Hebron Baptist Church in rural Carrollton, Ala., is older and smaller than most Baptist congregations. When it constituted in 1841, it stood at the crossroads of a thriving rural community. Today only two families live within a mile of the church house. Pine trees grow where row crops once did.
Last Saturday night my wife and I attended a fish fry in the recently constructed modern arbor out back of the church. Most of the 40 or so attendees had driven in from more than five miles distant. It was an interesting mix of ages. The bulk of the crowd would be labeled common folk: mechanics, secretaries, vo-tech instructors, timber men, a nurse, some retirees and some preachers. One single young man, a son of a central family, is a mechanical engineer. Most of these persons and a few others attended worship at Hebron the next day. The pastor had to work at his factory job that evening and missed the meal and fellowship.
It was a beautiful evening. The ample cemetery was freshly cut. I learned that sponge cake is a good thing to have after 10 pieces of fried catfish. It seems to cut the grease. Homemade ice cream also seems to help. But I had known that for a long time.
Gruff old Tommy, one of several certifiable characters in the congregation, sat down beside me and quizzed me about the recent firing of the missionary daughter of a former pastor by the International Mission Board. He promised to help with her resettlement. For all of his bluster he has a heart of gold.
Later, as rain beat on the metal roof of the arbor, I mused about what keeps the Hebrons of rural America running. About five miles in each cardinal direction there is another good Baptist church. Reason would suggest that it ought to just close and the members merge with these, or other good churches. Here are some of the “reasons” for continuing that came to mind.
–Tommy could not be Tommy at any of the other four. Churches are able to embrace their own “characters,” but they have difficulty in accepting a character who transfers in.
–Judy could not play the piano for any one of the others, and I doubt that her husband would be selected as the song leader. They are the best that Hebron has, but someone else already has these jobs at the other churches.
–While I do not know the whole of the genealogical chart of Hebron, I know that there are two primary families, connected by inter-marriage, whose connection to the church can be traced back to its founding. For them to worship somewhere else is probably unthinkable.
–Intertwined with all of this are “remembered saints.” To the left of the pulpit is a stained glass depiction of the baptism of Jesus. It was placed in a church in Tuscaloosa years ago to honor a pastor who had grown up at Hebron. When that church closed a few years ago, Hebron bought it and gave it a place of honor in their building. Another remembered saint is Miss Emma. She grew up in Hebron, went to seminary, and in 1948 became the first director of missions for the Pickens Association.
–The cemetery contains the remains of these and other saints. If the church were to close, who else would maintain the cemetery? Faith must be kept with family and departed saints.
–Like many small rural churches, Hebron does projects well. The arbor, the window, and addition of a baptistry are just a few of the things the church has done to improve itself and its ministry. The church is blessed with some gifted craft persons who enjoy working on church facilities projects together. Those shared experience reinforce bonds of kinship.
–Some of the folk at Hebron were once deep into destructive living. God transformed them, and now they have found a safe harbor where they are growing spiritually. There are set-backs, disappointments and failures, of course. But my sense is that Hebron is doing vital ministry with persons who might get ignored in another, larger church.
–Last year the church was saddened when Pastor Johnny resigned. He had hurt his back in his vocation of logging. He applied for disability income and had to give up the church. They called upon Brother Mike to come and supply the pulpit. Mike was well known to the Hebronites. Some had been his schoolmates. Many had seen him grow up. They knew the work that God has been doing in his life in recent years. Everyone rejoiced when he agreed to become their pastor.
Neither of these pastors has been formally trained, but both are trustworthy. And both are gifted with good people skills. Bart, the young engineer, tells me that the church is excited and hopeful about its future with Brother Mike as pastor.
What makes Hebron run? From the human side, bonds, relationships and ministries; from the divine side, one senses that God has a will for Hebron. Christ is known both as Savior and Lord in the lives of church members, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the worship of the church and in the lives of the Hebronites.
All across America there are Hebron-like churches, quietly and effectively doing important–but too often overlooked–Kingdom work.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.