Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Church You Can Call Home
A History of The Cottondale Church of Christ
By: Kelly Sims

I don't remember how young I was the first time I saw the saying, but I know I did not truly understand it. But after maturing and spending countless time at a congregation that is the prototype for this slogan, I truly know what it means. The saying is one that can be found on the Cottondale brochure. It simply says what we are: “a friendly church working for a loving savior.”

A lot of churches claim to be a friendly church, but sometimes fall short. They claim to be friendly and Christ-like, but a visitor will pop-in and no one ever says a word to them. They claim to be friendly, but most members do not even know the name of that shy member who sits in the very back. They claim to be friendly, but they gossip about the new girl. So, saying that Cottondale is, “a friendly church working for a loving savior,” does not mean anything. It is the action of being, “a friendly church working for a loving savior,” that does the trick. To borrow a line from a preacher I heard recently, being a Christian should be a verb and not a noun.

Technically, the Cottondale congregation was founded in the late 1940's when “Aunt” Manie Englebert became a Christian by hearing a sermon on the radio. Manie had polio and was confined to a wheelchair. Her wheelchair was very large so it was virtually impossible for her to attend services. So a group of a few Christians, including our brother Alfred Akers, started worshipping with Manie inside her house. These people did not know it, but what it turned out to be was the beginning of the Cottondale Church of Christ.

Congregations are established on two things. First and foremost, they are established on the rock that is Jesus Christ. Following what the bible says about establishing a church and how to run the church is a must. But after the church has been established what does the church do. Does it fade? Does it remain neutral? Does it thrive? The answer is up to the members. Luckily for us, Cottondale had people who went forward with the Christ-like mentality we talked about. People like Alfred Akers, J.E. Palmer, and Max Wheeler are very rare to find and luckily we had those three, along with many other men, as staples of this congregation for decades.

In around 1952 G.M. Powell donated the land that the Cottondale Church of Christ sits on now and the building was built upon it. Once the building was built, “Aunt” Manie still could not attend services so brother Akers would head over to her house afterwards and have a service with her. A couple of other men would continue this tradition until her passing in the mid-1970s. I could not make up a better example if I tried. Think about this for a minute. Our church, from the very beginning, has been founded on the idea of practicing what you preach. How easy would it have been for brother Akers and the other members to get frustrated with the whole “Aunt” Manie situation? They are trying to get a congregation of the Lord's people started and they have to worry about that. But no, they knew there sister needed help and they took care of her every single time. I would like to think of that as foreshadowing.

You know those moments that let you know you are at home? Certain things that happens at your house all the time that lets you know that you are home? Well I have plenty of little things that let me know I am at home. Like when Patsy is literally trying to compliment every person in the church. When Stephen is trying to shake the hand of every person in attendance. When brother Ernie is trying out yet another joke. These are moments when I know I am home. Like when Charles Lollar tries to have a conversation with as many people as possible. (And it is not one of those, “Hey, how are you?” and then keep walking conversations) Or when Junior Latner is putting as many people as he can in a chokehold. Or even when Megan gives me a death-stare for something stupid that I said/did. These are moments that remind me that I am at Cottondale. They remind me that I am home.

The question is, how do you get a congregation where everyone feels welcome? How does a church get to the point where the members feel like actual family? The answer is simple. You have to have members that care for each other. They have to truly care for the soul of their brother or sister. Of course, at the center of creating this environment is the Bible and getting people to read, understand, and obey what it says. But I have found that a major reason that Cottondale thrives is because of something else. Something that many people just dismiss as unimportant. You would not think that asking the new family to lunch would be a big deal. You would not think that simply having a conversation with a visitor would be a big deal. You would not think inviting a shy member of the youth group to play ping-pong would be a big deal. But it is. It is a big deal, because it makes these people feel wanted. It makes them feel like they are a part of a church family and not just a place they happen to worship. Little things are so important when developing as a Christian and also when developing a congregation. If people ask me why Cottondale feels different than a lot of churches, my number one answer is just that. We do the little things.

When people think of leaders of the church most of the time they think of men. Of course with men being the ones to lead the congregation in worship, that makes sense. However, the role of the women in the church is very underestimated at times. Women can be leaders. Women can pitch in. (And no, I do not mean by just making the men a sandwich, although that would be nice.) I have always thought that women have almost an advantage in the department of being a leader. You see, being a leader is about taking action. Sure, talking and giving a pep-talk is helpful, but it is worthless if you do not back it up. Most of the leading women do is based upon action. So the only way a woman can lead is by taking action. Sometimes men think they can get by with just leading singing or delivering a lesson. That leads me to the women of the Cottondale Church of Christ.

Sometimes you have to search for female leaders of the church because they are not as blatantly obvious as the guys. But, do not be mistaken. Faye Akers and Josie Wheeler meant every bit as much to the growth and sustainment of this church as Alfred and Max. Having women such as this since the beginning is essential. A lot of people reading this have never even seen sister Olene Palmer, because of her illness. But, there was a time when this woman did everything. She was the secretary, she did the bulletin, and she helped with any legal matters that needed to be taken care of. Now I want you to listen carefully to these two statements that our sister Anne Causey said about Olene. This should be something that not only every woman should strive for, but every man as well. Number one, “Their was a time when she was doing at least something for every person at the church.” And number two, “She was the best friend you could ever ask for to everybody.” Get this. Her own husband and daughter knew nothing about most of these acts of kindness. It was not a case of her doing it for the glory, clearly. I cannot count on my hands how many times I have heard girls say that when they grow up they want to be just like Patsy. You think women cannot lead? Forget about it. That sounds marketable though. Move over, “I wanna be like Mike,” here comes, “I wanna be like Patsy.”

Douglas Dean, Axel Swang, Bill Wheeler, Rex Newborn, Jack Black, Charles Curtis, Larry Burke, Jerry Faust, John Robertson, Charles Blair, Chuck Webster, and Clark Sims are the men who have handled being the pulpit ministers at Cottondale. A lot of times when we think of people who can make a real difference, we tend to think elders and ministers. But the key to having a loving congregation is to have everyone pitch in. Dupree Galloway, Charles Lollar, Ernie Kimbrell, Randy Latner, Junior Latner, Charles Steiner, and Clark Sims are all men of God. But, it does not matter if the flock is continuously straying. Each and every person has to take responsibility for what they do as a Christian. That is another thing the people of Cottondale do well. For the most part, every person pitches in and helps in some way.

When we came to Cottondale fifteen years ago, I remember sitting in the pew at Northport on our last day and crying my eyes out because I did not want to leave and I did not want to go to Cottondale. But, fast-forward fifteen years and I do not want to leave Cottondale. Cottondale is my home. It says something about Cottondale that since 2007, the percentage of high school graduates that graduate as members of the Lord's church that remain in the church is 100%. The national church of christ percentage is around 60%. Since we got to the church it has grown significantly. Since we got here we have gained a youth minister and grown into having a real youth group. Since we got here we have gained a college minister and an entire college group that came with him. Yes, Cottondale has a long and interesting history. But, it has an even better future if we keep on the right path. Now that is not to say that a church cannot do a complete 180 and go in the wrong direction. You have to stay on the straight and narrow or all of this success will go down the drain. But I have confidence that Cottondale will stay on that straight and narrow that Jesus himself talked about.

Cottondale is not where it is because people did things that they wanted to do. It is where it is at because people did things that God wants them to do. The problem with this world and with so many churches is because they try to play to the wants and needs of the people. That does not matter. It is not your will. It is the will of the Father that needs to be done. Do not play to the needs of the people, play to the needs of the Father.

Patsy is not trying to to call every single person “handsome” or “precious” because it is fun. Brother Lollar does not go around exchanging pleasantries with every single person because he is running for office. Stephen does not go around and try to shake the hand of every single person because he wants to. They do it because they love their neighbor. They do it because they want everybody to feel welcomed and loved. They do it because Jesus Christ of Nazareth did it.

It has been a long time since they met for the first time at the Cottondale Church of Christ, but we are still, “a friendly church working for a loving savior.” So if you are ever in the area, stop on by the Cottondale Church of Christ or as I like to call it.....home.

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