Reflections in an Old Church

It was once the biggest church in the city in its time. Built in the 1880’s, the stone structure still features the stained glass, beautiful wooden beams in the soaring ceiling, cushioned pews and an open, airy-feeling sanctuary that must have seemed ahead of its time. It could hold around 1300 people.

The sanctuary felt about 35 (F) degrees today as the heat is kept off unless needed. Sitting in the chill gloom of that room, many thoughts went through my mind.

Of all of the people who passed through those church doors through the past century, did they find help spiritually? Was the Word of God preached there and did the Gospel ring out to the souls sitting in all of those pews? Or was it a high society church where you went largely to see and be seen? Was it a church where well-heeled professionals and businessmen and their well-dressed wives attended each Sunday as a sort of badge, a credential necessary at the time for social respectability?

What kind of pastors entered the pulpit, once called a “sacred desk”? Were they men of God with blameless lives and kindly hearts as Christ’s under-shepherds caring for souls? Or were they erudite, prideful men, overcome with their own eloquence in presenting a respectable social gospel missing the power of God unto salvation?

It’s too late now in any event. The thousands who must have come and gone, sung and listened, worked and taught Sunday school have joined the dust motes that slowly fell from the ceiling in the fading afternoon light.

It is no longer a church. It ceased to be that when the aging congregation disbanded years ago. The sanctuary is now only used for cultural events, and the heat stays off when possible in the big room where so many once worshiped.

I was killing time several years ago while waiting for a son to finish a music lesson there. I found several old hymnals still on a shelf in a basement alcove. I opened one of the musty books to look at the hymns. I looked at the words to one of my favorites.

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime…

Yes, after all of our vaunted buildings and gilded shrines have crumbled to dust, the cross of Christ will still stand.

The church didn’t move in this case, it died. All over America there are churches like this. Some have been torn down, others have changed with the times and morphed into big box circus churches in the burbs where an entirely different (false) gospel of the triumph of man is preached. Others have become gift shops, museums, concert halls, wedding chapels or even retail establishments.

Will sat at the old organ today in that sanctuary, in the cold, with his coat on, playing  the 1910 Kimball organ that once rang out with hymns.  I wanted to hear the  old Kimball organ play a hymn in the empty sanctuary one more time where so many once sang. At my request, Will played Amazing Grace. As the slightly out of tune notes on the tired organ sounded the familiar hymn, I sang along–a congregation of exactly one.

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see…

When we left the room, I stopped in front of the old pulpit that sat in a corner by the platform used by dancers. “How many times do you think the Gospel was preached over this pulpit, Will?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

And we left.

5 thoughts on “Reflections in an Old Church

  1. Bobby says:

    Perfect column. Across the street from our computer shop is a church building used by a Pentecostal Assemblies of the World congregation. But when that building was first opened in the late 1950’s, it was the home of the “South Side” mission of the area’s Northside Baptist. That church was the church that welcomed an immigrant family to the area, and many of my friends from the early years were from the church, and the accompanying school, that I would attend until sixth grade, when a false hope by parents forced me out (and led to my academic and social demise as I wouldn’t conform to a worldly worldview, and I would be attacked every day until the end of my first year in college, leading to nearly ten years of seclusion).

    Next to the church were the First National Bank, the J. W. Pickens Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Nissan dealership, and on the other side was Jim Covington’s Toyota and Mazda dealerships. Across the railroad tracks was a conservative Methodist congregation, and then Bill Wannamaker’s Chevrolet dealership. Next was the Palmetto Bakery bread plant, and across was the Brickles’ Plymouth dealership. Of those places, only the bread plant (now known as Bimbo) exists today. None of the dealerships exist today, as they’ve been sold before going out of business, or as in the case of the Chevrolet and Chrysler dealerships, they moved to the Auto Mile with the owners when they moved; the Faireys still hold their 85-year old family-owned Chevrolet dealership (they acquired the local dealership franchise in 1993), and the Brickles just sold the Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep and Nissan dealerships to a chain in Lugoff this month; both moved to the new Auto Mile, in 1995 and 1998, respectively.

    Eleven years ago, our remaining aging congregation chose to leave after disputes led to the demise of the school, and later the church ten years ago this day I write. Doctrine and theology are no longer taught in the PAW congregation that now meets there, with “social gospel”.

    It seems the only congregations growing are following the Warrenist philosophies. The local LEC’s campuses are in former “big box” store buildings. I drove by recently and saw an apartment complex built on a former collegiate campus ministry building from my days, and reminded myself of the days I sent starting to gain maturity in God’s Word, and even the day a friend had me take a risk singing a song even though I had never been trained. Little did I know five years later I would be taking voice and four years later be doing my first true choral gig.

    We are losing our past indeed. When we lose our churches, what will be next?

  2. darlene says:

    I know one doesn’t have to travel far to see empty churches but your story awakened my memory of traveling to Europe..One of the things I enjoyed doing was going to visit the old, old churches there….I always made sure I also went on Sunday to see how many people were there. So sad in a church that could well fit 1,000 people only maybe 10 or 15 were there. This was true were ever I went except in Paris at the Notre Dame. They were filled to capacity. Grant you it was mostly tourist..I remember thinking how sad it was but realizing that the U.S. was headed in the same direction…It’s a comfort to know that salvation comes from Jesus Christ and not the churches.
    Happy New Year Ingrid to you and your family. Thank you again for your wonderful post.

  3. sunnypatchcottage says:

    Very good food for thought this morning, Ingrid! Here on the border of KS and MO, I travel through a little town called Nevada frequently, and on the north side is a little baptist church….which looks nice enough…but also has a tatoo parlor literally attached to the building. Oh the busses look nice and the building looks to be in good repair, and then the bright white tatoo business that butts right up to the building stands like an eye sore.

    In the same town there’s a big beautiful old Methodist church, now used by a small Southern baptist congregation that would make your dad proud. I visited there once, and the building was so grand inside, I wondered what it was like in it’s glory days. I’d never seen a church with a balcony and such rich woodwork and beautiful windows. The congregation was so tiny, if put side by side they’d have filled maybe the first 3 rows… But the preaching and teaching was solid.

    You are so right about the big box churches. They grow as they tickle ears and feed the physical…but starve the spiritual.

  4. Lisa Green Kentala says:

    Darlene’s comment reminded me of when I visited Paris in 2000. The most amazing memory of that trip is a visit to Notre Dame. The massively high ceilings, the intricate designs, crypts in a lower level – just a spectacular place to a history lover such as myself. Europeans have lost faith slowly over time. How ironic that Americans have more interest in these ancient houses of worship than they do!

  5. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Nevada, Missouri is a familiar place as my Grandma and Grandpa lived up the road in Sheldon. We shopped at the Wal-Mart in Nevada every summer for camping supplies when we would camp at Stockton Lake, and we’d drive right by Cottey College. I even know where that Baptist church is that you mentioned. Lots of old churches in that area that are a shadow of themselves sadly.

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