The church I have attended since I was six days old (Hardin Chapel Church of Christ in the quaint Tennessee community of Possum Trot) recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
I know there are churches a lot older (“Mama mia, we have Michelangelo’s crayon refrigerator drawings on the ceiling!”), but I’m still proud of the generations living and dead who exhibited the faith to achieve the milestone.
Our celebration was a time for good food, powerful lessons, re-acquaintances and anecdote-swapping. For instance, in the late 40s, revival preacher Paul Galyan (1917-2000) was delivering an evening sermon with the aid of coal oil lamps and managed to swallow one of the bugs attracted by the light. Thinking quickly, he paraphrased a Bible verse as “He was a stranger and I took him in.”
Churches founded a century or more ago have seen their share of joys and sorrows -- weathering wars, natural disasters, and a Great Depression. They are admired landmarks for townspeople who have never darkened their doors. They were founded by people who would be stunned by today’s transportation, air conditioning, paved parking lots, audio-visual systems, manners, social problems and casual dress code. (“No, wait - I don’t think that’s spilled communion wine. I think Troy got so relaxed he was absorbed into the pew!”)
Such congregations were launched in the days when they probably depended on monthly visits by a self-taught circuit-riding preacher. Now many have a regular, college-educated preacher who uses the internet to prepare sermons - which may explain why the ministers sometimes shout, “Have you seen what your favorite child star looks like NOW????” in the middle of a lesson about the Prodigal Son.
Churches achieve such longevity in different ways. Some do it by building a reputation for being an unflinching, fire-and-brimstone, “Gimme that old time religion” beacon of fundamentalism. Of course the extremists in that group infer that Jesus was speaking of plant-eating dinosaurs when he said “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
On the other side are the congregations that keep people coming by being the progressive, politically correct, “change with the times” “big tent” sort of church. They value hymns such as “Praise God From Whom All Entitlements Flow.” They also have problems keeping the choir loft sanitary. (“Huh! I guess she took it literally rather than metaphorically when I said that the second door on the left was the bathroom.”)
Many older churches are still thriving, but others fear for the future, because of the graying of the membership. These congregations sing hymns such as “Swing Low To The Handicapped Spot, Sweet Chariot,” “I Saw The Li-Say, How Long Does It Take The VA To Schedule A Glaucoma Treatment?” and “The Old Rugged Selfie.”
Hardin Chapel plans to bury a time capsule as part of its ongoing centennial celebration, with photos, greetings and other things to let people a century from now know what life was like in 2015 and what we hope the future will be like.
Coincidentally, I found letters that one church buried a hundred years ago. Predictions included “Men will enjoy high-tech, steam-powered hat removers,” “The church will have to support poor, out-of-work divorce lawyers” and “That magic medium of radio will be used to broadcast the public floggings of miscreants who say ‘darn’ and ‘heck’.”
*Sigh* Naive, or living before the 500-feet-from-a-beer-joint era? You be the judge.
Danny welcomes email responses at email@example.com and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”