A ‘big’ step for one of America’s largest Churches of Christ
TULSA, Okla. — In “Hoosiers,” one of Mitch Wilburn’s all-time…
KRESS, Texas — “Oh land of rest, for thee I sigh. When will the moment come, when I shall lay my armor by, and dwell in peace at home?”
On a hot, dry Sunday morning in this West Texas farming town, a small Church of Christ sings that question, posed by hymn 482 in a well-worn, golden-hued copy of “Songs of the Church.”
It’s a question God hasn’t yet answered for Elmo Snelling, who just turned 104. So he waits patiently to “dwell in peace at home.” Patiently, but not idly. As the church sings the chorus, the words mirror his life:
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes.
After the hymn, Snelling bolts from his pew and takes his place behind a table emblazoned with the words “This do in remembrance of me.” He passes trays bearing the unleavened bread that represents Christ’s body, then leads a prayer for the fruit of the vine.
“Thank you for this cup,” he prays, “which is emblematic of Christ’s shed blood on the cross.”
Snelling is one of seven remaining members who worship regularly with the Kress Church of Christ in an A-frame auditorium built to hold 400 souls. The church, planted in 1915, is a year younger than Snelling. In the late 1960s, attendance often exceeded 180.
“There was hardly an empty pew. The singing was beautiful,” says Kechi Beavers, who grew up in the church with her sister, Kim.
So did Tracy Thomas, whose father was an elder of the Kress church. His parents raised cotton on a half-section of soil (320 acres) and managed to send four kids to college.
In the 21st century, that’s impossible, Thomas says. The farms are huge, and the workers are few. The children of Kress live 12 miles away in Plainview or an hour away in Lubbock. Or farther.
But on this Sunday, the Kress church’s attendance has swelled from seven to 73 for a homecoming service coordinated by Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock. Preaching students from the institute, which trains Christians for ministry at home and around the globe, are here along with senior saints from the Sunset Church of Christ, where about 1,200 believers worship on Sundays.
Churches of Christ have struggled to make the transition from a rural to an urban movement. The fellowship stopped growing in the 1990s and has been in decline since 2000, says Stan Granberg, director of Kairos Church Planting, a ministry supported by members of Churches of Christ. Granberg has researched trends among religious movements in the U.S. He uses data from the Association of Religious Data Archives and the directory “Churches of Christ in the United States,” published by 21st Century Christian.
From 2006 to 2016, about 58 congregations closed each year, and the overwhelming majority of churches that remain are small, Granberg says. Average attendance among the nation’s 11,965 Churches of Christ is 94, and 54 percent average just 34 people in the pews on Sundays.
“It’s sad to see an old heritage dwindling away,” says Kim Beavers, who worships with the Sunset church.
That heritage will continue to fade, it seems, unless something happens to — in the words of hymn No. 446 — “Revive us again, fill each heart with thy love. May each soul be rekindled with fire from above …”
The uptick in dying congregations is of particular concern to Truitt Adair, who began preaching for the Kress church 50 years ago at age 23.
It was his first full-time preaching job. He and his wife, Kay, adopted one of their children here — and gave birth to another. A half-century later, Adair trains ministers as president of Sunset International Bible Institute.
As he reminisces about his time in Kress, Adair acknowledges the church’s troubling reality.
“I know the statistics, and I know the demographics, and I know how much it’s changed,” he says of the community. “And I know that even with churches, as with people, there is a life cycle. But is it possible that we can bring in more people, even in this community? I can tell you that if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take more than seven hungry souls. It’s going to take a lot of hungry people.”
Chris Swinford, an administrator and instructor for Sunset, tells the church about Mission America, the institute’s initiative to rekindle U.S. evangelism through efforts including church planting, minister renewal, online training, campus ministry and more. As part of the effort, Sunset is working with a Church of Christ in nearby Memphis, Texas, to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation.
“We spend most of our time talking about things we can’t change,” Swinford says. “All of our young people leave. … Our old members are dying. Well, you can’t do anything about that. You need to focus on what you can do, the difference you can make.
“How can a group of seven or eight people in Kress, Texas, change the world? Look to the group of 12 — that became 11, that became 12 again — and that went out and changed their world.”
To the west, 699 miles, members of the Mountain View Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., faced a similar quandary to that of their brethren in Kress.
Decades ago, the church had 450 members and a thriving bus ministry that brought 200 inner-city kids to its building. The church was active on the campus of the University of Arizona. Even in recent years, the church maintained a robust benevolence ministry and food pantry.
But membership declined dramatically in the past decade, says Herb Fauth, one of the church’s three elders. The church had to rely on its reserve finances to meet its budget.
“We decided that the best use of the existing resources that God has given us at Mountain Avenue would be to sell the building and use the proceeds to plant new churches,” Fauth says, “and appeal to people in a different way than we have in the past.”
The church worked with Heritage 21, a foundation established by members of Churches of Christ to help the nation’s dying congregations achieve renewal or secure a legacy.
“While it is our hope that declining churches can be infused with new life and a viable future, that is unfortunately not the most typical outcome,” says Mike O’Neal, chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees and former president of Oklahoma Christian University.
When it comes to end-of-life issues, too many churches don’t prepare adequately, O’Neal says. Some believe they can sell the church’s property and simply divide the profits among the remaining members. That’s illegal.
Heritage 21 seeks to help closing churches sell their property, celebrate their history and counsel their members through the emotional loss while helping them find other congregations to call home. The foundation also helps churches use their funds to benefit the fellowship through programs including church planting.
Such efforts are vital to the future of Churches of Christ, says Granberg, vice chairman of Heritage 21. He cites research by David T. Olsen, author of “The American Church in Crisis.” For a church movement to be considered healthy, at least half of its congregations should be below 40 years of age, “the age when reproductive capacity and initiative are at their highest.” Only about 21 percent of Churches of Christ are in that age range, Granberg says.
Other researchers say that a healthy movement must plant 1 percent of its total number of congregations per year just to maintain its size — and double that number to experience growth. Among Churches of Christ in the U.S., “the new church-planting rate is so low … that it does not register a significant percentage,” Granberg says.
“While seeing churches close has deep sadness to it,” he says, “for the health of the movement more declining and dying churches need to close. These closing churches are a tremendous, untapped resource for funding new churches.”
That’s the legacy members of the former Mountain Avenue church hope to build. From the sale of their building and other assets, the dying church designated funds to be used by Kairos for church-planting efforts in Tucson, a city of more than 1 million souls that includes a large homeless population.
The city routinely ranks near the top of America’s “unchurched” metropolitan areas, says Andrew Hill, Mountain Avenue’s former minister. In religious surveys, more than 90 percent of Tucson residents say they don’t regularly attend church.
Kairos currently seeks church planters for the city.
“This place needs God,” Hill says. “It needs Jesus.”
Back in Kress, the Beaver sisters talk about the days when Truitt Adair gathered them and the other children on the front row and quizzed them on the books of the Bible.
“This morning, when we drove up here from Lubbock and we saw all the cars in the parking lot, it brought tears to our eyes,” Kechi Beavers says. “We are blessed to be here.”
The Kress church feels equally blessed, says Ralph Skelton, one of the congregation’s seven regulars.
“Maybe next week they’ll be back?” he asks, a touch of sorrow in his smile.
The 85-year-old widower has thought about moving to another congregation, including a Church of Christ 13 miles north in Tulia, which has about 35 members. But he’s needed here. He’s the song leader.
“I can’t afford to leave,” he says.
After worship, church members gather in the fellowship hall for a catered lunch of barbecue brisket and smoked sausage. They celebrate Snelling’s 104th birthday and listen as he recites his favorite verse, Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Jerry Bevill, another of the seven Kress members, has written a history of the congregation. He says he appreciates his Lubbock brethren’s desire to reinvigorate the church.
But he’s not sure it will be enough.
“The people just aren’t here,” he says of his community.
When asked about the small church’s legacy, he says he hopes it is remembered “as a God-fearing church that held true to the gospel of Christ.”
For Sunset International Bible Institute, Adair says, “the question is: Do we help this church die gracefully and transition this marvelous facility to something else? Or do we help them to survive, revive, maybe even resurrect? And it probably would mean that the church would have to start over to match the demographics in this town.”
Regardless of the outcome, Adair says he is committed to giving back to the church family that welcomed his own family 50 years ago, nurturing and preparing them for lives of ministry — including missionary work in India and Nigeria, church planting in Phoenix and ministry training around the globe.
“Everything that we’ve done,” Adair says, “has been very, very positive, I think, because we got our feet firmly planted in a positive ministry here in Kress.”
Corine Street remembers when Adair came to Kress. The 83-year-old worships with the church when her health allows. She’s been here since 1954. A former Baptist, she waited until her two sons said they were ready to be baptized for the remission of sins. Then she decided to join them. Adair baptized all three.
Her daughter, Kendra, also grew up among the pews of the Kress church before moving to Lubbock.
Visits here can be a bit depressing, she says, so she’s encouraged by the show of support by Adair and the Christians from Sunset.
Can this church be revived again?
“I don’t know,” she says.
After all, she just watched a 104-year-old serve communion.
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