Little Country Church on the Edge of Town

IMG_0709The song by that title was in many ways, the ‘ballad’ of the Jesus Movement of Southern California in the early 1970’s. Love Song, the Christian ‘folk-rock’ band who defined ‘contemporary Christian music’ in its earliest genesis sang it, recorded it, and scores of young worship leaders in training, like myself, practiced endlessly on our guitars to master the electric guitar intro.

But the song was clearly about the original “Calvary Chapel” location in Orange County California, hardly a ‘country church’ to anyone outside of California.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went on a little ‘road trip’ (she’s a public school teacher in a district with an October break – which we love!). On our way to visit some life-long friends who now live in Missouri, we went through my dad’s hometown of Wamego Kansas. This little village on the prairie about two hours west of Kansas City has become gentrified, has a charming downtown, and has the original “Oz Museum,” because it was the region that Frank Baum imagined when he penned his famous book, “The Wizard of Oz.”

But it’s also the little town where my dad was born in 1927. Nearby, in the tiny town of Belvue, my great-grandmother was born back in 1875, shortly after Kansas became a state. I have an entire row of relatives buried in the cemetery there; one of my ancestor’s has a Civil War Union Veteran marker on his grave. My grandmother’s maiden name was Fish and there are a lot of them buried there!  (Kind of proud my ancestors were on the Union side of the war!)IMG_0740

I mentioned in a blog last spring about arranging for a new gravestone for my grandmother. Well, it stands here in Wamego at the city cemetery, so we figured we would stop by, take some photos and enjoy this little slice of the Midwest before heading on toward Missouri.

My dad’s cousin, my ‘first-cousin-once-removed’ also lives near here and we wanted to visit with her, so we spent the night and a couple days in Potawatomi County in Northeastern Kansas.

Another thing I have wanted to do for years was visit First Presbyterian Church in Wamego. Ninety years ago, my grandparents had been members there and according to my late grandfather’s obituary in the local paper, they came to faith in Christ at this church. (My grandfather died two months before my father was born in 1927, so my grandmother, a ‘single mom’ during the depression eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1938 where my dad IMG_0712grew up and I was born and raised)

So, in this little town there stands a stately Presbyterian Church building where my grandparents worshipped and I had never been inside the sanctuary.

Since we would be there on a Sunday morning, I emailed the pastor and told him of my connection to his congregation, as well as a short ‘bio’ with my own ministry credentials (in retrospect, perhaps a mistake, since when we arrived, it seemed everybody in the church had read my email and knew my resume!!)

The Sunday service started at 10:15. We were running just a few minutes late (arriving at about 10:12) and saw nobody outside at all. We walked up the stairs, and into the lobby where a lady – whom we found out was their church secretary -asked us “are you the Todds?” and promptly escorted us to the 2nd row…. except .. everyone was already seated, probably 100-150 people, and the pastor was in the lobby, ready to head down the aisle for the formal processional to begin the worship service. It was as if they were waiting for the long-lost prodigal to arrive!

The guy sitting next to us, as it turned out, was moderator of the ‘presbytery’ board for all of the Kansas Presbyterian churches and knew where I went to seminary and our ‘story,’ so I can only assume my private email made its way into the church newsletter!

But something happened in that old, stately sanctuary. We sang, accompanied by an old but completely functional pipe organ “I’ll fly away,” along with “What a friend we have in Jesus” and several other old hymns that no doubt, my grandparents had sung in that same sanctuary.

There was a public confession of faith, similar to what we say each week at our church, followed by the pastor’s assurance of forgiveness, a kid’s sermon, an adult sermon, and eventually, the benediction. They insisted that we join them for the “Second Sunday Supper,” a potluck after church, in the fellowship hall. It was a delightful time, as if we were surrounded by family we had never met, all asking about our family history.

The pastor had insisted that I feel the freedom to take whatever photos I wanted (to include me up in the pulpit since, well since I love standing in pulpits I suppose!).IMG_0722

They could not have been more welcoming and even made us consider (at least for a few minutes) the benefits of living in a small town like Wamego.

The Take-aways:

Cultural Relevance is not necessarily the answer.
During this same trip, I had taken along my most recent copy of the National Association of Evangelicals magazine, (Back in the 90’s, I served as president of the Colorado Springs Association of Evangelicals),’and the topic of this issue was, “The Thriving Rural Church.” That morning in Wamego we did not experience a culturally relevant church, yet we saw a multi-generational community of believers who seemed unfazed by their ‘old school’ ways.

Continuity is perhaps even stronger than cultural adaptation and contextualization. From Joshua’s order to take stones from the dry river bed of the Jordan as a memorial to future generations to a more contemporary experience where I sat in a sanctuary tearing up as I thought about my grandparents’ faith being expressed in this same space, there is something very powerful about the legacy and continuity of our faith throughout generations.

What is really important anyways? Have we made ‘cultural relevance’ the new litmus test to determine a church’s value? These folks in Wamego are hardly ‘cutting edge,’ yet in a town of a couple thousand, gather a significant percentage of the populous from all ages and worship together, fellowship together, and seem to have a sense of both community and purpose.

Our time in Wamego was intended as a brief stopover in our trip, yet it ended up as a very emotional experience for me. My grandparents came into a relationship with Christ and therefore, eventually, so did I, quite probably, because of the trajectory they set. The older I get, the more humble I become!

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