1975 All Over Again

I love old churches. I love the architecture, the old hymnals, and I also love what those churches have meant to people.

I’m the new pastor of a really old church with a lot of great history behind it. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to the shared memories of former attenders who’ve moved away. They post sweet memories of times that hold a hallowed place in their minds now. 

The halls I walk through casually today are steps they consider almost sacred. They’ll often tear up when recounting their stories to me.

Right now, we’re in a rebuilding phase. The church went through a period where they lost members, and new faces were few. There were lots of factors leading to this, but the main factor was that some things simply changed….

The people who’d been the backbone of the church grew older, and not enough younger ones were being reached to take their places. 

The neighborhood around the church changed. And then changed again.

Now we are surrounded by a potpourri of young adults, young families, along with the old timers. Our community possesses a wide-array of ethnicities. But one thing seems common:

Most do not see the church – any church – as something that relates to their lives.

My challenge now is to try and engage those people, many of whom want nothing to do with me or our church. It’s quite a challenge to sell them a product they don’t know they need.

While things are on the upswing now at my church, others around us have already closed their door or are clearly on their way there.  That grieves me deeply.

I remember visiting an old church a couple of Christmases ago. I was on vacation and decided to pop into whatever church I could find. So I pulled into a typical Southern Baptist church that had probably been built in the late 50s. I love the feel of those places – it’s like you’ve stepped back in time.

And that’s exactly what happened as I walked through the door. As I entered, the Sunday School director met me at the door.

“Well, you look like a new face! We’re so happy to have you here today!” Senior adults stared at me as they hobbled past slowly down the halls.

I asked if a service was starting soon.

“No, but my Sunday School class is just about to begin. Would you like to come?”

No. The answer was no. Sunday School was the last thing I wanted to attend on the first visit to a church of strangers. I wanted to come and sit anonymously in a church service, be transported back to my childhood of innocence for a minute in worship, and walk out the back door.

“Um…sure. I’ll go.”  I heard the words come out of my mouth as if someone else had uttered them. 

For the next hour, I sat in a time machine. Everyone around me was 60+ years old at best, and had their Sunday School Quarterly by their side. The Sunday School department director got up to speak first. He welcomed us all warmly. He mentioned by name and condition all those from the class who were sick or unable to leave the house. This part took a while – it was quite a list.

Then he went through the tally of how many people were attending the department today, how many had brought their Bibles (I had my iPad, so not sure if that counted), how many had made visits or witnessing contacts during the week, etc. 

Eventually he turned to me and welcomed me, asking me to introduce myself to the group. All this was very friendly…and very awkward. It was like a stranger walking in a saloon straight off the prairie in one of those westerns. All the poker games stop as they watch the new desperado enter from the corner of their eyes and belly up to the bar. Everyone was watching me, silently wondering how the heck I ended up crashing their party since it was clear I had no family in the church.

Finally when the teacher had finished his lesson from the quarterly, I politely but quickly exited the room. I didn’t have enough time left in my schedule to stay another hour for their worship service, but I did want to see the sanctuary. 

Sure enough, when I walked in it was another blast from the past. High ceiling, choir loft, piano of the left side, organ on the right, balcony at the back. The place could probably hold 800, maybe 1000 people. As I walked in the door, a greeter handed me a bulletin.

“Come on in a grab a seat. Shouldn’t be hard to find one. I’ll bet you can get a whole pew to yourself!”

The usher gave a sad little laugh at his own joke. I’m sure he loved his church, but he knew something was wrong. The church was dying, and there was no denying it. When I saw the handful of people assembling inside, I realized we really all could have had a pew to ourselves with no problem.

As I walked down the aisle quickly and then out to the back lobby (the “vestibule” we always called it) to get a bulletin, I read to myself:

“Yep. Organ prelude, hymns and a solo during the offering. Then the sermon and another disappointing invitation where no one would come forward.” 

As I read it, I guiltily walked out the front doors and back to my car. I sincerely felt bad I could not give them a little false hope by being the one visitor in their service that Sunday.

Heck, I could have pretended to get saved during that invitation and make their whole year by stepping forward. I felt so sad for them, I almost wanted to.

What was wrong there was clear to me. You had a church with mostly good people, almost none of whom had any idea what to do to fix things. 

Over the years, they had probably forgotten what most churches forget if not constantly reminded: that church is about “new life”. It’s about growing people up in Christ so that they can help grow new believers up in Christ.

But what happens is if they don’t have a preacher who reminds them to keep growing and reaching out, or if they stop listening to that preacher, the church inevitably becomes a closed community. The members don’t realize it since their church is so loving and caring…toward EACH OTHER. But they completely forget about the community around the church, kept firmly outside the church unless invited in.

So over years of time, a church becomes more and more inwardly focused. Instead of helping families and those in need around them, everything is about fellowships for OUR PEOPLE, and programs and pot lucks for OUR PEOPLE, and fun excursions for OUR PEOPLE.

But eventually OUR PEOPLE start to die out. And when not replaced by NEW PEOPLE, the church gets smaller and less effective. 

My dad’s at the same church today I grew up in during the 70s. He’s been a deacon, an usher, a teacher and about anything else they asked him to do. But now he’s in his 90s, and the church is still asking him to take leadership. Frankly, he simply doesn’t have the stamina anymore. But there’s no one stepping up to take his place.

Our weekly phone calls on Mondays (my day off) consist of him telling me how low the attendance was again last Sunday. “We’re dying, son! But I don’t know what to do to help!”

Honestly, there’s nothing much a man in his 90s can still do. His church has almost passed the “Point of No Return”, when there aren’t enough younger people left to do the work and attract new families. When that tipping point is reached, it’s an inevitable slide in oblivion unless God steps in and someone takes drastic measures.

My dad would so much like his church to grow, as would the church I visited on Christmas break. They’d love to reach some of the young families that still might occasionally move into the church’s older neighborhood. But whenever the new people walk in, they look around and only see impending doom in the empty pews and gray hair. 

They see no one who looks their age anymore, which makes them feel out of place. They listen to hymns often sung with little passion, and programs that met people’s needs 50 years ago but don’t meet theirs. 

They see a church stuck firmly in 1975 with no idea, or maybe even no desire, to step into the 21st century. Their church is a beautiful monument to the religious past. But the problem is monuments belong in graveyards, not churches. Churches are supposed to be about new spiritual life. But allegiance to the past will snuff out new life, just like weeds kill a garden.

When I walked out of the sanctuary that Christmas, I pretty much knew their future already. I’ll run down the next 5 to 10 years for you here:

  • The church members will hold out hope that one day, some pastor will come in to save their church from its inevitable fate.
  • The problem is that pastor will probably be young, inexperienced and want to change things quickly.
  • And in his lack of experience, he’ll probably step on the wrong toes and be sent packing within two years. 

That’s the reality. That’s how it works in church after church. And eventually, that church I visited will have too many older members pass away until they can no longer keep the lights turned on. Their commitment to the past and resistance to change will be the stone that’s finally rolled over their tomb.

In situations like that, it may be best for the church to die, sadly enough. Because the good news for Christians is death is never final but can be the beginning of something new:

  • Perhaps their neighborhood has been transitioning for years, and there’s another ethnic group of people who can use the building to grow a brand new church.
  • Perhaps the local association will step in and replant the church with new leadership, and without the constraints of having to do things like 1975 anymore. 

There’s still hope, absolutely, as long as they’re willing to change and reach out to others in love. But there is no hope, none whatsoever, if they stubbornly stay the way they are and wait for 1975 to come back again.

Jesus promised us a lot of wonderful things. But time travel wasn’t one of them.

Well, the numbers just came in from our Easter celebration last Sunday. Our staff sits around the table, encouraged by the news up 48% growth over last Easter, and 70+% over two Easters ago. We’ve made changes, some painful, and our people have wonderfully accepted and embraced them. There is still hope for us to turn things around, though there’s still much work to be done.

But I still pray for my dad’s church and for that sweet congregation I visited that Christmas. I pray God will show them the hard choices they need to make, and give them the courage to make them.

Otherwise, I’m afraid it won’t be long until they, and many other congregations, are “giving up the ghost”. 

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