Church closing trend began before COVID-19
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — When the Ragsdale Church of Christ closed…
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — The final assembly of the Ragsdale Church of Christ was an old-time singing — the kind they used to have every fourth Sunday.
Charter member Elvie Sellers, 97, doesn’t get out very often, and her family wanted a singing on that last Sunday so they could bring her one more time.
After a few words of welcome, preacher Paul Coston invited any “adult male member of the Lord’s church” who wanted to lead a song to do so.
“You can come to the front or lead from your seat,” he told them. “We’ll go until about five minutes till 3. Then we’re done.”
And so they sang, with big, full-bodied voices, some too high, some too low, some led by men who knew how to mark the beat and others by those who just stood and announced a number. No one cared. They just sang.
Old standards with moving parts, sentimental favorites, “whatever my wife tells me to lead,” quipped one of the volunteer leaders — a repertoire of memories from well-worn, red “Songs of the Church” hymnals, including, of course, 728B.
Then about five minutes till 3, Mike Sellers, Elvie’s son, took his place behind the oak table engraved with the words “In remembrance of me.”
After asking if any others had been unable to partake of the Lord’s Supper that morning, Sellers carried the gold tray down the center aisle to his mother’s seat — two rows from the back — to serve her one more time.
A final prayer. One verse of “Blest be the Tie.”
And they were done.
Ragsdale used to be a community of its own; now it’s part of Manchester, the part on the edge of town. After exiting Interstate 24 about an hour south of Nashville, the two-mile stretch of Ragsdale Road feels like a retreat back in time. The hills begin to roll a bit. Lines of trees mark off dormant winter fields. If not for a winery and one small, newish subdivision, the three-minute drive could set the scene for a Hallmark movie from another century.
The 80 or so people who came to sing on Sunday, March 6, represented 21 congregations from Coffee County, Tenn., and adjacent communities, including two Baptist churches — people who had come to say goodbye to the church where family or neighbors or friends had once attended.
It had been a long time since that many folks filled Ragsdale’s white block building. The week before, there were only eight, including the preacher.
Coston preached at Ragsdale for 19 years. Paid weekly in cash for his services, he’d never had a raise. He retired last year from his full-time job as chief operator of the Manchester sewer system. In years past he worked as a licensed embalmer.
In his black suit with thinning gray hair draping his collar, he looks a bit like the friendly undertaker from a western movie. But, he explained in matter-of-fact fashion, people don’t embalm the dead as often as they used to, so he’s given up that trade.
Death and its accoutrements are commonplace in Manchester. Several members work at the Batesville Casket Company. Kenny Smartt, the church treasurer and caretaker whose grandparents gave the land for the church back in 1954, retired from Batesville a few years ago after back surgery.
His brother-in-law Mike Tillman — who led singing at the final service — still works there, as does Gary Elam, who was the first visitor to arrive that final Sunday morning. Elam’s father preaches for Manchester’s Black congregation.
Smartt’s mother, Emily, 87, has compiled a list of 21 members who have died over the years. For a congregation that topped out at about 70 on Sundays several decades ago, that’s a lot of funerals. One took place just days earlier. Another was for Kenny’s wife, Pam, who died a year ago.
Kenny’s grief, still fresh, made a hard day even harder, and he tapped a friend to help serve communion that morning, uncertain he could maintain his composure to lead a prayer for the elements.
Despite the emotion, Kenny is circumspect about the decision to close. “It’s hard to operate and do any good when you’ve only got eight to 10 people,” he said.
And it wasn’t just the pandemic. Closing was imminent before that.
Funds from a trust established by the late R.W. Comer — a one-time traveling salesman who found success as a manufacturer in the early 20th century — forestalled the inevitable. The Ragsdale church was one of thousands of congregations in Kentucky and Tennessee that benefited from the trust money, distributed 75 years after Comer’s death.
“We’d have done been closed if not for money we received from brother Comer, who owned DeeCee overalls factories that used to be all over in the South,” Kenny said.
Coston attributes Ragsdale’s decline and the shrinking of other small congregations to location, societal changes and economics. Young people have left the region seeking employment, he said, and generational changes contribute as well.
“The first generation is fired up, enthusiastic and dedicated to God. … The second generation goes through the motions. The third generation doesn’t care.”
“The first generation is fired up, enthusiastic and dedicated to God. … The second generation goes through the motions. The third generation doesn’t care,” he wrote in an essay about the phenomenon.
Over lunch at the J&G Pizza and Steak House after the final Sunday morning service, some members talked about losing young families to congregations that could provide age-specific Sunday school classes and youth activities. Some others thought that was a poor excuse to leave.
Regardless, they left.
Coston also alluded to an undefined controversy in the early 1980s after which, he said, mostly those with close ties to founding members remained.
Somewhere in that conflation of decline, a congregation that was thriving 50 years ago dwindled until closing its doors was the only option.
Coston introduced his final sermon as “the last lesson of the Ragsdale Church of Christ.”
But before starting on the first point, he recounted some history.
Ragsdale began as a “planter church” in the early 1950s; such churches were intended to take the Gospel out of the county seats and population centers to smaller communities. The congregation met for a while in a school building. Often, he said, it was just a handful of women and one man, R.H. Carr, who led singing, preached and served communion.
After a few years, L.L. and Annie Austell, Emily Smartt’s parents, donated land to build the building from the “100 acres, more or less,” where they farmed. L.L. also drove a road grader and painted houses. Annie was a school teacher.
“They donated an acre of ground, and this building was built. And the congregation began to thrive, and it existed for 70-something years,” the preacher said.
In the thriving years, the congregation supported at least three men as they prepared to preach. One of them, Kip Green, preacher and elder for the North Jefferson Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., graduated from Freed-Hardeman University in 1999.
Green said his grandparents, Earvin and Thelma Green, “first began attending the Lord’s church at Ragsdale way back in the mid-’50s.” He called the congregation’s support a sign of confidence and heritage.
Neat, handwritten entries in a worn red ledger from the 1970s detail other Ragsdale efforts — support for Samoa Mission, for the East End church and Sunny Acres children’s home.
“We’re grateful,” Coston said, pausing. “We think of all the good. Remember that — all the good.”
The Smartts sold most of the original acreage a few years back to a young farmer, Greg Barton, who attends a nearby congregation. The acre where the Ragsdale building stands will become his as well in exchange for his donation to Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc. in Nashville. After final expenses are covered, any remaining church funds will also go to the relief agency.
“So many places have built new buildings, and other denominations have bought the old buildings,” Kenny Smartt explained. “That’s not what my grandfather wanted.”
So rather than sell to a group that might not worship in what Smartt called “the New Testament way,” the building will be torn down, replaced by fields of corn or soybeans or maybe wheat.
“It’ll be sad to see it gone, but that’s the way my grandfather would have wanted it.”
Three houses remain on the original land, one owned by Emily, who raised Kenny and his sisters there; another by Kenny; and a third by Coston.
The east window of Kenny’s home looks out toward the church building. When he saw people begin to gather for the singing, he loaded up in the truck and headed over to unlock it.
“It’s been hard on my mother,” Kenny said. She has lived on the property since 1957.
“I’m holding up better than I thought I would,” Emily said softly during the singing.
She has gone there all her life. She remembers her mother making clothes for Honduran orphans the church once helped. She remembers being there with her parents and late husband.
She said she hopes Ragsdale will be remembered as a congregation “that put all of our faith and trust and love into the Lord who we knew would be walking beside us every step we took — if we were walking like he had told us to do.”
“Today,” Coston said as he concluded his final sermon, “it’s my duty to encourage members to start worshiping in another congregation of your choice. We have plenty of places to worship our God, and we’ll go and worship regularly. We step into the annals of church history.”
People keep asking him, “What are you going to do?” he said.
“Well,” he replies, “I’m going to worship God every Sunday.”
“The other day I was planting more daffodils,” Coston reflected. “It’s one of the very first flowers of late winter and early spring. But the daffodils bloom about seven days, and they’re gone. Life is like the daffodils.”
It doesn’t come with guarantees.
“Sears and Roebuck came up with that idea,” he said.
Instead, he told them, life is like grass.
“It’s not long from the first of March to the last of October — about 25 mowings if you mow every week.”
Then it’s gone.
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected]
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