DENOMINATION Church of Christ
ADDRESS 1840 E. Pierce
PHONE 830-875-5810
MAIN SERVICES Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

OVER THE PAST FIFTEEN YEARS, I have driven through the small town of Luling hundreds of times on my way between Houston and Wimberley, stopping occasionally for watermelons or barbecue. On each trip, I have passed a simple, brown-brick building with a hand-painted sign that announces, “The Church of Christ Meets Here,” signifying that the people are the church, not the place of worship. I spent the first thirty years of my life in the Church of Christ, but in the decades since withdrawing from its bosom in search of more-nourishing milk, I have returned only rarely, usually for funerals or during visits with relatives. So I was curious to see what changes I might find in a congregation that is similar in size and setting to the one in which I was reared. The answer turned out to be, not much.

Nearly all of the forty or so people present that morning introduced themselves to my wife and me and welcomed us warmly. Most were eligible for Medicare, and one member acknowledged that the church had reached a kind of stasis, with those who had died tending to be replaced by new retirees. Little growth will be coming through the Sunday school. As for the architecture, Churches of Christ do not typically seek to glorify God through ornamentation, and the Luling church was no exception. All seemed familiar, from the faux-walnut veneer covering the windowless interior walls to the baptistry painting that brought to mind the River Jordan, where John baptized “because there was much water there” (John 3:23).

Though Churches of Christ have no central organization, no creedal statement, and no formal liturgy, a simple but widely shared linguistic and ritual culture nevertheless exists. After the opening announcements and the gracious welcoming of the two obvious visitors, the service followed a common pattern: two songs, opening prayer, song, Communion and offering, song, sermon, invitation song, closing song, and closing prayer. One of the most distinctive—and to outsiders, peculiar—characteristics of Churches of Christ is their conviction that, although God reportedly once appreciated being praised with trumpets, harps, and cymbals, instrumental music was not used in the early church and, therefore, should not be used today. Thus, even though many in these circles now regard this practice more as a tradition worth preserving than a key to salvation, most congregations allow only a cappella singing. This deprives the church of regular exposure to some of the world’s greatest music, but it has an upside: Members of the Church of Christ learn to read music and can produce surprisingly good singing in four-part harmony.

The gentleman who led the opening prayer spoke first of a grandson who had just returned from military service in Afghanistan. Close to tears, he said that the war had been “a terrible load to carry” and that the young man needed their prayers. He included a plea for “wise decisions by our leaders” but fell noticeably short of affirming current policy.

After another song, we took Communion, which is observed every Sunday and usually referred to as the Lord’s Supper. Familiarity breeds routinization, and the routine on this occasion was stripped of all nonessentials—no words of institution spoken, no explanation given as to what we were doing, just brief prayers noting that the bread and grape juice symbolized the broken body and shed blood of Christ and expressing a hope that we might “partake of it in a manner pleasing and acceptable in thy sight.” Immediately following, the offering baskets were passed, and after one more song, it was time for the sermon.

The preaching minister for the congregation is David Pafford, an Air Force captain stationed at Randolph Air Force Base, near San Antonio, who provides his services free of charge. He stood six feet six and wore a gray Western-cut suit, but his rather shy demeanor and friendly, round face were not those of either a warrior or a cowboy. Brother Pafford—Churches of Christ don’t use such titles as “reverend” or “pastor,” and any male member can be addressed as “brother”—took the text for his sermon from the Book of Haggai, a source not famous as a homiletic gold mine. To be honest, I had some difficulty with the scripture, but the message was clear enough. Pafford began by talking about a game of tag, in which touching a base makes one safe. He expanded on this idea with a description of Houston Astros center fielder Willy Taveras’s base-stealing techniques and his efforts to avoid getting caught off base.

Without making it explicit, Pafford was addressing the tendency of Churches of Christ to place more emphasis on works and rule keeping than on grace, the “unmerited favor” of God. We may think, he said, that our good deeds and regular church attendance are recorded on some kind of box score in the sky and that if our average is high enough, we will be admitted into heaven. “But there is no clause in the Christian contract that entitles us, after attending church three times a week, to say, ‘Where’s my mansion?’” Pafford said. “As we sprint like a base stealer, we feel the sting of the second baseman tagging us, but God can overcome our coming up short. Our righteousness is not from ourselves but from God.”

Pafford concluded, as almost all Church of Christ sermons conclude, by offering an invitation to those still struggling to accept God’s grace—the only time he actually used the word that was the theme of his sermon—to come forward for a prayer of encouragement, and to those who had not yet done so, to “put on Christ in baptism here today.” As we stood and sang the venerable invitation hymn “Trust and Obey,” his four-year-old daughter, Audrey, left her seat and came to stand alongside her daddy, who held her hand for a few moments, then reached down to hoist her to his shoulder, where he held her affectionately.

The brother—“sisters” take no public role in worship—who led the closing prayer asked for consolation and support of those in need, including “Elsie’s brother, my wife, Barbara, and I, and John’s grandson,” and a safe journey for the traveling visitors. By the time we  got to the back of the small sanctuary, Pafford had already removed his tie, and we talked a few minutes about his struggle over whether to stay in the Air Force or to enter the ministry full-time. My wife and I received repeated assurance that we would be welcome to return, and as we left, Billy Cheshire, a friendly man wearing a snap-button Western shirt who was standing by the door with an ice chest, handed us a large bundle of freshly washed Swiss chard from his garden. He noted that it was not as bitter as turnip greens, and he was right. It made both a fine salad and a quiche, and beyond that, it left a satisfying aftertaste.