(Second in a series of reflections on the church of my boyhood)
The small, white Free Methodist church building on Third Street in Estevan, Saskatchewan, was a model of simplicity and utter modesty, if not starkness. It was four walls with a small vestibule at the entrance, little more than a storm porch, just feet from the sidewalk. The building was on a residential lot, framed closely on one side by a residence, and on the other by the larger parsonage yard.
The pulpit, mounted on a platform perhaps six inches high at the opposite end from the entrance, was surrounded on three sides by a spindled wooden altar rail, a carry-over from the communion rail as a hint of Free Methodism’s Anglican roots.
In front of the pulpit was a simple communion table, made of medium-shaded oak. Behind the pulpit against the back wall were three simple pulpit chairs. The middle one may have had arms. The pastor sat in it. The other two were usually vacant.
Well above the pulpit, painted on the wall and enclosed in a faux-banner the shape of a scroll were the words, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
The ceiling was done in decorative squares, which I believe were stamped from tin, a common treatment for ceilings in public buildings back in the early years of the twentieth century. As a small boy, by craning my neck I had counted those squares many times as a diversion when my interest in what was going on flagged.
For the congregation there were theater seats of molded wood. The seats, attached by metal hardware, could be folded up to make movement in and out of the row easier. On the under side of each seat was a simple wire loop to accommodate a man’s hat. These seats had been purchased second-hand from a renovated theater when the church was being built during the first decade of the twentieth century.
On the back of the seats there were racks for the hymn books. Worshipers brought their own Bibles. The little black hymnbooks contained only the words of the hymns and the congregation knew tunes for many of them.
I don’t recall the nature of the floor except that it was all hard surface. But set in the floor in the middle of the centered aisle was a large metal grate to release heat from the coal furnace in the cellar below. On cold winter days the temperature was noticeably higher near the center aisle than near the outside walls.
On each side wall were three windows that curved to a peak at the top. They were frosted so as to let in light but obscure vision. In the summers they could be opened for ventilation.
Worship in this simple structure was correspondingly simple. There were no musical instruments — piano or organ, — no bulletins to outline worship, no prayers offered before or after the offering, no worship teams, not even song leaders. All these additions were associated, in the minds of early leaders, with “formalism” and were believed to hinder the free leadings of the Holy Spirit.
As I recall, it seemed generally understood that attenders defined their faith. When people came to church, those who were believers first knelt for silent prayer. Non-believers seated themselves without kneeling.
Then, as the congregation gathered we all waited in reverent silence for worship to begin. There was no chatting or whispering. To start the service, the minister stood and announced a hymn.
The simplicity was of itself telling even though today it would not likely gather a crowd. Nevertheless, I remember the freighted silence. With nothing else to distract, I recall reading again and again the unfurled banner: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The fewer props we have in worship, the more we are called upon to activate the worship of the heart -– which is true worship.
Looking back through the mists of seven decades I recall the little church on Third Street as a house of God, a house of prayer, where mortals sought the Lord in simple ways. It was a gathering place where the sacred Scriptures were read, where forgiveness was sought and found, and where reconciliations among the saints were sometimes humbly achieved. Whatever eccentricities and foibles surfaced, as they always do where fallen mortals gather, I heard the Gospel in that little meeting house – the message that set my life’s direction for time and eternity.
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