Country and small-town churches are windows to the heart and sinew of this country.
Anyone seeking to discover the real America need look no deeper than a rural church on Sunday morning. Understand the folks gathered there and you will understand what makes ours both the strongest and most compassionate nation on earth.
The country church building will likely be a cobbled, unpretentious structure. Somewhere under its painted boards may hide logs or rough-sawn timbers from the 1800s. Amid tiles in the high ceiling of the sanctuary may be hidden an old chimney pipe. On the wall behind the pulpit may hang a framed Church Covenant, its parchment paper yellowed and the wording faded, but the beliefs it embodies as sacred as the day it was agreed to.
Sunday school rooms, a kitchen, indoor restrooms, a fellowship hall, and maybe even a brand-new sanctuary may have been tacked on to the original structure in a sprawling maze — wood and mortar contributions of many successive generations.
Whatever its appearance, whether humble or grand, it’s just a building. The people are the real church.
Sunday morning worshippers arrive with the informality of kinfolk dropping in on Grandma for dinner, most dressed in their Sunday best. Understand, for many of them their best may be jeans or overalls. It makes no difference how they’re dressed — except maybe to some young boy or girl hoping to be noticed by another young lady or lad.
They file in shaking hands and giving hugs to one another — men, women, children and old folks alike. It’s obvious they’re glad to see one another. They’re family. Visitors, though, get the same warm and genuine welcome. None remain strangers long.
After a spell of this spontaneous fellowshipping, they settle into their pews — likely as not, in the same places they’ve sat for as long as they’ve attended. Like cows in an old dairy barn, each has a stanchion, and it just doesn’t seem right if even one is out of place. The preacher knows exactly where to look, then, to ask Brother Bill or John to offer up a prayer.
It’s home, this country church. Some families are represented by four and five generations. Earlier generations of the same families are at rest in the cemetery out back. Children baptized in the church have grown up, gone off to school, joined the military or moved away and then moved back. Even if all other places and people they’ve known are gone, the country church is home.
The rituals differ by denomination — Baptist, Methodist, Disciples of Christ and others — but the worship is much the same in every little church. You can always count on scripture being quoted from the pulpit and an Amen from out in the pews.
Country churches have long lists of folks they’re praying for, but they’re not just lists of names — they’re friends and family the folks in church genuinely love and care about and they’re doing the best they can to help them. They’re asking in simple faith for God to care for them.
Prayer lists are a phenomenon all their own. None of us can even imagine the numbers of folks lifting our names in prayer. As a local spokesman for the Gideons, I’ve been in many rural churches and noted the same names on prayer lists throughout the county. We are entwined in miraculous fashion. No matter who you are or how alone you might think yourself in your distress, Christians throughout the county are praying for you every week. That’s not preaching, just fact.
As faithful as they are in their worship, as genuine as they may be in their faith in God, those people comprising small town and country churches, must also embody a quiet tenacity to keep open the doors of their churches.
That so many small communities yet have Sunday services with as few as 20 or 30 worshippers is a testimony to their individual and spiritual strength. Most could go to bigger churches. They could close the doors of the old church and let someone else worry about paying the light bill in another building.
They could but they don’t. That church is not just the few people who sit in the pews on Sunday morning, but generations of folk beginning with they who hewed the first timbers. It is where the faithful go today to commune not only with God, but with those believers who came before them, and where they find the strength to persevere.
Visit a country church and you will see it, too — the heart and sinew of who we are.
Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at email@example.com.