When I talk with people who have not yet returned to church regularly after being gone during the COVID 19 pandemic, I think back to a specific December Sunday in 1975 when I was studying for the ministry. I was on the back end a late fall 3-month preaching stint in a white clapboard church in a tiny Northeastern Kansas town that just about did me in. That Christmas season I came close to both quitting my ministry studies and attending church altogether.
A friend who was a ministry classmate told me about a little church in Westmoreland, Kansas (population 800) where he had been preaching for about year. At that point, I had only preached once when I was 15, and it was a 5-minute doozy.
I had no qualifications, naturally, and I had barely even begun to read the Bible. But my friend convinced me it would be good practice, particularly because I was taking a preaching class that fall. “Don’t worry about your long red hair and bushy red beard, or your lack of experience. You’ll be fine.” That wasn’t very comforting, but he was insistent.
My friend was moving on and the church was looking for someone to speak. He thought I was their guy. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “There is just one man and 8 or 9 retired women who attend. One woman brings her two elementary-aged granddaughters. That’s it. It’s tiny. You definitely don’t have to worry about impressing anyone.”
Finally, I told my friend he could call the one man in the church who was in charge of things and tell him about me. I was neither hopeful nor excited about the opportunity. But the man’s response was swift: “Tell Mr. Follis to come and preach this Sunday.”
And so on a late October Sunday in 1975 I drove 30 miles from Manhattan, KS, to Westmoreland. When I pulled up to the church building with a gravel parking lot, barely big enough for 6 or 7 cars, I was the only one there. I tried the door. It was locked. Just then a couple in their 60s pulled in next to my car. A man in a gray suit stepped out and said “Hello, I’m Harold. Are you Mr. Follis, our preacher?”
“I’m Don Follis. Nice to meet you.”
Before Harold unlocked the building, we stood in the parking lot talking about the order of the service. Harold was quick with this disclosure. “You say all the prayers. I don’t pray in public.”
Unlocking the door, Harold told me they had been considering shutting down the church. “But young guys like you keep showing up so we keep her open.”
When Harold pulled open the wooden door, and I stepped inside, a musty smell hung in the air. There were two pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls, one on each side of the sanctuary. In each one, Jesus was so pale, the poor guy looked like he had an iron deficiency. Ten rows of wooden pews one each side of the sanctuary led up to a stage holding a wobbly wooden lectern. An upright piano sat off to one side.
Within 5 minutes, 8 women, several who told me that were widows, showed up. One of the women walked to the piano and started playing the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” People started singing. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out. After a few songs, Harold stood and gave me a brief introduction.
I started with a pastoral prayer and then spoke for 10 minutes. After a closing hymn, I gave a benediction. The service took 40 minutes. We all chatted a few minutes, and I left. As I drove home, I felt puzzled by what I had said “yes” to. That afternoon I almost called Harold and bowed out.
But in fact, I hung in there until the first Sunday of December. When I stood to speak that Sunday, the two granddaughters were on their stomachs on the wooden floor just below the lectern from where I was speaking. They had Christmas coloring books in front of them, and crayons were spread all over the floor.
Three or four minutes into my sermon, I noticed that every eye was on the little girls, not on me. I stopped speaking. Not one person looked up. I read another Scripture and simply said, “Well, folks, at the beginning of the Christmas season, it’s been good being together. This concludes my talk and our service today. Let’s stand and sing our closing hymn.”
I always wondered if anybody noticed what I had just done. It sure didn’t seem like it. After shaking a couple of hands, I hurried to my car. Harold caught me before I took off, handing me a check “for services rendered,” as he put it. “Everything okay?”
“Everything is just fine, Harold. Have a good week.”
Driving home I fumed, mad at myself for ever having said yes to this little preaching assignment. The more I complained, the faster I drove. Two miles from Manhattan, I got pulled over by a State Trooper who gave me a $45 ticket (Today it would be $175).
I laid the speeding ticket on the passenger seat next to the $20 check for my preaching that Harold had handed me before I left. That afternoon I wasted no time. I called Harold and told him I’d preach just 3 more weeks. Before those weeks were up, though, Harold had lined up another student preacher.
I’m now in my 44th year of the ministry, but on my final Sunday in December 1975 at that tiny church, I wondered if I’d ever again preach or even attend church.