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While the United States is obviously becoming more secular and less religious, Christian church life is very much alive and well in Shelby County.
That’s the conclusion that Mae Peniston, Greg Biagi and I reached after conducting a series of book signings at more than 20 churches spread all over the county…from Graefenburg to Simpsonville and from Elmburg to Waddy.
The book is Shelby County, Kentucky 2011 – A Living History, which debuted in June.
We also visited with Ruritans at all five of their clubs in the county.
Along the way, we were inspired by some great preaching, outstanding and sometimes different kinds of music and some very accommodating individuals.
Shelby Countians have many things in common, but there are many differences when it comes to church-going.
A constant theme that we heard from only Baptist ministers had to do with sin and redemption.
I told one of the ministers who had really pounded home the idea that “we are all sinners” that I, in all my years of attending the First Christian Church in Shelbyville, had never heard a single sermon on sin. His booming response was, “Brother, it’s about time you heard one. It’s never too late to repent.”
For all of the sermons we heard on sin, there wasn’t much on grace ,which is a much more pleasant topic.
I might add here that we weren’t invited to all the churches whose photographs appear in the book. But these were the very few exceptions, and we would like to stress how welcoming the ministers and congregations actually were. We only went where we were invited; we could not have asked for friendlier folks or kinder receptions.
A lot has changed
There have been many changes in church life here and elsewhere since I was a teenager (many, many years ago). Most of these changes don’t appeal to me, but that’s obviously irrelevant:
First, most church congregations now love to clap, whether it’s for the little people’s choir, the big people’s choir, individual solos or just about anything else. All this clapping spoils, at least for me, what used to be a time of reverence, meditation and worship.
I was particularly troubled when the congregation at one of the churches broke out in enthusiastic clapping following a beautiful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Second, few churches are into traditional music, but, rather, in trying to gather in the young people, have gone with sort of a syncopated be-bop sound. Gone are such classics as “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I’ll be there,” “In the Garden,” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “Amazing Grace.” Two exceptions were Simpsonville Christian and Waddy Baptist, where we enjoyed and were inspired by beautiful traditional and patriotic music (July 4th) and no clapping.
Contemporary music certainly has its place as long as the congregation halfway understands the words and can comprehend the beat. Some congregations have gotten into what is called praise singing at the beginning, during or end of the service. This sometimes involves singing the same words over and over again as if the congregation is slow on the uptake.
As one of our most renowned local musicians told me, “Young people today like to entertain and be entertained.”
Third, most congregants now dress down rather than up for Sunday worship. At one church we observed an elder in shorts serving communion; in another, the song leader was wearing shorts with a WKU T-shirt. When I suggested that the poor attire reflected the casualness of our times, one minister said, “I’d rather call it laziness.”
I like what veteran baseball coach and former Baptist moderator J. C. Wiley says: “If you don’t dress up for the Lord, whom do you dress up for?”
Fourth, even though most of the announcements are printed in the church bulletin, many ministers still find it necessary to go over those same announcements at the beginning of the service. This seems redundant to me, unless the congregation can’t read.
Fifth, some churches are having a lot more luck attracting young people than others. It appeared to us that the average age of the congregation at one church was mid-70s; in another it was in the mid-40s. Most, but not all, of the churches have Sunday school departments.
Sixth, the diversity trend is also impacting our local churches. Whereas 25 years ago it would have been almost impossible to find a black or biracial face in a white church, this certainly isn’t true in 2012. Several churches we visited now welcome minorities to their brotherhoods, a very positive change as the nation continues to become ever more diverse.
Without trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, here are some other impressions:
Most historic church: Salem Baptist Church.
Most inspiring message: Brother Bill Taylor, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church (Todd’s Point).
Best music: Waddy Baptist Church (choir, organ, piano, and keyboard).
Best combination musician: Casey Jones, Bagdad Baptist Church (vocal soloist, choir leader, pianist and organist).
Oldest church: Buffalo Lick Baptist Church (founded in 1805).
Most welcoming minister:Mike Tobin, Church of the Annunciation (Catholic).
Most welcoming congregation: Elmburg Baptist Church.
Best sign: Simpsonville Methodist Church.
Most joyous congregational singing:Mount Eden Christian Church.
Best food: Elmburg Baptist Church and Burks Branch Baptist Church (tie).
Biggest budget relative to the size of the congregation: Graefenburg Baptist Church ($411,000).
Best idea for shared Christmas giving: Alternative Gift Market, First Presbyterian Church.
Most inspiring musical solo: Trish Fegenbush, First Christian Church (“The Lord’s Prayer”).
Most inspiring instrumental solo: Karen Smith, violin, Simpsonville Christian Church.
Most historic church-related cemetery: Christiansburg Baptist Church (contains graves of Harry S. Truman’s grandparents; also that of a Shelby County doctor who was hanged by Union soldiers for treating a wounded Confederate soldier).
Along the way we met some great people who shared their thoughts on religion, food, politics and a great many other subjects. All were very helpful. They include, but are not limited to, J. C. Wiley, Libby Pollett, Ernestine Jennings, Rev. Jim Robertson, Rev. Truman Nethery, Betty and Ryburn Weakley, Rev. Brad Jennings, Deloris Odenweller, Kathy Roberts and Bessie Langley.
And the Ruritans
As for the Ruritan Clubs, we found each to be a center of strength in their home towns. As for food, Cropper edged out Finchville for the top spot. The Bagdad Ruritans were the most responsive. Ruritan members who were particularly helpful were Dave Whitehouse, Finchville, Retired District Judge Mike Harrod, Bagdad, and Carolyn Chesher, Cropper.
Publisher William E. Matthews lives in Shelbyville. Shelby County, Kentucky, 2011 – A Living History is available at Metzgers (Simpsonville), and in Shelbyville at Kroger, Walgreens, Shelby County Public Library, Wakefield-Scearce Gallery, Historic Kentucky office (412 6th St.), and Shelby County Welcome Center/Museum (627 Main St.).