By Ernest Herndon
In 2 Samuel 12, King David grieves while his young son slowly succumbs to illness. But after the boy died, David washed his face and went on with life.
That’s the way it’s been for me with the death of Woodland United Methodist Church.
Angelyn and I have been going to the Amite County church for 30 years, and it’s always had a small congregation — Sunday attendance of 12 to 20, mostly elderly people.
Some of the children who grew up there, like my son Andy, moved away to bigger towns for their careers. Others found larger churches with more youth activities.
We were left with an elderly, dying church despite numerous attempts to increase attendance, such as inviting neighbors, holding gospel concerts, passing out fliers and so on.
Last year, the fatal storm hit. One man died and his wife was no longer able to attend regularly. One couple moved to assisted living in another state. Another couple moved to another state. Yet another transferred to another church. This year an elderly woman moved into a nursing home. More than half the congregation gone in one fell swoop.
In January, our treasurer told us the end of our finances was in sight.
The district superintendent visited and spelled out various options. We talked it over and voted to close.
Like King David, I walked around with my head hanging down in a state of mourning.
We had our last service April 13. To my surprise, it was upbeat, with special music and a positive sermon, followed by food and fellowship.
Then we left.
We’re not sure what will happen to the building. It will probably go up for sale. Remaining funds will go toward maintaining the cemetery.
Woodland is not alone. Last year 10 of Mississippi’s 1,142 United Methodist churches closed, up from two in 2006 and three in 2005. At the same time, seven new ones started up in the past two years, mainly in growing areas like Senatobia, Tupelo and Rankin County.
Membership decline isn’t unique to Methodists. A recent study showed that most of the nation’s 25 largest church bodies either lost members or experienced no growth in the past year.
Demographics are shifting dramatically. Rural areas like ours are covered with small churches, built in an era when people couldn’t travel far. Many of them are barely hanging on. Sadly, I expect more closings in coming years.
My cousin Charles Nash is a Woodland member who, in his 80s, moved with his wife Sophie last year to an assisted living center in Kingsport, Tenn., to be near their daughter. The Nashes write a column in the Wilk-Amite Record newspaper, and here’s what Charles had to say in the May 9 edition:
“Sunday, April 13, was a sad day for the Bewelcome community. The Woodland Methodist Church closed its doors after having been active for approximately 138 years. While it is sad for us, and those who have gone before us, who have been blessed by the church over the years, such closing may be best for God’s Kingdom. Those who have kept it open in the last few years may now more effectively use their talent and finances by supporting other larger churches in the area. The church, though, has represented the heart of the Bewelcome community and it will definitely be a loss to the identity and spirit of the community.”
So after months of grieving, I followed King David’s example — washed my face and got on with life.
Kind-hearted folks invited Angelyn and me to various churches. Yet we dreaded the idea of “church shopping.” So we started out by attending the nearest church to which we had been invited: Enterprise Baptist west of Liberty.
Like Woodland, it’s in our community. Many members are neighbors we have known for decades. The preacher, the Rev. Ernie Whittington, even reminds me of the first pastor we met at Woodland, the late Rev. James Howell.
Though we attended a Methodist church all these years, we don’t feel any particular denominational ties.
We’re just Christians who want to worship and serve God. And going to church is an important part of that.
Herndon, an author of Christian novels for young people, is religion editor of the "Enterprise-Journal." This column first appeared in the May 22 edition of that paper and is used with permission.