The address for Union Mound Baptist Church says Elkland, Mo. That small, unincorporated city has one restaurant — located inside a gas station. Union Mound actually sits on top a small hilltop about eight miles away from the dusty town and about one-third of the way from Buffalo to Springfield. Like many rural churches, one needs to know how to get there before leaving the nearest highway and entering a maze of gravel roads.
Leaving at night after a Sunday evening service — which they still hold after an evening discipleship class — a bend of the dark, curvy roads might suddenly reveal a stray cat, raccoon, deer or even a large black cow in the road. Nestled against dense and untouched woods, Union Mound sits in a clearing on a narrow rock and dirt road that tops over multiple hills without much visibility.
Smaller than many middle-class suburban homes, the church building preaches simplicity and consistency. Other than a foyer, the entire first floor remains dedicated to the sanctuary, with a fellowship hall, kids classroom, kitchen and bathrooms downstairs. When the sun shines in the sanctuary, the light green walls and the dark emerald padding on the wooden pews almost glow like a vintage Sun Drop soda bottle. The green tones with the wooden pews and pulpit give the room an earthy feel and nearly fades into the views of trees out the windows.
“Serving the Lord at Union Mound is my heritage,” explained Thelbert Gott, a charter member and deacon. “Our Gott Country Farm is next door to the church site. Dad and Mother, Granddad and Grandmother, Great-Granddad and Great-Grandmother Gott are buried in the adjacent cemetery.”
“The Lord placed me here and I trust he will leave me here until he calls me home to him,” he added. “The Ozarks culture involves a hard work ethic, independence, problem-solving and family pride while making do with what the Lord provides in opportunities.”
One of three remaining original members of the church — with his aunt as another — Gott leads evening Bible studies, serves as worship leader and joins his wife, Lorene, in keeping the church and cemetery grounds looking good. Quick to give a smile and hug, Gott feels the church and the land are intimately part of who he is.
Driving along the roads around Union Mound, Gott points out various homes and names his neighbors for miles away. At other times he spots a cemetery. Some in the area are family plots with just a couple of dozen markers, where other relatives and friends are buried. Noting the wildlife he sees each day at home, he admits that rural life gives him a “peaceful, tranquil and renewed spirit.”
Founded in 1956, the church has seen changes over the years. Many members have moved into the cemetery across the parking area from the church. Already a particularly rough year, the church has mourned the deaths of three members in 2015. Over the years, many young people in the community moved away, often seeking jobs in cities. Pastors have come and gone, including many semi-retired ministers and some students from Southwest Baptist University. The church members pride themselves in having helped train some young preachers.
Church growth efforts often focus on larger population centers. Many rural churches have closed or merged in recent years, and that number is expected to increase in the coming decades. Yet, a rural population remains for the churches still able to continue. Since 2000, the population surrounding Elkland actually increased by about one-third.
So the little church on the mound continues. Members faithfully arrive on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening to sing hymns, study the Bible, give to missions and pray. They remain hopeful a new generation will arise to continue the work.
Members of the church quickly explain they keep coming for worship and fellowship not in spite of the church’s small, rural feel but because of it.
Sharon Lynch, who plays the piano and leads the sole adult Sunday School class, started attending the church in 1969 after moving from a city to a home near the church.
“Coming from a larger congregation, I have enjoyed being here to know each church member,” she said. “They are my family. They are there for each other at all times because we know who and what situation needs prayers and more.”
Della West, who started attending the church seven years ago, echoed Lynch’s comments.
“I came here to find a church that studied the Bible and had people who believed that there was more to salvation than just being baptized,” she explained. “I found it here. We feel at home here. The church is very welcoming to everyone.”
Reflecting on the many years of worshipping on the mound, Gott named members who had since passed away. As he named them, he reflexively pointed to various pews, recalling where they used to sit. With his eyes closed, it seemed that for him they might still be there.
“Yes, a lot has changed over the last 60 years,” he added after silence. “We are blessed.”