Six months ago we were plugging along in our little Anglican fellowship. But then a number of factors led us to slowly withdraw over the spring. Some of it had to do with things our church couldn't help: a relentless barrage of embarrassing news coming out of the Anglican world, rehearsed in jack-hammer fashion on George Conger's blog. Then revelations regarding The Anglican Province of Rwanda's complicity in the dictatorship of Paul Kagame, and the false narrative sold to American evangelicals of Rwandan "reconciliation." The latter made it clear to us that as a family we could not sign on with PEAR USA with a good conscience.
There were local issues, too, e.g. a move to a nearby Associate Reformed Presbyterian sanctuary -- beautiful, yes; but meaning we no longer had the flexibility to meet for Wednesday night Bible studies. But more than any other factor, our family came to a very practical realization: we were just plumb tired of doing "commuter church." For sundry theological and ecclesiastical reasons we had been driving a minimum 40 mile round trip for 20 of the past 23 years. Nobody vocalized it, but deep down we were all worn out by the distance and limited fellowship opportunities.
In January (2013) my youngest daughter was invited to give a talk on upcycling (based on a project she had done for the local county fair) to a Young at Heart group at a church in our community. She was warmly received and the family was encouraged to visit. A week after her presentation I decided, out of sheer curiosity, to visit the church's Wednesday night Bible study on Romans. And then we started visiting on Sunday mornings.
That church, it turns out, is one I've known about since the late '70s. It was established by German Reformed settlers in 1766 -- five years after Old Hop had gone to sleep with his fathers -- making it the second oldest congregation in our county. I had never given it much thought since it belonged to the flaming liberal United Church of Christ. But something happened there six years ago that was a game-changer. And while this is yet another post about a very personal experience, I think there is something instructive here about the trajectory of Christianity in America.
In 2007 this church voted itself out of the UCC -- the denomination that had gone from Philip Schaff and Reinhold Niebuhr to Bill Moyers and Barack Obama. This church still has families that descended from those old German settlers. These people still have a vigorous and simple confidence in the Bible as God's inerrant word.
The UCC was a union of Congregationalist churches in the northeast with the (German) Evangelical and Reformed churches in the Middle Atlantic and Midwest. Both groups had succumbed to modernism, but there were dissidents: Lewis Sperry Chafer (founder of Dallas Theological Seminary) and C.I. Scofield were Congregationalist ministers. Meanwhile, the Carolina Piedmont was a backwater of E & R churches that never fully imbibed sacramental Mercersburg theology or the social gospel. Like the "burnt over" districts of the late 18th century, the DNA of the rural Piedmont churches was informed more by revivalism than mainline modernism.
So the seeds (dormant though they seemed) were sown for a resurgence of old-time religion, especially once the UCC openly embraced liberalism. While the UCC proclaimed that "God is still speaking" (ostensibly overturning His own antiquated word in scripture) several rural congregations to our east said in effect, "in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1:2), and that word is non-negotiable. This church, a five-mile country drive (10 minutes) from our doorstep, was among them.
To my pleasant surprise the pastor who was called to the church after it left the UCC is a graduate of Dallas Seminary with a doctorate from Marburg (Germany). He has authored several books, among them a definitive biography of Chafer.
The congregation is predominately elderly. Prior to our coming the "youth group" consisted of exactly one teenage girl -- who succeeds in bringing a half dozen of her school friends (in addition to our two youngest) to monthly activities (last week we took the group geochaching, drawing some spiritual lessons while having a fun adventure). Does this church have a future? Well, it certainly has a long past. And there are some families with younger children in attendance
Like other churches founded in the German reformed tradition it has a light liturgy including seasonal colors, altar candles (lit by the aforementioned teen), the creeds, prayers, and the Lord's Supper at least once a month and on church holidays. But there's a laid back feel and informality -- think the mythical "All Souls Church" on The Andy Griffith Show. Extemporaneous prayers are animated; announcements turn into conversations, with the pastor patiently grinning while shuffling his sermon notes. Laughter and joy blend with a stiff upper lip concern for the infirmed and grieving.
The fourth Sunday of the month includes an old-fashioned hymn singing. Members call out their favorites. The Sunday after George Beverly Shea went to be with Christ, an elder member requested that we sing "How Great Thou Art" and got a bit cantankerous when the organist couldn't find the music:
"What kind of church is this," he barked aloud, "that can't sing 'How Great Thou Art'? We don't need the music; let's just sing it!" The recurring favorites, though, are "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Garden."
This is a country church, a slice a rural Americana, where conservative convictions and familiar hymnody are commonly upheld in spite of denominational affiliations. It is familiar to me from my experience as a youth; familiar enough to my wife from her upbringing in a church of the Grace Evangelical Society; and seasoned with a dash of the liturgical worship order we've come to appreciate over the past seven years.
In a recent Time article, Mary Eberstadt observed,
It’s the stricter Christian churches that typically have stronger and more vibrant congregations — as has been documented at least since Dean M. Kelley’s 1996 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing...
Well, this church does serve up breakfast -- or hold a hot dog sale -- about every Saturday. But something tells me it will still be here after the seeker-friendlies have long dissipated.
As changing views on gay marriage, among others, go to show, secularization marches on. Traditionalists may be on the losing end of historic real estate, at least for now, as well as booed out of the public square for their views on sex. Down the road, though, they still look to possess something else critical — a growing congregation without which every church, after all, is just a bed and breakfast waiting to happen.