Secrets of FPC’s ‘Oldest’ Sunday Class
by Tamara Slaughter
An inside joke at First Presbyterian is that the Young Men’s Bible Class, well, isn’t. “They were young when they started!” quips Russell Sherrill, longtime member. In 1929, the founding members were exactly as advertised. Today, as many members are over 60 as under, ranging in age from 42 to 99. But the YMBC has remained vibrant and strong and is the largest and longest-running church school class at First Presbyterian.
Consistency may be a key to their longevity. Every Sunday for over 80 years, YMBC has met for fellowship, hymns, and a meaty class. Here’s how it works. At 8:30, class volunteers bring pastries and brew coffee. By 9:00, members start gathering for social time, consuming 70+ cups of coffee in the half hour before class. At 9:30, Beverly Johnson plays the introduction to the first hymn while Lane Ridenhour’s glorious voice leads the song. The first of four hymns (first and last verse only) is done standing to encourage those still by the doughnuts to find a seat. An offering plate is passed, the door greeter announces visitors, and then Russell Sherrill gives a health report on members who may be ill. The Class President (currently Roy Phipps) tells a joke, then introduces the teacher. When the lesson concludes at 10:15, the President makes an announcement about the morning’s service, and class is done.
The YMBC has been blessed with excellent and long-term teachers. There is usually a roster of four teachers, each taking one Sunday of the month. For many years, The Rev. Joe Mullin was the 5th Sunday speaker. In many cases, the teachers have served their particular Sunday for decades. For example, Thornton Brooks taught for fifty years, and the Hon. L. Richardson Preyer taught for 46 years. This year has broken that tradition, with only two regular teachers (Charles Howell on 1st Sundays and Erwin Fuller on 3rd Sundays, with usual regular Sam Simpson on sabbatical to help with daughter Chandler’s Confirmation Class). During open Sundays and summer, guest lecturers are invited. Sandie Gravett, a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Appalachian State, is very popular. In fact, class attendance can balloon from the usual 60-70 to 200 people when she is scheduled. She will teach all June classes; another favorite and longtime teacher, Gerald Donnelly, will fill in during July.
Singing is integral to the YMBC experience. But there are no modern tunes, no original music, and nothing popular from the radio. It’s strictly traditional songs straight from the Cokesbury Worship Hymnal (not the one in FPC pew backs). These little red books have been used since the first days of the class, and actually had to be reordered when heavy use took its toll. The updated edition, however, didn’t include all the favorite hymns, those were copied and pasted onto the front and back covers. To encourage class members to bring a friend on Sundays, at one time the favorite hymn “Beulah Land” would only be sung if attendance reached a certain number. “And it worked!” reports current class President Roy Phipps.
It’s a myth that “outsiders” aren’t welcome in YMBC. It’s also not a male-only bastion of community leaders, judges, and business tycoons. While there are a high percentage of those, guests are very welcome. In the past, tradition held that on 5th Sundays, wives of members were invited. Regardless, church stalwart Madeline McElveen came every Sunday for years. Says member Russell Sherrill, “I don’t know why she adopted us, but we were delighted!” Other church school classes without regular summer instruction, such as the Agape Class, join with YMBC. “You’ll find a very mixed class in the summer,” observes Roy Phipps. In truth, everyone is welcome at any time. Active FPC member Mary Ellen Burke says she looks to see which Church School class speaker strikes her as the most interesting. Often, it’s YMBC, and she reports that they are, indeed, very welcoming.
In 1974, a visiting Scottish minister expressed amazement at how long this class had gathered to worship. That was almost 40 years ago, and they’re still going strong. As the official 2010 YBMC Directory states, “The Class must go on, and it will in order to serve the Lord and to further the mission of the First Presbyterian Church.” Godspeed, YMBC!