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?
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.
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.
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.
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.