Each summer, I would spend roughly two weeks at the home of my grandmother and grandfather in the dusty coalfields of Mingo County, in Southern West Virginia. My grandparents lived along the banks of the murky Tug River in an area most people I know have no clue even exists.
There are several things that come to mind when I recall those sacred summer memories from decades past — the stagnant and humid summer air that seemed to settle on “the bottom” where my grandparents’ house was located, the neighbor kids who would always make fun of the way I talked and most of all, my grandmother’s church… oh, how she loved her church!
Though I had been to church off and on my entire life, grandma’s church was different than anything I had ever known. It was raw, lively, simple and beyond all that, it was real. When a person left, they knew they had been to church!
At the time, I thought that her church was unique among the houses of worship in our land – in my limited experiences, hers was a one of a kind place with one of a kind music and preaching.
Looking back, however, through the eyes of someone who has traveled a bit and learned a few more things since those days of careless childhood bliss, I have grown to realize that the place she adored so greatly, there in the hills of Appalachia, was no different than thousands of other “mountain churches” scattered throughout the “hollers of down home.”
As I grew older, I too came to appreciate the people who comprised “her church” and would eventually walk the aisle, giving my heart to the same Jesus who had been “seeking and saving” those who were lost in them there hills for centuries.
Sadly, the place she cherished so greatly is no more — or at least a far cry from what she would recognize.
Worse than being completely vanished from existence, her church has now been overtaken by weeds and vines, a handful of the windows have been shattered and judging from a quick peek through the broken glass, it would appear that nearly nothing inside has been left standing — a sad but all too true metaphor of a region that now leads the nation in layoffs, suicides, and general feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Turned up are the choir chairs that once buzzed with the vibrations of a piano loudly proclaiming, “I’m standing on the Rock of Ages, safe from Satan’s storm that rages, rich, but not from Satan’s wages, I’m standing on the Solid Rock.“
Silent is the pulpit that once held the Book the preacher would quote, as his voice echoed through the holler, “Ye must be born again!”
It was inevitable that the old folks of her church would eventually die and be reunited beyond those West Virginia hills, in fact, they knew this date was coming and spoke of such an hour each time they met.
However, what was not expected or prepared for was that the kids I attended all those vacation Bible schools with not carrying the torch forth on behalf of a new generation of Appalachian sons and daughters who would encounter the need for direction in their lives.
Nope. For the most part, all of those kids are gone too. Many have moved away, either to Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, or North Carolina, desperately searching for work, fleeing a coal centered economy in an era when coal is no longer popular.
Many others have simply “fallen by the wayside”, struggling with their own addictions and problems, prescription drug abuse not being the least of these.
And even more heartbreaking, is the unimaginably disproportionate number of these kids who are now dead — sad statistics of an era and area that ranks low on all the good rankings and high on all the bad stats.
And yet for a few others, I cannot say with any certainty what has happened to them. But I can say where they’re not and that is at the old country church their parents and grandparents centered their lives upon.
Sadly, just as my grandmother’s church did not thrive all to itself two generations ago, it has not died all to itself either.
Just as the mass exodus from a countless number of impoverished Appalachian communities has destroyed business and commerce in the region, these same hardships are being felt across the region in once bustling churches.
Acknowledging these issues, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention writes, “Coal mine closures and other shifts in industry have drastically affected the economies of these regions and has thrust some into extreme poverty. This poverty not only strikes financially, but spiritually. The reality is that 70% of the region is unchurched.”
According to ministers who have worked in the afflicted areas, many churches in these declining communities are simply dying.
“In places like rural West Virginia, where the average age is so much higher than in other parts of the nation, all the members of many churches are simply dying off and if they’re not proactively gaining new converts, in just a handful of years an entire congregation is gone and there’s nothing left. Only the building they once gathered within is standing, but the congregation is vanished,” states one missionary who spent four years heading a ministry aimed at encouraging struggling churches in Appalachia.
Not everyone, however, is giving up on the future of the Appalachian church and its power to serve as a central force for good in the coalfields.
Beckley, West Virginia, native Scott Pauley, recently returned to West Virginia after spending more than a decade serving as vice president of The Crown College, near Knoxville, Tennessee, in order to “influence this generation for Christ.”
Pauley told Appalachian Magazine, “In a day of low expectations God’s people must remember that Christ promised ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against’ His church (Matthew 16:18). When the Lord said that ‘evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse’ He did not say that His power would wax less and less!”
When discussing the various hardships and addictions afflicting communities throughout West Virginia and neighboring states, Pauley answered, “There is nothing wrong with our region that the gospel of Jesus Christ could not change, and there is nothing missing in churches that a Spirit led revival would not supply.”
Pauley is quick to point out that throughout the hills and hollows of Appalachia, “There is a remnant of people seeking the Lord and seeking to get the good news of Christ to hurting people.”
In the days ahead, Pauley and others hope to target southern West Virginia and particularly McDowell County, one of the 20 poorest counties in America for increased ministry and aid.
The full time evangelist said that there is a lot of activity going on in the region, but nearly all of it is aimed at providing “material help only.”
Pauley and others hope to bring about spiritual change in the area, as well as economic change, recognizing that even when Christ reached out to meet the physical needs of individuals, he always had a spiritual and eternal purpose in mind.
To learn more about the ministry of Scott Pauley, visit www.scottpauley.org
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