CALIFORNIA, Mo. — As they always do on Sunday mornings, members of Flag Spring Baptist Church gathered at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 25 for a half an hour of fellowship around hot coffee or a juice drink and doughnuts. And as they always do, they moved into worship at 11 a.m., ready to praise God.
But on that Sunday, the ritual carried new meaning. "We have not changed," Pastor Ken Chapman declared to more than 70 people who braved chilly temperatures and a breeze blowing across the Moniteau County hillside to worship God next to the shell of what had been their church home.
The building was completely destroyed in an early morning fire the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. A motorist on U.S. Highway 50, a mile and a half away, spotted the flames at 3 a.m. and called authorities.
The pastor acknowledged that the fire "was a horrible, horrible thing" and didn't minimize its effect on members and the community. "But God does his greatest work when it looks hopeless. God will do a mighty work in our church," he said.
Using Psalm 136 — the same Scripture he had used the Sunday before — Chapman reminded worshippers to "be joyful always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances."
He also acknowledged that "so much was built around" the structure and that finding closure would come gradually. And he reminded listeners that the building is not the church. The church is the ecclesia, the called out ones, he said. "You can't call out a building."
Chapman asked worshippers to turn and look at the shell behind them. "That building is gone but the church lives on," he said. He held up a large mirror for people to glimpse their reflections as they turned back to him. "Who is the church?" he asked.
Though the setting was unusual — a canopy set up over a concrete slab — church leaders had created a little normalcy for worship as well. An electric piano had been brought in, the children (and adults, too) learned from the children's sermon — blankets had been spread across the cold floor — and an offering was taken.
Ministry will remain unchanged, as well, Chapman declared. Since he became pastor about a year ago, attendance has grown from less than 20 to around 50. And the church began three outreach projects, including a partnership with Latham School, which lost its facility to fire in mid-December 2010.
When Latham teachers learned about the fire, they encouraged students to make cards, several of which were shared during worship. Many students pointed to the fire their school had experienced, and one child told them that even though they are sad now, they will be really happy with their new church, just as he is with his new school.
Flag Spring provides buddy packs of food for children at Latham and hosts a meal each Wednesday evening. The church had just signed up with the Missouri Department of Transportation to clean a portion of the road. The vests they had received were lost to the flames.
"How much stronger can you get when you're in Christ? We're going to grow together," Chapman declared. "Nothing changes, church. We will do God's will and will glorify him not only in what we do but in how we live our lives."
Doing God's will means continuing to provide buddy packs, feed children on Wednesday and clean the road, he added.
Chapman recognized that members had lost their "home" but that theirs was still "holy ground" because "this is where God's people are."
First Baptist Church in California has offered an area in its building in which Flag Spring members can worship. They will do so at least through December — even with space for hot coffee or a juice drink, doughnuts and lots of fellowship before worship.