North Alabama has a remarkable trail made up of 32 churches. To be included in this trail, a church must be at least 100 years old, stand on its original site, still hold services, and be accessible to the public. I'd say those are worthy reasons for using the word "Hallelujah." In the past few weeks, I've had a chance to visit and take a few photos of three of these, one in Limestone County and two in Morgan County.
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Athens, Alabama
According to the website, First Presbyterian was "founded in 1829, the First Presbyterian Church initially shared a building, known as Union Church, with the First Baptist Church. In 1852 they were able to move into their own church, but this building was seized in the Civil War, used by Union troops as a stable, the pews burned for firewood and the building severely abused. The congregation moved back in with their Baptist friends until 1895 when the “new” sanctuary was dedicated."
This church is a beautiful and imposing structure on a prominent corner around the courthouse square. I attended the wedding of Jackie and Helen Greenhaw there in 1965 and remember what a gorgeous setting it was for the happy event. Can you believe there was such a time when two denominations joined together to form one church and called it "Union Church." This was not the combination of two Baptist churches or two Presbyterian churches, but two different churches with a host of common doctrines and beliefs. It was rather symbolic to me that the grandchildren in the photo also represent both Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and they love each other dearly.
ST. JOHN'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH in Decatur, Alabama
I heard a preacher joke once (actually more than once) that when he started out in ministry, he asked God to give him a big church and a pretty wife, but that God got it mixed up and gave him a pretty church. . . . then, he paused for effect and let the congregation fill in the blank. Let's just say that his wife has always been a great sport. But, I thought of that when I was photographing this church. It is most certainly a "pretty church."
According to the website: "St. John’s congregation was established in 1880 by the settlers of New Decatur, but the current structure wasn’t built until 1893. Originally facing north, the church was physically turned around to face east. Saint John’s was modeled after Gothic English Parish Churches and is the only true Gothic church in Decatur."
You'll find it if you travel from Delano Park to 2nd Avenue in Decatur.
HARTSELLE TABERNACLE AND CAMP MEETING in Hartselle, Alabama
You'll easily be able to imagine the air being stirred by a hundred waving paper fans and souls being stirred by gospel music, old-time hymns, and fire-and-brimstone preaching when you visit this famous place in Morgan County. Perhaps it was the atmosphere from the Hartselle Tabernacle that contributed to A.J. Showalter's inspiration in writing the lyrics for "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while he was teaching music during the brief time he was in Hartselle. I don't know that for a fact, but somehow it seems possible. After all, the time period does coincide.
The description on the website is this: "Nothing more than cedar tree logs holding up a roof to cover pews, The Tabernacle has been the home of the Hartselle Camp Meeting since the late 1800s. It and other camp meetings can trace their heritage in part to the holiness movement of the 19th century."
Drive out Tabernacle Road some time and sit in one of those pews. Allow your soul to be restored.
Think about it. These churches, along with the other 29 on the list, have survived under extreme circumstances -- World Wars, the Great Depression, political turmoil, and everything from the first flight by the Wright brothers to man's first lunar landing. They have no doubt also endured countless internal squabbles during those years. YET they found a way to persevere and soldier on.
So, now, here WE are. Our churches were shuttered for months by a horrible virus and are just now cautiously re-emerging. Nothing looks like it used to look. In a matter of months, everything has changed. No more shared paper materials, such as worship guides, bulletins or even hymnbooks. No passing the offering plate or breaking off hunks of bread for Communion. Pews are taped off to allow for social distancing. No choirs are in the loft because the singers can't sit far enough apart, and the deep breathing used for singing is inherently dangerous. No meet-and-greet time, especially if it involves any kind of physical touching. Many are wearing masks, so smiles are hidden. Churches are developing an online presence and utilizing the technology whizzes in making their Facebook or YouTube broadcasts as effective as possible. No Sunday School, small groups, or church nursery. Services are shortened, and heavy-duty disinfectants are sprayed between gathering times. It's weird. It's surreal. It's uncomfortable. It's completely unsettling. Those members who have always been counted on to attend faithfully (i.e. "those over the age of 65") are now the ones most at risk if they choose to attend. It's heartbreaking.
People who were attending church sporadically BEFORE the coronavirus pandemic have formed a new pattern of never attending or attending via computer or television while wearing their pajamas. According to Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College in London, "On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally's study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit." The frightening truth is that a number of people have formed new habits since mid-March that are going to be tough to break. What will churches need to do to lure them back inside? I have a number of ideas, but I want to hear from you. Please share them with me for my next blog post.
Somehow the words to The Church's One Foundation came to my mind as I was writing:
"The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is His new creation by water and the Word:
from heav'n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died."
And ponder this verse. Acts 20:28 -- "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood."