Detours can often lead to something quite profound. A detour happened to me one day in southern Alabama near the Gulf Coast.
Coastal Alabama is gorgeous. It’s landscape consists of fertile soil, rolling hills, farms, and small antebellum towns. It also gets incredibly hot in the summer. The day of my detour was no exception to the scorching summer heat.
I was with my family and as we drove through one of this area’s small towns we decided to stop for some lunch. The detour then struck in the form of an awkwardly placed sign in the grass by the road simply stating: “rummage sale.” Lunch would have to wait.
At the site of the sale, we quickly realized this was actually a church rummage sale, which as many travelers and shoppers can attest to are often one of the best kinds for bargain hunting. Safe to say, I postponed lunch indefinitely!
As I hopped out of the car, I quickly took note of the time. It was noon and that fact alone coupled with scores of near-empty tables on the lawn in the distance, dashed to the curb all hopes I had for finding treasure. Nevertheless, I determined to make a quick perusal.
People had in fact picked through the outside tables. My eyes drifted away from them, and I looked around at the church itself. The grounds and few buildings on the property were unkempt. The church was not doing well.
After scanning the outside tables I ventured into the fellowship hall where more visible evidence was confirming the churches decline.
From what I could discern no church member working the sale was under the age of sixty-five. The interior design consisted of elements from an issue of 80’s Vogue. The paint on the walls was peeling. An organ in the corner was falling apart.
Still, small vestiges of a once flourishing church community remained. The church’s former vigor was reflected in the items being sold and in the photos and décor on the walls. Group photos of smiling church members on pristine grounds stood as proud reminders of a storied past.“This was another small church nestled in a conservative, rural, southern town that had fallen prey to bright lights, big cities, megachurches, suburbia, and ever-changing values.”
The contrast between the past and present life of this church made me question where it was at in its lifecycle. I could not determine the church’s future but I could tell it was having difficulty keeping relevant.
I had seen this type of situation all too often. This was another small church nestled in a conservative, rural, southern town that had fallen prey to bright lights, big cities, megachurches, suburbia, and ever-changing values.
The middle class, as well as the younger, hip crowd, was long gone in lieu of where the action supposedly was. Places comprised of “family-friendly” communities where jobs in software and craft breweries abound and where the churches let you come as you are and stay as you want to be had swept away the tides of youth from this church’s shores.
What made the situation all the more poignant was that I was not just standing amid a local church in decline, or in the very least one that was a shadow of its former self, but I was standing in the middle of a church whose denomination was in decline, as well.
The church’s denomination itself, known for its conservatism and simplicity, had been in decline for some time to my knowledge.
There are many possible reasons why this church found itself at this scary crossroads. Perhaps its decline was due to cultural, economic, demographic, and religious changes (for better and worse), which had all overshadowed it. This once-thriving church…had begun to whither.
This is a theme all too common throughout rural America and it is most noticeable in towns that have, again for better or worse, failed to adapt to America’s ever-changing social and religious “norms”.
Herein lies the main issue, for what many traditionally conservative churches lack in style and flair, they more than make up for with substance and strong values. Both of these are qualities that stand the test of time and are more vital to the Christian life than worship power ballads or feel-good sermons. Yet in today’s landscape, style and flare are valued above what is truly important.
Nevertheless, just because former churches may fade for taking a stand for conservative orthodoxy does not mean Christians have to. Preserving the history of such churches and denominations is vital.“Herein lies the main issue, for what many traditionally conservative churches lack in style and flair, they more than makeup for with substance and strong values. Both of these are qualities that stand the test of time and are more vital to the Christian life than worship power ballads or feel-good sermons. Yet in today’s landscape, style and flare are valued above what is truly important.”
The respective theological traditions and values of these bastions of theological and social conservatism must not be left to history. This singular mindset has always aided me in championing the cause of church history.
In light of this mindset, I began to scan the fellowship hall tables. I was eager to find what treasures of wisdom I could find in this old church’s artifacts, namely in the form of books it had for sale or anything else that caught my eye.
The church had seen better days but its memories would live on. I set on taking some of its past with me. I had high hopes of preserving what it stood for and sharing that with others.“Nevertheless, just because former churches may fade for taking a stand for conservative orthodoxy does not mean Christians have to. Preserving the history of such churches and denominations is vital.”
While glancing over the last table inside, I noticed a stack of old books. I inspected the books and noticed classic conservative preachers of the old south had written them. There were others as well, however, they were specific to the church. These were just the treasures I was looking for!
These books were representative of what many of us in the south call the “old paths”, which emphasize traditional Christianity untouched by modern liberalism.
After snagging them up for mere cents, one of the ladies told me that if I liked books there were plenty more inside the main church building. This church building was next door and they happened to be selling their church library. How could I resist? Lunch, by the way, no longer mattered!
I walked across the church lawn to the other building, which was a thrift store. I looked through the items for sale and asked the church secretary present about the library. She kindly led me through to a back room.
She switched on the lights of the backroom revealing to my surprise large bookcases filled with books. However, there was one problem, an ocean of z-racks loaded with clothing and old vacation Bible school costumes stood in my way like a Redwood forest (without the pleasant pine-filled scent of course).
She urged me to go back and take whatever I wanted but also laughed at the swamp I would have to wade through to get to the shelves. To this day I do not know how they got so many articles of clothing in such a small space.
Due to careful maneuvering, I eventually made it to the bookshelves. I then squirmed and squeezed for a better look.
I hoped to find books similar to those I had just discovered. They were the tomes and artifacts of times passed. However, they were also bastions of conservative faith. Their lessons, like the Bible they adhere to, are unchanging and fully applicable to us today.
As I gradually accumulated more and more books from the shelves, I built up stacks of them on the floor. I was juggling large stacks in my arms as well, all while dodging the vacation Bible school costumes behind me, and trying my best not to trip on the z-racks. It was a circus only a church archeologist like me was content to be a part of.
When I finished rummaging, I trekked back through the clothing forest and brought my stash to the secretary. I thumped three large stacks of old books on her desk and she rang them up. It was a meager sum for a momentous haul.
As I bagged them up she asked me why I wanted them. What could a young guy like me, who was obviously not from around the area, want with dusty, old church books? She was curious because the books had obscure authors. Most under the age of sixty-five would never have even heard of them.
I told her how much I loved the “old paths” and great Christian literature. At this, she was visibly happy, however, her smile faded and I detected a wistfulness in her eyes.
I could tell she had been a longtime member of the church and that as the books left so did the pleasant memories of what her congregation once was.
In her eyes, I could see remnants of a once robust and devout Christian culture and way of life. A way of life that was beginning to fade away right before said eyes. The Christian culture of the church and its denomination were eroding from this small corner of southwest Alabama. It was as if not much could be done about it.
Where would the church be in the years to come? I did not have the answers but I did know that preserving artifacts from her church would bring the obscure to light and let others benefit from things long tucked away. These books and their authors were long overdue for fresh eyes and rediscovery. Her forefathers’ doctrinal simplicity would not be forgotten. At least not on my watch.
Before I left, I smiled again and thanked her. As I did, her wistfulness turned into a large smile. She knew I would take care of the books and that they would be loved. For me, her thankfulness staved off any feelings of sadness I felt for the situation at hand. I completed my mission and overcame my detour. I then trekked off to lunch with treasures secured.
To this day the books I rescued from the church remind me of that time and place. They also continually reinforce something that I have come to learn so well: in obscurity, you can find strength.“Just because a church is small does not mean it is weak. God does not need a large church but a strong church. Some of the strongest churches I know are the most “obscure” by the standards of modern church “metrics”.
I was in the middle of a small church, in a small town. This was a small community with no malls, no mega-churches, and no software companies within miles. It was just rural Americana. The church and possibly the town had seen better days, that much was clear.
Yet these small churches are often the greatest incubators of sound doctrine and devout worship. Just because a church is small does not mean it is weak. God does not need a large church but a strong church. Some of the strongest churches I know are the most “obscure” by the standards of modern church “metrics”.
This detour reinforces why there is such a need to preserve things from churches and denominations past. Christian artifacts – ephemera, books, records, sheet music and the like – lead us to not only hold onto a glorious past but also to reflect and meditate on what made aspects of the past so great.
People say some things are better left to history. I agree to an extent. Sometimes things decline for good reason. Yet many times the rapid ascent to accept the new, which has been highly prevalent for the last 70 years or so, leaves us forgetting or overlooking the timeless Biblical truths of churches, denominations, and preachers past.
For almost all of human history what is mature or versed has been viewed as being more trustworthy than what is new. Since the Enlightenment, that has changed. This is in error.
We must remember that Jesus never changes nor do His words. (Heb. 13:8 KJV, Matt. 24:35, KJV) Therefore, let us not be too quick to leave the past in obscurity, for in obscurity there can lie great strength.