News : Warrensburg, Mo. News
Church of Christ moving toward brighter future after past struggles
Jul 29, 2011, 9:48 AM
Story and Photos by Kevin Lyon Digitalburg
WARRENSBURG, Mo.-- The Church of Christ of Warrensburg, nestled snugly into a lot off South Maguire Street, is a place that is easy to miss, but most Warrensburg residents have probably noticed its sign, which is updated frequently with Bible verses and quirky sayings.
The church's membership had been falling in recent years, and a rotating set of ministers have found it hard to attract new members. But within the past year, membership has gone from an average of 50 members to more than 100 on Sunday mornings, and the church hopes that the future will be brighter after the tough times it has had since it moved to 722 S. Maguire Street.
Struggles in past decades
“We have no youth program as of this time,” Minister Jeff Kenee said in his church office. “It disintegrated about two years ago.”
This was just one of the many ways the Church of Christ has struggled since the move into its new building. A nondescript white building next to a laundromat on Maguire Street, the Church has a had a succession of ministers and falling attendance for most of the 15 years it has been in the new building, a former movie theater which the church took over in the mid '90s. The members moved from their original home across from the National Guard Armory on East Gay Street.
“The congregation has been around since 1957,” Kenee said. “It goes back a long time in the community.”
A rupture within the church sent many off to the Northside Christian Church and First Christian Church. “They were probably cut in half,” Kenee said. “We’re still recovering from that ruckus.”
Right along with the move to the new location and a split in the church came the murder of Rebecca Perkins on Sept. 9, 2000. Perkins, a dancer at an area gentleman’s club, was beaten and run over by her friend Kristopher H. Hayes near Pine Street. She was reported missing on Sept. 9, and her body was left inside the trunk of a 1994 Chevy Beretta in the Church of Christ parking lot from Sept. 11-14 , when police finally broke into the trunk.
With a body being found in the parking lot while the building had barely been renovated to become a church, attendance plummeted. In the large parking lot surrounding the Church of Christ, parking permits are now required, and small signs are visible around the parking lot to remind everyone that unknown cars will be towed.
Moving on as a church
The church hosts several activities throughout the week, including Bible studies at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays and a women’s-only Bible study at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays. There is also a Tuesday breakfast for any members who want to attend, a potluck where “we cook all the unhealthy food we can find,” Kenee said with a laugh. But the breakfast is also a place where they discuss serious matters, including everything from how to understand God's message to what is the best way to build a spiritual formation.
The six men present at a recent breakfast quoted Acts 2, 1 Corinthians and 2 Peter and alluded to 1Timothy 3 and Micah, all within a few minutes. A breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage was almost forgotten as the six men discussed what it really meant to change with God.
“It’s things like that that make me think we are the best kept secret in Warrensburg,” Kenee said.
“I started coming here about seven months ago,” church member Brian Gilbert said. A security worker at Whiteman Air Force Base, Gilbert won’t be able to attend many Tuesday breakfast’s because of his work schedule, but said he likes what he sees at the church.
“I didn’t really feel welcome anywhere else,” he said, “but here it’s different.”
Church procedure is basic and simple, one of the staples of the evangelical style -- starting off with prayer and singing for several minutes, and a later communion with unleavened bread and grape juice. One of the special things the church does is focus on regular attenders who haven’t made it to that week’s sermon.
Herman Pope, a man who has been preaching since 1950, took over for Kenee when he was on vacation, and asked the crowd to make contact with several people who weren’t there. “We do it just to make sure that they are all right,” Kenee said. “It’s an honor system thing; we just encourage people to check up on each other. You know, it just shows you care.”
A strong ministerial leader
One of the main reasons the church is now getting back on its feet is its new minister. “Jeff has changed this place a lot,” said Molly Dinwidie, church member and dean of Library Services at UCM.
Kenee, a man who looks more like a linebacker than a minister, was born in Zimbabwe, during one of the most contentious times in that nation’s history.
Kenee left Rhodesia in 1978, and has watched from afar as his homeland has sunk into dictatorship and economic freefall under Robert Mugabe, a leader of the struggle for black independence.
“ZANU and ZAPU fought right afterwards,” he said. “Mugabe forced Nkomo out of the country, then it just went from there.” ZANU and ZAPU are two different groups that fought against the Rhodesian army in a protracted guerilla war which devastated the white community. From the early 1960s to 1980, 20,000-30,000 people died in the fighting, including nearly one in five white males.
“I’ve got two brothers, three brothers-in-law,” Kenee said. “All of us were wounded. None died. Really it was a miracle that no one did.”
Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, and has been ruled by the dictator Mugabe ever since. “He’s the most evil thing I’ve ever seen on two legs,” Kenee said. About what started the war, Kenee said he never saw it as purely a racial issue.
“It was about tribal dominance,” he said. “Mugabe and Nkomo turned on each other right after, because they were in different tribes. That was why Nkomo left the country.”
The war prompted Kenee to become a minister. “I wouldn’t say I was an atheist,” Kenee said. “I don’t believe that. Everyone believes in something, you know? But I was a militant agnostic, I saw religion as a crutch for people. Really, I didn’t know that this, right here, religion is what makes a real man.”
Buckley Simmons, a retired private investigator and computer technician, talks about the ways faith has impacted his life. Simmon’s father was a police officer more than 50 years ago, “and he only came into contact with black people as criminals,” Simmons said. “I had a real problem with racism for quite a few years.”
He told of an encounter he had more than 20 years ago. “I just drove by this church, a mostly black church,” he said, “and I heard God say ‘Go in.’ I didn’t do it that day, but when I did, they welcomed me, shook my hand, told me to come back.” Simmons then snapped his fingers. “And it was gone. All the prejudice, it was like it didn’t even matter anymore.”
A simple mission based on Biblical messages
At the Church of Christ, spiritual formation does not come solely through the Bible. In the church members' view, the Spirit can work through anyone, even the unchurched or illiterate.
“I don’t get it when people say they can do it themselves,” member Charlie Reid said. “God works through you, it seems to me. If you can do it, just logically think your way through it, then there’s not even really a need for God.”
The Church of Christ has a passionate congregation that is well-versed in the Bible and cares deeply about what the sacred text says. “We’ve got a history that goes back to really the Puritans,” Kenee commented.
The Church of Christ is a small, independent evangelical church, one without the bureaucracy and hierarchy that many larger churches have. The first thing one might notice about the church is the friendliness. Parishioners smile, look newcomers in the eye, and shake hands the first time they meet anyone.
“I really like hearing that,” Kenee said. “That shows that we are serious.” Kenee calls the Church of Christ a fundamentalist evangelical church, by which he means "not bombast, but the Bible."
“We are trying to get back to real biblical teachings,” he said. “Where the Bible's silent, we’re silent; where the Bible speaks, we speak.
This simple message also led to the simple layout of the church itself. “We don’t have all the hoopla that these other churches have,” the minister said. “That’s not who we are. This church is dedicated to getting mature Christians who can spread and live God’s word. We don’t need the lights or the props that other churches have.
The church itself is also trying to expand electronically. Its Web site, www.cofcwsbg.org, is one element of his church about which Kenee is not exactly ecstatic. “The Web site is a little rough,” he said. “We have an older congregation, so there isn’t really anyone who knows how to [update] that.”
And, while the congregation is welcoming to anyone, it also has some other quirks, like not reacting well to photos. “Some of our parishioners just don’t like getting their pictures taken,” Kenee said. One woman, a leader in the church, saw her picture in one of the two display cases on the outside of the church one day, got the key to the display and took it right out.
So while the Web site does not contain a lot of photos of member activities, it does have several interesting features, including a collection of every sermon proclaimed in the church in the past five years as audio files, available for anyone to listen to.
The mission of the church is simple, much like the building that it is preached in.
“Our message is really about walking in faith,” Kenee said. “The message gives purpose, meaning, satisfaction. It’s just that we want our congregation to develop a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”
That is why there is no hierarchy within the church, so that that quest can easily be undertaken by anyone.
“Really, this is an exciting time to be here,” Kenee said. “This church has been almost, you know, wandering in the wilderness. But what we have now, we are starting to taste some of what we had again.”
Kenee sat in his office, a space filled with pictures and Biblical books, and said, “Being authentic, that’s really what we are about.”