In 1897 Aleck Busch donated a small parcel of land in Dade County, Missouri, for a church. He built it a year later. I don’t know who attended the first worship service of the Flint Hill Church of Christ or how many people were there. I wasn’t around at the time.
I first attended Flint Hill on the first or second Sunday after I was born in April of 1962. I assume it was the first or second Sunday because I can’t imagine my parents letting me go three Sundays without church. I would spend every Sunday morning for the next 18 years at Flint Hill, unless I was sick. Very, very sick.
Flint Hill was off a dirt road about a mile, maybe two, from our farm. It was a large wooden structure with a main hall, two classrooms, a slightly raised section with a wooden pulpit for the preacher, and a baptistry. There was an outhouse in the back yard. In the ’60s they added two classrooms and a bathroom. There was no stained glass. No paintings of the Virgin Mary. No statue of Jesus on the cross. No crosses.
The main hall had 16 pews, two rows of eight. Everyone sat in their own pew. There was no assigned seating but everyone knew where to sit. The first pew on the left sat empty, except when the song leader (usually dad, for a few years Roy Lee) sat there. The second pew was where Uncle Guy and Aunt Jo sat. Technically, they were my Great Uncle Guy and Great Aunt Jo, but no one called them great. Which is not to say that they weren’t great. Guy had a booming bass singing voice.
My family sat in the next row. Behind us sat Robert and Norma and their kids. Next was John and Joann and their kids. Then there was Doc and Rosa Lee. Doc wasn’t really a doctor, that was a nickname. Don’t know what Doc’s real name was. Then came Francis and in the back row sat Roy and Gladys and their boys.
The first row on the right hand side was also left empty. It was used by the men during communion. My grandmother sat in the next row. I never understood why grandma sat on the opposite side of the church from the rest of the family. When Uncle Guy died she eventually moved over to sit next to her sister.
The rest of the right side was filled in by the Baker clan — Gene and Allowee and their three daughters; and the Landers family — George and Elizabeth and their three kids. The Landers clan were always the last to arrive. I used to think that scandalous but nowadays we’re always the last to arrive so it’s not such a big deal.
This wasn’t just the congregation of Flint Hill. This was also pretty much the entire population of Cane Hill. Everyone in Cane Hill attended the Flint Hill Church of Christ except the Rountree clan. The Rountrees left Flint Hill at some point and began attending the Church of Christ in Stockton. No one ever spoke of it and I never knew what caused the schism.
Service began at 10:15 a.m. The song leader (usually dad, for a few years Roy Lee) would lead the congregation in three songs. There was no piano. No organ. No tambourine. No band with guitars and microphones. No clapping. No choir. You sang with the congregation or you didn’t sing at all. And we sang out of hymnals, not off some power point image on a screen.
And we sang the oldie tymie hymns. The ones God intended. “Softly and Tenderly,” “How Great Thou Art,” “A Beautiful Life,” “Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies.” (You can’t sing “Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” in contemporary churches because it has the word “man” in it. That’s sexist, don’tcha know.) None of that contemporary Christian crap. God, how I hate contemporary Christian music. I’m convinced contemporary Christian music is a plot by Satan to make Christians stupider and more susceptible to evil. If I’m older than the hymn I’m singing, I don’t want to sing it.
After the three-song opening, someone would get up and read a chapter from the Bible. That was as close as we got to a sermon. We didn’t have a preacher in those days. Once a week in the summer we would bring a preacher in for a gospel meeting. That week was also the only time we put water in the baptistry.
This is where my longtime dislike of preaching began. Every night for a week in the summer I would have to sit in church and listen to someone go on about the Good Samaritan or whatever. Church of Christ preachers do not deliver 10- or 15-minute sermons. No, they go on a half-hour minimum, 45 minutes as a rule and have been known to ramble on for an hour when really motivated.
And it wasn’t just the one week. Dad would haul us to gospel meetings in Bona and Stockton and Greenfield. It seemed like every night in summer I was in church. What kid wants to spend their summer nights in church? And don’t get me started on Vacation Bible School.
After the scripture reading someone would say a prayer and we would break up into classes for bible study. Small kids in one room, older kids in the other while the adults stayed in the main hall. After 30 minutes or so classes would end and the kids would return to the main hall. We’d sing a song to prepare our minds for communion, then we’d partake in communion, followed by the offering. Dad would ask if anyone had any announcements — usually no one did — and then we’d sing another song and have a final prayer.
And that was the way it was. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. No Christmas Eve candlelight service. No sunrise Easter service. No Advent. No Lent. Every service was the same as the last; today, tomorrow and yesterday. It was formal, predictable, comfortable and boring.
And I liked it that way.
In 1980 I left Cane Hill to attend the University of Missouri in Columbia. Columbia had a Church of Christ that was much larger and more energetic than Flint Hill. The church crowd was especially enthusiastic. I didn’t care for them. I sat in the back and kept my head down, which was the method that would keep me going through most of my non-Flint Hill churchgoing for the next 30 years.
In 1984 I met Laura Thielmeier and fell in love. She was a Presbyterian. I had never met a Presbyterian. We didn’t have Presbyterians in southwest Missouri that I knew of. We had a variety of Baptists, some Methodists, some Mormons, the Assembly of God types and a few Catholics.
The first time I attended church with Laura was the first time I attended a church with an organ. I can’t hear myself sing! Why is everyone singing the melody? Why is the organist going crazy on every last verse? What’s with all the recitation? When’s communion? They don’t do communion every Sunday?
If I had been more devout I would’ve dumped Laura right there and waited for some nice Church of Christ girl to come along. But I wasn’t stupid. Better to spend a nice life with Lar on earth and take my chances at the Judgement. God wouldn’t really send someone to eternal hellfire for marrying a Presbyterian, would he? I figured on the tally of all my sins, marrying Laura would be the least of them.
For a time we attended separate churches but ultimately decided that was pointless. We settled on the Christian Church in St. Charles, which we attended until something happened, at which point we attended a Christian Church in Creve Coeur, until something happened, and after much searching we wound up at a church a few miles down the road from the previous one. We have found in our travels that there is no perfect church. We did find a minister we liked, and it’s a testament to how much we like him that we go to his church despite all that contemporary Christian music.
Meanwhile back home, a retired preacher showed up one day at Flint Hill and offered his services and so for the first time in my memory, Flint Hill had preaching. That preacher eventually left and was replaced by another retired preacher. It seemed preaching was at Flint Hill to stay. It made quite a change in the Sunday morning routine. By this time I was only attending Flint Hill a half-dozen times a year.
The Flint Hill Church of Christ held its final worship service on December 30, 2012. In the end it wasn’t Satan or Mayan predictions of doom that ended the church’s 115-year run. It was time, death and my g-g-generation.
Of the stalwarts that made up the congregation of my youth — Guy, Jo, Grandma, Mom, Robert, John, Joann, Doc, Rosa Lee, Francis, Roy, Gladys and George have all passed on. A few months ago the preacher re-retired. Seeing the writing on the wall, Gene and Allowee transferred to Bona some time later. Elizabeth joined them a few weeks later.
And their kids? Well, most of them saw no future in Cane Hill and went off to college and then moved away — spread throughout the state and throughout the country. Of the few who stayed, most didn’t stay with Flint Hill, instead choosing other, larger churches to raise their kids.
Not that I judge them. When my time came, I figured farming was a dead end and chose instead the bright, unending future of newspapers. If I’d had a better crystal ball I might’ve spent more time learning how to plow a field and less time learning the inverted pyramid.
When you spend a lot of time at the same church people expect you to place membership there. I’ve done it a couple times but my heart was never into it. Flint Hill is my church. Maybe I’m only there a half-dozen times a year, but it’s the church where I grew up, where I was baptized, where I know everyone, where they’ll have my funeral.
Or that was the plan. Now I don’t know what they’ll do with the body. I guess it doesn’t matter, as I won’t be in any condition to do anything about it.
Is there life after death? I don’t know. I hope so. My atheist friends think it’s all silly and I’ll admit there are days I agree with them. Still, I like to believe that somewhere in the vast expanse of heaven there’s an old country church and every Sunday morning you’ll find Uncle Guy and Aunt Jo and Grandma and Mom and all the old gang. And they pray. And worship. And sing.
Dear friends there’ll be no sad farewells
There’ll be no tear-dimmed eyes
Where all is peace and joy and love…