Once upon a time, there was a church


Once upon a time there was a group of folks in the country who wanted to have a place to worship God. The nearest church to them was miles away and across the river. Just about everyone in their area farmed. Sunday did not mean chores went away; they were just fewer in number. Cows still needed to be milked, wood stoves heated up and livestock fed. These farm families would then have just an hour or two to hitch up their horses to a buggy and make it to a gathering place for worship.

One neighbor talked to another neighbor, and they decided to not just talk; they set a date to meet. In a couple of weeks, they would gather at a clearing in the woods and start a church. A cousin of one of the farmers was a preacher; they invited him to bring the first sermon.

Anticipation and joy were thick in the air on the first Sunday meeting. Several of the teenagers had never been to a worship service. The adults had trouble remembering the last time they worshipped together. Of course, there were no hymnals. The preacher stood on a stump and thundered forth for an hour - there was a lot of Bible to cover to make up for lost time.

After the worship, baskets were uncovered to reveal cold fried chicken and biscuits. Neighbor shared with neighbor. One family brought a jug of molasses which was liberally poured over bird and biscuit.

Around two in the afternoon, the children were told to go play in the woods. The adults voted on a name for the embryonic church. An offering was received. The man who owned the woods agreed to donate that plot to the new gathering. The men agreed to gather the next Saturday and raise a brush arbor - a stack of thick limbs leaned up against poles to provide a little shelter. In two weeks, they would come back and have services again. They hollered for the children to come out of the woods, sang more songs and heard another sermon. Then, they set out for home before darkness closed in, getting back in time to feed up and milk.

Two weeks later, they gathered under the brush arbor. More people came out this time. The pattern was established - singing, preaching, eating, business, singing, preaching and a journey home. New folks came every meeting.

After a few years and storms, the brush arbor gave way to a frame building, which was too small on the day they finished it. Rooms were added onto the back. The preacher moved on; another one was found. A mission offering was collected: $12.37. That was big money in those days. They sent the offering to Nashville.

It took 50 years and a dozen preachers for the church to decide to have services every week instead of every other week. By then, there were holes in the floor of the old frame building that let the winter drafts chill everyone's feet. Some people were not even coming in horse and buggy anymore; they rattled up to church in Model T Fords.

The church nearly split over whether to build a new brick building. Some of the old-timers were so attached to the memories in the old building, they couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. Others were anxious to have warmer feet. The vote to build carried, and the new brick church was built. The old frame church was moved away to become someone's hay barn.

By now the church had a Sunday School and a choir. There were committees and deacons, but everyone knew that three families really ran the church. Some people were fine with that; others resented that they weren't in control. Squabbles would break out in church business meetings over silly issues, like the color of the carpet that should be purchased. The real issues were avoided.

Preachers came and went. Now, instead of the kids growing up and farming down the road, they went off to the university and got a job in town or in the city. No one noticed that the congregation was growing grayer and moving slower. Two of the patriarchs died within a month of each other. All of a sudden, the church had trouble paying its bills. "All we seem to have any more are funerals," was the remark of those who had grown up in the church. "I remember when we had so many young'uns we couldn't fit them in the nursery," was the wistful reply. The church seemed to be living more and more in the past. No one farmed anymore. Most folks had five acres, a garden and a Social Security check that arrived every month.

One pastor left after only 24 months. The three remaining deacons realized they could no longer pay a full-time minister. They found a retired pastor who preached, visited in the hospital and didn't do much else except check his direct-deposit stub. When he died, the church was down to 12 people in a building designed for 300.

The church held a meeting. The average age of those present was 78. They talked, they cried, and they voted to close. They put their building up for sale and dispersed to different churches in town.

What happened? Was it the natural lifecycle of a church? Or did they forget their church started because people had a hope, a faith that God would do something? Did they gradually shift their focus to their comfort instead of their mission? Did they stop trying to do something bold and instead do something safe?

The building was bought by a multi-ethnic Pentecostal church meeting in the old closed country store. They prayed, they sacrificed and they gave. The day that small group of people gathered in the old brick building, their hearts were filled with hope, with faith that God was going to do something, something more than they could ask or think.

Are we living as people of memory? Or are we living as people of hope?

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.