Mystery Worshipper: Vagrant Congregant
Church: O'Roark Methodist
Location: Russellville, Kentucky, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 June 2018, 10:00am
The building is a country church, plain and unadorned but with a short white steeple, built (as one of the members told me) in the 1960s. The same member told me the congregation is 200 or so years old and they previously worshipped in a building they call "the Shed." The interior is also plain but features some lovely stained glass. A short communion rail with padded kneelers sits in front of the wooden communion table.
This is a tiny church with a tiny congregation. I did not get a feel for what their ministries and activities might be.
Russellville is a tiny city (population about 7000) in southwestern Kentucky, about 13 miles north of the border with Tennessee. It was named in honor of American Revolutionary War General William Russell, who was given land in the area as payment for his service. Russellville figured prominently during the Civil War. At first Kentucky declined to secede from the Union along with other slave states, but a group of Confederate sympathizers met at Russellville in 1862 and formed a rival state government that was subsequently admitted to the Confederacy. After the Civil War ended, Russellville became known as a hangout for gangs of frustrated Confederate veterans. One such gang, which included the notorious James Brothers (Frank and Jesse), robbed a local bank in 1868 an event that is reenacted during the city's Tobacco and Heritage Festival in October of each year. (Tobacco is the area's chief crop and economic mainstay.) The city boasts some fine old 19th century houses once owned by prominent politicians. The church is located in a remote area. I passed three other churches on the way to this one!
The Revd Kent Akin, pastor.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
There were 20 people, which made the building about half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was welcomed by the pastor personally.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes! It was extremely comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Everyone was walking around greeting each other and sharing stories from their week. It is evident people have known each other a long time.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to everyone who is here to worship the Lord."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Heavenly Highway Hymns, a collection of old time gospel chestnuts with shape-note notation first published in 1956, was the primary hymn book. We also used the United Methodist Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano was played. An electric spinet organ (abbreviated keyboards and pedalboard) remained silent.
Did anything distract you?
I couldn't help but notice touches of home that were in the church. There was a blanket on the pew, a wreath, candelabras, and other items that clearly made it look as if people were comfortable there.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very informal. People would talk during the service, get up as needed, etc.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The pastor read his notes from a yellow pad and brought in stories from his own life.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
If the Lord puts something on your heart you should listen.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The friendliness of the people.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm not familiar with shape note musical notation, so my singing probably distracted other people! It made me self-conscious!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone greeted me and told me they were happy I was there. They were incredibly friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were doughnuts in the back but most people didn't stay or they went on to Sunday school.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It was nice to be in a small congregation where everyone really cared for each other. You could tell that if someone had a need, the church would work hard to help.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Southern gospel tunes in the Heavenly Highway Hymns.