Taking the youth group on the road — to bless small congregations
Imagine 60 to 70 visitors showing up at a small…
Long stretches of highway separate Iowa’s 64 Churches of Christ, which boast fewer than 2,900 total members, according to the 2012 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States.
Fifty-eight of Iowa’s 99 counties have no Church of Christ, according to the national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
About 27 percent of the Hawkeye State’s 3.1 million residents live in a county with no Church of Christ. Only Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have higher percentages of such residents.
For the past 14 years, Central Iowa Missions — a ministry overseen by the 150-member Grandview Church of Christ in Des Moines — has worked to bolster Iowa churches.
Signs for the West Liberty church and the public cemetery that surrounds the building greet visitors to the 156-year-old congregation, about an hour east of Des Moines, Iowa. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
The West Liberty church’s native timber roof needed replacing. The upstairs rest room lacked hot water. The basement flooded when it rained.
Besides maintenance issues, the dwindling congregation had no regular preacher.
Still, the church refused to give up, members said.
“We’re too stubborn to do anything else,” Playle said. “We’re bullheaded.”
But without a minister, the mostly older members saw little way to keep going, they said.
In a last-ditch effort to keep the church alive, Playle placed an advertisement last year seeking a self-supporting minister.
Wallis saw the ad, which detailed West Liberty’s situation, and told Grandview member Tom Collier about it.
“It just kind of stirred me,” he said. “I thought, ‘Are we, as Churches of Christ in Iowa, just going to let our weaker congregations fold?’”
In March 2012, Collier — who works full time as a Wells Fargo analyst — accepted the challenge of becoming West Liberty’s part-time preacher.
He and his wife, Dianne, make the two-hour round trip from their Des Moines home each Sunday. In addition, they lead a Wednesday night Bible study and attend other church events, such as West Liberty’s monthly Friday night singing.
“Tom decided he wasn’t going to let it close on his watch,” said Matt Glawe, minister for the Ogden Church of Christ, a 50-member Iowa congregation planted in 2001.
The Odgen church committed $300 a month to help with Collier’s ministry.
“If that one is gone, it’s a pretty great distance to the next Church of Christ,” said Glawe, a vocational minister whose family operates an auto body shop and a farm services business. “Just too many have closed, and anything we can do to keep them open, we’re willing to do.”
Minister Tom Collier, seated on the front row, sings with other members of the West Liberty Church of Christ during a Sunday morning assembly. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
On this frosty Sunday, 15 souls occupy the seven rows of pews in West Liberty’s wood-paneled auditorium — more than double the typical attendance a year ago.
Butch and Anita Gilbert, Ell’s son-in-law and daughter, join her on the second row. The Gilberts hold worn maroon hymnals as the congregation sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Faith is the Victory.”
Anita Gilbert, 53, grew up at West Liberty but — like many of her generation — moved away.
Children pose by the church sign in 1967, the building’s 100th anniversary. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY WEST LIBERTY CHURCH)
When Collier arrived, he found a congregation of dedicated Christians who had settled into a not-so-exciting routine, he said.
Rodney Playle, Anita Gilbert and Pauline Ell look at old photos in a 1967 church history. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)“This was how they were going to finish their days, six or seven of them, trying to sing their songs, maybe closing their doors,” he said. “But what I wanted … was to breathe some new life and get a heartbeat again.”
Building renovations, development of West Liberty’s first-ever website and intentional efforts to connect with the community have helped rejuvenate the church, Collier said.
Knocking doors in nearby towns, Tom and Dianne Collier have discovered that nearly everybody is familiar with the little white church.
“They say, ‘My dad got married there’ or ‘My grandfather’s buried there,’” Tom Collier said.
Other residents remember attending VBS at the church.
“There’s a plethora of people that were taught by these folks when they were kids,” Dianne Collier said. “So what I’m hoping is that those seeds that were planted will eventually come back to fruition.”
About 30 West Liberty members have died in the last 20 years.
Krista Fatzinger, granddaughter of member Norma Jean Farrington, hugs Butch Gilbert. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Just one person in the pews on this Sunday is younger than 50. Thirteen-year-old Krista Fatzinger is the granddaughter of longtime member Norma Jean Farrington, 81.
A recent baptism and the addition of a few new members who had been driving elsewhere give old-timers reason for hope.
“We won’t give up,” said Bruce Guyer, 65, who grew up at West Liberty.
“Nope,” agreed Ell, who has lived on the same 99-acre farm for 62 years.
“We want to teach the Gospel,” added Playle.
Still, the congregation’s long-term survival remains far from certain.
“It’s going to be up to God,” Tom Collier said. “He’s going to have to give the increase.”
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