Law of the Local Church: “The local church is the hope of the world, and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders.”
Oxford, MS -- (ReleaseWire) -- 08/24/2010 -- We were planning a last summer vacation before universities in North Carolina started in the fall, when the phone rang. “This is Mt. Zion Church in Oxford Mississippi,” a voice said, “We want to invite you to preach the sermon at our homecoming service on August 15. You were pastor here in the ‘70s, I believe.”
Gordon was living in Oxford in 1973 and on the University of Mississippi faculty, when the United Methodist Church tried to close Mt. Zion down. The Methodist hierarchy wanted to consolidate smaller churches in the area. The congregation of Mt Zion descended on the Methodist bishop and anyone else who would listen. They were not closing. They were not going to be assimilated into a larger church. Mt Zion was Lafayette County’s oldest church. It was established in 1858 by Rev. James Callaway, a traveling minister, who had previously established churches in Georgia. He is buried in the church cemetery. There are families at Mt Zion who are his direct descendents.
Gordon was teaching at Ole’ Miss (affectionately called) and preaching on ‘fifth Sundays’ at rural Abbeville United Methodist Church. He was asked to fill in at Mt. Zion. Gordon visited the church and admired their spirit and courage in taking on the Methodist hierarchy. He enthusiastically agreed to the assignment and was with Mt Zion until 1976, when he was called in for a year from the University of Mississippi to work on governmental reorganization in Washington. D. C. Mt. Zion did then get a permanent pastor.
After arriving in Oxford, we visited with church members. We caught up on church history and began to think of Mt. Zion as the church that would not close. In the 1980s, the United Methodist Church tried to close the church down again but Mt. Zion continued with a non-parish minister until 1990. In 2003 they persuaded the United Methodist Church to formally sign the church back over enabling them to hire their own ministers. Hugh and Shelby McLarty poured heartfelt money and time into an extensive building and church renovation program and Mt. Zion reopened at last. They are now nondenominational and are growing. Gordon fittingly preached on the biblical covenant and the laws of miracles. They remain a strong family and community based church.
Our quote is by Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Willow Creek is nondenominational and is considered among the most influential churches in the United States. We liked the quote and began thinking about the uniqueness of community and family based churches.
For starters, they are brimming with history and depth. “I’ve got four generations of family buried in that graveyard,” one man told Marcia after the church service. He said this proudly but his eyes held a trace of sadness that the tradition might not continue.
There is also a reverence for those who worshipped before. “We feel their presence keenly,” another person said. “We want them to be proud of us. We don’t want to let them down.”
There are rituals passed down through generations, rituals that bring peace.
There is a feeling of belonging and of being supported.
Visitors are welcomed warmly, as family; this is especially true at Mt. Zion. One of our sweetest moments was the gift of a delicious jar of homemade relish. We will be including a request for the recipe in our thank you note.
Finally, God is real and powerful in these churches. Theirs is a heritage, a tradition that needs to continue.
Let us also observe that word gets out on homecoming! Chairs were in the aisles, pews filled and people stood in the back. Musical instruments lined the walls and gospel groups waited with anticipation to sing. The excitement of the apostolic church of our ancestors is alive at Mt. Zion. The food was wonderful, and the people more than wonderful. As we left, we felt we were visiting James Stewart’s 1946, film; It’s a Wonderful Life.
Gordon Mercer is international president of Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society and a professor at Western Carolina University. Marcia Mercer is a writer and columnist. Go to http://9955.hostednr.com to get to our Notes on Quotes Press Room. Views expressed in this column are our own and do not reflect those of other organizations. This column also appears in the Franklin Press in Franklin, NC, where we live on a small family farm.