on Sunday mornings.
But Martin, who has been pastor of First Baptist Church, Michie, for six years, missed seeing his congregation.
After hearing of a small congregation that surprised their pastor by going into their church and placing a photo of themselves where they normally sat, Martin adapted the idea for his congregation.
Martin took plastic dinner plates and wrote down the names of the people who normally attend First Baptist and placed them on the pews where they normally sit. He also sprinkled some “visitor” plates throughout the sanctuary.
This simple gesture allowed his congregation to see that their pastor missed them, he noted. Like other pastors, Martin acknowledged that he has experienced some loneliness following the governor’s stay at home order. The plates in the pew have helped him to remember and pray for each family by name, he added. “Members have told me they appreciated knowing that I actually knew where they sat.”
The action also reminded First Baptist members of his love for them. “We can’t come into the building safely, but we can think about and pray for them.”
Martin’s gesture has gained local attention in McNairy County. His daughter, who acknowledged it was “the coolest thing” she had ever seen, took a photo of the plates on the pew and posted it on Facebook. The Independent Appeal newspaper in Selmer saw the post and then sent out a reporter who interviewed Martin and ran a story and article on the newspaper’s front page on April 29.
Martin said he wasn’t seeking attention when he attached the plates to the pew. In fact, he recalled thinking, “That was an oddball thing to do.”
But he is grateful for the attention his church has received. When Martin arrived six years ago, the church was averaging about 30 people in attendance. Before the shutdown, the church normally ran between 100 and 110 in worship and has reached as many as 170 on a high Sunday, he said.
“If everyone came on the same day, we wouldn’t have room for them to park,” he acknowledged.
The church has taken the virus seriously and has followed safety guidelines. Because everyone was anxious to see each other again, the church held a drive-in service on April 26 in the parking lot of Michie Elementary School. More than 50 cars and more than 70 people attended the service and no one got out of their car, Martin said.
“It was the first time we had gotten together in six weeks,” he said.
Martin is proud of his congregation. They have stepped up and helped meet needs in the church and the community by providing meals and shopping for those who can’t get out while being safety conscious. They would deliver the food or groceries to the person’s porch and then call to say it was there, Martin added.
“God has really been good and has blessed our church,” the pastor affirmed.