CALIFORNIA — People met for church on the last Sunday of November at Flag Spring Baptist Church much like they always have on Sunday since 1879.
Well, the setting Nov. 25 may have felt more like the 1800s, when folks gathered in the open air, than say the 2000s, when worship included the conveniences of a modern building. After their facility burned to the ground Nov. 20, church on this first Sunday after Thanksgiving was held on the parking lot under a canopy on a sunny, somewhat windy day that barely reached 50 degrees.
Flag Spring is a rural church in Moniteau County that is located by a cemetery about 3.5 miles outside of California. On average about 35-45 come to worship, with a high mark recently of 65 on Nov. 18. Despite chilly conditions, in their first Sunday after the fire, they managed to top that with 71.
They came together in hats, gloves, hoodies, jackets, and blue jeans to sit in makeshift rows of outdoor-type chairs that were plastic, lawn and padded. The worship area was framed in part by a Ford F150 and a minivan. Children’s church took place on a couple of blankets.
Many Flag Spring regulars felt overwhelmed by the sense of loss. Grieving through the service, they sought for a measure of healing. Someone said three pieces of the church’s nativity scene were found. All other items appeared to be lost. It was all that the true church, the people, could do to achieve normalcy.
The offering plate was a plastic box. Someone pointed out that a birthday was not being recognized. There was a reason for that.
“My calendar burned,” said worship leader Sally Vogel. “That calendar had so much information.”
At one point in the service, Vogel remarked, “I wonder what all the saints thought as they went before us as they watched it burn and all their memories.”
“Nothing changes,” said Ken Chapman, the church’s bi-vocational pastor who also works as a re-entry specialist for the Missouri Dept. of Corrections.
In his 14-minute sermon, Chapman drove home the point that the congregation will keep on blessing its community.
“That building is gone, but the church lives on,” he said.
He then told the church members to turn around and look at the charred remains of the church structure.
“Who is the church?” he asked rhetorically.
He then held up a long, rectangular mirror.
“We are the church!”
After the service, Chapman, 41, who has served 2.5 years as Flag Spring’s pastor, reflected on the morning. While acknowledging that “it’s OK to grieve,” he said closure will be gradual even as the church now takes up temporary residence for the month of December in the upper room of First Baptist Church, California.
“I think there’s a real understanding that so much of their lives were built around the church and the building, and that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “That building represents a piece of their identity, and that’s OK. We don’t want to diminish that, but at the same time we want to remember that buildings can be rebuilt, and new memories can be made.”
The fire remains under investigation. The cause is unknown.