Fifty-One Miles to Faith
Leonard (MO) Christian Church

Going to church in this era of loud, rude bands and electronic light shows is often more of a trial to my faith than a boost to it. To get away from it all, my wife, Sharon, and I climb into my blue Crown Victoria and roll north to the little town of Leonard, Missouri, 51 miles from our home in Moberly.

The sign says, “Leonard, population 200.” The church is a pretty vanilla building, resting on a pea gravel parking lot, and wrapped in a grove of towering oak trees.

The inside of the building is immaculate, tastefully done in modern oak pews and paneled walls and freshened with flowers every Sunday.

What makes this little church so inspiring?

It’s Theirs

Although the Leonard pulpit is filled by grads and staff of Central Christian College, where I teach, Leonard is not a professionals’ church—it’s the members’ project.

On the bulletin board is a list of tasks to be done each Sunday, along with names of those responsible for carrying out those duties on a rotational basis.

Paula will play the piano this month, then Brenda, then Wanda Sue. Sharon will provide flowers and Terry will clean the building and prepare Communion. Leslie will put out the church paper and make the worship bulletins at home, on her computer. The greeters are different every Sunday. The choir forms “on the spot,” moments before the services begin. Sometimes there are five in the choir, sometimes 25. There are no robes or rehearsals. They just open the songbook and sing, a truly novel concept these days.

Bill will lead the opening prayer. Mike will give the announcements and lead the songs. Richard will give the Communion meditation, and a little boy will read the Scripture right before the sermon. It’s like hearing the text for the first time.

Everyone has a reason to come to this church, because it is their church.

Simplicity

It’s been said, “True art is knowing what to leave out.” This church knows what to omit. There is no projection screen on the wall, with inspiring announcements like, “If you drive a Ford 250 pickup with dual wheels, your lights are on” or “Teens, don’t miss extreme wild teen mania tonight, followed by a pizza gorge. Wear your pajamas.”

There are no wailing guitars on stage, no pounding percussion, no MTV videos to make you dizzy.

I can actually hear myself sing in this church! I can even hear the gentle alto voice of my wife, and it has the same charm it had 47 years ago when I fell in love with her. The human voice is the most inspiring instrument God ever created, and I wonder what some churches have against it.

My baritone voice is actually useful here, blending with the sound of mothers and fathers, children and teens. We are worshipping, not just listening to a team of electronic priests performing for us.

Sunday school follows worship, and the classes are not high-powered presentations. John, a cattle farmer, introduces the lesson topic; we do the reading and commentary. We tailor the text to our own unique needs, and when things get too personal, we laugh and move on.

Family

The members of Leonard Christian Church are mostly farmers, and, yes, some of them are related. There are lots of good German names, like Echternacht (EK-ter-nak) and Schwanke. There is a rich blend of ages and personalities, and lots of babies, but the only babies who go to the nursery are ones with serious problems. When I preach here, it’s a pleasure to look out over the audience full of intact families, and the occasional whimper of a baby is just a reminder that this church has a future.

Members here dress well, but no one puts on the dog. The men wear clean slacks and shirts; the women wear slacks, dresses, and suits. No one wears “sexy” clothes or wild fashions, out of respect for the young who are watching their example.

Teenagers here are not sullen, moody brats. These farmer’s sons and daughters can actually carry on an intelligent conversation with adults.

Visitors are embraced in this church, not strangers for long.

Yes, just under 100 attend this church, but personally I would rather see 50 small churches like this one, scattered around the state, where they can have wide influence, than one church of 5,000 in one town.

Like real families, these people don’t always get along perfectly. They are as real as the earth they till, but because they communicate, they iron out their differences before they become insurmountable.

Leisure

There is an unhurried atmosphere at Leonard, and it’s a tranquilizer to the soul. I have preached at churches where everything was timed to the minute, and I felt if my sermon went five minutes too long a trap door would open and I would drop into the basement.

Leonard services start at about 9:30 and end at about 10:30. After services, members linger for half an hour, catching up on news, planning VBS, discussing roof repairs, and trading prayer requests.

There is no mad dash for the door, to get to the restaurant. There is no restaurant for 30 miles. And there is no second service crowding us out of the auditorium.

When, at last, my wife and I move toward the front door, Bill Echternacht presses a $20 bill into my hand and says, “Now, you take that lady of yours to lunch.” Then he hands me my expense check, which is more generous than anything I have ever received from a large, city church.

We visit some more on the front steps, taking in the fragrances of a spring day, admiring the redbuds and crabapples in bloom across the street, savoring the cool breezes that massage our faces.

When I arrived this morning I was tired and anxious, after a hard week. But now I feel strong, happy, and hopeful. I have been cheered by 100 friendly faces and pumped up by vigorous handshakes and words of praise.

Before I get into my car, I stop and look back at the simple white church that has given so much to me, and I wonder, Why do we make church so hard?

Daniel Schantz is professor of Christian education at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.

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5 Comments

  1. David Miller
    May 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Brother Schantz’s article brings back memories of a day when a love for God and a desire to serve and use one’s gifts was commonplace in most churches. Worship leaders were unpaid as were some of the preachers. When teaching you had to pause and allow the congregation to find the text. Deacons contacted you about your role in the service or your turn to clean the building.

    It’s important in some ways to be contemporary. But sometimes we forget that worship and service to the body of Christ is an individual experience and not only a corporate event. Ownership in the service motivates more of us to service and ministry in other areas. For me it started as a 15-year-old reading Scripture prior to the preaching. It was a taste of serving and I began to crave serving more in time. We need to be giving everyone that same experience and opportunity.

  2. Al Forthman
    May 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Sounds very charming. I, too, can imagine being lifted up in that setting. Of course, most of America is not that little farming community. It would be interesting to have a discussion about how those same strengths could be contextualized in a major suburban or urban area.

  3. Sarah Lewis
    May 25, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Unfortunately I know very few in my generation that would find this method appealing at all. To reach the lost and grown God’s Kingdom, we must allow ourselves to embrace newer methods. What we teach doesn’t change, God’s Word will ever be the same, but we must change the way we do things. I am sorry, I know that the quaint little church is ideal to some..but we must be honest with ourselves. I don’t see today’s traditional church any place in scripture. Jesus was radical and He wants us to mold ourselves after Him. If that means loud music for the younger generations, then whats wrong with that? As long as The Message is being shared in the best way possible…in the way that will truly reach the lost and make disciples. I’m not saying we put on a show or that small churches are obsolete. But what I am saying is that we cant get too stuck in traditions, especially when they are the traditions that man established, not God.

  4. Kim Whaley Klepal
    June 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article about the church at Leonard. My dad, Paul Whaley, preached at the churches at Leonard and Cherry Box on the weekends and then we moved to Leonard during my dad’s senior year at Central Christian College. Dad made the drive back to Moberly for classes and ministered to the families at Leonard. That one year in Leonard was filled with memories and friends that have lasted a lifetime. It was a year that my family will never forget!

  5. Judy Clear
    July 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Worship in truth and fellowship in love… all the while respecting God our Father and Jesus our Saviour. Enough said.

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