Music played inside Immanuel United Church of Christ as the Rev. C.W. “Bud” Walther and his wife, Sue, walked into the sanctuary.
Outside, the church bell rang to signify the start of the Sunday afternoon worship service.
Scripture was shared, hymns were sung and prayers were offered.
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But this time was the last time.
After 154 years in Crothersville, the church has closed.
The Walthers are retiring after serving the church for 22 years, and the nine members now have to find a new place to worship.
“The United Church of Christ is really a social action Just Peace church,” Bud Walther said of its theological identity. “I think that’s what this congregation is about, is peace and justice. Rather than dogmatic, ‘do it or else,’ it’s living out of God’s love. My prayer is that’s what they’ll do. That’s my hope, that they will continue to live lives of peace and justice.”
In 1862, German immigrants gathered together for worship in Crothersville. The first formal meeting as a congregation was Dec. 1 of that year.
The current church building at the corner of Kattman Avenue and Howard Street was built in 1874. A house was built next door in 1935 to serve as a parsonage, and an educational building was added in 1949.
A decline in membership is the main reason for the closure of the church.
During the Walthers’ tenure, membership at one time was above 60.
But over time, Crothersville has changed, Bud said. The town went from 1,800 residents when they moved there to now having less than 1,500.
Some people attended the church for a while and then stopped coming, which might have been because they moved out of town and found another church.
In some cases, a student might finish school in Crothersville, go off to college and not come back to live, work and attend church in the community.
Of the most recent members, a majority are in their 70s, 80s or 90s. And in the past year, five church members died.
“For a church to grow, there has to be a critical mass, and that critical mass has to be people who are working to bring others up to the faith and increase the numbers,” Bud said. “At some point in time, the critical mass was lost, so suddenly, the task becomes much, much greater. And when the critical mass average age is in the 70 or 80s, then it becomes even more difficult.”
Talk of a possible closure began a couple of years ago.
“That was kind of setting the stage,” Bud said. “We really didn’t talk about any specifics or anything in detail. We just said, ‘We need to figure out what we’re going to do.'”
Then for about a month last summer, meetings were conducted to discuss options, including hiring a new pastor, moving the church and changing what kind of church it is.
“When we started talking about renewing the church, they finally just got very honest with themselves,” Bud said. “Building and renewing a church takes a lot of work, and they basically said, ‘Getting a new pastor here would take a lot of work on our behalf. We’re just not there.’ Once we kind of got to that point, we knew we were going to close the church.”
The church had more than enough money to keep the doors open, Bud said. But with the low membership, church members agreed they wanted to be good stewards of the money.
A couple of months ago, they unanimously voted to close the church, and a final worship service was set.
Once the news spread about that service, Bud said many responded by saying, “How sad.” That could have evoked a sense of failure, but he chose not to look at it that way.
“If I have one thing to say to members of Immanuel today, I say this: ‘You did nothing wrong.’ If I could say a second thing, it would be ‘God is not done with us,'” he said during Sunday’s service.
“We’ve come today because we’re saying goodbye to one particular form of the body of Christ,” he said. “It’s not something we ever wanted to do, and yet in the end, we feel like this is the most faithful choice we could have made, which makes today particularly bittersweet.”
As a way to honor the founders of the church and the generations of people who followed, the congregation wanted to ensure the legacy would carry on years beyond the church’s closure.
Nearly $350,000, ranging from one-time gifts to endowments, will be available to individuals and organizations to benefit from locally and globally.
At one point, a family left $14,000 to the church as part of a will. They had moved to Jeffersonville and lost their home in the 1937 flood, and members of the church helped them rebuild.
The church added money to that over time and never touched it.
Endowments were set up to provide scholarships for Vernon Township students and funding for nonprofit organizations serving the township; maintain the historic nature of the German Reformed Cemetery in Crothersville; and benefit children’s homes in Louisville, Kentucky, and Fort Wayne, which the church has supported for several years.
The one-time gifts will be made to the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department, Crothersville Area Ministerial Association Helping Hand Fund, church-related schools in the Philippines and South Africa and Crothersville Senior Citizens Center, of which Sue was the director for 10 years.
“You decided to honor the legacy of the people who came before you by giving freely of the gifts we had so the legacy of Immanuel’s work will still live on far, far into the distant future,” Bud said during Sunday’s service.
“You made a selfless choice,” he said. “The choice you made and the way you made it say more about you and who you are as Christians than about anything else. You spoke well to the generations that no longer could. You told the world what kind of Christians they were by showing what kind of Christians you are.”
At 96, Paul Kovert is the oldest member of the church. He said being a part of the church has made a positive impact on his life.
“I was born and raised in this church. I never forgot it. Even when I was in the service, I was thinking about this church,” the Air Force veteran said. “This is my home church.”
The church also has made an impact on the community and world, Kovert said.
“We’ve always been a giving church,” he said.
But seeing membership decline in recent years was tough, he said.
“We had about three or four families that had a lot more kids than (families) have now,” he said. “But what hurt this church the most was the fact that the young people … almost all of them went to college, and when they got out of college, they had to find a job, and they couldn’t find it here. We just lost so many members that way.”
Kovert and the other members now are searching for a new home church.
“I don’t think it has hit us yet,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I’ve never heard any of the other members say what they are going to do, either.”
Bud said he currently is talking to someone interested in purchasing the church building and preserving its history.
At the end of the final worship service, the church bell rang one final time.
“They ring out our commitment, carrying our legacy with it,” Bud told the congregation. “They ring out our attention to the people who serve our God and our neighbors. They ring out hope as we join other people of faith that seek to serve the living, still speaking redeemer God Immanuel. God with us. Amen.”